Tag Archives: The Boy Kings of Texas

An Interview with Domingo Martinez

17 Jul
Domingo Martinez's memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, will soon become a HBO series.

Domingo Martinez’s memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, is in works to become a HBO series.

Domingo Martinez is the author of the memoir The Boy Kings of Texas, which was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, the 2013 Pushcart Prize and was a Gold Medal Winner for The Independent Publisher Book Awards. It’s currently in development as a new series for HBO by Salma Hayek and Jerry Weintraub. Martinez’s work has appeared in Epiphany, The New Republic, This American Life, Huisache Literary Journal, All Things Considered, and Saveur Magazine.

In this interview, Martinez discusses building stories out of memories, his best-ever teaching moment, and taking the piss out of Rick Perry.

To read an excerpt from The Boy Kings of Texas, an essay Martinez wrote about the impact of the Affordable Care Act among immigrant communities in Texas, and exercises based on both, click here.

Michael Noll

The essay begins with a call you made to your grandmother, and that section ends with the lines: “Seeking medical advice is the last option, akin to giving up hope and faith. This is how poor people have learned to cope in South Texas.” Those sentences are addressing such big issues–the way that poverty and cultural barriers shape people’s lives. When you write about them, how do you begin? Do you start with sentences like those and work backwards, searching for anecdotes or details? Or do you start with a story (“I phoned my 84-year-old grandmother”) and wait for the right moment to open the story up to its larger implications?

Domingo Martinez

This was an issue I had when I first started in this business, in that my particular métier in writing is in anecdotes and storytelling; I’m not a journalistic/researcher-type writer. So when I begin on a topic, I scour my memory for something in my personal past that is at once relevant and, if I’m particularly lucky, unusual or comical in the cultural collision I’ve come to symbolize. Meaning that, I suppose I start from the project and let my imagination and experience wander, and hopefully where I end up, or the memories that surface, are still framed in the original intent. That’s why I usually bend the borders a bit. Which again, I suppose is my designation as an author. Ha.

Michael Noll

This is an essay about a Mexican immigrant living in South Texas published in a Washington D.C.-based journal. In other words, most of your readers almost certainly do not share your subject’s background or geography, and so you necessarily explain things that your grandmother’s community takes for granted. And yet, I’m guessing, you probably also wanted to write something that makes sense to readers in South Texas. So, there are sentences that seem aimed at less knowledgeable readers (“Many families there lived a dual life, on both sides of the border”) and details that are more intimate (“My brother, Dan, knew a kid whose grandmother made him eat Vicks VapoRub when he had a fever.”) How do you strike that balance? How do you know how much basic background information to explain?

Domingo Martinez

There’s a certain “sweet spot” you navigate when you’re writing about a culture that is at once so familiar and intimate to you, as the author, and unknown to your reader. First of all, you have to trust your reader, and trust that they’re capable of following insinuation or inflection, enough so that when you pause and explain something, they unconsciously register that this was important enough data to
 stop the story telling and define. If you stop and define every level of foreign information, it dulls the story, and comes off as condescension in a way. The best description I’ve ever come up with was at Breadloaf, this one fantastic woman in particular who was writing her own memoir, but was stuck very much in the “macro” telling of her origins, her family, their lives in Iran. The first part of her story read like the Old Testament, and I don’t mean the good parts. I sat with her and came up with the idea of the “dual
 perspective,” for her to write in the “micro” and have a constant awareness of the “macro.” Sort of like writing in a depth, with two
 points of view. That keeps your reader submerged in the particular of a story, and brings along the larger themes and intention of your
 work. It was a breakthrough, and she actually cried and hugged me. I think it was the best moment teaching I’ve ever had, and I really don’t like teaching.

Michael Noll

You write about the Republican presidential candidates in the last election promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act and, more specifically, about the cuts to medical services already made by Texas governor Rick Perry. And yet in South Texas, your grandmother is rubbing WD-40 on her arthritic joints. It would seem easy to become pretty angry while drafting this essay. How do you manage your emotions when writing about such a profound political disconnect?

