young adult book reviews & more

Interview with Ashley Hope Pérez

How was the process of writing your second YA novel different from that of your debut novel?
The biggest difference was that, with What Can’t Wait, I saw my audience every day since I was still teaching high-school English when I was writing it. While I was writing The Knife and the Butterfly, I still thought about my former students all the time (and even emailed them), but they weren’t conveniently seated in my classroom.

The plotting of The Knife and the Butterfly is also more complex, since it moves back and forth between Azael’s present and his past. Then there’s Lexi’s part of the story... I had to learn how to handle all that gracefully. I hope I succeeded.

What sort of research did you have to do for The Knife and the Butterfly?
I read tons and tons on gang culture in general and MS-13 in particular. I also learned about canning culture (street art and tagging), especially in Houston. I researched other things as I was writing, like the differences between Mexican Spanish (what I’m most familiar with) and the Salvadoran Spanish that Azael’s older family members speak. Maybe my weirdest form of research was going out to the garage while my son was napping and shaking empty paint cans for an hour while trying to figure out how to describe the sound.

What was the most difficult scene for you to write, and why?
My biggest challenge was not a scene but a person: Lexi. At first, I really, really, really couldn’t stand her. But I had to find the place inside Lexi that was wounded—and the place inside her that was still willing to change.

One thing I did to get closer to Lexi was to give her some of my own flaws, like my sweet tooth and lack of self-control. And I started writing a journal in her voice (parts of which end up in the novel) to figure out what experiences shaped her into the person she had become.

What is the most interesting thing you learned while writing The Knife and the Butterfly? (This can be about yourself, about writing, or anything at all).
I got very wrapped up in the different styles of street art. There’s a great gallery of Houston street art on Flickr, for example, that I studied for hours. Of course I had noticed graffiti and spray-painted stuff in my environment while living in Houston, but I could never have told you the difference between a tag, a throw-up, and a piece. Nor would I have labeled myself a serious appreciator of street art. I’m still firmly in the camp of “Don’t Mess Up Other People’s Stuff,” but as I learned about canning, I came to understand what making a mark on the city’s face might mean to a teen like Azael.

What is the most rewarding part about being a young adult author?
Readers, readers, and readers! The truth is that I never even thought about writing YA until my high-school students rocked my world and made me want to give them a book. I still adore school visits because they give me a chance to talk to the people that my novels are for.

Don’t get me wrong: I love librarians, teachers, my mother-in-law, and my son’s godfathers. I hope that they’ll love the book and buy it for everyone they know. But if they don’t, that’s okay. Because my number-one concern is writing novels that ring true to teens, challenge them think hard about the world around them, and make them want to turn the pages.

You can meet some of my former students (who I still think about when I write) here: http://www.ashleyperez.com/blog/item/81-coming-home-to-my-first-readers

Ashley with one of her groups of seniors back in Houston in 2007.
Some of her former students are now teaching in the same district

If there was one thing you could change about The Knife and the Butterfly, what would it be?
I’m thrilled with the novel as it is, but there are tantalizing loose threads for me as a writer that I wouldn’t mind following (and maybe weaving into something new) someday. Whatever happened to Becca, for example? What stories does Eddie have to tell? What does the future hold for Lexi? Is there more to Azael’s story? I may be the author, but there are some things I don’t know (yet).

What are you working on next?
I’m knee-deep in a new novel. It’s set near where I grew up in East Texas, and it involves twins, a school explosion, and an interracial romance. That’s all I can say because I am really superstitious about discussing work in progress.

Speaking of: I agree with my fellow Carolrhoda Lab author that baby-book comparisons mostly fail, but… to me, the first draft is like that first week or two before a baby finds his or her true face. Nobody needs to be commenting (honestly) on appearances, right?

But you can comment all you want on The Knife and the Butterfly. And I hope you will! My family and I are in Paris until May, but there are lots of ways to shout across the pond. Talk to me here, find me (and my blog) at www.ashleyperez.com, follow me on twitter (@ashleyhopeperez), or hunt down my author page on facebook.

And thanks so much for inviting me to be munched, Rachael!

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