Today, we're joined by Ashley Hope Perez on her blog tour for her latest YA, OUT OF DARKNESS. I adore historical YAs, and jumped at the chance to read OUT OF DARKNESS as an ARC. It didn't disappoint. Utterly gripping and thought-provoking and beautifully written. I also jumped at the chance to talk to Ashley about her work...
HOLLY SCHINDLER: I was unfamiliar with the horrific event of 1937—I read up on it a bit before diving into your book. Where did you first learn of the New London school explosion? Why did you feel compelled to write about it?
ASHLEY HOPE PEREZ: I grew up about twenty minutes from New London, and on a drive once my dad pointed out the site of the school where a natural gas explosion killed almost three hundred children in 1937. I never heard about it in school, though, and I always had the impression that it was something you weren’t supposed to talk about in public.
Even with what little I knew, I always thought the explosion would make a compelling backdrop for a novel. After I finished I began making trips back to East Texas to do research. One thing I noticed was that accounts of the explosion focused exclusively on how it affected the white community. There was no mention of how the event impacted the African American community, whose children were spared precisely because they’d been excluded from the white school, which had remarkable opportunities for the time thanks to oil money. I also came across a student killed in the explosion who may well have been Mexican-American. Whereas areas with large Latino populations often segregated children into hugely substandard “Mexican” schools, in New London there were only white and “colored” schools, so a Hispanic child could well have attended the white school. ,
These considerations and discoveries were what led me to develop a plot that centers on an African American boy and a Mexican American girl who has recently arrived from San Antonio. When I started writing, I knew that the explosion would affect the lives of my characters, but I didn’t know exactly how. The answer to that question came from learning more about my characters, their pasts, their secrets, and what they want.
HS: Are you a fan of historical fiction? What are your own favorite historic reads?
AHP: I do enjoy fiction that engages with historical subjects, especially when it captures aspects of experience that are often overlooked in history with a capital “H”—the history written by white folks, the history of the victors, etc. Among YA novels marketed as historical, my absolute favorites are Markus Zusak’s and Elizabeth Wein’s Both are deeply affecting and also brilliantly plotted and styled. I also enjoy adult fiction dealing with history. (Can you tell the term “historical fiction” is not my favorite? It just sounds so stuffy!) Some favorites are Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s . Arundhati Roy’s , and Dennis LeHane’s ,.
HS: It seems as though we’re getting some really meaty subjects in YA lately—more than ever before, judging by my current reading list. Do you also feel that’s true? Or do you feel YA has always braved the tough topics?
AHP: I think that there have always been brave books, but in the past decade or so there has been an increased license among YA authors to take on whatever subjects are weighing on our hearts, even if those subjects lead to hand-wringing by the likes of Meghan Cox Gurdon. (Gurdon wrote an editorial in a few years ago lamenting the “darkness” of YA. My response is here ). With all my books, I’ve been fortunate to work with an editor (Andrew Karre) and a publisher (Carolrhoda Lab) that welcome boundary-pushing works. That openness characterized Andrew from the beginning of his career, and in my experiences with him over the past three novels, he has only become more responsive to new directions, especially when they challenge prevailing notions of what belongs in YA.
HS: I’ve also been noticing current, trending topics being addressed in YA through either our dystopic reads or through historical fiction. Why do you think we take current events out of our own time in order to discuss them? Did it allow for a different kind of movement for your characters?
AHP: I have definitely heard from a number of people that is “more relevant than ever” in light of the growing attention to the disproportionate use of force against the black community. Still, as I mentioned, my focus in writing was not so much on current events as on recuperating experiences at the margins of the mainstream historical record. The details of the explosion are factual, and although I made everything else up, most of the things that happen—especially the darker turns in the plot—are consistent with events in Texas and other parts of the South. As far as relevance to contemporary events, I think there’s a relationship between attention to the past and engagement with the current contours of our society. For example, we have to examine the roots of racism in the past to have meaningful conversations about its current, ugly manifestations.
HS: Why did you choose YA? The school explosion certainly lent itself toward having young characters, but the tone of the book could have also been adult (the era in which the book takes place also provides for a somewhat “older” sounding prose). Did you ever consider going adult with this one?
AHP: My agent and I had several talks about whether we should take e adult or YA market. In the end, a couple of factors decided the matter for me. First, I’m very passionate about offering my best work to adolescent readers. As I was writing to thI sometimes made decisions based on what I thought would give my former high school students entry points into thinking about the past. My students were very much on my mind, too, when I wrote , and .
The other big factor was my relationship with my editor, Andrew Karre (formerly executive editor at Carolrhoda Lab, now at Dutton). My agent and I decided to send the book to Andrew first, and the conversations he and I had about how to develop the manuscript convinced me that he was the one who would help me make the book into what it wanted to be. For those who are curious about what it was like to work with him on , we did a conversation about the process here
HS: How do you write? Plotter or pantser? Keyboard or notebook? Special software? Music or quiet?
