Wednesday, May 21, 2008

[Interview] Tony Robles

Tony Robles is a U.S. Navy submarine veteran, a retired federal agent and an author.

His debut children's book Joey Gonzalez, Great American challenges racism and prejudice.

In this interview, Tony Robles speaks about what motivated him to write the book.

When did you start writing?

I’ve been scribbling all my life but nothing serious or with such passion as I have in my children’s book, Joey Gonzalez, Great American.

What happened to me was one of those success stories you read or hear about once in a while. I had no plan to be a published writer or even to do any serious writing. Then I discovered World Ahead Publishing and their line of conservative children’s books. I realized I had a story inside me that could make a whopper of a conservative children’s book, on an issue so controversial that getting it published would be the longest of long shots. But here was a publishing house that I thought would have the courage and the vision to publish such a story. I wrote it in one draft with no revisions, submitted it and crossed my fingers. I went from having no idea I was going to write a story to being published -- in one easy step.

How would you describe your writing?

Joey Gonzalez is a sweet little children’s story with lovable characters that kids can identify with. It’s a story about ethnic pride, self reliance and courage, with a positive and affirmative message. But it is also a political commentary about one of the most controversial issues of our time: affirmative action.

It’s a story intended to provoke serious thought and hopefully encourage the notion of self-help, a conservative value and one that is quintessentially American. (I borrowed some of those words from Barack Obama, who described the notion of self-help as “quintessentially American -- and yes, conservative”).

Who is your target audience?

I wrote the story especially for American children who are descended from Spaniards and African Slaves (or both), but it’s a good story for any kid. For the black and Hispanic kids, it teaches that their ancestry is not a weakness but a source of strength, that there was greatness in their ancestors and that greatness has been passed on. It encourages reading, education and self reliance while discouraging dependence on special preferences.

For the rest of the kids it shows that black and Hispanic children are not different, that they have the same hopes and dreams and, most importantly, that they are not weak or inferior.

I have seen the affirmative action mentality take an ugly turn. It has become politically correct to be prejudiced against multitudes of people simply because of their ancestry. It is now perfectly acceptable to believe that all blacks and Hispanics are inferior and need special preferences in order to compete. That poison is being fed to our children.

I wrote the story to give kids a positive and truly affirmative alternative to that negative stereotyping.

Who would has influenced you most?

My late mother was the true inspiration for this story. She didn’t raise me to be a victim. She never let me believe that ancestry or poverty could hold me back as long as I had the will to succeed. I put her dream and her teachings into Joey Gonzalez, Great American.

My whole life has been preparation to write Joey Gonzalez, Great American. I was already a young man when the government decided that blacks and Hispanics were so inferior that they needed special preferences and quotas to compete.

No one had ever told me that my ancestry or my poverty would hold me back or make it hard for me to learn and compete. Yet, by today’s standards I was doomed to fail; all the cards were stacked against me: poor, Hispanic, segregated, drug and gang infested neighborhood, no father, and a segregated high school. And there was no affirmative action to help me along. Yet, I did fine.

I have lived the American dream just as my mother promised, through education and hard work. As little Joey Gonzalez does in the story, I reject the affirmative racism lie because I know better. My life has been the proof.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Right now my main concern is getting the message out to as many kids as possible. That means selling a lot of books.

I’m dealing with this by doing everything I can personally to promote the book: reading/book signing events, seeking publicity wherever I can find it, and doing whatever the publisher asks me to do. I’m currently doing a lot of radio interviews on talk shows, etc, and, of course, I’m doing this virtual book tour which includes this stop at OhmyNews International.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

I just picked a fight with one of the biggest, toughest bullies on the block.

I know my book may cause some hard feelings because there is a whole generation out there that has been convinced affirmative action preferences are good and necessary to level the playing field. My strategy will be to get the book out to as many people as possible and let Joey do the talking. He does a good job and has already changed a few minds and got some others at least thinking.

Do you write everyday?

I don’t write every day. I only write when I have something to say. I wrote Joey Gonzalez in one draft in one sitting. I think it took me about four hours.

Before I wrote the first word, I knew exactly what I wanted Joey to do and say. All I had to do was introduce the characters and set up the confrontation in the classroom. At that point Joey and his classmates came alive and the story told itself.

It took the artist, my good friend, Jimmy Pryor several months to paint the watercolor illustrations and the book was published in March 2008 by World Ahead Media in Torrance, CA.

I believe World Ahead Media was the only conservative book publisher with a line of children’s books. That was unique and I was intrigued and inspired by the idea of teaching conservative values through children’s literature.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

Getting the artwork right was a challenge.

Jimmy Pryor, the illustrator made color pencil drawings as prototypes for a layout. The drawings looked so good that the publisher decided to use them instead of the watercolor paintings they had originally requested. But, after Jimmy had made a full set of illustrations, we found that the pencil colors weren’t intense enough. Jimmy had to retool and redo all the illustrations in watercolor. Jimmy has always used acrylics and oils. He had never painted with watercolor, so he had to work by trial and error. Understandably, that took a long time.

Then the publisher gave us a deadline.

Jimmy worked five days without sleep in order to finish the artwork on time.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

I enjoyed working with Jimmy Pryor. The book turned out to be a true collaboration.

When I first visited Jimmy to show him the manuscript, he had a large canvas hanging on his wall depicting Buffalo Soldiers coming two by two up a steep hillside. The landscape in the background looks endless and barren, making the column of soldiers seem small and lonely and exposed. Yet in their carriage there is a clear depiction of strength and confidence and military discipline. It is a beautiful and powerful painting.

I said I wished we could put something like that into the book. Jimmy said that, if I added some text about the Buffalo Soldiers, he would be happy to make an illustration to go with it. I added the text and, as promised, Jimmy painted a beautiful portrait.

Jimmy is a great guy, a talented artist and a true professional. We have developed a strong friendship and we hope to work together on future projects.

What sets the book apart from the other things you've written?

The only published piece I’ve ever had other than Joey Gonzalez is the essay published in the National Submarine Review, “The Last Voyage of the USS Sunfish”. What sets Joey Gonzalez apart from the Sunfish essay is, obviously, the magnitude of the project, a book versus a simple essay.

There are similarities.

The day I read the Sunfish essay for the first time at a crew reunion, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. Someone told me later that I wrote with courage. When I wrote Joey Gonzalez I realized courage is essential. And not only courage, but honesty and passion as well. I believe that’s what these two very different stories have in common: honesty, passion and courage.

How did the Sunfish essay come about?

I wrote a personal essay, “The Last Voyage of the USS Sunfish” which was published in the National Submarine Review (I believe in 1997). It is posted on the USS Sunfish website (there’s a link on my website, joeygonzalez.us). I rode along as a civilian on the submarine’s last voyage, from San Diego to Bremerton, Washington where she was scrapped. As I had been on the commissioning crew and sailed on her maiden voyage, it was a very emotional experience. The crew has adopted the essay and it has become a tradition for someone to read it at every reunion.

What will your next book be about?

I’m sure it will be another conservative children’s book.

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