This is late Saturday night. In a booth in a dark bar.

This is some girl, Holly, who I’ve known roughly ten minutes, leaning over my boy PJ, her eyes big and brown, and asking will I kiss her.

And I’m against this kind of behavior in theory. Locking up in public. Lobbed a dry biscuit at a couple kissing in the high school caf during sophomore year—and when that didn’t stop them, I threw a half-eaten fish stick. But Holly’s cute. And we’re both buzzing on the good stuff. And my real girl recently called down from her fancy Ivy League school to tell me she met someone.

You’re broken up a few days, a few months, doesn’t matter—the shit ain’t real until you hear those words.

It’s some dude she met in finance class. Started a couple weeks back, but she’d been afraid to tell me. Oh, you’re seeing someone? I said. Is that right? A frat boy from Westchester, you say? So, basically some money-hungry, future Wall Street weasel who longs to watch himself tie a tie every morning in the mirror. And what’s this dude drive? Talk to me about that shit, Jasmine. Guess you’re too good for me and my skateboard now that you’ve been brainwashed by that stupid-ass sorority.

She, of course, hung up. The click cancelling our two years together.

Matt de la Peña

Matt de la Peña is the author of four critically-acclaimed young adult novels—Ball Don’t Lie, Mexican WhiteBoy, We Were Here and I Will Save You. His fifth, The Living, will be released this fall. Matt received his MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and his BA from the University of the Pacific, where he attended school on a full athletic scholarship for basketball. de la Peña currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. He teaches creative writing at Vermont College and visits high schools and colleges throughout the country.

Q&A by Pei-Ling Lue

PL: I think all of us has had a few nights where we’ve met some new people and the most unexpected things happen, especially when we’re young. Can you tell us about a time something like that happened to you?
Md: Young and dumb. And free. Weird nights always tend to happen when you’re lost, too. When you aren’t really steering. I remember one night in particular back when I lived in LA. A friend of mine rented out a place called The Victorian on Main Street in Santa Monica for his birthday. A buddy of his (who was crashing at his apartment while he went through a divorce) showed up with a certain movie star he was dating. I probably shouldn’t say her name...She’s a brunette...With a thing for camera men (like the guy she was with that night who later became her husband). Think Pretty Woman and Erin Brockovich. Anyway. She was shy at first, but as soon as she got a drink or two in her she became the life of the party. She emceed a two-hour karaoke session. She cut a piece of cake for me. Later, my friend and I ended up eating pancakes at an all-night dinner with two British women. One was a stripper and the other one was a lawyer. They said they’d been best friends since high school. The lawyer kept telling us how she used to babysit the lead singer of Coldplay. I asked the stripper to go to dinner with me the next night, but she claimed I reminded her too much of her little brother.
PL: I was really interested in Shy and PJ’s friendship and how there is a hint that all isn’t well with the two of them, that there’s some mistrust between them. Why is that and where does it come from?
Md: I think working class guys, whose relationships revolve around a sport, operate differently. There’s a lot of ego involved. But there’s loyalty, too. I’ve always been fascinated by the way my hoop friends and I are always able to “leave it on the court.” I played basketball in college so I saw a ton of this. Fights on the court between teammates. Spats about the hoop hierarchy, who gets the shine. But off the court, on the college campus, we were all super tight. Shy and PJ know each other from pick-up, though. Which is a little different. There’s an age difference between them, and they have their own agendas. Shy’s lost. PJ’s always angling. It works for now, but you get the idea that the friendship’s not forever.
PL: How did you come to choose Los Angeles as the setting for your story?
Md: I lived in Venice Beach for four years before moving to New York. And those were some important years. I was poor and writing my first book and chasing girls. I rode the bus everywhere because I didn’t have a car. It was such a fun time. I love LA. I love the weather and the health consciousness and all the people who move there to try and be somebody. There are so many stories in LA.
PL: Why do you think Holly is so drawn to Shy?
Md: I think she’s used to getting what she wants, and Shy presents a challenge. He’s emotionally unavailable. He’s half there. And her goal is to get him to “see” her. I think bar hookups are so complex and psychologically interesting.
PL: I love your title “Passing Each Other in Halls.” It makes me think of high school where you can have a really meaningful and intense two-week friendship and then a year from that time, you just pass each other in the halls and it’s possible to not acknowledge each other at all. How did you come up with the title?
Md: I like what happens when you pull a seemingly less important line out of the story and make it the title. We then read that section differently. And I was very aware of the this “passing each other in halls” feeling when I lived in LA. When I first moved to New York, too. I’d have these brief encounters with people I knew I’d never see again. I loved to listen to people tell me about where they came from, how their families were, relationships that had failed. People are so interesting. Especially strangers. I also wanted the readers to assume Holly was the brief encounter that mattered most for Shy in the story. Until they saw him interact with the sick woman near the end.
PL: In this story you place a spotlight on your characters’ races—the doctor glances at PJ and Shy and makes assumptions based on the fact that PJ is black and Shy is Mexican. Holly is described as a white girl. PJ assumes that girls don’t want to talk to him because he’s black. What role does your characters’ races play in this story and the stories that you write?
Md: I don’t consciously go into a story trying to write about race, but I guess it’s always sort of there for me. As a bi-racial kid (half white, half Mexican), I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I was and how I wanted others to perceive me. And I think race colors many of our everyday interactions and relationships. My goal, though, is to try and keep race and identity as a texture in the stories I write, not the story.
PL: Where did the idea for this story come from?
Md: I started out wanting to explore two things: a breakup and a working-class father and son’s relationship in the face of illness. And I knew I wanted to set it in LA. I’ve also been working with the character Shy for quite some time now. He’s the protagonist of my novel The Living which comes out in November.
PL: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
Md: Making the voice consistent, I think. When I started writing the story it came out in a very conversational style (okay, all my work comes out that way). And when you work with a dialect or street slang you have to be sure it’s consistent. And that consistency only comes with a ton of revision.
PL: How long did it take you to complete this story?
Md: I’ve been working with this character for a long time. I started versions of him way back when I lived in LA, like eight years ago. This variation of the story took me a couple months. Like I said, it required a ton of revision after that.
PL: What are you working on now?
Md: I have two books coming out this year. Curse Of The Ancients, a middle grade novel, is coming out with Scholastic as part of their Infinity Ring series. And as I mentioned above, my next YA, featuring the protagonist in this short story, Shy, comes out with Random House in November. It’s called The Living. Right now I’m writing the sequel to The Living which is called The Forgotten.
PL: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
Md: Get out of the way! Writers like me (especially when I was younger) want to show off on the page. Hey, look what I can do. Did you just read that sick line I came up with? As I get more mature as a writer, though, I realize that my job as a writer is to get out of the way and let the story be the star.