Friday, May 18, 2012

Meet Jenny Torres Sanchez

On Tuesday, May 22nd, a little book is being born called The Downside of Being Charlie.  Charlie is a rare gem of a novel because it tells the story of a boy who doesn't often find himself in teen lit.  He is not swoony, he is not a raging bad boy oozing layers of angsty sex appeal, and he is not anyone's hero - until the end where he is maybe his own.  The Downside of Being Charlie is a contemporary marvel by a debut ya author that knows what she is talking about because she served her time in the trenches as a high school teacher.  Today, Jenny Torres Sanchez shares with us her thoughts about Charlie, her journey to being a writer, and the 5 books that every teen should read.


What made you interest in becoming a writer? Why young adult?

In fourth grade, I wrote a short story for a creative writing contest. That's when I first become interested in writing and have been at it ever since.  And I write young adult for a couple of reasons. First, I think teenagers are incredibly honest about the world and those around them.  I like and respect that kind of honesty.  Second, adolescence is when you're trying to find your place in the world, trying to figure out how exactly you fit in and how you're going to go about life.  i find the complexity of that pretty compelling and think there are great stories to be told there.


Tell us about your journey in trying to find a publisher.  How long did it take? What steps did you take? (I ask this question for Cuyler, our teen reviewer who has written a novel he wants to try and have published.)

Well, I bought those big huge volumes of Writers Marketplace every couple of years since around 2002. See, I'd heard that if if you want to be a writer, you should go and get one of those.  They sat on my shelf and made me feel writerly, even though I wasn't seriously pursuing publication.  But every now and then I'd browse through them, and so I learned about things like queries and agents and the mysterious SASE. It all came in handy when I was actually ready to put in the time, and work, and effort into writing and becoming published.  So, in a weird way, it took years and years and years, and really from the moment I started writing. But specifically, from when I started querying agents to when my debut novel sold was about 9 months.

What does it feel like to see your first novel in print?

Weird. Strange. Cool. Surreal. Satisfying. Proud. 

Why Charlie? How did his character and his story come to you?

Charlie came about kind of quietly when I began this novel.  He was always the narrator, but at first he was actually narrating Taynya's story (a minor character in the novel who this book was originally about) but then, I started to get to know Charlies.  And I realized he had some pretty big issues he was dealing with and slowly, the story became more about what he was going through.

In the novel, Charlie's mom appears to have some type of mental health disorder.  How did you research what you would be like and how her actions would be authentic?

Charlie's mom isn't diagnosed in the novel with any particular mental health disorder because it was important to the story as a whole for Charlie and his family to not really acknowledge it or know what exactly they were dealing with.  I did some research on bipolar disorder and loosely based Charlie's mom on this, though I didn't say she had this specifically because I wanted the reader to experience the not knowing the way Charlie does.

Charlie himself develops bulimia and your description of his binging and purging episodes capture deep emotional resonance.  What steps did you take to make sure your expression of his eating issues were authentic? And why did you choose to make Charlie bulimic?

Well, I've struggled with body image and weight issues for a long as I can remember. And I was always kind of insecure as a teenager. I remember being about eight years old and thinking, okay, I can have this now, but I shouldn't eat for the next two days.  I actually thought that! I was never the skinny kid in class and even though I wasn't exactly overweight, I remember feeling large and uncomfortable in my own skin and just different than everyone else. So Charlie's eating issues stem from what I remember dealing with.

There's this part in the book, the first time he trhows up, where Charlie is just miserable.  And I remember while I was writing that, that he just wanted relief, even if it was temporary, of the pain he was dealing with, specifically his ever eating, generally his life, and suddenly I knew how Charlie was going to deal with all of it.  I know about bulimia, in the sense that it usually develops when someone feels a lack of control in their life and I realized that was Charlie.  And this was something he wanted - control.  In fact, this seemed the only thing he could control (even if that control is only an illusion).  And so, it just seemed this would be something Charlie would do.

I felt one of the things that you did exceptionally well in the story was to authentically depict the teenage life and times in all of its harrowing, messy glory.  You covered important topics such as eating disorders and bullying.  What message do you want teen readers to get from the life of Charlie?

I want teens to hope.  I want them to know that yes, life can be cruel, and unrelenting, and dark, and unfair - but there is hope. Ugh, that sounds so cheesy, but it's true.  There is incredible power in hope.  Hope is what motivates you and propels you out of the cruel, the unrelenting, the dark and unfair.

Charlie uses photography as a mean of self expression.  Why photography?  And do you do photography yourself or did you have to spend some time researching to learn a little bit about the topic for your book?

