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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com in paper or Kindle editions.