A Q&A with Ashley Hope Pérez, Author of “The Knife and the Butterfly”

recentheadshotashleyperez1Inspired by her teaching experience at Chávez High School in Houston, English alumna Ashley Hope Pérez writes about disadvantaged teens struggling to meet their obligations at home and follow their dreams. However her newest book “The Knife and the Butterfly” (Carolrhoda, Feb. 2011) is about the students she didn’t get to teach, the ones who slipped through the cracks in the system or dropped out of school.

The protagonist, Salvadoran Martín “Azael” Arevalo is one of those fallen students. The story unfolds when Azael wakes up in a locked cell after a gang fight in a Houston park. Unable to piece together the events that landed him behind bars, yet again, he realizes that something is not right.

Things get really weird when he’s assigned to secretly observe another imprisoned teen named Alexis “Lexi” Allen. Despite their personality clash, the two troubled teens soon find themselves inexplicably linked in this gritty paranormal thrill ride.

This up-and-coming young adult author was kind enough to chat with ShelfLife@Texas about how she learned the inner workings of street gangs, the connection between teens and the paranormal, and how she surprised herself with a twist ending.

How did you come up with the title “The Knife and the Butterfly”?

Massive confession: the series of articles that initially inspired the novel—run by The Houston Chronicle back in 2006—was titled “The Butterfly and the Knife.” Luckily for me, 12306694there’s no copyright on titles! I switched the order of the knife and the butterfly in the title after an astute reader pointed out that male readers would be more likely to pick up a book with a title that begins with “knife” rather than “butterfly.”

The duality expressed in the title was a focusing one for me as I wrote. As I say in my author’s note for the novel, I wanted to show Azael and Lexi’s world as much more than a patchwork of crime and violence. In addition to the very real threat of their circumstances and the danger of poor choices, I tried to capture these two teens’ vulnerability and their potential for redemption.

What made you decide to dabble in the realm of paranormal fiction?

It wasn’t as simple as a decision, exactly. Yes, there is a “paranormal twist” to “The Knife and the Butterfly,” but much of the novel (say 90 percent) is occupied with the gritty world Lexi and Azael live in on the fringe of mainstream society in Houston. The paranormal was a bit of a surprise to me, too.

That is to say, I didn’t set out to incorporate paranormal elements in my novel; they became necessary for me to change the rules of my characters’ world just enough so that they could make different decisions… so they could have the second chances that are built into the system for many middle-class teens.

You mentioned that you even surprised yourself with the twist at the end. How did this come about?

The ending developed unexpectedly out of exploratory writing I was doing about Azael’s street art. This whole thread—Azael and his relationship to spray paint and the walls of his city—was a challenge for me. I am very much a rule follower, so it took me a lot of effort to rethink graffiti as “street art” and to come to understand what it meant to Azael to write right on the faces of the structures around him.

Anyway, I was writing about Azael’s thoughts as he was drawing, and then all of sudden I was writing the ending. And once it was there on the page—and I knew it was the ending—it was the only possibility that felt right to me. It went through plenty of revision and development, but the thrust of the final part of the book didn’t change. I embraced it with its paranormal baggage.

Why do you think young readers are so enthralled by the paranormal?

You’d think I’d have an ironclad thesis after teaching a course on vampire literature for two semesters, but to be honest, I’m not sure. Within YA, I tend to shelve myself alongside contemporary realists, not fantasy writers. Still, if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say the paranormal provides novel ways of thinking through and dramatizing teen (and human) issues. In fact, one of my favorite student papers interpreted one vampire in literature as an eternal adolescent.

How did you familiarize yourself with inner-city gangs?

Because Crazy Crew is a “home-grown” Houston gang, details related to it came mostly from news coverage and other local sources. MS-13 (La Mara Salvatrucha), on the other hand, is an international gang that has been described by some as “the world’s most dangerous gang.” I did extensive reading about MS-13, including many first-person accounts, but I focused on the particulars of the gang’s activity in Houston, which are generally not quite as extreme as what you might see in the heart of Central America.

For both gangs, I needed to learn specifics: their hand signs, the “rules” of initiation and involvement, linguistic patterns and so on. I would never want to trivialize or glamorize gang involvement, but at the same time I think some media portrayals are a bit exaggerated and fail to capture the nuances of actual teens’ experiences. For example, readers will notice that—contrary to most Hollywood portrayals of gang violence—there’s not a single gun involved in the fight that opens “The Knife and the Butterfly.” This is pretty consistent with the two gangs portrayed. I’ve found that when I ground my writing in particulars, a lot of stereotypes fall away.

