Interview: Mandy Gonzalez Is Writing for Young People Who Don't Normally See Themselves in Fiction
The actor reflects on writing relatable books and becoming a debut author in the middle of a pandemic.
Hamilton and In the Heights star Mandy Gonzalez knows how to amplify marginalized voices to achieve a common goal. Her 2017 social media initiative, #FearlessSquad, came as fans looked for a supportive online community after the 2016 presidential election. #FearlessSqaud has since taken on a life of its own outside the Broadway bubble and has become a community where girls and women provide support on issues like grief, cancer, and mental health, to name a few. Gonzalez is taking her hunger for more Latinx representation in what we consume and applying it to a different kind of stage: books.
On April 6, her Fearless series' first installment will offer young readers the representation Gonzalez did not find growing up. Fearless is the story of Monica Garcia, a 12-year-old actor who has been cast in a fictional Broadway production, the theater's last chance at success before they close permanently, and must overcome her fears to save the venue.
Gonzalez talked to TheaterMania about work that informed Fearless, how fiction books have a significant role in showing young people the experiences of others, and writing a book in the middle of a pandemic.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
One of the things I loved about Fearless is the role friendships play; it's like eavesdropping on your girlfriends. Why was it important for you to capture that?
It was essential for me to capture the Broadway community because once you're part of a theater or Broadway community, you become part of that community of friendship. I'm still friends with people from my drama club, and we haven't gone the same route, but we share that bond. When I started on Broadway, I was Idina Menzel's standby in Aida, and when you're a standby, they put you in one room with boys and girls. I shared a mirror with Darrell [Moultrie], and it changed my life because suddenly, I had a family in New York. We became friends because of the experiences we shared, and when you're doing eight shows a week with somebody, you see them more than you see your family.
Was your daughter one of your beta readers, and did she ever tell you to rewrite or delete something because it wasn't cool?
My daughter has been such an inspiration because, well, so far, her favorite character has been April. To see the joy of her through line because, like April, she's all about technology and selfies. She was a big inspiration for that character because I felt she was someone she could identify with. It was also important for me to make her Italian because my daughter is Italian, Mexican, and Jewish; she has all these different parts. She had such a ball when I read to her and seeing where this story has gone, so she's a big part of it.
What do you like best about your writing?
It's vulnerable, and there's a lot of humor in it. I've tried being "the cool one," but that never works [laughs]. I just try to be me, and I like that the best. I like that I see myself in my writing. I didn't think I would be working on final rewrites and writing the second book in this series in the middle of a pandemic, but it has kept me busy and helped me think about my writing.
Monica, your protagonist, is written with clarity and eloquence, especially how she perceives herself and her Latinidad. Is this something you realized in your youth, or did they come with the privilege of hindsight?
I've always been very aware of my surroundings. My grandparents lived in a small town called Reedley [in California], where Monica Garcia is from. Going to see my whole family on that side and where my father came from, I'm very aware of how hard my family has worked to be a part of this country. I never saw that in stories and want kids to know that farmworkers are part of the American story and the pride they have.
My whole family worked in the field. My dad would work in the morning and then go to school and then come back and work. To see where I come from and to see where I've gone, I'm very aware of that, and I'm very aware of how hard it is, and people who believe in you encourage you to keep going. They did all these things so that we could have a better life and could dream, so it was essential for Monica to be very aware of where she comes from and have the gravity of that on her shoulders because I think all of us feel the need to succeed not just for yourself but for your family.
How has your relationship with fear changed since starting the #FearlessSquad?
Coming from a small town in California, I was the first one in my family to move so far aside from my abuelos. When you're young, you often ask yourself if you're good enough or what people will think. I had to figure that out on my own. When I started to talk about these things with my best friend Darrell, my Broadway community, and my family, I began to find my strength in being vulnerable. I think being vulnerable is the biggest fear. Once I started being open and truthful, I started to let go of being afraid of fear and just knowing that it's part of the journey and I just have to keep going.
How do you hope that your work will help create a better future?
Kids seeing themselves in the arts is so important. That's what starts to create leaders within our community within whatever community you decide to go into. But you begin to see that there are possibilities. I didn't know about being a director or being a choreographer, stage manager, or somebody who tutors kids on Broadway or being a writer or journalist. I didn't see those things in the different stories I was reading. I hope that this book changes things and that more stories are created to continue the change that I see already happening, just with stories like In the Heights and Hamilton. It starts to change the narrative where we're not only in the spotlight but behind the scenes, and that's where change really happens.