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.
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.
As a writer, who are your inspirations?
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?
What are five books – besides The Downside of Being Charlie – that every teen should read in your opinion?
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.