The story is primarily narrated from the point of view of Azael. How were you able to capture the language of a poor teenage gang member in Houston?

You found a very nice way to ask something that some teen readers, upon meeting me, put a lot more bluntly: “How did YOU write THIS?” They pick up immediately on the fact that I am not someone who, in conversation, would describe a package of Cheetos as “spicy-as-f**k” (Azael’s words). How, then, can such words come out of my pen?

A lot of it was shameless cribbing from what I heard kids in Houston say, both in the hallways of the high school where I used to teach and in the taquerías and hangouts of working-class neighborhoods. I spent a good amount of time in the areas where the novel is set (mainly the Montrose area and a run-down stretch of Bellfort). I also paid attention to the language used in the interviews I read and would sometimes mimic patterns of phrasing.

Now, in terms of emotional truth in Azael’s language, I chalk that up to a willingness to imagine experiences and ways of seeing that are unlike my own. I recently heard Lionel Shriver talk here in Paris, and she said that for her, writing from a male point of view is not the big leap; the big leap is getting inside another head, period, and discovering those individual particularities, the quirks of mind inside the many big things we have in common. I agree, and I think you could substitute “poor” and “gang member” for “male” and still find the notion to be true.

What message do you hope your readers will take away from this book?

I’d love readers to leave the pages of “The Knife and the Butterfly” with a sense that second chances aren’t doled out equally. And I hope that they will feel a bit more urgency about being a positive presence for those who, as far as they had thought before, don’t even deserve to be redeemed.

What are you working on now?

I’m knee-deep in a very messy first draft of a historical novel set in 1930s East Texas, near where I grew up. There’s an explosion, an interracial romance, a pair of twins, and a significant shoe. That’s all I can say without transgressing certain foolish writerly superstitions.

About the author: During her time at The University of Texas at Austin, Perez won several writing awards including a $5,000 George H. Mitchell award for her essay on Anne Sexton. She went on to teach high school English in Houston – sending a number of students back to The University of Texas at Austin. She is now finishing a doctorate in comparative literature at Indiana University and teaching English in Paris. She also teaches undergraduate courses for her department, including literature about vampires and a course on women writers of the Caribbean. Her first young adult novel, “What Can’t Wait,” is also inspired by her Houston high school students.

A Q&A with Ashley Hope Pérez, Author of “What Can’t Wait”

authorOn the brink of graduating high school, Marisa must make some tough decisions. Should she stay close to her family, marry a nice boy and get a job at the local grocery store? Or should she go off to college to study engineering at The University of Texas at Austin? Caught at the crossroads, Marisa must decide whether she has what it takes to break free and follow her dreams.

Inspired by her teaching experience at Chávez High School in Houston – where many of WCWstackher students faced similar challenges – English alumna Ashely Hope Pérez tells the story of Marisa’s struggle in her debut young adult (YA) novel “What Can’t Wait” (Carolrhoda Books, 2011). She was kind enough to chat with ShelfLife about her passion for teaching, tips for aspiring novelists, her vampire literature class, and what’s up next!

Tell us about yourself. Have you always dreamed of becoming a writer?

Right now, in addition to writing, my jobs include LOTS of reading for my Ph.D. exams in comparative literature this May, being mom to an active 9-month-old little boy, teaching a course on women writers of the Caribbean, and getting the word out about “What Can’t Wait” my new YA novel. Past lives include work as a bilingual literacy tutor and Montessori teacher and several years teaching high-school English in southeast Houston. I also love to exercise and bake cookies, hobbies that cancel each other out and make me happy.

Writing has always been part of my life in important ways, but I used to get paralyzed by a fear of inadequacy and a worry that I’d never be able to write again. I only began to think of myself as an author once I started writing for teens, and I attribute the successful completion of two novels, “What Can’t Wait” plus my next novel, also coming out with Carolrhoda Lab to the fact that my students gave me a sense of urgency about writing that was more powerful than my fears.

What inspired you to write about a teenage girl struggling to carve her own path in life while dealing with a family that expects her to stay close to home?

My students, my students, my students. Marisa isn’t based on any one student, but so many of the circumstances my students faced influenced the world Marisa finds herself in. I wanted to show that, for many teens, using education as a means of advancement also requires tough decisions and scary compromises. Teens like Marisa (and many of my students) deserve lots of credit for having the courage to find ways to maintain connection to family while nevertheless forging their own path. I wanted to honor this reality with my book, which is why it’s dedicated to my Chávez students.

