Texas is notorious for its unsparing judicial system stocked with lawmen as hard-hearted as the criminals they wrangle. Domingo Martinez brings this Lone Star State tradition of tough justice to bear on himself and the rough-and-tumble Brownsville, Texas, family in the pages of his new memoir, "The Boy Kings of Texas." No one gets off easy in Martinez' remarkable literary debut, least of all the author, who traces the familial roots of his own stunted emotional evolution using a moral compass that's as unforgiving as it is uncompromising, humane as it is hilarious.
Martinez’ brash and boisterous coming-of-age story interweaves his struggle to escape a family legacy of violence, poverty, and boorish machismo with the larger narrative that shines a light on the vitality and unique challenges and cultural dissonance that comprises today’s Mexican American experience. Growing up on the Mexico-Texas border, Martinez locks horns with his crass and competitive father, stirs up a whole mess of trouble with his anarchic brother and ultimately sorts through a Dumpster full of psychic debris with the help of a Seattle shrink.
But the most dramatic beat in Martinez’ redemption story didn't occur until after the book was published. Martinez has since become one of four finalists competing for the National Book Award for Nonfiction (whose winner, Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," was announced Wednesday night). Martinez was the only first-time author in an illustrious group of Pulitzer Prizewinners, including in addition to Boo, Robert Caro, Anne Applebaum, and Anthony Shadid. That’s quite an accomplishment considering Martinez contemplated abandoning the project altogether at various points during the fifteen years it took to complete.
In the final days leading up to the awards ceremony, Martinez spoke with Signature from his New York hotel room about his journey from the barrios of Brownsville to the apex of literary achievement.
Signature: How did the process play out in terms of showing the book to your family and friends who are featured in it?
Domingo Martinez: At first I really took it personally that my mother refused to read it. I hadn’t expected she’d be so hurt by it and to this day I don’t think she’s read the book. And that was my primary concern. My dad knows about the book and he won’t read it either. But they’re very supportive of the whole project. They see it as a larger text. While the story is too personal and painful for them, they understand the larger implications and they’ve seen the success of the story reflected in everyone else and in the people it’s reached -- people who have felt completely unseen and unheard for so long. So for that they’re supportive and rooting for me and hoping I win the National Book Award. But in regard to their own role in the story, it’s way too close to them.
BIOG: Is there part of you that suspects that if they read the book, it will come as a relief?
DM: I tried to tell my mother that there’s a real transformation in how I depicted her and that she’s one of the heroes of the book. And she said, ‘I understand that but it’s still too painful.’ My dad is another story because there’s no real redemption in the book for him. Ironically in real life, he’s a completely different human being and he’s beloved by his entire family and has been sober for twenty-two years. He’s a great guy. So that was one of the principal crosses I have to bear because of the guilt I have for not including the transformation and redemption he’s experienced in real life.
BIOG: Was the process cathartic for you?
DM: It was inadvertently therapeutic. I didn’t write the book as a vehicle of therapy but it did turn into that begrudgingly. I don’t believe art should be created for therapy specifically. I believe it should be created for everyone else’s sake as well. It can’t be entirely solipsistic. But in this case I completely went against my idiotic belief system and it became incredibly therapeutic. Not just for me but for my entire family. They all rallied around it and it completely healed all the fissures. We all got together in Austin, Texas, for the first time a couple weeks ago; and it was one most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. My whole family was together under one roof – my mother, my stepfather, and my father. It was like a Woody Allen movie. A good Woody Allen movie.
BIOG: How did the book get started?
DM: I started writing a poem: What rhymes with ‘I hate you, dad’? Just kidding. It began as these short stories about growing up in Brownville, Texas, and it eventually took this larger form. About ten years ago, I decided to make it larger and develop the narrative through-line and started filling in the gaps with stories or memories. I actually started writing fiction. My fiction wasn’t very good. But the only part of my fiction, the only part people liked was the autobiographical stuff. That was the most interesting part of my fiction, so I eventually knocked off the stuff I was making up and just kind of stuck to the truth and started writing a memoir before I knew what memoir was.
BIOG: How did you support yourself while you were writing?