Domingo Martinez

That was a depth I wasn’t really willing to tread in that piece, politically. Rick Perry is too easy a target to “take the piss out
 of” if you don’t mind the Britishism. So I wanted to stay away from him; he’s too cartoonish. (I do a great imitation of him, too, by the
 way.) It’s like when W was in the White House and every half-wit across the country felt he or she had the authority or superior
 to make fun of him, and that grew so tiresome so quickly. Anyhow, in this case, there is so much about Texas and its governance that I find absolutely appalling as a West Coaster from a nanny state, and probably in violation of several human rights. My younger brother lived in an apartment complex where, if he was two days late with rent, he’d be locked out of his apartment until he coughed up the full amount. I was astonished when this happened, while I was visiting. What if he was a diabetic? What if his kid lived with him? What if, like me, he had terrible asthma and his ventolin was in there? This would NEVER happen in Washington State. It just seemed so predatory. So I drove him to the Home Depot and figured out how to break in without the management knowing. That’s the sort of stuff that makes my blood boil, when it’s personal and immediate. Writing and witnessing the larger political objectives that are designed to cut support to impoverished (read: Mexican) communities in Texas, I’m overcome with more of a muted sense of defeat, especially because the Republicans in Texas are so good at getting Mexican American voters to vote for their pecuniary incentives as business owners because they hide their malicious political intentions behind a veil of religion and conservative “family values.” That disgusts me to no end, how easily Mexican Americans had been manipulated because “…Jesus wants it so. Jesus hates veterans and old people.” But that sense of defeat is as far as that goes, especially when it comes to Gramma and her weird choices in self-medication. I know her, and I know her people very well, and it wouldn’t really matter if she had access to healthcare at the Mayo Clinic: Gramma would augment her doctor’s prescriptions with WD-40 and anything else that would make sense to her, like chewing on rusty nails for the iron and sodium.

Michael Noll

Domingo Martinez's memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Domingo Martinez’s memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Your memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, is being adapted into a series for HBO. HBO (and cable TV in general) has a good track record of offering shows that portray communities that are often hidden from national view (Baltimore in The Wire and Albuquerque in Breaking Bad come to mind). In the past, though, attempts at portraying Mexican-American communities near the border didn’t fare so well. The writer Dagoberto Gilb has written about his frustration in writing for a series set in Juarez/El Paso a decade or so ago. Do you worry about your story making the leap to television?

Domingo Martinez

I didn’t know that about Dago; I’ll have to ask him about his experiences. He briefly mentioned he’d taken a run at a script once but he didn’t expand on it. Truth be told, I’ve just developed momentum again on this project with Salma Hayek and her producer, so I’m not feeling like I can write about it here. It’s one thing I’ve learned in this business is that things are much better left untyped, as lawyers can’t sue you on insinuation alone. (Well, they can, but a good judge would throw it out.) However, I will say this: it’s certainly proving to be a challenge from the outset, and oddly, I’m really excited about it. Also, I’m incredibly naive and unsophisticated in the ways of Los Angeles, so I’m looking forward to being used, profoundly disappointed, and thrown aside as a spiritually desiccated husk, while the likes of George Clooney step over me on the sidewalk. It’s every author’s dream. (Not the success, but getting that close to success and failing, so that you can have something to write about.)

July 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Describe a House

15 Jul
Domingo Martinez's memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Domingo Martinez’s memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Describing a house in a story ought to be easy. After all, real estate listings do it every day: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths. For poetic purposes, maybe throw in a window and chair. Of course, more is needed—but is that more simply more detail?

One of the best examples of a house description that I’ve read in a long time comes from the first chapter of The Boy Kings of Texas. Domingo Martinez’s memoir tells the story of his family and growing up in Brownsville, Texas. It was a bestseller and a finalist for the National Book Award. You can read the opening pages at the website of The Diane Rehm Show..

