Matt de la Peña says his new book came to him gradually, in a series of what ifs. What if he wrote about “the Big One” finally hitting California; but what if his main character was at sea working on a cruise ship when this disastrous quake struck? What if this central character was “nobody special, just a kid from the border”? From such creative speculations arose The Living, an action-packed page-turner that may strike readers familiar with de la Peña’s previous work as a radical departure.

The author describes his previous four novels as “very quiet, leaning toward the literary side.” They have depicted the lives of working-class characters. His technique has been to convey “moments of grace, the dignity of characters growing up on the wrong side of the tracks,” he says. But after writing those books, de la Peña felt a new ambition: to “take those characters into a bigger context” and to “mute the race and class issues, at least a little, behind a bigger plot.” The plot of The Living, with Mexican-American Shy Espinoza as its central figure, is nothing if not big, and it grabs the reader from the book’s opening pages as Shy tries (unsuccessfully) to stop a suicidal businessman leaping from the Honeymoon Deck of a cruise ship. Soon, Shy finds himself facing a tsunami, with a leaky life raft amid shark-infested seas and a fast-spreading pandemic—all while trying to understand why a mysterious pharmaceutical company might be interested in a “nobody” like him.

Though The Living’s suspenseful plot and rapid pace will quicken readers’ pulses, de la Peña remains true to a theme that has consistently fascinated him: the collision of race and culture. Here, he says, by having Shy and his friend (and not-so-secret heartthrob) Carmen working on a luxury cruise ship, he places the “haves and have-nots” side by side. “I really did want to work with the idea of mixed-race kids from rougher neighborhoods interacting with the extremely wealthy for the first time,” he says. But as Shy comes to understand, wealth only determines the “costumes” people wear; disaster is the great leveler that “strips all that way.”

To fully explore Shy’s experience, de la Peña decided to take a one-week research cruise, but to his surprise, he couldn’t get his wife or a single friend to come along with him, even when he offered to pick up the tab for the trip (“they all thought cruises were too cheesy,” he explains). So the author found himself alone on the Lido Deck, eyed with suspicion by parents of teenage daughters and seated for dinner each night at a table of boisterous “older wives” with kids nearly his age who were “killing the wine.” Once his dinner companions figured out what he was doing on the cruise, they plied him with suggestions and details (“You should put this in your book,” or “guess what I saw today?”).

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Just like his cruise experience, de la Peña says writing his first action-adventure novel was, at times, uncomfortable. “I’ve never written a book with so much going on, with that page-turning quality.” Though, he adds with a wry laugh, “when I turned in the first draft, my editor said, ‘Wow Matt, you’ve managed to write an action book—with no action!’ So I said, ‘I’ll show her, man!’ And I started to try to bring it.” 

Bringing it, he says, meant learning how to close chapters at a thrilling point or a mysterious moment. “It was very interesting to work outside my comfort zone,” he explains. “I still think real writing is revising,” he says. “When I finish a book? That’s when I really figure out what the book’s about.” Working through multiple revisions is difficult, but de la Peña is no stranger to that process—he calls himself a “working class” writer. He isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves. “I didn’t grow up in an educated family; nobody had gone to college,” he says. “But one thing I did take from them: They clocked in every day. My dad never took a sick day. Ever.”Pena cover

Like his character Shy, de la Peña says he grew up maintaining a tough exterior that hid a lot beneath its surface. Few would have suspected that he wrote poetry in high school; most people saw him as an athlete (de la Peña went to college on a basketball scholarship). “I wrote all through high school and never showed anyone,” he confesses. “The weird thing was I was not a reader and hadn’t yet fallen in love with books—that didn’t happen until college—but I was writing a lot of spoken-word, hip-hop–y poetry. Very shallow, very on the surface, but I loved the rhythm of language.”

In his junior year in high school, de la Peña encountered a teacher named Miss Blizzard; for his English final, she gave de la Peña not the exam he was expecting but an opportunity that changed his life. “She passed out the test to everyone but me; when I asked her why, she said, ‘I gave you an A on the test.’ Then she handed me 12 sheets of blank paper and said, ‘Just write for two hours. You don’t know this, but you can really write.’ It was the power of suggestion.” Her words stayed with him in college, where he found himself gravitating toward writing. “I remember telling myself, ‘Hey, Miss Blizzard thinks I can write.’ ”

Critics agree. In a starred review, Kirkus called The Living “an addictive page-turner and character-driven literary novel” that will leave readers waiting for the sequel that de la Peña’s working on now. Though he was thrilled about the star, de la Peña confesses it was the word “literary” that made him want to “hug every single person at the company.”

“My one fear of writing a more ‘commercial’ novel is that people would not see it as literary,” he acknowledges. “For me, the literary value of a novel is the absolute most important part of a book I’m reading or writing—I just love the stuff that resonates long after you finish the story.”

 Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.