Telling Tales out of School with Jeff Hobbs

It’s early on a Wednesday morning, and Jeff Hobbs, bestselling author and stay-at-home dad, is sitting in the family room of his “old beater” house in Los Angeles, dressed in a gray Oregon Track T-shirt, talking about the art of juggling child-rearing and a writing career.
“I don’t know if Mr. Mom is an offensive term,” Hobbs says via Skype. “I guess it’s archaic, but I kind of am with my kids pretty much all the time.” Most days, he gets up at 4:30 a.m. to write at the family dining table, when, he says, it’s dark and cold and nobody is emailing.
That table is where Hobbs, 40, wrote Show Them You’re Good: A Portrait of Boys in the City of Angels the Year Before College. Out in August from Scribner, it covers about a year in the life of a group of senior boys at two Los Angeles schools as they navigate their social and academic lives and work toward a common goal: getting into college.
“I wanted to write about kids living through their senior year, as they apply to college and deal with that process and its outcomes, and all the nonsense in between,” Hobbs says. As for why he focused on boys: “I felt like the emotional lives of boys are minimized in what’s still a machismo culture.” He takes a beat and adds, “I also thought an adult male probing the emotional lives of teenage girls might not go over well with their parents.”

Hobbs is the author of two previous books: the 2007 novel The Tourists, about a man who seduces both halves of a couple (“I don’t recommend it,” he says of his debut), and the 2014 nonfiction book The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League. The latter explores race, class, economic disparity, and maleness—subjects that Hobbs revisits in Show Them You’re Good.
At the heart of Show Them You’re Good are four students, two from Beverly Hills High School and two from Ánimo Pat Brown Charter High School (which is in a neighborhood called Florence-Firestone, north of Compton). From Beverly Hills High, there’s Owen, the well-off son of Christopher Lloyd, co-creator of the TV show Modern Family, and Jon, a Chinese Jewish kid whose immigrant mother moved the family to a small apartment in Beverly Hills so that Jon could have access to a good school. From Ánimo Pat Brown, there’s Carlos, a son of undocumented workers who’s trying to secure Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protection, and Tío, an aspiring engineer whose father is an alcoholic. “They’re all super cool,” Hobbs says of the boys, whom he followed from August 2016 to June 2017 and still stays in contact with.
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Hobbs says his own high school experience was “pretty unremarkable”—he got good grades, he ran track—and that going back to high school to do research was in no way a return to the glory days. “I just felt old,” he says with a smirk.
Developing a rapport with his young subjects took some time. “I’m an awkward guy, so the first couple of meetings were stilted,” says Hobbs, who has a tendency to pause often when he talks, giving his speech a unique halting rhythm. Pretty soon, though, he was immersed in the teens’ daily dramas.
“I spent a lot of time in their homes, I went to family dinners, and to dances and proms,” Hobbs recalls. “I was running around Los Angeles a lot, and it’s weird to tell your kids that you won’t be home for Friday night dinner because you’re going to a Halloween dance at a high school in South L.A., but, you know, my kids know what I do.”
Hobbs’s kids, now ages six and 10, sometimes joined him on his expeditions. They played while he conducted interviews. “It happened frequently that year,” he says. “It worked out. I think it was nice for the boys to get a glimpse into my life, too.”
Show Them You’re Good shows its quartet of high schoolers striving to get good grades, filling out blizzards of college application and financial aid forms, and dealing with family issues, including a sick parent (Owen) and an unstable living situation (Tío). Readers get to root for them as they forge their futures.
“This is a book that crosses over cultures, class, and race, and that’s at the heart of what Jeff Hobbs is looking to bring to the world,” says Hobbs’s agent, David Black at the David Black Literary Agency.
Colin Harrison, Hobbs’s editor and the v-p and editor-in-chief of Scribner, adds, “Line by line, Jeff is just a lovely writer. He’s careful and slow in the making of prose, and it shows. The guy couldn’t write a bad sentence.”
Nonfiction writing didn’t always interest Hobbs. “I stumbled into it when my friend Rob Peace died,” he says. Peace was Hobbs’s roommate at Yale, and after the two graduated in 2002, Peace returned to his hometown in New Jersey and began selling drugs, which led to his 2011 murder by a drug dealer. Hobbs struggled to make sense of the tragedy and, at the suggestion of his wife, began writing a book about Peace. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace became a bestseller. There are currently 250,000 copies in circulation, across print and e-book formats, according to Scribner, and the book is being adapted into a movie. Hobbs’s wife, Rebecca Hobbs, is a film and TV producer and is producing the film with Training Day director Antoine Fuqua.
“I always felt like this story needed to be told to help people walk in someone else’s shoes,” Rebecca says. “It explores this idea that in order to make it in America you have to leave behind what you came from, and how unacceptable that could be.”
Hobbs remains keenly interested in examining people’s lives and understanding their motives. His next book is about kids in juvenile halls and detention centers. “I’m not good at much, but I’m pretty good at asking questions,” he says. “And I’m really good at listening.”
As a bright morning light filters in through his living room window, Hobbs hears his kids rousing in the next room. It’s time to make breakfast and maybe chat with his daughter about the pet rats she wants to buy. (“I’m skeptical,” he says.) Then it’s a full day of dad duty. And the next morning, before the sun comes up, it’s back to writing.
“Talking to someone that no one has heard of, that isn’t famous, and somehow helping their story become part of a reader’s story—that’s pretty neat,” Hobbs says.
Bonus Link:
Jeff Hobbs in His Own Words

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

On the Road with Héctor Tobar

On a recent morning at his home in Los Angeles, Héctor Tobar, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and expert chronicler of the Latino experience, sat down with a bowl of oatmeal he’d whipped up for breakfast after dropping his daughter off at school. He wants to talk about the day he encountered the strange, true story of Joe Sanderson, a 20th-century thrill seeker and failed novelist from Urbana, Ill., who is the subject of Tobar’s epic new novel, The Last Great Road Bum, due out in June from MCD.
Sanderson traveled the world in the 1960s and ’70s, then became a guerilla fighter in the Salvadoran Civil War. So what drew Tobar to a man who is a relative unknown? “I want people to think of Joe Sanderson as one of the great American adventurers of his time—as someone who’s as worthy of being remembered as Jack Kerouac,” he says.

