Finding a Sustaining Writing Community as a Young Parent with Author, Editor, Teacher, and Mentor, Tomas Moniz
Tomas Moniz is the author of the debut novel, Big Familia, a finalist for the 2020 PEN/Hemingway, the LAMBDA, and the Foreward Indies Awards. He edited the Rad Dad and Rad Families anthologies. Moniz is a 2020 Artist Affiliate for Headlands Center for Arts and a 2022 UCross resident. He teaches creative writing at Berkeley City College and is a teacher/mentor at Antioch University Los Angeles.
Big Familia follows Juan Gutiérrez, a self-employed single father, as he navigates a tumultuous year of change. His daughter, Stella, is on the verge of moving away to college; his lover, Jared, is pressing him for commitment; and his favorite watering hole—a ramshackle dive presided over by Bob the Bartender—is transforming into a karaoke hotspot. The story is in a neighborhood that is facing gentrification, inciting the ire of the established community.
I met with Tomas this past January to discuss his writing career and how he balanced work, parenting, writing, and life.
Tomas Moniz: I feel like I took a relatively non-traditional path to where I’m at right now. I think it involved a little bit of ignorance early on in my writing career. When I say that, I mean, I never planned on being a writer in the traditional sense of like, “I want to get a book published.” I wanted friends, I wanted to engage with people, and I wanted community. That led me to discover zine and the punk world.
I was a parent at the age of twenty. So, I was a young parent going to junior college. I was just transferring to UC Santa Barbara when I had my first child, and I think I gravitated towards something I could do while parenting, which was writing. I never considered myself a good writer at all.
Sierra-Nicole E. DeBinion: That’s surprising.
I feel like I took a relatively non-traditional path to where I’m at right now. I think it involved a little bit of ignorance early on in my writing career. When I say that, I mean, I never planned on being a writer in the traditional sense of like, “I want to get a book published.” I wanted friends, I wanted to engage with people, and I wanted community.
TM: Yeah, I didn’t write much in high school. I never intentionally wanted to publish anything but wanted to have a community, and from that discovered Hip Mama. I loved reading. I will say that, in retrospect, led me into the writing path. Early on, I loved Virginia Woolf, very, very canonical writers, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, I kind of got into that American literature that really kind of got me going. So with a little bit of luck, I started publishing and I cut my teeth learning in terms of writing stuff and sending it out right away to an audience. Submitting on my own gave me a little false sense of confidence, but I guess you need a little bit of bravado to feel like you’re going to put yourself out there.
TM: I think that’s what we all struggle with right now. Imposter syndrome, all these kinds of things are very, very, very normal.
For me, I gained confidence when people would react to my writing. I was able to practice reading it out, so I started doing small readings and little zine tours. And so from that I thought, oh, this is something I’m enjoying! I’m learning about myself. I’m trying to be a better parent, which ultimately lets me be a better partner. Those things coalesce into: I can be a writer, and I can do it on my own. I can put stuff out there. I know that’s doable. And I know I get a certain satisfaction out of that. But on the flip side, everyone wants that kind of institutional recognition. I feel like I’ve got a good groundedness of, I want to get published by a larger publisher, but if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world. I’m still writing, and I can still put it out there.
SND: How did you go about submitting?
TM: This is way back before the internet. We would sneak into Kinkos and make copies of stuff. I never even considered submitting things. I kind of joke it was a little bit of ignorance because I just didn’t know. So I see this little zine at this little infoshop, a little community radical space. There’s a couple in LA. I just saw someone staple, “These are the three bands I love.” However, instead of talking about bands, I was meeting to talk about parenting.
I made little zines to give out and mail to my friends that were pen pals with me. I would bring my work to bookstores and say would you carry this product? I don’t know if you remember Tower Records.
SND: I do not.
I made little zines to give out and mail to my friends that were pen pals with me. I would bring my work to bookstores and say would you carry this product?
TM: It’s a record store like in the late ‘90s and the early 2000s that would carry self-published zines, right? They would buy fifteen copies and sell for $3 each, so I did that. I would leave the store with a check for $6.50, feeling like I was a rockstar. By the time I started submitting stuff to online journals, I hustled to get my work out in the world, but in a different way.
SND: That’s very cool.
TM: I appreciate now how accessible publishing is for people. I mean, I’m sure there are equity issues in the online world about publishing, but it feels to me like if someone wants to publish their work, they can do that.
SND: I love that too. One thing I want to backtrack to, you were doing this as a young parent. How did you balance that?