DM: I became a graphic designer when graphic design wasn’t cool. I also worked at alternative weeklies in the Seattle area and then moved on to magazine publishing. I kind of rode that until I painted myself into a corner working as an art director for a media company. I was working on contract and doing quite well. And then all of a sudden, my contract just ended and I found myself out in the cold with an antiquated skill set in print publishing that didn’t have much value anymore. I didn’t have the animus to compete anymore. I didn’t want to. So I kind of turned my attention onto the book and son of a bitch if it didn’t work.
BIOG: Did it change the process for you once you committed to writing wholeheartedly?
DM: I’m looking forward to the immersion this next time. I have started my second book. I’m about ten chapters in. This next book is very close to the surface. I don’t have to go down digging for it, so it won’t take fifteen years to complete. I have to be very careful about this next book. The subject matter is very tender. It involves other people.
BIOG: What did you learn about how to navigate what’s off limits and what’s not in terms of exposing other people’s foibles?
DM: This book was quite the learning process in a lot of ways. I went to great lengths to hide people’s identities. And I was really surprised that some of the characters I treated with exceptional love and kid gloves have actually contacted me full of bitterness and spite and anger because they were too easily identifiable. That was surprising and actually hurt my feelings, but was more of an example of my naivete and stupidity. I’m like Tigger, ‘What did I do? I thought everyone wanted to be in a book!’ That’s not true. People don’t like it when they don’t have control over their depictions. There’s a tremendous amount of guilt that comes with publishing a memoir that I wasn’t prepared for.
BIOG: What was the process like for you to dive into the painful periods in your own past?
DM: I was just locked inside my hovel in Seattle digging deep and picking at my wounds. If I ever did think about it, I just thought of that French adage, ‘Better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.’ I have some incredible moments of emotional autism where I don’t consider other people’s feelings. I’ve had it all my life.
BIOG: You’re pretty hard on yourself in your book.
DM: Thank you for pointing that out. I didn’t try to make myself into a nice guy. I figured if I was going to tell the truth about everybody I should tell the truth about myself as well. Instead of being the unreliable narrator, I wanted to be the unlikeable narrator.
BIOG: Was that intentional?
DM: Yes. I think it happened about halfway into the writing when I started to get the narrative through-arc and how to make it work.
BIOG: What was the through-arc?
DM: I don’t think there was any one eureka moment. The whole development of the book coincided with my own emotional maturation as I was growing older. Had I any amount of success earlier, I would have leapt on it and the book would have been about twenty percent of what it is today. It would not have developed with the same emotional complexity. It would have been a shorter book full of rage. And I would have had better hair and taken better photographs.
BIOG: How did you develop the voice?
DM: My voice is now more specialized and honed in a way I always wanted to write. Now it’s completely available to me. Before I would have to work at it. It was there but it was much more verbose and rusty. Now it’s entirely reflective of how I think and how my mental processes work, which is very difficult to achieve.
BIOG: How did you do that?
DM: I just kept at it. I just never stopped. I sacrificed quite a bit for this book I realize now. Friendships. Relationships. Girlfriends. There was a point where I realized there was nothing I wanted more than to publish. That included marriage, children, pets, plants.
BIOG: Did you always believe it would happen?
DM: No. There were many periods where I felt I had missed my window.
SIG: How did you know when you were finished?
DM: I got to the ninety-three percent mark and I needed to wrap it up. I made a cover and bound it. I was working at a print shop at the time and I put it on the counter and took a picture of it and stood there staring at it for a very long time. I was at the lowest point in my life and this was my last shot. I was a manager of a print shop and I had this book and it was like this choice between the two. Do I slug it out teaching myself how to run a print shop and make a terrible wage? Or do I turn my attention to the left and really try to get this book out? And I chose the latter.
BIOG: This book has taken a pretty dramatic redemption journey of its own. Did ever suspect you’d be here in New York as a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction?
DM: Not in my wildest fantasies. I’m going to knock wood right now. I’ve been saddled with a huge responsibility because now every bartender and waiter in America is looking at me as a hero, St. Domingo – If he can do it, I can do it. Now every agent is going to hate me because now they’re going to look at their slush pile and go, ‘There might be something in there.’
BIOG: You’ve already won, no matter what happens
DM: Yes but I think I’ll sleep a lot better once I know. If I win, there’s all that. If I don’t get it, at least I don’t have to make a speech in front of Martin Amis.