Ashley Hope Perez: Summer Blog Blast 2012

Ashley Hope Perez is one of those authors you can’t wait to meet in person. She’s got this intellectual side (PhD in Comparative Lit) that tells you she can go quite deep on a variety of topics but she’s also got this side that feels fun and easy to talk to. Even while suffering from a terrible stomach virus, Ashley’s been pulling it together enough to participate in the blog tour and to answer yet another question from yours truly!

I have read, but not reviewed The Knife and the Butterfly.For now, I’ll just say that if I were one to give ratings to

Click to read an excerpt.

books, this one would a be a 5 out of 5 gold stars. I hope to unpack my copy of the book this week so that I can get a review up in the next few days. I’ll let Ashley tell you about the book!

 The Knife and the Butterfly traces the fallout of a deadly gang fight in the lives of two teens, a Salvadoran-American boy and a white girl. There’s something of a mystery and a twist, but what’s most important is that The Knife and the Butterfly isn’t a stereotypical portrayal of gang life. The duality expressed in the title of the book is a key one for me because I wanted to show the characters’ world as 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 their vulnerability and potential for redemption.

Thanks, Ashley! So that we can all get to know you a little better, what were some of your favorite TV shows while you were growing up?

I wasn’t a HUGE T.V. fan, but I did have my shows… I remember watching “Captain Planet” while eating Lucky Charms (marshmallows, only) during the summers at my grandparents’. I also loved “Murder She Wrote” and had a colossal crush on the (already old!) Andy Griffith of “Matlock.” I think I faked illnesses a few times in elementary school just so I could stay home and see him come on at 10 a.m.

Your books are full of Spanish phrases, you were living in Paris… just how many languages do you speak? Do you read in them as well?

I think you should reverse the order of this question! I read more than I speak (properly). In order of proficiency: English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. I am also an excellent interpreter of my two-year-old’s special English-Spanish-French. We call it Liam-ese.

My dream city to live and work in is Paris. How did you like living there?

You’ve caught me just as we are moving back, so of course I am deep in the nostalgia phase. It wasn’tall roses from the start—certain very ordinary things were weirdly difficult, like getting a bank account—but we had a wonderful experience. Some highlights: touring the parks of Paris with Liam; becoming “regulars” at our neighborhood bakeries, butcher shops, and pizza take-out place; watching Liam discover three languages at once; the wine; the chocolate; the beautiful streets.

Did you get a chance to read any French children’s or teen books?

Not much in the way of teen books—I’ve been busy with my own reading, teaching, writing, and academic stuff—but I do read to Liam every night, and we took loads of French children’s books out of our local Paris library. Funny story: when we first got here, he INSISTED on his dad reading these books to him instead of me even though my French is better and he basically just pronounced everything as if it were Spanish. It took a while for us to figure out that Liam (who hadn’t yet started going to a French nursery school) liked Arnie’s reading for precisely that reason… I think he was secretly wondering, how did Mom forget how to speak Spanish? Now he’ll accept us both, though.

That is funny! I wonder what Liam’s French sounds like?!

You tackle some very tough issues in your books. Have you ever second guessed yourself as to whether you’ve taken things to far, or not far enough? Is it difficult to know when to draw the line?

I haven’t second-guessed myself much, although I am very surprised when people are offended (occasionally) by some of the content in What Can’t Wait, which I think of as the clean/safe book. I guess it’s all relative since The Knife and the Butterfly deals with kids who are in rougher situations.

I’ve also been blessed with an editor and a publisher who are very supportive of the edge in my books and who don’t try to dull it.

As for drawing a line, I don’t start with the issues, so the way they come up is more about the characters’ world. I just write what needs to be written; otherwise, a person will go crazy (and not the good kind) weighing the many possible reactions readers’ might have. I focus on my (former) students as my ideal readers and recognize that this choice may result in some casualties, especially among adults.

You once did a blog post about ‘the Other Ashley’, the Academic Ashley. How does she influence the YA Writer Ashley?

Hmmm. Mostly in that they are often fighting over the pen—and the limited time and attention available in a given day. But one blessing for me is that these two very different areas of my life mean that I can be juggling a couple of projects—one creative, several academic—and come “fresh” to each one even if I’m coming straight down from the other kind of work.

What I mean is that my “real” job keeps YA writing feeling fun, something I’ve chosen, which might not be the case if I were a work-at-home writer. Conversely, if I’m struggling with my current novel project, I can hide for a few days in an academic project and get my confidence back up.

You mention in your bio that if you weren’t a teacher you’d probably be a librarian (Yea!!). Is there a particular librarian who has influenced you?

So many! When I was a kid, I spent most of the summer in a small-town library in Overton, Texas, reading with my brother while my dad worked. In addition to the books, I remember loving the space—more room than our own house and special. Although I don’t remember her name, I still remember the librarian from that time. She had strawberry blond hair, big squarish glasses (the kind that have just come back into fashion), and a quick smile. I see her through a kind of Lifetime movie flashback haze filter, but I’m pretty sure if I ever designed my own guardian angel, she would look like that.

I also read that you’re working on a book set in the 1930s. What attracted you to this era?

It’s not so much the era as an event: a school explosion that occurred not far from where I grew up (and even closer to that Overton library). I also became interested in the experiences of Hispanic families in the East Texas oil fields. There MIGHT be an interracial romance in my current novel. Also some shoes that are important. And twins.

Hmm… I guess I’ll have to just be patient!

What have you learned from teaching?

More than I could tell you in a thousand interviews. Everything that matters to my writing. Much of what makes me who I am now. But, if I had to pick one lesson, it would be that it is always better to be human with students—and to allow them their humanity. I know colleagues who would recoil from this notion and call it an excuse magnet (any human exchange is especially taboo in the French system). Still, everything changed for me when I started sharing bits of my life with my students and, even more, when I started asking them what was really going on in their lives.

There wouldn’t be a What Can’t Wait or a The Knife and the Butterfly without these human exchanges.

You’ve mentioned your books have been inspired by your students. How did you get inside their world? How did you know when you had it right?

As I said, I asked questions and learned how to be a listener. I also shamelessly eavesdropped on conversations in the halls. I love doing research, so even when entering worlds that most of my students didn’t know—like Lexi’s and Azael’s in The Knife and the Butterfly—I had plenty of resources to draw on.

As for getting it right… for me, “right” is more about voice and how the language hits the ear. I know I can justify the circumstances in a scene, but if the dialogue feels forced, it still won’t work. I imagine my students’ facial expressions if I were to read them a page out loud. If there is any eye-rolling or laughter (aside from funny bits), I know I need to rewrite.

I have to thank Randa Abdel Fattah,  L. Divine and Ashley Hope Perez not only for giving me such a wonderful week of blogging but for being such good, caring writers!

Don’t forget today’s other Summer Blog tour posts.

Benjamin Alire Saenz – The Happy Nappy Bookseller

Jennifer Miller – Bildungsroman

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