David Pérez is a writer, editor, and actor. His memoir—Wow!: A South Bronx “Memoirito” about boyhood and Catholic school—was released last month by 11B Press. Pérez talks about his experience writing Wow!, memoir-writing, the origin of the title, and more in this Write On! Online Author Q&A.
What inspired you to write Wow!?
I’ve always been a storyteller, whether as an activist, journalist, writer, or actor—and especially as a father. Seeing my kids become adults so quickly got me to thinking about my own growing up, how fast it all goes and how nice it would be to capture each moment as if with a pause button. Reviewing my own coming-of-age eventually resulted in my memoir.
The specifics of my inspiration came several years ago at an Ashram in upstate New York. Reminiscing on what an eventful life I’ve had, I took out a little notepad and began jotting down names of family and childhood friends, names of streets in my South Bronx neighborhood, memorable events like first dates and running track, each entry only a few words long. I filled several pages and only got to high school! Months later, I decided to take each entry, for instance St. Luke’s Catholic school, and just free write whatever popped to mind. And that’s how Wow! came to life.
Where did that title come from?
“Wow” was my first English word. I was two-years old. I feel it epitomizes my character in the book: a boy full of wonder. To a great extent, I still view of life as a wow, and writing my memoir has been a definite wow!
What is your process for writing it? Getting it published?
I tend to write in spurts because there’s so much else in my life I enjoy doing: being with family, taking time for solitude, acting in community theater, and other writing and editing assignments, all of which engage my creativity. So I tried to let Wow! grow organically, working on it on and off for years, sometimes with the view of it becoming a book, other times to just have fun going down memory lane, rediscovering myself, so to speak. My process also included sending sample chapters out to magazines, sharing my work in writing groups, and doing readings.
Publishing has been interesting; I did tons of research about the various options. I started off by submitting directly to small and mid-sized presses, rather than seeking an agent. There are plenty of quality presses that don’t require an agent, Graywolf and Algonquin, for instance. Anyway, my manuscript was accepted by a small press two weeks after I submitted it; pretty incredible, I thought, and quite the confidence builder! Then I got other “we’re interested” bites from noteworthy presses.
As I was deciding what to do, I met with my brother, George Pérez, an internationally acclaimed comic book artist with a huge fan base. He agreed to illustrate the cover and offered to do interior illustrations. He wondered if I should just publish it myself, to “make most of the money and maintain all artistic control.” It was an option I was also considering, especially since I wanted to keep the book’s price at $10, a hard thing for a traditional press to accept since they would make little money—and me even less.
Soon afterward, a friend of mine who’s into the film business discussed with me the idea of starting a press, and having “Wow!” be their launch book. We discussed terms and cemented a deal. Thus began 11B Press. I’m extremely pleased with my decision.
In what ways was it different than/similar to your other writing projects?
My main writing has been journalism, where you don’t have time for writer’s block. It also requires that you get to the point quickly and concisely and that’s similar to all writing, at least it should be. Writers often have to ask, “What is this about, who am I writing for?” So my journalism—and also the personal essays I’ve written—has much in common with Wow!
The biggest difference for me has been not having a deadline, having to be self-disciplined. In addition, memoir is about one’s own life, which is harder to write than about another person or event. Plus, I was writing a book, not an article. There’s no word limit, no parameters except when you’ve set for yourself, and even that changes as you dig deeper into the material.
My acting experience has been the most similar to writing my memoir. Both delve into memory and character, into sensory detail, into finding tension and resolution in relationships and situations. Without question, my heavy use of dialogue in Wow! has certainly been aided by my acting.
What was your favorite part of writing it? The greatest challenge?
It’s been enlightening to see that who I am now is largely the same as who I was when I was a kid. Another joy has been adding a fresh chapter to the colorful chronicles of Latinos growing up in the U.S., an experience that is complex and layered. You know, the South Bronx has been written about a lot and captured on film. I wanted to break from what has become a traditional “ghetto” image.
My story takes place in the mid to late 1960s, during my childhood and early teenage years. When my family moved to the Millbrook Houses in the late 1950s, the projects were considered “moving on up”—central heating, elevators, the works. The South Bronx wasn’t yet the South Bronx. With Wow! I give props to a period when the neighborhood was simply part of the city, a poor and working class community full of heart and culture, and wonderful friends and family.
The greatest challenge has been my not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, yet at the same time to tell my story truthfully. Much of my narrative takes place in a Catholic school populated by a chalk-throwing nun and a trio of desperadoes known as Brothers of the Sacred Heart. It was pretty rough at times. But there were also a lot of funny adventures. And the reason I became an altar boy! In the end, there’s nothing startling in my story, and certainly no malice. The brutality at St. Luke’s was what it was at the time. Yet, as I tried to show, there was goodness and humanity.
How did you decide which parts of your life to include … and which to leave out?
This book has been my sincere effort to record my childhood experiences. Some images were crystal clear; others dimmed by an aging brain. At times, I had conflicting versions from friends and family. So like all memoirists, I had to pick and chose. I downplayed some “facts” and highlighted others. But never did I make things up whole cloth, even though I do tend to embellish a tale. Just ask my kids!
I cut a lot of material that, to me, simply didn’t serve the story. My book’s episodic style reminded me of the novelas that Latinos watch, or those popular pocket paperback novelas in Spanish with illustrations. So I called my book a “memoirito.” It’s an “ito”—small but full of flavor, lleno de sabor.
When writing something so personal, how do you just put yourself out there for the world to read? What does it take?
That’s a good question. I’m not quite sure how I do it, or why. A big part of me, even while growing up, has been to seek attention. “Hey, look at me play tackle football without a helmet!” Things like that. Acting on the stage is another way I’m constantly “putting myself out there.” At the same time, I can be very reserved, private, content just being a fly on the wall, almost invisible.
I guess what enabled me to write Wow! is that my story is not so much a peeling of a scab filled with sadness—although it does have pathos and harshness. It’s a “look at what a life I’ve had!” The same feeling I had at the ashram when I first embarked on writing this book.
Any advice for those thinking about writing a memoir?
Pick a time of your life and mine it deeply. Memoir is not autobiography. Unless you’re really famous, no one is going to want to read about your entire life. So find those moments in life where major stuff happens, something that shapes your person. It needn’t be heavy or tragic, but don’t shy away from it either. Try to have fun with your discoveries, the delving into the self. And remember the axiom: A memoir is not about facts; it is about truth.
Additional advice for writers?
All I can offer is my own experience, which is to try and keep things in balance. At a panel I participated in about publishing, I emphasized that everyone has to seek his and her own journey. Why do you want to write? How important is a book to you, really? What other creative things give you pleasure? Don’t be afraid to set your goals high. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to let it go. In fact, letting it go often means getting it. It sounds metaphysical but it’s true.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?
One is that I should never abandon a good idea simply because it means too much hard work. We all want short cuts; I still do. But there’s no getting around the fact that you have to work to achieve your own greatness—or rather, your own happiness.
Wow II – The High School Years.