Dominic Carrillo

Dominic Carrillo
Dominic Carrillo is a teacher and freelance writer from San Diego, California. Dominic has taught a variety of levels between 4th and 12th grade. He also worked as a professor of history at Grossmont College and other area colleges. He began creative writing during graduate school at UCLA, where he was a contributor to the UCLA Daily Bruin. His stories have been published in the SD CityBeat,, Somos Escritos, LIFE.Bg magazine, the San Diego Reader and many more. TO BE FRANK DIEGO was his debut novel (2012). It follows protagonist Frank Diego on a daylong journey through San Diego's spotty public transit system, while hitting on issues of cultural identity and failed relationships. He finished his blog-to-book impractical travel memoir, AMERICANO ABROAD, in 2013. THE IMPROBABLE RISE OF PACO JONES is his latest title, and is his debut YA novel about adolescence, racial identity, and love. All titles are available at select local bookstores, on and other online stores. Dominic is currently teaching in Eastern Europe and is working on his next novel.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sofia Spotlight: Dominic Carrillo

In this week’s interview David Stephenson is shining the spotlight on novelist, drummer, and brand-new AAS teacher, Dominic Carrillo.

Let’s jump right to the big event: You published your first novel, To Be Frank Diego, a few short months ago. What is there in the title that can tell us about the story? Frank (Francisco) Diego, the narrator, has an extraordinary daylong journey—dealing with odd characters, his cultural identity, public transportation, his ex-girlfriend and the ironies of his California hometown. The reader will hopefully be amused to be in Frank Diego’s shoes—seeing the world through his lens. The narrator’s also trying “to be frank” and brutally honest about the issues he’s dealing with. That’s explains the title in a nutshell. (For more, go to and search “To Be Frank Diego.”)

Had the storyline been building in you for a long time? Or did it come in a more sudden rush of inspiration? Yes, the storyline had built up. It was initially inspired by an article I wrote about my old neighborhood in San Diego. The article won an award that paid $500 and they published my story in a local magazine. This gave me more confidence in my writing and the novel started from there. That was 4 years ago.

“Dominic Carrillo” – what a great name for a novelist! Nom de plume, I assume?That’s actually my real name.

It’s Spanish by way of Mexico, right?
Yes, my grandparents were born in Mexico, but gave birth to my dad on U.S. soil. My mom was born in America to 2nd generation German and Irish immigrants, which puts her in the ever popular and generic “white” category. They liked the name “Dominic”, so I’ve been told, because it sounded Italian and they both love Italian food (Who doesn’t?). Maybe that explains why I like traveling in Italy so much. So I’m half Mexican and half white—an interesting mix to figure out while growing up in San Diego, right on the US-Mexico border.

In a newspaper interview, you commented that “I always felt like I wasn’t Mexican enough while growing up.” I found this interesting. I know you didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. Had you done so, would you have felt “Mexican enough”? Or were there other things about the way you grew up that would still have made you feel not “Mexican enough”?
I made that statement in acknowledgement that I felt that way as kid, but I shouldn’t have. The idea of not being “Mexican enough” speaks to the issue of cultural identity in America. There is a tendency to categorize people into ethnic, racial, or national boxes. Nobody likes being put in a box, but it still happens. When you have a mixed ethnic background, you are usually forced to choose which box to fit in: Mexican or White or whatever. If you don’t, then people tend to make those decisions for you based on popular stereotypes—and language or dialect, etc. What I’ve tried to do with the character Frank Diego is deal with these identity issues and stereotypes in a way that makes the reader think about the error in judging if someone is not (fill in your ethnicity here) enough or too (fill in your ethnicity) .

Am I correct in believing that you began writing while at UCLA where you were working on your master’s degree? Was your degree in creative writing? Almost. No, my degree was not in creative writing, it was in history. But I did take a creative writing class during grad school and the teacher encouraged me to keep writing. He taught me the importance of objective critique and the revision process.

You just did a great poetry project with your middle school kids that resulted in an exhibition titled “I Am”. You turned your room into a gallery of poems and black & white images, and there was a black & white photo montage projected on the screen with accompanying electronic background music. Not bad for your first trimester! Do you have another favorite project on tap later for in the year? Thanks. All praise to the students. I was truly impressed by the level of writing and expression in the students’ poems—so much so that I decided we needed to display and share their work in a more public way. I think this empowers students. I think it makes student work more authentic and purposeful when they present it to an audience outside of our classroom. So, yes, I plan on doing other projects that include publishing student writing and integrating technology in order to reach a larger audience and give us a greater sense of purpose.

 Spotlight: Dominic Carrillo

I read that you are currently working on your second novel. Is it hard to write while you are teaching writing? There is so much lesson planning, reading, grading, editing, etc. as a teacher. It seems that after a day of this you might not want to take up pen and paper in the evening. Wow, you’ve really done your research! Yes, I have been working on a new book since last October, but I have been writing much less frequently since I began working at AAS. This was expected. Teaching takes a lot of time and energy, so I rarely go home after work and go straight to my writing project. Most of it is written already, so I will be taking some weekend time to edit and revise what I need to. I don’t expect it to be finished until next summer, when I have more time to focus on it.