How the Story Works

As a thought experiment, try describing the house or apartment where you live. (Seriously, give it a try.)

What happened? Odds are, you started with the property listings and then got stumped. A good description requires some organizational principle, and until you find it, you’re just listing things.

The house that Martinez describes belonged his father’s stepuncle. The two families did not get along, as Martinez explains here:

Elogio and his four sons clearly felt that Dad and his family did not belong in the Rubio barrio, since Gramma had married into the barrio when Dad was already four years old, a child from another man. Elogio was our Grampa’s usurping younger brother, and he wanted control of the family trucking business that Grampa had built. As Grampa’s stepson, Dad challenged Elogio’s succession. It was a Mexican parody of Shakespeare, in the barrio, with sweat-soaked sombreros and antiquated dump trucks.

That tension is important because it informs the way Martinez describes the Rubios’ house, property, and near-feral dogs:

The Rubios had kept these dogs unfed, unloved, and hostile. Presumably it was to keep burglars away from their prototypical barrio home: a main house, built by farmhands many years before, with subsequent single-room constructions slapped together according to the needs of the coming-of-age males and their knocked-up wetback girlfriends. As such, the houses were consistently in varying stages of construction and deconstruction, because the boys never left home; they just brought their illegitimate children and unhappy wives along for the only ride they knew, the one that headed nowhere.

Notice the word choices: slappedknocked-upwetback, illegitimate, unhappy. They’re all negative.

Now, think about what other words Martinez could have described the house (or the words that a Realtor would use): big, hand-builtramblinghomeycomfortable. But those words would be totally out-of-place in this passage. Because Martinez has clearly defined his feelings toward the inhabitants of the house, the tone of the description is established. Once you’ve got the tone, the actual descriptions tend to present themselves automatically. The trick is to give your brain some guidelines. You’re not asking it to pull up every single detail about a place, just a few. The more clearly (and, usually, more emotionally) you define the guidelines, the easier it is to write the description.

It’s also worth noting that the description of the Rubios’ house is connected inextricably to the people who live in it. The main two sentences about the shape and construction of the house (beginning with Presumably… and As such…) end with the human rationale for the construction decisions (according to the needs… and because the boys never left home). The behavior and the needs of the family shape not only the house but the description of the house as well.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a house or apartment (or wherever you or a character lives) using the passage from The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez as a model:

  1. Choose your narrator or main character. If it’s you—good. If it’s a character in a story—also good. You need a primary perspective, a lens through which to view the house and everything else.
  2. Choose the house and its inhabitants. Who lives there? How are they connected to your narrator or main character?
  3. Identify the emotional angle on the house. How does the narrator or character feel about the house or the people living in it? Don’t think too hard; just brainstorm. Does the character have warm feelings? Is the character bitter, disappointed, angry, nostalgic, sad? Are the first memories or scenes that come to mind funny? Tragic? Tense?
  4. Write a quick scene/anecdote that illustrates that emotion. Focus the scene or story on a character or two and a particular moment in time. Remember, the goal is to tell a story that conveys how you or your character feels about the place.
  5. Generalize about the people who live in the house (or spend time there). This can be as simple as writing a sentence that begins, “They were the kind of people who…”
  6. Generalize how the people used the house. Did they use in a communal way (everyone eating, talking, hanging out together)? Did they isolate themselves into rooms? Did they come and go at odd hours? What sort of activities did they do there? Keep in mind the sort of people you are (previous step). If they’re the sort of people who ____, that means they spent a lot of time _____, which really made me/your character feel ______.
  7. Generalize how the house was a perfect/imperfect fit for these activities and these people. Did the house allow the people to do the activities? Were the people cramped? Did the people modify the house in order to do the things they wanted to do? In what ways did they modify their own behavior to fit the house?
  8. Describe the house. You’ve probably already written a few lines about the house. Now you’re summing them up. You might start with a sentence about the people: They were the kind of people who _____ or They spent a lot of time _____. Or, you can jump straight to the house with a sentence like this: It was the sort of house that _____ or It was a typical _____ house. Your goal is to write a description of the house that focuses on the ways it was used, the ways it fit a type of behavior, or the ways it shaped the inhabitants’ behavior. Keep in mind the cue words and phrases that Martinez uses (according to the needs… and because the boys). How can you describe the house in terms of causality?

