It all started back in 2004 in Salinas, California. The hometown of renowned writer and Nobel laureate John Steinbeck ("Grapes of Wrath" and "Mice and Men") was so broke that city officials were closing the libraries to save money. Journalist Claudia Meléndez Salinas was there, covering town hall meetings where person after person pleaded against the closings.
"What was not as well known was that they were also closing the community centers, one of which had a boxing club for young people. I saw all these kids line up and talk about how important the community center was, and I thought this is a story that can go beyond the pages of a newspaper. I said to myself that I'm going to create a character that's based on one of these kids."
The result is the just-released novel A Fighting Chance, an engaging page-turner written in the young adult genre, centered on Miguel Angel, a 17-year-old teen who lives with his single mother and becomes passionate about boxing as a way to stay away from gangs and other bad influences.
"I spent a lot of time in boxing clubs doing research, but this is not so much about boxing but about a boy trying to make good choices," Meléndez tells NBC News. "In the city there is a sizeable population of gangs and they are very violent, but the percentage of kids who are not in trouble is much larger. In reality, most kids are good kids and that's what I wanted to show: that most kids are trying to do well and stay in school. The good stories don't get the play that the gang stories do, and while this book is a fictional story, it's based on the experiences in this community."
Salinas is the largest municipality in central California's Monterey County, and its large agricultural industry has earned it the nickname of the Salad Bowl of the World. Seventy-five percent of the 155,000 residents are Latino.
The novel has caught the attention of the literary community and Meléndez has been named to the Top Ten List of Latino authors to Watch and Read in 2016, a list that Coast Guard Academy literature professor José González has been compiling for the past 11 years. "Written in a style that stays away from fighting clichés, this work is sure to appeal to teenage readers," says González.
This is the first novel for Meléndez, a native of Puebla, Mexico who arrived in the states after high school and earned degrees from the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of Southern California. Her journalism experience includes newspaper and radio stints in California and Texas in both English and Spanish.
Meléndez spoke with NBC Latino about the book's trajectory to publication and what's next.
NBC Latino: What does it mean to say that this is a Nanowrimo novel?
Meléndez: After going to those hearings about the budget cuts and deciding to create a character from those kids who spoke up, in 2006 I participated in the National Novel Writing Month, an annual writing project every November that has the goal of writing 50,000 words by the end of the month. After I did that, I spent the next year polishing my draft. This is definitely a Nanowrimo novel.
NBC Latino: What made you decide to give your main character the name of Miguel Angel?
Meléndez: I am a big fan of Michelangelo. His life story guides a lot of my work. Michelangelo used to say that his sculpture was already inside the block of marble and all he had to do was take the excess. I call my writing the Michelangelo method because I dump all my notes in one big pile and take away what's not needed. I admire him a lot and that's why I named my main character Miguel Angel.
NBC Latino: You also include a character who is not part of life in Salinas but is still an important part of the story?
Meléndez: Miguel Angel has a non-Latina girlfriend. I wanted to show life not just in Salinas but also in the Monterey Peninsula, with its golf courses, car shows, and wealth. It's very different than Salinas and the contrast is huge, even though it's part of the same county. I wanted to contrast the wealth of Monterey with the struggles of Salinas, and having a girlfriend who is not Latina was the perfect vehicle for that.
NBC Latino: English is not your first language, but yet your first book is in English. How difficult was it to write in a language not native to you?
Meléndez: I live in a world of English. I write for my paper in English, and most of the activities I cover for work are in English. It's partly why I decided to write a young adult novel because I figured the language didn't have to very sophisticated and the ideas didn't have to very complex. As a first-time author, I thought it would be a little easier for me.
NBC Latino: As a Latina writer, how difficult was it to get an agent?
Meléndez: It is really difficult especially for Latino and Latina authors. I can see my book having the sensitivity that perhaps not all the mainstream community has, that Latinos "get" but the mainstream doesn't. I had an agent who was enthusiastic about the novel, but her readers weren't and we parted ways. I got many rejection letters, but I sent my manuscript to Arte Público Press which doesn't require an agent and publishes some of the best Latino authors in the country. I got lucky because they publish just 20 books out of 1,000 submissions they get every year, and I was one of them.
The libraries and community centers have since reopened and in addition to continuing to cover the community for the Monterey County Herald newspaper, Meléndez is already working on another novel, this one about a young Latina in Los Angeles who dreams about being a Hollywood filmmaker. The plot twist is that she is a daughter of immigrants who was raised in the United States but discovers she's not here legally, complicating her plans of fame on the big screen. It's a bit based on the experiences of the DREAMers, the youth who were brought to this country as young children.
"People say write what you know, and what I know is the Latino community. It's my community and it's where I belong," says Meléndez, who adds that she expects the novel to come out within the next year.