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Interview with Tony Robles, Author of JOEY GONZALEZ, GREAT AMERICAN

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Tony was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. His mother was a divorced high school dropout. The family was poor and they lived in gang and drug infested neighborhoods. But Tony’s mother never blamed their circumstances on anything other than her poor decisions. She taught her kids that the keys to rising above poverty were education and hard work.

Tony graduated from a segregated high school – all boys, all poor, mostly black. By today’s affirmative action standards, he should have been doomed to failure. All the cards were stacked against him: poor, Hispanic, spoke mostly Spanish, no father, bad neighborhoods, segregated high school.

If Tony had bought into that simpleminded malarkey he might have thrown up his hands and given up. But in those days there was no affirmative action, no English as a second language programs – nothing and no one to convince young Tony that his ancestry or his poverty were going to make it hard for him to learn. Instead, he had a mother whose unshakable optimism inspired him to study, learn and to dream of a bright future.

Of course Tony understood there was racism and prejudice. He was keenly aware that there were people who thought less of him because of his ancestry. But Tony’s mother made sure he never bought into the negative stereotypes; she did not allow him to become prejudiced against himself. Tony has pursued and lived the American dream as his mother promised, through education, self reliance and hard work.

Tony served four years in the U.S. Navy and came out E-5 (second class petty officer) qualified in submarines. He had a successful 27-year career in the U.S. Customs Service and retired as a supervisory criminal investigator.

Tony and his wife, Yolanda (his best friend of nearly 30 years) raised a daughter and a son and have a granddaughter. Through his words and by his example Tony always tried to teach his kids the important lessons he received from his mother; in his own way he gave his children his mother’s beautiful dream.

Tony wrote Joey Gonzalez, Great American to pass his mother’s dream to all children. He says of his mother: “She’s gone now, but her dream lives on, not only in the five children she raised but in the dozens of kids she befriended and loved and nurtured over the years. Our apartment was always filled with kids who loved my mother and called her Mom. She taught all of us the same thing: be proud of your heritage, stay in school, get a good job, work hard and you will succeed.”

Tony dedicated this book to his mother. He wishes she had lived to see it.

You can visit his website at http://www.joeygonzalez.us/.

Welcome to Beyond the Books, Tony. Can you tell us whether you are published for the first time or multi-published? Can you give us the title(s) of your book(s)?

Joey Gonzalez, Great American is my only published book and my first children’s story.

What was the name of your very first book regardless of whether it was published or not and, if not published, why?

I wrote a personal essay (not a book), “The Last Voyage of the USS Sunfish”, that was published in the National Submarine Review. The essay is posted online at the website of the USS Sunfish (SSN 649). The crew of the Sunfish has made it a tradition to read the essay at every reunion and there are always moist eyes in the room. The Last Voyage of the USS Sunfish is a powerful piece because I wrote it from the heart. When I wrote Joey Gonzalez I did it the same way. Joey Gonzalez is a good story simply because it’s real and it’s passionate and it comes from the heart. One of the ladies who helped me translate Joey into Spanish said it made her laugh, it made her cry and it made her a little bit angry. Those are exactly the emotions I felt as I wrote the story. I still can’t read it without choking up.

For your first published book, how many rejections did you go through before you either found a mainstream publisher, self-published it, or paid a vanity press to publish it?

No rejections for Joey Gonzalez, Great American. I submitted it to one publisher and scored.

How did the rejections make you feel and what did you do to overcome the blows?

I was prepared for a rejection. I almost could not believe it when the story was accepted for publication.

When your first book was published, who published it and why did you choose them?

I learned about World Ahead Publishing and their Kids Ahead conservative children’s books and I was intrigued by the idea of teaching conservative values through children’s literature. I had an idea for a story about affirmative action told from a kid’s point of view. I submitted the story to World Ahead because I felt this publisher would have the vision and the courage to take on such a controversial subject.

How did it make you feel to become published for the first time and how did you celebrate?

