Interview: Francisco X. Stork

Francisco X. Stork’s marvelous novel Marcelo in the Real World received universal acclaim when it was published late last year. It seemed to make every “Best of 2009″ list that I came across, and it was recently named a Top 10 Best Books for Young Adults by the Young Adult Library Services Administration.

Marcelo

The novel tells the story of Marcelo, a 17-year-old with a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome, one symptom of which is that Marcelo can hear music that no one else can hear. As the summer before his senior year of high school begins, his father, an attorney, wants Marcelo to work at his law firm–rather than with the Haflinger ponies at the special school that Marcelo usually attends. But Marcelo’s father insists he get some real-world experience. More than that, after the summer he wants Marcelo to spend his senior year at a “normal” school in the fall. None of this pleases Marcelo.

At the law firm, he meets Jasmine, a beautiful and feisty coworker who runs the mail room in which Marcelo works. He also meets Wendell, the spoiled son of his father’s law partner. What Marcelo learns during his summer in “the real world” will change his life in ways that he could never have imagined.

Francisco X. Stork recently agreed to answer some questions I had about the book, his writing process, what he’s working on next, and so much more. Enjoy!

Marcelo is a wonderful character, a normal teenage boy in almost every way except that he has a mild form of autism. Clearly, he’s on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum, but he still has difficulty in “real world” situations. Was it difficult to maintain his perspective consistently? How did you go about doing this?

Just before I began to write, I took a few minutes to “become” Marcelo. Once I was looking at the world through Marcelo’s eyes all I had to do was be very vigilant that I stayed there. Later, during the revision process, I would constantly ask myself: Is this something Marcelo would say or is it something I would say?

In an author’s note you discuss work you did with the Department of Mental Health when you were in college. You also mention your autistic nephew. This novel, I assume, must have been a very personal project for you?

The novel is personal in that I had to access memories and feelings from my life, but also in that it embodies a personal longing for Marcelo’s goodness and innocence.

Did you need to do any research, or could you write this novel solely based on your personal experiences?

Once I determined that Marcelo’s characteristics could be diagnosed as Asperger’s syndrome, I had to do the research. But I don’t think that research alone could ever give me Marcelo’s voice. Marcelo’s voice was a combination of personal experience, research and . . . gift.

I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times, but your book reminded me a little of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Marcelo is much more “functional” than the character in that novel, however. Have you read that novel, and if so what do you think of it?

I heard about Mark Haddon’s novel when I was about two-thirds done with Marcelo and I purposefully held off reading the book so as not to be influenced by it. Later, after I finished Marcelo, I read the book and liked it very much. The character in Mark Haddon’s book is younger and, as you say, less functional than Marcelo, but the book does an excellent job of letting us into the mind of an autistic boy.

Ideas of faith and religion run through the novel. But it’s a unique, personal kind of faith that Marcelo has. Is your faith very important to you? Were you trying to say something about religion in this novel?

Yes, my faith is very important to me. It’s what gives meaning to my life. One of the things I wanted to say about religion in the novel is that religion needs to be looked at the way Marcelo looks at it. He is interested in all religions. He is a Catholic who visits with a rabbi every week who names his dog after a Buddhist prayer. Marcelo has an innate sense of the universality of all religions.

I liked how the novel had a happy ending without being too pat and idealistic. Clearly Marcelo has many struggles ahead of him. Do you ever think about what his adult life might be like? Would you ever return to these characters in another novel?

I think Marcelo will be okay. I have a feeling he will find his own unique place in the real world where he can be who he is. I’m happy with how the book ended, but I do wonder sometimes about some of the struggles that await him.

Marcelo in the Real World is your third book. How long did it take to write? Was it more or less difficult than the earlier books?

I think the whole process of writing and revising took about three years. There were many times when it seemed as if I were just taking dictation and other times when I struggled on a paragraph for days. It was harder to write than the earlier books because it was a more ambitious and challenging book.

You have a new novel coming out soon called The Last Summer of the Death Warriors. Can you tell me a little something about it?

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is about two very different young men who are brought together by circumstances. Pancho Sanchez believes his sister has been murdered and is out to avenge his killer. He is brought to an orphanage in Las Cruces, New Mexico where he is given the job of assisting D.Q. (short for Daniel Quentin), a seventeen-year-old who has a rare form of brain cancer. D.Q. is highly intelligent and philosophical and is writing the Death Warrior’s Manifesto, a statement of how to live life with dignity and courage. Pancho and D.Q. travel to Albuquerque, where D.Q is to undergo experimental treatments, where Pancho hopes to finds his sister’s killer and where they both fall for the same girl. It’s a story about courage and faith and the transforming power of friendship.

Last Summer

Can you talk about your writing process? For example, how many days a week do you write? For how long? Do you outline your novels? And so on.

I have a day job as a lawyer. I work with a State Agency that finances developments for low-income housing. I try to write a page or an hour a day in the evening but sometimes my brain is all used up. I then wait until weekends to catch up a little. I try to write out a first draft without thinking too much about it and then I go back and revise.

What are some of your favorite books? Who are some of your favorite writers?

I like Flannery O’Connor and Annie Dillard. Don Quixote remains my favorite book. It was an inspiration for The Last Summer of the Death Warriors.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a book written from the perspective of two young women. Wish me luck!

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