I’d actually prefer to do something more active. Like bang on a drum set. Do you ever do that?
Yes, I’ve banged on so many drum sets that I have lost some of my hearing. Seriously. So I haven’t played much lately. I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to play drums in various rock bands since I was 19 years old. It was fun—especially the Rolling Stones cover band I was in last year. I love listening to live music too. But now I don’t leave home without my ear plugs, regardless of the ridicule I might endure because of it. I’m pretty sure ear plugs are, universally, not cool.

Three favorite books? Not necessarily all-time favorites, but three that jump to mind.
The first three that come to mind: On Writing by Stephen King, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and anything by Kurt Vonnegut.

What is on your nightstand right now?
“The History of Tractors in Ukranian” by Marina Lewycka.

Time to wrap things up. Bulgaria is your new home: What stands out so far in your first three months here? Warm, welcoming people, good prices, a difficult language to learn, and an interesting culture that I look forward to learning and writing about! Sorry to be short, but I have a class that starts in five minutes! Thanks for the thoughtful, interesting questions!

You can find “To Be Frank Diego” at in paper or Kindle editions.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Imperial Valley Press article on "Frank Diego"

Author explores border identity issues in debut

June 26, 2012|By CHELCEY ADAMI | Staff Writer
CALEXICO — Readers delve into both serious and funny sides of bicultural identity issues and relationships in the novel “To Be Frank Diego” as the main character makes a day-long journey through San Diego’s public transit system...
Click here for the full article

Friday, June 22, 2012

"To Be Frank Diego" Release Party @Starlite

"A compelling, honest, tragicomic trek through San Diego."

Click here to see previews and reviews of To Be Frank Diego on

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Getting Over the Hump

I was in a beautiful place in Guatemala when the illness hit. A foreign stomach bug had abruptly changed my plans. No daily excursions or tropical exploration for me. Nobody to talk to either (because no one with a sense of smell would’ve wanted to be within a twenty foot radius of me). Let’s just say the path between my toilet and my bed became both well worn and dreaded. For two weeks I couldn’t do much besides read and write (there was no TV; no internet).

That was about two years ago.
That’s when I started writing this novel To Be Frank Diego

Despite my physical condition, writing the first draft was fun. Oddly, the title was the first thing that came to mind as I thought up a story about a guy who resembled me and walked through San Diego one day, venting about its history, culture, and his ex-girlfriend. The problem was that the first draft was a self-indulgedent rant—pure therapy. And it came across as bitter and frustrated. After the second re-read, I realized that it needed a lot of work if I wanted it to be accessible to the reader, and humorous rather than harsh. I read Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird about the writing process. Her chapter “Shitty First Drafts” made me feel a little bit better. On Writing by Stephen King gave me some inspiration and guidance too. I continued to write upon my return to teaching that fall semester in San Diego, but the time and attention I gave to Frank Diego soon diminished, and almost disappeared.

If it weren’t for my high school English students, I might have quit writing To Be Frank Diego altogether. But because the academic culture at High Tech High values critique and professionalism, I felt I couldn’t be a complete hypocrite—encouraging my students to do peer critiques and multiple re-writes while I avoided my own writing project. So I continued to work on my novel, sometimes sharing my chapters with students, sometimes with trusted friends. As a teacher, I witnessed the value of good critique versus destructive criticism or (on the other end of the spectrum) vague compliments— so I sought real feedback. After sharing later drafts, I didn’t want a pat on the back. I wanted critical details, patterns and new ideas to build on. But because writing wasn’t quite as fun after a nine-hour day of work, I reserved only my weekend days and vacation time to sit and write—or at least tried to.

That year passed by in a flash. And though I continued to write, my output was nothing compared to that first two week burst while bedridden in Guatemala. I recognized that since I’d returned to San Diego, Frank Diego had inched forward at a sluggish pace. I could picture myself ten or twenty years into the future: the English high school teacher with the mangy beard and elbow-patched corduroy jacket who occasionally referred to the unfinished, great American novel collecting dust in the bottom drawer of his desk. I didn’t want to be that guy.  So, after a month of thinking about it, I quit teaching in order to finish my book.

Soon after I quit my job, I moved to Italy for four months. (If this sentence prompts you to think ‘F— this guy’! out of a certain degree of travel envy, I totally understand. I might have the same reaction). The only reason I could afford it was because I rented an attic in a friend’s apartment for next to nothing and taught private English lessons to put food in my mouth. I lived in Padua, which is about fifteen miles west of Venice. I had unlimited time to write there. I stayed up at odd hours, pecking away at my keyboard. I drank a lot of coffee and wine, made cheap pasta, and gained inspiration by exploring places like Venice and Bologna. Then, like that, I ran out of money and the dream I’d been living was over.  But Frank Diego was finished—kind of.

Because the manuscript was so close to being done, it made it easier to write and revise when I returned to San Diego. There was finally light at the end of the tunnel. I had made it over the writing hump. And I realized that that one year of teaching full time in San Diego and barely writing at all was the big hump I needed to get over. It might have been my “life hump” too. Since then— and a dozen complete drafts later— I feel good about my novel. Looking back and comparing the first draft of Frank Diego to the last, the amount of improvement in the story and the characters is unbelievable. I also feel a lot better about where I’m at in life now—pursuing creative projects and passions, after years of putting those things on hold.