“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their…well, Inspirations and Influences. The cool thing is that the writers are given free rein so they can go wild and write about anything they want. It can be about their new book, series or about their career as a whole.
Today’s guest is Ashley Hope Pérez, YA writer, author of What Can’t Wait which was just named to the ALA Best Fiction for YA list. Her second book, the wonderful The Knife and the Butterfly was released earlier this month and has been reviewed by Ana HERE. We were delighted to be invited to join the blog tour and suggested a piece for our Inspirations and Influences feature.
Here is what Ashley has to say:
Ashley Hope Pérez’s Inspirations and Influences (Okay, Mostly Inspirations)
I owe everything I have as a writer to my students. My influences are many and contradictory,* but they would be nothing but damp tinder if it weren’t for my students. Their inspiration was the spark that made me start writing.
It’s been almost five years since I left high-school teaching to go back to school myself, and my kiddos are still lighting new fires in me as a writer. Let me take you through a tour of all the ways my students inspired me as a writer (my debt to them for how they changed me as a person…that’s even bigger).
My students’ stories.
On paper and in person, my students told me about their lives, and to this day, bits and pieces of their experiences filter through in my writing all the time. Sometimes I’m writing a character’s reaction to something his friend says, and I realize, Chris Escobedo was the one who said that. Seventh period. 2005. Short guy with a sweet grin. Had a baby and worked all the time. Often, though, it’s more general than that, as with the many students who shared with me about how it would feel to be the first in their families to finish high school or to go to college.
My students’ reading.
Some of my most resistant students became avid and opinionated readers by the end of our time together. In the process of that transformation, we had many, many conversations about what spoke to them in the books they were reading—and what didn’t. To this day, when I sit down to write, I ask myself, what would get even my most reluctant readers to turn the page?
For my debut novel, What Can’t Wait, they told me straight out what they thought. Many of them read an early draft of the novel, and I had them draw a line across a page if they found their interest waning.
While writing The Knife and the Butterfly, I was still imagining my students’ reactions. They kept me revising until the plotting was as tight as I could make it, the pacing as compelling as possible. I had a few specific students that I pictured as my readers all throughout the process.
Now, as I work on my top-secret manuscript for novel #3, I ask myself, how do I write the historical novel that my students would devour (and that would keep them from even thinking twice about the boring sound of “historical”)?
My students’ stuff.
For the most part, it was the traces my students left behind in my heart that inspired me. Every once in a while, though, the physical objects they left behind in my classroom played a role.
I’ll never forget finding a note from one of my male students to his girlfriend (also a student) that was so sexually explicit I struggled to look her in the eye after reading it. The intense bravado and sexism of that letter was something I returned to as I wrote in Azael’s voice — especially before he gets so scared that his macho persona starts to slip away.
Another time, one of my students — one who was constantly writing and drawing on my desks — left behind his black book of designs for me to look at. Even though it didn’t change how I felt about him marking up my desks (or how often he had to clean them) it gave me a different perspective of his need to make a mark on the world around him. That’s something that definitely impacted how I portray Azael’s street art and tagging.
A less fun “artifact” from my teaching days was a virulently hostile message from a disgruntled student, a message that cut very, very deep and left me reeling for days and inspired this drawing of me being throttled.
I needed to encounter that hostility and suspicion, though, to later write Lexi’s journal entries believably.
My students’ absences.
I know, this sounds like the most bizarre source of inspiration EVER, but let me explain. It used to drive me crazy when my students—many of whom had very messy, difficult lives—just up and disappeared for stretches of time without notice. And sometimes they never came back; that was the worst. As a writer, though, a lot happened for me when I started to imagine the “why” behind those absences.
In fact, Azael—who is a high-school dropout—was inspired as much by the students I never taught as by the many I did teach. I couldn’t stop thinking about the middle-school students and freshmen who disappeared long before the senior English classes I taught.** Who were these students who fell between the cracks? Writing The Knife and the Butterfly gave me a chance to imagine one answer.
My students’ willingness to make ME work.
My students were the ones who convinced me to start writing a novel for them, and that novel became What Can’t Wait. Once I told them I was going to do it, they never expressed doubt that I would finish. I pushed them really, really hard in my class; they expected me to do the same for them. 200 teenagers waiting for you to practice what you preach—that’s what I call motivation. Even now, when I’m feeling lazy or tired and I don’t want to write, sometimes all I have to do is summon up the raised eyebrows of one class of students to scare me straight.
I still hear from former students quite often. They are all grown; many have families, some have already finished college, and a few are actually teaching in the same district where I once taught. (That really makes me feel old!) Even as I relish the adults they’ve become, I hold onto the memory of the teens they were—what they wanted, how they struggled, and what they taught me. I wouldn’t be writing novels today if it weren’t for their inspiration.
*I am a compulsive reader and a comparative literature PhD candidate. If you want a peek at just how much I read, check out this post.
**In Houston schools, the de facto dropout rate is an astonishing 50%. These dropouts get classified in lots of creative ways, but the reality is, out of a starting freshman class of about 1550 at the high school where I taught (which was typical) only around 800 actually graduated.
Thank you, Ashley!
And now, for the giveaway…
Courtesy of the author and the publisher, we are giving away a copy of The Knife and the Butterfly. The contest is open to ALL, and will run until Saturday February 11 at 11:59 (PST). In order to enter, just leave a comment here – why not share a favourite story about an inspiring teacher (or student)? Only one entry per person, please! Multiple entries will be disqualified. Good luck!