Welcome back to another interview here at #BeyondTheBio! This week’s author is Dominic Carrillo, an author and teacher from San Diego who is currently teaching in Bulgaria. Dominic’s an independent author who’s published multiple books, including The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones and To Be Frank Diego. His newest book, The Unusual Suspects, came out earlier this year and tells the story of a fourteen-year-old Bulgarian-American named Nia who ditches her private school to travel across Europe on train. On the train, she meets a geriatric American named Kurt who has a knack for killing people unintentionally. Interested? We’re giving away a copy! Stick around until the end of the interview to find out how you can win!
Essence: Where did you get the idea for this unlikely friendship between a teenager and a man bordering on ninety?
Dominic: I’ve been teaching for 15 years (and currently at an international school in Sofia, Bulgaria) and have been on many class field trips. I’ve noticed that students on these trips sometimes open up and talk to me about their personal lives. Though I relate to some things they share, I often feel the generation gap (or two) between us. At times it feels like we’re separated by more than 20 or 30 years-- maybe 50 or 60! I find myself giving more “life advice” in these kinds of conversations, though I try not to be preachy (See my connection to Kurt?). On one such field trip conversation, an 8th grade girl told me she had a boyfriend who went to a boarding school in the UK. She said she was going to visit him and I thought that was strange-- a 14 year-old girl flying from Bulgaria to England to visit her 15 year-old boyfriend. I asked if her parents would allow her do that. She told me that her parents were never around, but that her nanny/driver would let her travel alone. That was the beginning of the Nia character in The Unusual Suspects. Clearly, she needed some adult guidance and care. Kurt, the 89 year-old character, came from my own experience with the generation gap (though greatly exaggerated) and my admiration of the late author, Kurt Vonnegut. He died in 2007, and I wanted to bring one of my favorite writers back to life. As I watched many Vonnegut interviews, it became clear that he also needed the help and encouragement of friends/family as he suffered from depression. Thus, the unusual friendship between Nia and Kurt came to life.
Essence: As I was reading your book, I learned about European cities I'd never heard about. Have you traveled to any of these cities?
Dominic: Yes, I have been fortunate enough to live and work in Eastern Europe for the past six years, so I’ve had a chance to visit Berlin, Budapest, and Belgrade a few times. Flights within Europe are pretty cheap, sometimes as low as 40 dollars, so it’s easier to travel and see these places. Though I’ve been to many European cities, I still can’t help but picture myself in a scene from a movie like Jason Bourne or James Bond. I’m a fan of these kinds of movies, so I’ve often imagined action-packed chase scenes as I walk (or run) through these cities-- which is part of the inspiration behind The Unusual Suspects.
Essence: Do you speak any languages other than English?
Dominic: I speak some Spanish and some Italian. I say “some” because I can get by in restaurants, taxis, hotels--most small talk and predictable-talk situations. But when it comes to real conversations I’m screwed. I just don’t have the vocabulary or the verb tense knowledge and I end up sounding like a caveman. The problem is that with Spanish or Italian, my accent is pretty good, so sometimes I’ll say one line and native speakers think that I’m fluent so they start rambling to me. Then I’m really lost!
I live in Bulgaria and speak a little bit of Bulgarian too, but it’s a much more difficult language. This is what “How are you doing today?” looks like: “Как си днес”. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t put much effort into learning Bulgarian, but that’s partly because so many Bulgarians seem eager to speak English.
Essence: Nia isn't exactly a stellar student. Were you?
Dominic: I wasn’t a very good student until 8th grade. Up till then, I got mostly C’s, didn’t put in any effort, and really didn’t get it (i.e. I thought that most teachers were against me, trying to ruin my life, and that grades were given arbitrarily based on whether the teacher liked you or not). In the 8th grade two things changed. I had a crush on a classmate and she was the valedictorian. She basically told me she would be interested in me if I were smarter and got better grades. So I started studying, reading, and working like never before. And it worked! She started “dating” me. (This experience partly inspired my other YA novel, The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones). At the same time I began to understand that my education was for me--my progress and my future goals-- not something I should endure or “pass” just to get through it. That’s when I started to understand that effort, patience, and commitment can really pay off. I mean, I started actually learning, getting better grades, and my crush became my girlfriend for the rest of the year!
Essence: In the book, Kurt has trouble understanding technology which made me laugh because it reminded me of my older aunt. Now, I know you're not as old as Kurt, but do you ever have trouble with new tech?
Dominic: Yeah, I have to admit that I am not very tech savvy. I mean, compared to my own parents, I’m Bill Gates. But when it comes to comparing myself with my students, I’m more like Kurt. I’m relatively slow with my computer, use about 2% of its potential applications, and often ask my wife for help with new tech.
Essence: If you could go back and give one piece of advice to your teenage self, what would it be?
Dominic: Funny that you ask that because I would say many of the things that Kurt says to Nia in the story! The main piece of advice would be this: Don’t waste your time worrying about things that are outside of your control. Put time and effort into the things that you care about, that you’re truly interested in, and which you have some control over the outcome. Life can be difficult, frustrating, and stressful, but you have the power to focus on the most important things--on the things that are meaningful, beautiful, and the troubled areas where you can make a positive impact. As Marcus Aurelius said, “You have power over your mind-- not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
That’s it for today’s interview with Dominic, but don’t leave just yet! Click on the image below, and you can enter to win a copy of The Unusual Suspects and The Improbable Rise Of Paco Jones, plus a few book-themed bookmarks. And it’s still March, which means we’re in the middle of #BookMadness. Today’s the last day to make sure your favorite makes it to the championship match, which will be announced tomorrow. Click here to cast your vote and decide who survives the #FinalFour!