The initial inspiration for Pablo Cartaya’s The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora came after Newbery Medalist Matt de la Peña spoke at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where Cartaya was pursuing his M.F.A. in writing for children and young adults. “I had been writing for a long time, but Matt sparked something new. He was Latino like me, and it spurred me to explore my identity.” That night Cartaya returned to his dorm and furiously wrote 10 pages of what would become this standout novel about Arturo, a 13-year-old teenager from an extended Cuban family in Miami, who tries to save their restaurant from a greedy land developer while also learning the story of his grandparents’ courtship and navigating his first romance.
Five years elapsed between that evening and Cartaya’s wife buying the book at their local bookstore in Miami. Cartaya credits revision and persistence as he completed his studies in Vermont and worked in restaurants in New York City to support himself while writing.
Although his own big, loud Cuban American family “did not own a restaurant and do not live all together in an apartment complex,” Cartaya mined his experience in crafting the narrative. “As I started exploring the novel I drew a lot from my own cultural heritage, community, and family traditions,” he says. While he strove to make Arturo’s family specific and unique, he also hoped to touch on universal themes of family and love. “I wanted to convey that feeling of family as both wonderful and overwhelming,” he says. Cartaya thinks of the novel as a love letter to his grandparents, who sacrificed everything for a new start in the United States in 1961. “My abuelo managed a factory in Cuba. They left a comfortable middle class lifestyle, and he became a mechanic in the U.S. and my abuela became a flight attendant.” In his novel, the magnetic, generous Abuela heads the family with gentle strength, and her warmth makes customers feel especially welcome. When she gives Arturo the love letters from his grandfather, he learns about his family history, love, and poetry.
Cartaya’s path to landing an agent was far from typical. He spent the ’90s working as an actor in Los Angeles. A friend from those days, Jess Regel, moved to New York and eventually became an agent at Foundry Literary + Media. When the two got back in touch as Cartaya was working on his book, Regel saw promise in the novel. “It’s a great story about old friends,” he said, “but [working together] was always about the writing.”
When Cartaya started working with his editor Joanna Cardenas at Viking, he felt she immediately grasped the cultural and linguistic nuances of his work. “Joanna immediately got it that if we italicize the Spanish it makes it the other. It’s my job as the writer to make sure the reader has enough context to understand the word.”
In The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora, Cartaya employs a variety of narrative techniques, including texting, scriptlike dialogue, and letters. “I’m in love with words and how narrative can reflect different relationships,” he said. For example, in scenes between Arturo and his friends, the use of script narration reflects the direct nature of their friendship and the rapid-fire humor of their dialogue.
One of Cartaya’s greatest surprises about the publishing process has been how much he enjoys revision. “Revision is where you discover the real heart of a story.” He particularly embraced revision in writing his next novel, Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish (Viking, spring 2018). When he turned in his first draft set in Miami and Puerto Rico, Carderas suggested moving the American part of the story to a new location. “She wanted to show that Latino culture is not monolithic and can be anywhere.”
Cartaya now focuses most of his time on writing and teaches at a residency program at Sierra Nevada’s M.F.A. in writing for children and young adults. He finds that teaching feeds his writing. “You flex your editorial eye while teaching, and it gives me a more discerning way to look at my own work,” he says. When not traveling, he follows a strict writing schedule that also allows him to concentrate on his two children, driving them to and from school and taking charge of homework and dinner. “That’s my most important job,” he says. “One of the coolest things is when I hear my kids say, ‘My dad’s an author.’ I worked hard to claim that title.”