One of the most inspiring stories to emerge from the tragic shooting of Gabrielle Giffords on January 8, 2011 grew somewhat slowly in the national consciousness, about one of her young staff members named Daniel Hernandez who bravely helped Giffords survive the immediate aftermath of the attack. The story eventually emerged that Hernandez is gay and had had health and other problems he had to overcome already in his young life. Hernandez’s new young adult memoir, They Call Me a Hero: A Memoir of My Youth, was clearly created as a way for young people to find a role model but the book is more engaging and revealing than many memoirs written by someone in politics lauded as a national hero. I asked Hernandez why he wanted to write the book in the first place.
How did the idea to write a book about yourself first come about?
Immediately after the shooting in Tucson, some folks actually approached me but…really at the time, it was a month after the shooting, I thought it was inappropriate and I didn’t see their vision squaring with my morals. A few months later, I was talking to my friends…and [literary agency] Sterling Lord came up as a good person to talk to and we reached out to them and they came back to us and said, ‘This would be a great project. We might have a few ideas about who should publish this.’ When I was approached, I didn’t remember that being 20 sometimes might not be okay with someone like Sterling Lord being okay with writing it on your own. So we found [co-writer] Susan Goldman Rubin and really enjoyed working with her. It was a great partnership from the beginning.
You wrote this book with Susan Goldman Rubin – how did the writing process work?
It was a very collaborative process. I was still in school and in the process of running for office, so it wasn’t the easiest thing to have her come in and do independent interviews, so we did a lot of phone conversations and emails and I would write something and send it to her and she would make it flow better. When I wrote stories, I would write them without thinking about how they would fit into the narrative. Not everything fits into the book, so we had a few in-person interviews. She came in on Jan 8th for the one year anniversary [of the shooting] and she got to meet a lot of the people who I mention in the book and she got to know our hometown, which really helped when she started working on the final version.
You disclose some pretty personal stuff in the book, like the fact that you were put on probation by the University of Arizona because you didn’t attend classes due to an illness you kept secret from even your closest friends. Was it difficult revealing secrets like that in the book?
I’m someone who’s a very private person but when we started doing this project, it was with the understanding that I was going to be completely honest and open. There were a lot of things I revealed that I wouldn’t have revealed if it weren’t a project about how to get people in marginalized communities to understand the value of public service despite how many challenges you have. It’s always possible to get things done if you’re willing to work hard.
You write in the book that you don’t really think of yourself as a hero, really, but you’ve been interviewed many times and you write about people stopping you on the street to talk to you and thank you. Does your fame still seem weird to you?
I do still feel slightly weird being referred to as a hero. It’s very humbling. In writing this book, it wasn’t just for me, it wasn’t just for young Latinos, or young gay people. I think having positive role models is very necessary, so I’m very happy to evolve from here to being a role model. People come up to me and say ‘I can do that too and it’s inspired me to get involved.’ People are really seeing me as a role model and something that’s attainable and not a hero.
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.