TM: Toni Morrison was a great role model for me because I remember reading essays about her and she would write when her kids were asleep. I felt kindred spirits with her in the sense that I didn’t try to write during the daytime. I did my job. I did my homework, I did parenting, and the second 7:30 p.m. came around, the kids were in bed. I spent my evenings learning how to write in that context. Then of course, as I got a little bit older and a little bit more autonomous, I was able to prioritize a little bit more time for writing. I didn’t write a lot during that period, but I thought it was important for me to write.
SND: Absolutely, kind of like personal therapy.
TM: There’s that balance, right? So that was an interesting period.
SND: It sounds like you’re doing a lot of strategizing at that time.
TM: Without realizing it. If there is one thing to pull out of my ramblings, it’s to trust your process, even though you can’t quite see what you’re doing yet. Because later on, you’ll be able to figure out, “Oh, I see what I was struggling with there. I see what I was learning there, or I see what I was fighting against there.” So I feel like that’s kind of a benefit of a little bit of longevity, and you can look back and see what you’ve learned.
SND: That’s awesome.
TM: As a teacher, I wanted to create a community. I feel like I almost fell into mentoring students who were doing similar things that I had done a decade earlier, like, teen parents. I love teen parents, and when I would acknowledge teen parents in the classroom, the few teen parents who were there were blown away by being welcomed into that space. Trying to blend cultures in an academic environment led me to be a mentor for Latino students. I started teaching creative writing classes more and more.
What I do recognize is the privilege of having a job that allowed me to have a little bit of freedom to choose books. Every few semesters, I’m able to bring new books that just came out into the curriculum and see how it connects with students. I’ve been able to learn and grow as a person and as a teacher.
SND: I appreciate hearing from a teacher with this open perspective, welcoming diverse voices in your classroom. I certainly felt welcomed in your workshop class. Everybody was so nice and you cultivated that environment.
As a teacher, I wanted to create a community. I feel like I almost fell into mentoring students who were doing similar things that I had done a decade earlier, like, teen parents.
TM: I’m mentoring my six students right now. I just sent them back their feedback. I was pleasantly surprised with how much I’m enjoying the process. It makes me think critically about my response, but it’s been nice to feel the responsibility. I know these students are hungry for that feedback. I believe that it’s helping me think about my choices and that’s been a great benefit.
SND: That makes sense. You’re looking at the student’s work with a critical eye and you carry that eye to your work. Your debut novel, Big Familia, was a finalist for the 2020 PEN/Hemingway, the LAMBDA, and the Foreward Indies Awards. Congratulations! Would you tell me about your process of writing the book or perhaps your insight post-publication?
TM: The book was from disparate stories I was telling. I started pulling them all together at different times and realizing this is all kind of one community, it’s all one story. I feel like it did start with a little zine I made for a friend, and long story short, that became the voice of the book. A lot of what I ended up doing was writing shorts. I didn’t even think it was part of the novel. So when I started the novel, it was only like a year and a half, two years for me to put it all together.
SND: Oh, wow. That’s awesome. I love to hear about different processes of writing. What’s your central activist/professional/intellectual passion?
TM: If I’m sticking within the context of writing, I write more about an idea and less about a goal. So with Big Familia, the main character is struggling a little bit with intimacy and parenting. When I think about my own experiences, I think finding community, that’s a big part of it. The novel I’m working on right now deals with grief, healing, and friendship. Those are things I’m struggling with. Culturally, as we come out of the pandemic, and are still in the pandemic, we are healing as a society.
I tend to, as someone who worked hard not to be didactic in my early writing about fathering, I’m not going to tell you how to father. I’m going to share my experiences, and from that, maybe I can learn something as a parent. I’m not going to tell people what to think, but I’m going to create situations where characters are struggling or dealing with these issues and see what they think. My activism is trying to deal with the nuanced ways we can build better communities.
SND: That is so wonderful. Do you have any final statements that you’d like to share?
TM: The only thing I’d like to say finally is, just as much as we all want that outside affirmation, I think it’s worth writing to your intimate community, and trust that more than anything. It’s like that small group of people you share writing with regularly is the most sustaining part of the practice. So, find your friends. Find each other. That’s my goal. Sometimes you’ve got to take the risk of putting yourself out there.
Sierra-Nicole E. DeBinion is a hapa-haole historical fiction author living in Mesa, Arizona with her two dogs, Lucy and Ricky.