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The past few weeks have been momentous ones for San Antonio author Shea Serrano. On Oct. 8, his new book Movies (And Other Things) was released to wide acclaim, debuting atop The New York Times bestseller list of Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous books.
Since he got his start as a writer back in 2007, Serrano has shown himself adept, in his four books and countless articles, at writing with sharp humor, authentic warmth, and creative insight about his life and family, music, sports, movies and pop culture – often in clever combination.
His work has a conversational tone that serves to set up both his smart analysis and his often absurd humor. His greatest strength, and one that certainly contributes to his popularity, is his ability to, as he put it, find quirky angles or aspects of a subject “that people have not spent time on.”
“I look for conversations that haven’t been had yet and start there,” he said. “That kind of makes it so that people have to read your thing if they want that conversation.”
For example, the chapter titles in Movies (And Other Things) include “Were the Jurassic Park Raptors just misunderstood?” and “Who’s the better tough guy movie dog owner?” and “Which race was white-saviored the best by Kevin Costner?” And then there’s “Can we talk about Selena for a minute?”
Making the Times bestseller list, let alone topping it, is a meaningful enough achievement. But for Serrano and his Dallas-based illustrator, Arturo Torres, this milestone goes even further. His previous books, 2015’s The Rap Year Book and 2017’s Basketball (And Other Things), also made the list. Thus, with his latest appearance on that list, Serrano became the first Mexican American in the list’s 88-year history to make it with three different books, according to his publisher.
For Serrano, that knowledge is tempered by a sense of the injustice that lies beneath it.
“It’s one of those things where it’s cool to hear it at first, and then it becomes less cool when you start to unpack it,” he said.
“That list has been around for like 88 years or whatever, and we are the first ones to put three books up there? … It just seemed like a sucky thing the more we thought about it, because this should have happened a bunch already. It’s cool that it’s happening now, and it’s cool that people will see it, and hopefully some young writer will see it and think ‘Oh, I didn’t know that I could do that.’ Hopefully that happens. But the whole thing has a few sides to it.”
Serrano has gone from deciding to give freelance writing a try to producing three bestselling books in a matter of 12 years.
Born and raised in San Antonio, Serrano graduated from Sam Houston State University, and he and his wife, Larami, settled in Houston. He got a job teaching middle school science.
In 2007, when complications with her pregnancy forced his wife to quit working, Serrano needed to find supplemental work.
After being turned down for jobs at a few retail stores and restaurants because of his teaching schedule, he found himself at an impasse. Poking around on the internet for ideas, Serrano came across information about freelance journalism and, despite no previous experience, he was convinced that the flexible nature of the job made it a perfect fit.
After making pitches to a number of Houston media outlets, Serrano wrote a few sports articles that were published in a small neighborhood publication. He used those writing samples to get freelance and later full-time work covering music for a free weekly newspaper, Houston Press.
From there, he landed gigs with LA Weekly, Houston Press‘ sister publication, and the online Grantland and The Ringer, two prominent national outlets that allowed Serrano to hone his skills writing about sports and pop culture.
In 2013, he published his first book, Bun B’s Rap Coloring and Activity Book, a nod to the influential Houston rap scene, in collaboration with rapper Bun B. That book’s success delivered the opportunity for Serrano to write The Rap Year Book, which was well received enough to get him a deal for Basketball (And Other Things).
Movies (And Other Things) is the second book in a planned trilogy of And Other Things books. The forthcoming third book doesn’t yet have a release date, a subject, or a title, though Serrano said he’s leaning toward a focus on music or television.
His success, however, is not without its built-in drawbacks. Serrano reports that he can’t help obsessively checking on book sales and chart positions. Although Movies (And Other Things) didn’t stay atop the Times bestseller list for long, it’s No. 1 in Amazon’s Movie History & Criticism category.
“I was really anxious and nervous leading up to the book launch,” he said. “You’re worried something’s going to go wrong, somebody’s going to say something mean, somebody’s going to find some typos. … All that is inevitable, but it’s like knowing you’re about to get punched in the mouth – it just makes it worse.”
Serrano still checks on the sales for all of his books every Thursday.
“It’s a ton of stress,” he said. “On the days it’s going well you are excited, but never as excited as you should be. And when it goes bad you feel way worse than you should.”
Parsing success and keeping motivated, Serrano said, requires constantly setting new goals, new “invisible boxes to check that make you feel like things are going well.”
Looking forward, he wants to explore the artistic freedom that his success can buy him.
“What I think about the most now is that I want to do some stuff that I haven’t done yet,” he said. “It would be cool to do a fiction book and just have that out there. It would be cool to put a book out totally without a publisher. That’s how I’m measuring all of this stuff.”
“Also,” he slyly added, “I would like to be rich.”
“That’s always in the background. … I don’t want to make it sound like I’m not trying to get some money, because I absolutely, 100 percent am.”
Serrano’s frankness and humor has earned him a large social media following, with more than 300,000 Twitter followers, with whom he interacts almost constantly. He’s also known to encourage spontaneous acts of charity for causes and individuals in need.
He frequently stages giveaways of merchandise and other swag, like Spurs courtside seats. But he also has gone as far as sending his own money to people in dire circumstances, like when he paid a follower’s electricity bill or gave money to help with a mom’s move back to San Antonio.
In general, he says he loves Twitter because it helps him not to feel alone during long hours working and “it’s cool to celebrate stuff with people.”
Giving to people in need, even strangers, provides the same kind of fulfillment he found in nine years spent teaching, working with students and finding ways to motivate, empower, and inspire them.
“I really miss teaching … and one of the things I miss the most about teaching is that it allows you the chance every single day you go to work to do something good for another person,” he said.
For Serrano, the immediate and intimate feedback of being able to see when you’ve made a positive impact on a person is something teaching provided that writing does not.
“My work is cool,” he said, “but it’s missing a vital part of what I spent nine years doing.”
“The other part of it is that I am not poor anymore,” he said, “and I know exactly what it feels like to not have enough money, I know exactly what it feels like to spend your last several dollars on a thing and then just like cross your fingers and hope nothing happens until you get more dollars. I know what that feels like and I know that I am in a spot where it doesn’t have to be like that for me anymore and I can help other people that are in that.”
Serrano moved from Houston back to San Antonio with his family in July 2018. He expressed that he wanted to be closer to his parents and other family members and that “it just felt like it was time to go home.”
Since returning, Serrano, who has an office downtown, said that it feels great to be in a city where so many people look like him and his three kids, a city that he is proud to now be able to add value to, a city that’s home to his favorite sports team: the Spurs.