By TRAVIS BRAASCH
Matt Mendez, a former Pima Community College student and University of Arizona graduate, has grown into a successful writer.
His first book, a 2012 collection of stories about working-class barrio characters titled “Twitching Heart,” received widespread praise.
Author Manuel Muñoz wrote, “This is exactly how a winning debut should read—fluid and raw, redemptive and inevitable. Underneath the humor runs a gifted storyteller’s nuanced take on the paradox of the outsider. A triumphant first swing from one of the new stars in the next generation of Chicano lit.”
Mendez was born and grew up in El Paso, Texas.
“Both my parents worked full time, leaving me, my brother and sister with tons of alone time,” he said. “This solitude gave me the chance to make up stories.”
Mendez discovered filmmaker Richard Rodriguez in high school.
“He was the only Chicano I knew of making movies, so I decided I wanted to be like him,” he said.
Mendez started at PCC in 2000 after serving four years of active duty in the Air Force.
“I hadn’t been inside a classroom since high school, and when I moved to Tucson I quickly enrolled, wanting to start this new part of my life,” he said.
He first focused on media communications, creating short Super 8 films for class.
Meeting writing instructor Meg Files, “a mentor who changed my life,” spurred a change of direction.
“Reading poetry and writing poems for Meg’s Intro to Poetry class was where the idea of reading for pleasure first took hold,” he said. “It was something I had done sporadically as a kid but had quit as a young adult. That class turned all that machinery back on, thankfully.”
Files said Mendez stands out in her memories of students.
“I remember him in my poetry and fiction classes as an extraordinarily gifted writer,” she said.
“His work was lively and fresh—and sometimes very funny,” she added. “It’s one thing to have the talent, but Matt also has done the hard work to live up to that talent.”
Mendez also took advantage of Pima Writers’ Workshop sessions.
“I was working on a screenplay and wanted badly for someone to read it,” he said. “The experience of the workshop was great, listening to agents and presenters, to all these writers talk about their work.”
After publication of “Twitching Heart,” Mendez returned to the workshop as an instructor.
“It was great to bring our former student back to the college as faculty at the Pima Writers’ Workshop,” Files said. “I am so proud of him.”
Mendez didn’t decide to become a writer until he was about to graduate from UA with a bachelor’s degree in media arts at age 28.
“I had minored in creative writing to get better at screen writing,” he said. “It was during these creative writing workshops where I first read so many great stories, by writers I would never have discovered otherwise. It wasn’t long before my attention turned from film to stories.”
For Mendez, creating a story or character goes beyond writing about someone he observes. He develops characters with a life story.
Publication of “Twitching Heart” placed him firmly in the Southwest writers’ category. He’s proud to share his culture with readers.
“When many people think of Southwest writers, they first think of Cormac McCarthy or Annie Proulx, tired old westerns and their stereotypes,” Mendez said. “They rarely think of Latino or Native writers like Joy Harjo or Ana Castillo, certainly not of writers like Natalie Diaz and Eduardo Corral, Paul Pedroza or Isabel Quintero.”
People who don’t read have little empathy or insight, he said.
“That’s a big part of the reason so many people are willing to erect a wall in our backyard, are willing to destroy a part of the country and people they have no understanding of,” he said.
For students interested in writing, Mendez offers advice from his own experience.
“Read, learn your craft and get to work,” he said. “I started at Pima in 2000, and my first book was published in 2012. The second is coming in 2018. That may seem like a long time, but I can assure you it isn’t.”
The only thing artists can control is the amount of effort they are willing to give, he added.
“Anything short of all you can, really, will leave you disappointed.”