AHP: Although I almost always prefer quiet (music stresses me out, I don’t think I reside solely at either end of the plotter-panser continuum. For me, it all depends on where I am in the process. I spend a loooong time feeling my way into a story, and during that phase, I have no plot. I start with a few landmarks in the emotional landscape of my characters, some sense of voice, and maybe a few notions about possible events and experiences that might be part of the story. After that, I do a lot of research to ground the world of my characters. Sometimes that’s historical research, as in . But it can also be about entering cultural spaces that I don’t know intimately, like the world of a homeless Salvadoran American teen who’s passionate about street art, as in . I write between notebooks and scrapbooks and my laptop, where I use Scrivener until I send a book out. Scrivener has proven to be a very good fit for how my brain works—I almost never write in order but rather end up drafting bits and pieces from all over the story. Outlining comes after I have a good chunk of material, and I still do cut and paste work by hand to organize the pieces.
HS: As a former literature major myself, I was drawn to the fact in your bio that you teach world lit. If I were to enroll in your class, what would I be reading?
AHP: It all depends on which of my classes you enroll in! Last semester, I created a film and literature course on global youth narratives. In addition to watching a lot of fabulous films, we read graphic novels ( and ), , and Nick Lake’s , which explores contemporary experiences in Haiti’s Cité Soleil (a virtually inescapable slum of over 300,000 people) and links them in a fascinating way to the Haitian revolution. In my Love in World Literature class, I teach everything from “The Curious Impertinent” (one of the novellas embedded in Cervantes’s to ) by Edwidge Danticat and Manuel Puig’s . I’ve also taught classes on Caribbean women writers (reading list here), vampire literature, and the Bible as literature.
HS: I taught English at the collegiate level and know what a struggle it can be to draw in students who are in the class because they have to be. How do you approach reading and writing with students who are reluctant (or just plain uninterested)?
AHP: Well, before I taught college literature courses, I spent three years teaching high school English—everything from remedial courses to AP lit—to an underserved community in Houston. It took me a while to figure out how to help my students succeed and connect with literature, but by the end of my first year, I’d learned that engaging disenfranchised students depended on forging personal relationships, listening, and maintaining very high expectations for everyone, especially kids who were pregnant, formerly incarcerated, or otherwise marked by the educational community as “at risk.” Most of my students fit into that category in one way or another, and they were all amazing individuals. I wrote with my students’ stories and feedback in mind; the first draft was my graduation gift to my students, who were all seniors during my final year of teaching in Houston. was sparked in part by my questions about what happened to the students who never made it to my senior English class. (For those who don’t know, the de facto drop-out rate in Houston is nearly 50%.)
Because I had that high school teaching experience first, engaging college students has never been that difficult to me, with the exception of a couple of enormous college classes I taught in Paris a few years ago. Even then, I enjoyed the challenge. I find that my teaching—whatever the level—is most effective when I engage with my students as human beings and shed the “expert” role to become, instead, a participant in our shared reading and writing experiences.
How does teaching influence your writing—especially your depiction of school settings?
I think the influence is most evident in which is essentially set in the Houston high school where I taught. My students were invaluable in helping me create a setting that captured their world and characters who reflected their experiences. They were also always ready with a smirking, “No way, miss,” when my dialogue or slang was off. ,
How in the world are you balancing writing, teaching, and motherhood? What’s next for you?
I have tremendous family support to thank for the balancing act. My husband is also an academic, and although his passions lie more in things mathematical, he understands how important the writing is to me. He’s a great partner and a fantastic dad who’s always willing to take the kids so that I can get some writing done. Also, although we don’t live near any family members, but my mom recently retired from her law practice, she often flies up from Texas to help us out.
I feel all my work benefit from the intersections between teaching, doing academic research, and writing fiction. I know it sounds a little exhausting, but getting to work in these different areas actually energizes me. I think I’d be a bit paralyzed if I woke up each morning to an unstructured day with nothing but time to write. All the other responsibilities help me see my fiction writing time as a treat. I know if I waste it, I won’t get another chance until the next day. That’s good motivation to get in gear.
In the past few months, I’ve begun easing my way into a new novel project, feeling my way around. I don't like to talk about work in project too much, but I can say that it’s set in the Midwest and represents new territory for me on a couple of fronts.
Also: thank you so much for having me on YA Outside the Lines. It’s been great to talk shop!
In addition to Out of Darkness (September 2015), Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of two other YA novels: and . has earned starred reviews from nd a , and both and The Knife and the Butterfly appear on ALA reading lists. Ashley is currently a visiting assistant professor of comparative studies at The Ohio State University and teaches topics from global youth narratives to Latin American and Latina/o fiction. She lives in Ohio with her husband, Arnulfo, and their sons, Liam Miguel and Ethan Andrés. Visit her online at http://www.ashleyperez.com/.
New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them.
"No Negroes, Mexicans, or dogs."
They know the people who enforce them.
"They all decided they'd ride out in their sheets and pay Blue a visit."
GIVEAWAY: One lucky winner will receive a copy of Ashley's moving OUT OF DARKNESS. Enter using the form below.