How have your students responded to this book?

From the beginning, they were my biggest supporters and my first readers. One student wrote me an amazing letter (which I still have) telling me how important the book was to him — and that it was one of two books he read from start to finish. Reading that letter, I knew that my book had found a reader for whom it mattered and that — if I persisted — it could find many more.

When I write, I still think of my students, and having a clear sense of audience is a huge help to me. It’s one of the things I like best about writing YA literature.

What do you hope your readers will take away from this story?

Oh, so many things. That you can live your own life without forgetting to take care of the people you love. That you can’t be your best self for others if you aren’t taking care of your dreams. That keeping promises — especially to yourself — is really hard work. That family can be a surprising ally. That it’s always scary to step out into the unknown, but sometimes it’s worth it.

Not only are you an author – you’re also a grad student, a teacher and a parent. That’s quite a heavy load! How do you find time to write?

The truth is that sometimes I don’t have much time at all. But I’m a firm believer that whatever writing we do — no matter how paltry it seems — is better than what we don’t do. So instead of saying, “I can’t get anything done in fifteen minutes,” I focus on how much I can get done in fifteen minutes. Sometimes the time constraint functions like a pressure cooker, and I feel like I get more real work done than when I have a bigger block of time, but feel less of a sense of urgency. Oh, and I also have a very supportive husband who loves to play with his son. That helps a lot.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading La Vie mode d’emploi (“Life: A User’s Manual”) by Georges Perec. This is a wild novel full of crazy catalogs of items, descriptions of paintings, and digressions that nevertheless make me want to slow down and savor the minutia of being human. Lots of times when I’m reading, I’m trying to figure out how I could do what the writer is doing, but this is one of those books I just have to stand back and admire. Haruki Murakami has the same effect on me. What I mean is that Perec’s work is so different from my own on every level that when I think about what it must have felt to write it, it’s like imagining being Martian.

Perec was a member of OULIPO, a French literary association founded around the idea of using constraints to facilitate creativity. You might have heard of him as the writer who composed an entire novel without using the letter “e” (La Disparition, translated as “A Void”). Reading La Vie does tempt me to try using some kind of constraint — although not as extreme as cutting a letter — to generate a first draft. Just as a lark.

What’s the most important piece of advice you could give an aspiring writer?

Recognize that writing well is a process, and develop your own strategies for moving a piece forward. That is, don’t expect the writing to be done after a couple of drafts, but also be strategic about how you rewrite. When you think you’ve done everything you can to improve your writing, put away your manuscript for a while. Check out a great book with writing exercises or strategies for revision, do some practice, and then dig back into your manuscript. Go to a conference. Join a writer’s group. For me, the most important part of writing is rewriting.

The best revision tip I ever got is this: every time you do a major revision, retype the whole work rather than going back into the old file. I know it sounds too simple (or crazy) to be effective, but I can say from experience that it helps me get back “in” the narrative and helps me to resist the urge to tinker without accomplishing any real revisions.

I couldn’t help but notice you teach a vampire literature class. Would you ever consider infusing vampires into a future young adult book?

I actually designed the vampire lit class in response to the interest expressed by students. Before teaching it, I had read little beyond “Dracula.” Together, my students and I developed key concepts for understanding the evolution of the vampire in literature and how writers use the vampire to explore varied concerns. This was a thrilling intellectual project (and so fun that I taught the class twice), but I don’t anticipate any vampires appearing in my novels any time soon. It’s not that I’m uninterested in pushing the envelope beyond the purely realistic, but the vampire figure is so weighted with expectations on the part of the reader that I would feel overwhelmed just thinking about where to position my character with respect to the tradition.

Could you give us a sneak peak into what you’re working on now?

I’m knee-deep in revisions of my second YA novel “The Knife and the Butterfly,” which is coming out with Carolrhoda Lab in 2012. The book follows two teens through the aftermath of a deadly gang fight. There’s Lexi, a troubled girl from a working class background who hangs with a street gang for protection. And there’s Azael, a romantic drifter essentially orphaned by his mom’s death and his father’s deportation to El Salvador. The truth about what happened connects them in a surprising but powerful way.

I also have a third novel idea simmering on a back burner, but I’m a little superstitious and don’t like to “spend” writing ideas before I get a handle on them. Check back with me in another year and I’ll be ready to talk about it!