Some places come into your life, others for a season. These places give us different lessons and memories that often come back to haunt us in one way or another. Will the ghosts of Indiana end up in any of Ashley Hope Perez’s books? Who knows! Perhaps she was too busy during with school work during her time here that she didn’t get to experience Hoosier Hospitality to its fullest. Somehow, I doubt that. As you read through Ashley’s interview, you’ll realize that she engages with people, landscapes and histories. She wasn’t in Indiana very long, but long enough to claim her as an Indiana author. Her books bring the Latino experience to young adult literature. Her books include The Knife and the Butterfly (February 2012) and What Can’t Wait (2011), both from CarolRhoda Lab. Out of Darkness (CarolRhoda Lab) will be out in 2015.
Where did you grow up?
In Kilgore, Texas, which is about two hours east of Dallas and about an hour west of the Louisiana border. It’s an area known for friendly people, lots of churches, and miles and miles of pine trees. Also for its oil fields. My third novel, Out of Darkness, is the first I’ve ever set near where I grew up, and I suppose the seed for it came when I was a little kid. My dad would sometimes take my brother and me on veterinary calls, and I remember him pointing out the place in New London, Texas, where a school exploded killing almost two hundred children in 1937. That historical event is central to the story of Out of Darkness, although I made almost everything else up.
What were some of the first books you found as a child that turned you into a reader?
I was an early and eager reader, so I can’t really remember a time before I loved books. My older brother and I spent most of our summer mornings at the library near my dad’s clinic. Some of my childhood favorites include the original The Boxcar Children novel and Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family stories, which are about a large Jewish family with many daughters. Even after I “graduated” to longer books, I still enjoyed lingering over the beautiful illustrations in Ezra Jack Keats books, and I remember being fascinated and a little scared by Chris Van Allsburg’s books, many of which didn’t have any words at all. One of my favorite things about being a mom is rediscovering the world of picture books. My son’s favorite lately is The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez by René Colato Laínez. El Ratón Pérez is the mouse that collects teeth (like the tooth fairy) in Mexico and many other Latin American countries. Besides the obvious appeal of seeing his own last name on the cover and sharing a middle name (Miguel) with the boy in the book, my son loved the beautiful illustrations and humor of the story.
Meat or vegetables?
Both! I was mostly vegetarian until I was pregnant with my son, but something changed then. Now I have come to enjoy pulled pork, bacon, and carne asada on occasion. I’m still perfectly happy to eat vegetarian most of the time, though, and roasted kale and sweet potatoes are ridiculously close to chocolate on my comfort food list.
Which famous person would you most like to have write a review for your book?
Hmmm… there are some famous people I’d love to have read my books (hi, Oprah!), but I’ve never thought about picking a reviewer.
What three things would you like to add to a list of national treasures?
I’d start with oral histories from “ordinary” black and Latino Texans prior to the Civil Rights Era. I’d also want to preserve gospel and folk music. I got a little silly in the post office recently when I discovered a new postage stamp featuring Lydia Mendoza, a San Antonio music legend who was gaining popularity around the time when my main character in Out of Darkness moves with her twin brother and sister from San Antonio to East Texas.
What book(s) are you currently in the middle of reading?
I am one of those people who always has a few books going at any given time. I just started re-reading The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy, which has long been a favorite of mine. I’m also reading Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian, and a collection of stories by David James Poissant.
How did your writing career begin?
I was fortunate to have several professors encourage me during my college years, but I became a writer because I found my audience. This happened when I started teaching English and ESL at Chávez High School in Houston. Besides meeting all the standards and getting my students ready to have a serious chance at completing college, I wanted them to discover the pleasure of reading, a notion that was pretty foreign to most of my students. As my kids told me about what did or didn’t engage them, I learned that many of them felt “their story” was missing from the library shelves. My first novel, What Can’t Wait, incorporates many of the stories they shared with me, and I finished the first draft just in time to give it to my last group of students (all seniors) for graduation. My students were my first readers, and their excitement still tops every success I’ve had since.
How do you hope your writing engages young people?
I come at the idea of engagement from two main directions. First, I strive for authenticity, a goal that’s especially important when exploring experiences that have largely been relegated to the sidelines of literature. When describing immigrant family life or gang culture, for example, that means walking the none-too-clear line between realism and what might seem like stereotype. I want readers who recognize the world of one of my books to find that how I portray that world rings true. Second, I think about how I can invite all readers into the book, even (or especially) if their life is completely different. That’s been crucial to my efforts to write a novel set in the past. It matters to me that it be gripping to contemporary readers from all backgrounds.
Out of Darkness is due next year from Carolrhoda Lab. You wrote it while completing your PhD. Any tips on time management?
Be sure to sleep. It sounds obvious, but often when we’re overtaxed, we think that stealing hours from sleep will help us get more done. In the end, it only sabotages the next day’s productivity. Also, map out goals week by week and month by month. I also make a semester plan and a five-year plan. Although achieving a goal often takes longer than we expect, putting it down on paper brings us a smidge closer to making the daily choices that will turn the goal into a reality.
Why did you write Out of Darkness? What story did you want to tell?
I already mentioned the school explosion, which is central to the novel. But it’s about much more. At the heart of the novel are questions about who can love whom and how and where certain kinds of love are possible. Quite a bit has been written about interracial romances between white and black characters—Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez offers a fascinating and original take—but there is very little exploration of relationships between black and Latina/o characters during the Jim Crow era. That was one story I wanted to tell, and I also wanted to incorporate glimpses into the tripartite segregation system present in Texas, a system that separated children into white, “colored,” and “Mexican” schools. Hard things happened during these times, and some people would prefer for the sins of the past to remain hidden. It’s a protective impulse, but ultimately we have to face what our community has been if we are to have any hope of forging something better in the future. That said, I hope that my tenderness toward East Texas comes through in the novel.
There are a few weeks of summer left. I hope you’re able to relax and enjoy them! Thanks!