I've always liked photography and the whole idea of how much can be conveyed in a single snapshot. Photography is very similar to writing in that both tell a story, and I wanted Charlie to tell his story, so that's why I choose photography.  I do take pictures, but really, I'm just messing around hoping I'll by chance get a good shot.  I do like looking at the world through that square frame, though.  It seems different somehow.


Do you think that you will ever explore Charlie's life more? What do you feel like as a writer about your characters: do you become emotionally invested?  How does it feel when the work is done and the you the story arc that is Charlie's life?

I definitely become emotionally invested in my characters.  I think you learn a lot about yourself, and others, and the world when you are going through the toughest times, so I put my characters through tough times.  I think I've put Charlie through enough and I feel really good about where he's at when the story ends so I don't think I'll explore his life more.  In a way, I like leaving his future up to him, not me.  It's satisfying to see Charlie's development as a character and growth as a person.


Why the Rat Pack? I loved the uniqueness of Ahmed and that he stuck to his passion (Sammy Davis, Jr.) despite the fact that it would make him stand out in a world where fitting in is often the goal. And I have to say, I am glad that you put someone in Charlie's life who was a no exceptions will always be there kind of friend to Charlie.


I knew I wanted Ahmed to be the opposite of Charlie, and so I knew he needed to be a pretty confident and cool guy. But it also needed to make sense that he would be Charlie’s best friend.  The Rat Pack has always been revered as cool and smooth and so I figured I could make them Ahmed’s idols and the kind of guys he tries to be like.  The more I thought about and wrote Ahmed’s character this way, the more I realized it was a perfect fit.  This was a way for him to be cool, but still dorky and misunderstood by his peers, although in his eyes that’s only because he is too cool for even them. 

I know that you were a high school teacher and one of the characters in the book that helps Charlie is his photography teacher. What advice would you give to teachers and librarians working with teens?

In some way, big or small, let teens know you care.  And be genuine.  Even though teens may not show you it matters to them, it does.  It matters to everyone, really.

What were you like as a teenager? Who did you like to read?

Errrr . . . uh, I was a great teen—very well-adjusted, happy, and non-problematic. Really. *smiles nervously*

Actually, the ugly truth is I was insecurity, anger, sadness, and apathy cloaked in black clothes.  My mother repeatedly asked me if I was in a cult. I was anti-everything and had a huge chip on my shoulder. 

As far as reading, I just kind of read whatever I had to read in English class.  I have to give my senior AP English teacher credit here though, because we read Camus, Austen, Morrison, Dickinson, Plath and just some amazing, amazing literary works that really turned me on to reading and writing and thinking about literature in a whole different way.  Also, I liked any book that I thought fit into my image of being deep and tortured.   

As a writer, who are your inspirations?

A lot of people inspire me, from my family, to my ex-students, to the people I grew up with, to famous artists and their works.  As far as writers/poets who inspire me, there are too many to name them all, but at the top of the list, I’d say Junot Diaz, John Green, Pablo Neruda, Joan Didion, J.D Salinger, and Langston Hughes.

What's next for you as a writer? Do you want to continue in the young adult field?

There’s always the chance I’ll venture into something non-YA.  I think adventure is good.  But for now, I definitely see myself continuing in the YA field. I love writing for teens and that’s where my heart is.

What is the one piece of information or advice you want to leave with teens? What do you wish you had known as a teenager?

One piece of advice I’d like to give teens is to try to see beyond now. I get that it’s hard to realistically see beyond the now or even a few years from now, especially because sometimes the now sucks. But teens should know there’s so much beyond now. Try and look and believe in what’s beyond now.

What are five books - besides The Downside of Being Charlie - that every teen should read in your opinion?

Looking For Alaska by John Green (and I’m totally going to cheat here because any and all of John Green’s books are amazing reads every teen should read).
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
PleaseIgnore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

Have you met Charlie? Tell us what you think in the comments.

Before writing her debut novel, The Downside of Being Charlie, Jenny Torres Sanchez studied English at the University of Central Florida and taught high school for several years in the Orange County school system. Her students were some of the coolest, funniest, strangest, and most eclectic people she’s ever met. She’s grateful to have taught every single one of them and credits them for inspiring her to write YA. Jenny also writes short stories—many of which rooted in her Hispanic culture. She currently writes full-time and lives in Florida with her husband and children. You can visit her website at http://jennytorressanchez.com/ and find her on Twitter @jetchez.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview! A good list of suggested reads, too.

    I like the idea of the friend having interest in the Rat Pack. My cousin was into Clint Eastwood's westerns and Dirty Harry, which I thought was cool but also strange for a kid growing up in the 2000s. Classic figures seem like an interesting approach rather than current stars who might come off dated a few years down the line, but 40 or 50 years is enough distance to define as "retro."

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