As you likely know, people’s houses tend to become manifestations of their personality traits. The goal, then, is to write a description of a house that is as active as the people who live in it.

Good luck!

How to Build a Political Argument around a Personal Story

24 Jun
Domingo Martinez' memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, will soon become a HBO series. His essay about the Affordable Care Act, "Quarantined," appeared in The New Republic.

Domingo Martinez’ memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, will soon become a HBO series. His essay about the Affordable Care Act, “Quarantined,” appeared in The New Republic.

It’s no secret that personal stories can fuel political campaigns. The most successful example is the first campaign run by President Obama, but John Boehner does it as well (from a saloonkeeper’s son to the Senate) and so will/does Hillary Clinton. Watch the next presidential conventions, and you’ll notice that almost every single speaker crafts a political message from his or her life story. Some will be quite compelling, and others will come off as dull at best and crass at worst.

One of the better political/personal essays that I’ve read recently is by Domingo Martinez. His memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award and will soon become a new TV series from HBO. But before the memoir, he wrote “Quarantined,” a short essay that you can read now at The New Republic.

How the Story Works

The essay is about the Affordable Care Act and was published in February, 2012, when the fate of the Act was still in doubt. So, Martinez had a clear goal for the piece: to explain why the ACA should be passed in its strongest possible version. He also knew that, to explain his argument, he wanted to talk about the people he grew up with in South Texas. The problem was how to connect the two without falling back on the usual talking points that every politically-engaged person in America had heard a thousand or more times. His solution is to find a third thing to spend most of the time discussing. Let’s look at how this works.

The essay begins with the author calling his grandmother in South Texas. Like many grandmothers everywhere, she ends up talking about her health. But, unlike most grandmothers, her medical treatment takes an unusual twist:

I tuned out her blessings and her current list of maladies until she told me about her terrible arthritis. I shouldn’t worry, she said, because, between the power of prayer and WD-40, her joints were working fine. I asked her, in my halting Spanish, to repeat what she had just said, especially that bit about the WD-40. “The spray stuff, that we used on the trucks, Gramma?” I asked. “El es-sprayo por los truckos?”

“Yes, that’s the stuff,” she said (en español). “I just say a prayer over it and spray my knees and my elbows, and, in the name of Jesus, the heat from the WD-40 loosens my arthritis.”

The interpretation begins at the end of the essay’s first section:

My grandmother’s not dumb or losing her mind. Like many immigrants faced with problems that demand solutions beyond their resources, she looks inward, and backward, for help—or at least delayed consequences—resorting to superstition, old wives’ tales, or illogical assumptions. Anything, so long as it does not cost money. Seeking medical advice is the last option, akin to giving up hope and faith. This is how poor people have learned to cope in South Texas.Seeking medical advice is the last option, akin to giving up hope and faith. This is how poor people have learned to cope in South Texas.

The essay, then, becomes about poverty and the methods a particular group of people have developed for living without some of the basic necessities that most Americans take for granted. He talks about his grandmother, who acts as a bank for her neighbors, who “hock pistols and rifles for small loans.” He explains the “cultural isolation and fundamental lack of understanding” that make delivery of government services a challenge. Because of those challenges, he explains the attitudes that develop around seeking out help, especially medical help: “If you’re not hemorrhaging or suffering from an embolism, then you don’t get to see a doctor.”

