Beyond The Bio: Gary Soto


Welcome back to another wonderful week here at Beyond The Bio! I’m James, and I’m so excited for today’s interview. It’s with long-time author and award-winning poet, Gary Soto, whose plays have been long-standing favorites among my students. I had the opportunity to meet Gary at the LA Festival Of Books earlier this year and am so excited to have him here on PickMyYA. His new book Meatballs For The People is coming out next month, but you can win an early copy today exclusively from PickMyYA. Plus, we’ve got a musical treat for you as well. Let’s get to it!

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James: Hey Gary! Thanks so much for joining us today. Your new book, Meatballs For The People, is unlike anything else I've read this year. How’d you come up with the idea to write a collection of proverbs for the modern audience?

Gary: I was at my bookshelf, culling books, getting rid of this and that, when I picked up W. S. Merwin’s Asian Figures, a collection of ancient proverbs. I took the book to the sofa and began reading it. I then went back to my shelf and picked up a collection of Mexican proverbs, In Few Words/En Pocas Palabras: A Compendium of Latino Folk Wit and Wisdom, assembled by my late friend Tony Burciaga. I read both books, one Asian and one Mexican, and, well, I got inspired. I realized that I could never equal the wisdom of these proverbs, so I decided to do contemporary pieces. I wrote twelve hundred proverbs then culled to about five hundred.

James: As I read, I couldn't help but be reminded of Benjamin Franklin's proverb collection Poor Richard's Almanac. What are some of your favorite proverbs from history?

Gary: My favorite historical proverb is one that I don’t live by—“A penny saved is a penny earned.” For me it’s more like, Let’s spend our pennies now! (But save those nickels and dimes.) I consider most historical proverbs genius, and almost all of them come from peasants. It’s the literature of the poor and sometimes (and I mean only sometimes) the literature of scholars. Proverbs are a quick literature, wisdom from farmers, cobblers, ironworkers, coal miners, and so on. Proverbs seldom evoke history but reflect the timeless moment.

James: As a teacher, I really appreciated the proverb at the top of page 152. It goes as follows: "A high school textbook is like a brick in your backpack. Line it up with others, and you build on them." Can you explain what you mean by that?

Gary: You and I believe in literature, that is, literature found in books. I think that we can often judge a family’s education by the books in their household. No books spells trouble. Lots of books… less so. Books are like bricks. You line them up and they become a defense against poverty and, well, stupidity. You have to wonder what books line the walls of some of our politicians? Few, I believe. Instead of bricks of books along the wall they are collecting actual gold bricks.

James: Another personal favorite was this one: "Be brave when no one is looking." It's short and powerful. So I want to ask, what's a time where you've been brave?

Gary: I wish I could offer a glamorous movie in which Gary Soto fights off a battalion of warlords with a sharpened Popsicle stick. I have been very brave in less cinematic moments, but I like to keep my heroics hush hush.

James: You've already written forty books and are planning on writing more. Do you have a favorite?

Gary: Yes, I have written about forty books, some of which are in print and some that went into the shredder—that’s what happens when books are unloved! Aside from Meatballs for the People: Proverbs to Chew On, I have a play to be published this fall titled The Spark and Fire of It, which is a romantic, Shakespearean-themed play. It’s a comic play meant for the high school classroom. Then, in spring 2018 I will see a reissue of my first book, The Elements of San Joaquin. This is my favorite, this collection that I wrote as a young man of twenty-one. When it was published, I was twenty-three and showed my poetry to the public for the first time.

James: My students love reading Novio Boy. It's a hilarious play about a student trying to fit in at his new school. I know you've written other plays as well. How does the writing process change when you're writing a play?

Gary: Ah, plays… I have written four plays and discovered that they are so fluid that I can go back and change lines and even add or delete characters. Plays, as we know, are made of dialogue. Description is absent, provided largely by the set designer. It’s about interaction between characters in a bold way, with a single story. It’s about characters speaking face-to- face, and it’s about the audience, those naughty voyeurs, sitting there watching the action.

James: You’ve worked in a lot of genres over the years. Do you have any favorites?

Gary: Yes, I have worked in nearly all genres and with some successes, some failures. Secretly, I would like to write song lyrics. No, wait a poetic minute—I have written lyrics to about fifty songs and have actually convinced guitarist Steve Velasquez to put riffs to some of my lyrics. The outcome? A song called “The Country is Going to the Dogs.” (Note from James: Check out Gary's song by clicking the play button to the right! Available exclusively here at PickMyYA!) This is my call for musical talent; I ask that musicians get in contact with me so we can sing our hearts out!

James: What advice would you give to young writers hoping to one day write stories of their own?

Gary: I advise a young writer to put away your phone and read as much as possible- literature, I mean. A young writer shouldn’t share his or her work for at least a year. Be bold in your first drafts—pencil or blue or black ink, please.

James: What's next for you, Gary? Any future projects we can be looking forward to?

Gary: My next literary project is a stage version of my YA novel The Afterlife, which is about the murder of a boy, age seventeen, and the suicide of a girl, also age seventeen. I have a strong first draft and will be honing it for the next month or so. It will be produced by the San Francisco Youth Theater then will be offered to schools to perform.

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That’s it for today’s interview with Gary, but don’t leave just yet. We’re teaming up with Gary and his team to give away a copy of Meatballs For The People before it’s even available in the bookstore. Just click on the image below and enter to win a copy for your bookshelf or classroom. The contest ends on Tuesday, September 19th, and the winner must live in the United States. Good luck! Be sure to come back again next week when Daniela will be interview Katherine Locke about her new book, The Girl With The Red Balloon.

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