I got very excited when the publisher accepted the story and then the long process leading up to the contract began. By the time I finally signed the papers I didn’t feel like celebrating. I felt emotionally drained. I still haven’t celebrated. I’m waiting for the first royalty check. Then I may pop open a bottle of bubbly.

What was the first thing you did as for as promotion when you were published for the first time?

Several months ago, before the book was published, I dropped in unannounced at a bookstore where a group of kids were having a book discovery event. I did an impromptu reading and the story was very well received. I believe I could have sold 50 copies if they had been available. I have since contacted another bookstore and I’m scheduled to read during their Children’s Book Week. It will be attended by parents, teachers and librarians as well as kids. This time Joey Gonzalez will be on the shelves. I’m hoping to pack the room and sell lots of books.

If you had to do it over again, would you have chosen another route to be published?

I have no training in writing children’s literature. I wrote the story in one draft with no revisions. I sent it to one publisher and it was accepted for publication. I’ve read about and heard about people having that kind of experience but I never thought it could happen to me. If I had it do over again, would I do it differently? No.

Have you been published since then and how have you grown as an author?

I have an idea for another kid’s story. I wrote a rough draft and brainstormed it with the illustrator and we think it’s doable. But I’m not going to do any serious writing until I’m completely done with Joey Gonzalez, finished with all the promotion and the touring and accomplished my mission of getting the message out to the kids. Have I grown as an author? Actually, I don’t feel like much of an author. I wrote one story. It was in my heart and I let it out. It was like uncorking a bottle or opening a box. I suspect if I try to do this again it will not be as easy. That’s when I’ll grow.

Looking back since the early days when you were trying to get published, what do you think you could have done differently to speed things up? What kind of mistakes could you have avoided?

Speeding things up would not have been good. The timing of this story could not have been better. Race relations and affirmative action seem to be in the news every day. Joey Gonzalez, Great American takes on the issue with a fresh and unique perspective. To my knowledge no one has ever written anything in children’s literature, or any literature, that challenges affirmative action with such a positive and inspiring message. Ironically, unlike the so called affirmative action programs, like “race norming” of test scores and rigged college entrance exams, Joey Gonzalez with its message of ethnic pride, personal pride and self reliance stands out as a truly affirmative action. It is a story whose time has come.

What has been the biggest accomplishment you have achieved since becoming published?

The biggest accomplishment is still in progress. I’m delivering an important message to children. Writing the book was just the beginning. Now comes the hard part – getting the message out to the kids. My dream is that in the future at baby showers for black and Hispanic mothers it will become a tradition for someone to bring a copy of Joey Gonzalez, Great American. But my biggest dream (and the publisher won’t want to hear this) is that someday, the sooner the better, the Supreme Court will overrule affirmative action, and Joey Gonzalez, Great American will become irrelevant and will be seen merely as a curiosity, an interesting footnote in the history of a great nation.

If you could have chosen another profession, what would that profession be?

Looking back at my life it is clear that every milestone was preparation for writing Joey Gonzalez. I believe my life experience made it inevitable that I would write this story. It was not a matter of choice.

Would you give up being an author for that profession or have you combined the best of both worlds?

I have a great life. I work part time at home transcribing recordings, a skill I perfected in wiretap rooms and undercover operations during my career as a customs agent. I enjoy transcription. It relaxes me and earns a few extra dollars that I happily spend on bicycle gear and other toys. I also enjoy writing. Now I have a children’s book published and a shot at publishing a few more. I have a close friendship with a very talented illustrator and we enjoy working together. What more could I ask for?

How do you see yourself in ten years?

I’ve reached a point in life where I don’t plan that far ahead. If God grants me ten more years, I pray He will allow me the strength to continue doing what I love best, riding my bicycle with the road stretching miles ahead, the sun warm on my back and the hills rising to meet my throbbing heart.

Any final words for writers who dream of being published one day?

Write from your heart. Write with courage. Don’t pull any punches. Never try to hide behind your words.

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