Ashley Hope Perez is the author of What Can't Wait, a YA novel about Marisa Moreno, a seventeen year old girl, living in Houston whose parents are immigrants from Mexico. She is an excellent student, but her parents expect her to help her familia.(read my review here)
What'Can't Wait will hit bookstores in March 2011, but today Ashley Hope Perez is over here at MarjoleinBookBlog for an author interview, welcome Ashley!
What inspired you to write What Can’t Wait and what influences and experiences did you bring into the book?
My students at Chávez High School in Houston were my inspiration. (The book is dedicated to them, too.) We drove each other crazy, but a lot of them learned how to find books to love while in my English class, and they shared their lives and their hopes for the future with candidness I’ll never forget.
Most of all, they told me about the book they wanted to read but couldn’t find on the library shelves. When I tried to write it, they read my manuscript and told me what they thought.
During the book, I got huge respect for the hardworking but struggling Marisa. How did her character originate?
Marisa isn’t based on any specific student, but her story was shaped by a struggle I saw many of my talented and hard-working seniors encounter. Because I enjoyed a lot of parental support for education, I assumed going into Chávez that my students—whatever their background—would as well. For many of my kids, however, there was an unspoken cost for personal success: potential alienation from their families and peers, many of whom never left Houston or aspired to do so.
The usual path was (and is) for the “best” students to go to junior college or one of the Houston-based universities. Don’t get me wrong—my students will all tell you that I think everyone needs to go to “college,” but that what college—whether technical, community, or 4-year—depends on the individual. So I fully support my kids varied decisions. But I think it should be a decision—not just a default—to stay close to home. For many of my students, it was hard to figure out how to go about venturing beyond the city.
Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?
For me the journey to publication was just a long slog. I proceeded along the usual lines: write novel, query agents, have interest from agents, get rejected by agents, FINALLY get signed by agent, agent queries publishers, agent gets interest from editors, book gets rejected by editors, FINALLY we find a publisher. The rejection stage is always a little painful, but I am pretty resilient when it comes to criticism provided I’ve prepared myself. My agent, Steven Chudney, and my editor at Carolrhoda, Andrew Karre, have both been wonderful guides to me. Andrew is a wonderfully responsive editor who I feel really gets my books. This is a huge blessing, and I owe everything to Steven for finding Andrew for me.
Oh, back to your question, I did have one definite stumble: the first query letter I wrote was horribly unprofessional. I even did it on a butterfly letterhead. Ugh. Fortunately, I only sent it to one agent, who did not embarrass me but certainly could have.
A word of caution against sprints: I don’t think writing should be rushed. Or, rather: I don’t think revising should be rushed. I revised What Can’t Wait completely (not tweaking but really digging in) at least six times. I started a new document on my computer each time and reworked many things, from the point of view to chapter divisions to scenes.
Can you give us a view into a typical day in your writing life?
I’m sad to say that I very rarely have whole DAYS in which to write. I started writing What Can’t Wait while I was teaching high school full-time. I wrote my second novel (The Knife and the Butterfly) while teaching at a Montessori School and attending graduate school. Now I am working on a third novel whenever I can catch 15 minutes—which is whenever I’m not grading my college students’ writing, studying for my own PhD exams, and trying to make sure my 7-month-old little boy doesn’t ingest too much cat hair.
I will say that the most important thing in terms of accomplishing a project is to write (almost) every day, even if it’s for a short time. 15 minutes isn’t much, but it’s enough to keep your mind in the project, at least.
What did you read as a teen? Which authors inspired you the most? And which are your favorite books and authors now?
I am a compulsive reader; I read EVERYTHING and ANYTHING that comes into my reach.
I was a voracious reader from a very early age and read a lot of books I wasn’t really ready for. For example, I read Gone with the Wind in third grade with very little comprehension of the characters’ motivations. I loved reading Shel Silverstein’s poems with silly voices.
I devoured Jacob Have I Loved—and basically every other book by Katherine Paterson. I still remember a passage from her book about a girl working in a textile mill (Lyddie) where Lyddie pastes up pages from a book so she can memorize them while performing her monotonous labor. I adored all books involving children who had to be very independent early on or who have adventures without their parents knowing, as in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.
As a teen, I read a ton of Margaret Atwood. I don’t feel like the libraries in my town had a clear “YA” section. I think I read more YA now as an adult than I ever did as a teen. Mainly because I didn’t know about it. Now I read all kinds of things—picture books in Spanish with my son, classics in Spanish, French, and Portuguese for my grad program, lots of YA and contemporary fiction. I do much of my pleasure reading on audio book so that I can drive, take care of Liam, or exercise at the same time. I think audiobooks are the best thing. Ever.
Favorite reads from the past few years: Before I Die by Jenny Downham, Ball Don’t Lie by Matt de la Peña, and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.
What are you working on now, can we expect new books by you after the What Can’t Wait release?
After What Can’t Wait, look for The Knife and the Butterfly, also from Carolrhoda Lab, which should be out in 2012. It’s a bit darker and grittier than What Can’t Wait, but it’s also set in Houston. Currently, I am working on a third novel that is set in 1930s East Texas and centers on a major school disaster. That’s all I can say because I’m superstitious about discussing works in progress.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?
For whatever reason, to me “dream” suggests lack of commitment to making something a reality. I think it’s a hold-over from my high-school teaching days where I tended to push my students to translate dreams into realizable goals.
One of my goals for my writing is to make it sustainable—to keep engaging in new projects and developing them. Not to let myself get sidetracked by the busy-ness of everyday life.
Some dreams (in my sense of the word... something that would be nice but that I don’t feel responsible for bringing about) include: having my book produced in audio format, getting fan mail, and overhearing people in a coffee shop talking (favorably) about one of my books.
On March 1, seeing my book on a bookstore shelf will be a dream come true.
Speaking of dreams, my heart is more than a little broken that the Senate failed to pass the DREAM Act on December 18. This legislation had the potential to change the lives of many of my former students—and to put them in a position to have a positive role in this country. So disappointed. I blogged about the DREAM Act here (http://www.ashleyperez.com/blog/item/17-readers-should-support-the-dream-act) for those of you who don’t know about it.
Another writerly dream is to write just once for the New York Times Modern Love column. In Houston, my teacher friends and I had "family dinner" every Sunday night, and before heading off to all our grading and planning, we would read Modern Love to each other.
Many thanks Ashley!
For more about Ashley Hope Perez and What Can't Wait, visit Ashley's site here