Tobar has written two other novels, The Tattooed Soldier and The Barbarian Nurseries, and two nonfiction works: Translation Nation, in which the author chronicles his own family history and travels across the United States to gather stories about the Latino experience, and Deep Down Dark, an account of the 2010 mining disaster in Copiapó, Chile. Before he wrote Deep Down Dark, which spent seven weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, he was already thinking about Sanderson, whom he calls “an American Che Guevara,” whom he learned about while working in Mexico.
In 2008, Tobar was working as the Mexico City bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times when a research assistant told him about a war diary written by an American that was sitting in an archive in San Salvador, El Salvador. The diary belonged to Sanderson, who dropped out of college and spent his life traveling the world—Africa, Asia, Europe—in search of adventure and material to write the next great American novel.
Sanderson’s relentless quest for big experiences brought him to El Salvador in 1979, where he joined up with guerillas who opposed the U.S.-backed military junta and became a fighter (code name: Lucas). He died in battle in 1982 at age 39. His diary and other papers, which were found stashed in his backpack, became part of the revolution archive at the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen in San Salvador.
“Joe’s story was begging to be written,” Tobar says. Initially, though, he didn’t know how to approach his subject. It would take years, and multiple stalled nonfiction book proposals, for him to find the answer. In the meantime, he gathered the material he’d later weave into his novel.
Tobar spoke with former rebels who’d fought alongside Sanderson. “I heard stories of Joe winning a shooting contest,” he says, noting that Sanderson was known to be a great marksman, “and of Joe teaching rebels how to swim.” And Tobar tracked down Sanderson’s brother, Steve Sanderson, in the States, who gave him access to letters Sanderson wrote to their mother. Steve also shared his brother’s fiction, which Tobar—who is currently a writing professor at the University of California, Irvine—admits isn’t good.
“I’m a generous grader,” Tobar says, “so I’d probably give him a B−.”
Despite the grade, Tobar, who briefly put aside newspaper work in the 1990s to get his MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine, identified with Sanderson’s dream to write fiction. “I would definitely choose fiction writing over nonfiction if I had to,” he says.
It was the success of Deep Down Dark that motivated Tobar to write Sanderson’s story as a novel. According to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Tobar’s books have been translated into 15 languages and have sold approximately 250,000 copies in North America across all formats, with Deep Down Dark accounting for about half of those sales. But after Deep Down Dark, he hit a crossroads. “I realized if I wrote another book of nonfiction I would never write another novel again,” Tobar says. “There was a voice in my head saying, ‘Nonfiction is all I’m going to be known for.’” So he revisited Sanderson’s story and began to see him as “a man who was trying to live his life like a character in a novel that he never succeeded in writing.”
Tobar got swept up in the idea and wrote the book the real Joe Sanderson couldn’t.

“It’s a novel, but it sits next to Into the Wild and other great nonfiction books,” says Tobar’s editor Sean McDonald of The Last Great Road Bum. “The way it pulls together the strands of Héctor’s writing career is thrilling.”
The son of Guatemalan immigrants, Tobar was born in L.A. in 1963. He spoke Spanish growing up and is firmly entwined with his roots. He’s been married for 26 years and has three kids and what he describes as a “poorly behaved but loyal” dog. He’s friendly and open but says he’s a loner.
“It’s taken me time to overcome a lot of the insecurities that led me to become a writer,” Tobar says. “I was an only child. I was always seeking my father’s approval. I always wanted to be an A student. And so becoming a writer was a way to show the world how special I am.”
Jay Mandel, Tobar’s agent at William Morris Endeavor, calls him “a Swiss Army knife of a writer.” He adds that Tobar is “both deeply American and deeply Central American,” and that this offers him a unique perspective as a storyteller.
Tobar’s powers are on full display in his latest, which uses the treasure trove of letters and diaries Sanderson left behind to create a story of love, war, and art that spans cultures.
Tobar admits he got some weird looks when he started telling people that his latest protagonist is a white guy. “Some people were disappointed that a Latino writer would choose to write a novel from the perspective of a white male,” he says. But he relishes defying expectations. “It’s important to think about working across, and imagining across, ethnic lines. If we as writers of color only think of ourselves as writing inside this channel of, say, Latino history, then we… well, I am depriving myself of a deeper understanding of the full truth of the country in which I live.”
Tobar’s next projects include a survey of Latino life in the Trump age and a trilogy of novels about L.A.
As the conversation winds down and his dog lets out an impatient bark, Tobar tells the story of the time his immigrant father built a fence around the house where Tobar and his family currently live. His father blew out his car engine hauling wood and had bloody hands every day as he hammered away. “But he stubbornly worked at this fence and finished it,” Tobar says. “And it’s beautiful. How he worked on that…That’s the way I write.”
Tobar nods as he reflects on the 11 years—research and all—it took to complete The Last Great Road Bum. “I put everything into that book,” he says. “I fought for every sentence. I left it all on the page.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.