Eventually he zooms out from these fine-grain details:

Cameron County, where my grandmother lives, boasts one of the highest ratios of uninsured in the state; one in three people have no coverage. In Texas as a whole, one in four people live without health insurance, the worst percentage in the country.

He mentions the ACA briefly but then explains the cuts to medical services already made by Texas’ governor, Rick Perry. These cuts have affected his parents and grandmother, and they worry about what future cuts may mean for their health. By this point, Martinez is firmly within a political mode, explaining the necessity of the law. But this is not where he ends the essay. Instead, he returns to his point about the region’s poverty and challenges due to cultural barriers: even if the ACA is passed, will his grandmother take advantage of it? Or will she continue to treat her arthritis with WD-40?

Martinez writes, “Few people who speak their language have the time or inclination to try to persuade them—and even fewer are willing to pick up the phone and call.”

Rather than sticking to the well-worn arguments about expanding health care, he makes a larger argument about the political disenfranchisement of an entire group of people. In this way, by revealing the real issues faced by his family, he honors his personal story rather than simply making political hay with it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a political argument with a personal story, using Domingo Martinez’s essay, “Quarantined,” as a model:

  1. Choose the general political argument that you want to make. It can be something that, when you hear pundits on TV talk about it, your blood starts to boil. Or it can be a more local issue that is usually ignored by national politicians. If possible, choose an issue that is personal to you. Doing so will help you avoid the typical arguments that everyone has begun to tune out.
  2. Choose the personal story you want to use. It doesn’t have to be a story, per se. A detail or series of details can work as well. Martinez uses the fact that his grandmother treats her arthritis with WD-40 and prayer. In short, you can use a detail or story that stands out to you or that you struggle to wrap your head around. Most of us have details about our childhood or the place where we’re from that we enjoy telling to people in order to get a reaction. Those are good details to use for a political essay because they’re usually rough-edged, whereas most political discourse tends to be polished and generic.
  3. Tell the story. Forget the political angle. Pretend it doesn’t exist. You want to tell your story in a true, authentic form, and that’s not possible if your point is already evident; the reader would become suspicious of your story. Use a basic structure: set the stage (when and where and who), what happened, and how this made you feel at the time and how it makes you feel now.
  4. Analyze the story. Why does this story stand out to you? Why do you still think about it? Martinez expresses disbelief at his mother’s use of WD-40: “The spray stuff, that we used on the trucks, Gramma?” I asked. “El es-sprayo por los trucks?” Then he offers an explanation for why she and others like her do such things: “Like many immigrants faced with problems that demand solutions beyond their resources, she looks inward, and backward, for help—or at least delayed consequences—resorting to superstition, old wives’ tales, or illogical assumptions.” While it’s true that there is an implicit political argument in this sentence (why does the U.S. not provide more assistance to immigrants?), it’s also true that Martinez is simply explaining the way things are. So, spend a few sentences explaining the behavior that you’ve just described.
  5. Analyze the story in greater depth. For Martinez, the paragraph mentioned in the previous step is just the beginning. Because he’s established the behavior and the reasons for it, he can elaborate on other types of the same behavior and other illustrations of the reasons. Try to do the same thing in your essay. Are there other things that people did/do that are like the story you told? Are there other ways to illustrate the reasons you’ve given?
  6. Zoom out from the story. Your story is almost certainly not an anomaly. But can you put numbers to it? Can you write a sentence like Martinez’s: “In Texas as a whole, one in four people live without health insurance, the worst percentage in the country.”
  7. Make your political point. Now that you’ve established the larger trend or picture as well as the personal element of the issue, you can make a suggestion for appropriate political action.
  8. If possible, move beyond the immediate politics. Martinez makes a point about the ACA, but then he makes a larger point about the reason his grandmother uses WD-40 for medical purposes, a point about political disenfranchisement. He’s explaining the deeper issue, the one that creates the need for the ACA law. So, if you can, think about what deeper political problem necessitates the law or action that you’re prescribing. You might not be able to do this, but it’s always worth a try.

Good luck!

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