Welcome to the Morris Finalist Blog Tour, featuring the outstanding 2015 debut authors and their books! In December, YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association, of the American Library Association) announces the list of finalists, and we learn of the winner as part of the eagerly watched Youth Media Awards press conference on the Monday of ALA’s Midwinter Conference. The William C. Morris YA Debut Award was established in 2009 to honor the longtime Marketing Director at HarperCollins who helped to make YA literature the widely read and respected genre that it has become. The award “honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens…celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature.”
I am thrilled and honored to host an interview with Morris finalist Isabel Quintero, author of the acclaimed Gabi, a Girl in Pieces, which, among other accolades, has also been named a finalist for the Cybils Award in YA Fiction. I was on the first round panel and had the privilege of writing the annotation for Gabi. I wrote,
“Every time I go out with a guy, my mom says, ‘Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas.’ Eyes open, legs closed” – advice Gabi’s mom didn’t exactly follow. Mom also wants her to lose weight, but in Gabi’s tough life, food is comfort and she wants to be comfortable with who she is – a gordita who discovers her voice in poetry and in standing tall for her friends. And that voice…it’s funny, sardonic, passionate, honest, sad, wise beyond Gabi’s 16 years but also achingly real. When it comes to boys, Gabi’s eyes are wide open, but she’s vulnerable, too, with a heart the size of California and Mexico combined. Follow this journal of Gabi’s unforgettable senior year and she will become your best book friend forever.
- Gabi, A Girl in Pieces doesn’t follow the traditional novel format but rather chronicles a year in Gabi’s life in the form of a diary. Why did you choose this diary format?
The diary format ultimately seemed like the best way for Gabi to tell her story. Initially the book was a novel in verse and then when I was rewriting it I was trying to find a different form. I tried traditional novel format, but it felt too forced. At the time, I was reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and thought, “If only I could write like this. If the diary could work for Gabi.” I had some misgivings but my friend Cindy Rinne (no relation to Gabi’s best friend) urged me to give it a try. I started a few chapters that way and then Gabi wouldn’t shut up.
- You incorporate a lot of other formats into the novel—mainly the diary but also poetry, a graphic novel, and the stage play. Were those a part of your original draft, or did you bring them in later?
The poetry and the zine were part of the original draft, and I always intended for it to be a mix of genres. I had wanted more illustrations in the book but had a difficult time incorporating them. Gabi is less visual artist than she is a poet. It’s interesting that you point out the stage play because I didn’t realize that was what I had done. I was trying to do more than, “he said and then I said,” and having a “script” makes sense because nothing is going by the script parents and society have written for these teens.
- How much of your own experience as a teenager did you bring into Gabi?
A lot. As I’ve said before, Gabi and I are a lot alike, though she is definitely braver than I ever was at that age. One of things that I’ve read in some reviews on Goodreads (I don’t usually read them but I have) is that there seems to be too much drama for one year or that Gabi is too self-aware for a 17 year old. Those are interesting criticisms because I wrote the characters as I remember them—yes they did exist. Obviously the characters are amalgamations of people I knew at that age, and in my first year of college, but they are very much real. Also, depending on where you grew up, these things actually do happen in one year. Sometimes, sadly, even more happens. And, as a teenager you feel like it’s all happening at once. Heck, as an adult you sometimes feel that way. Gabi has a mouth on her, is opinionated, doesn’t put up with hypocrisy, thinks a lot about sex, and wants people to be honest about themselves—that’s all teenage Isabel. But it is also representative of a whole lot of other women I know.
- Gabi is passionate about what she sees (rightly) as a double standard with respect to boys’ and girls’ sexuality. Do you see this as mainly a problem for Latinas, or for other teen girls as well? As a society, why have we made so little progress on this front in the past 50 years?
I used to think this was a problem mostly for Latinas, but it’s not. I mean Gabi’s mom giving her brother condoms and telling Gabi to keep her legs shut, was really how my mom approached sex, when it came to gender, in our house. It’s easy for me to see it in my own culture but sexism is one of those things, like addiction, that transcends cultures. As sexual as American culture pretends to be—I mean we see it everywhere: in advertising, television, movies, even in cartoons—we only see sexuality or sexual behavior as acceptable through a heterosexual male perspective, and I would go further and say that we only see sex exist as a heterosexual male fantasy. Very little about it is real, especially the part where the women are just there to play the accepted role in that fantasy, not as active participants with fantasies of our own, because that would make us sluts—a word that we’ve learned is bad and we want to disassociate ourselves from, lest we be shamed or ostracized. I am not sure why we have made little progress. It could be that women who embrace their sexuality are seen as intimidating and less feminine, disrupting the order of how things should be. Powerful women scare people, and I think that being able to express your sexuality, taking ownership of your body as you see fit, not as mom and dad and God, et al, sees fit, is an incredibly powerful thing. This is the same reason people get upset over abortion, “How dare a woman have a say in what happens to her body! She does not have what it takes to make those decisions.” People are used to seeing men as powerful, as our boss, our professor, our preacher, but because I think now more than ever, women are seeing that we can fill those roles, that it doesn’t have to be a man telling us what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John said, it makes people uncomfortable, and making people understand that just because we have a vagina doesn’t make us dumber or less equipped to hold positions of authority and power, especially over our own damn bodies, takes time. Centuries, as you can see. We can’t eradicate the patriarchal systems that have dictated what we can and can’t do with our bodies overnight, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop fighting. We owe it to ourselves.
- Let’s talk about food. For Gabi, it represents comfort, and throughout the novel, she’s torn between pressure to lose weight and to accept herself as she is. What would you like readers to take away from her story?
I think there are a lot of readers who can relate to Gabi’s story. Food and losing weight is a struggle for so many people, myself included. When you love food (and God, do I love food) and you’re “overweight” you often feel guilty about eating, and what you’re eating. Maybe that’s the Catholic in me, I don’t know. What I have come to learn, though, is that we have choices in how we feel about ourselves. We can love ourselves, who we are at this very moment, whether that be 110 pounds or 300 pounds, because our weight doesn’t define our worth or give us value. There are times that I’ve gone to the gym and thought, “What are you doing here, Isabel? People are going to see your belly go up and down as you sweat your ass off on the treadmill. Perhaps this was not the best choice.” And then I get mad at myself, and have to remind myself that I have an M.A., that I am a writer, that I am fucking college professor, and that my weight is not all of who I am. We have much more to offer the world than just our physical appearance.
- Gabi’s father is addicted to meth. Can you talk about what prompted you to include a parent who struggles with this kind of addiction?
Well, I grew up around addiction. Addiction, though I knew it was not a good thing, was a normal thing. It just was. I saw how alcoholism and drugs destroyed families; families who could have been incredibly successful are destroyed by this. We are taught to be ashamed, to not use certain words, to not let anybody know if we have an adult in our life who is an addict. It is a secret a lot of young people have to carry and a lot of people who have not experienced it easily judge. There are programs in school that teach you to say no to drugs, but there are no programs that teach you about what to do if you mom is doing meth. You learn that drugs are illegal but you don’t want to turn in your neighbors or your parents or your siblings—so what do you do? You live with it. You learn to look the other way, because while drugs are bad, drugs and addiction are not a black and white issue, and people who think otherwise have not been in that situation. When I began working in education, I began to see familiar signs in so many children-not doing homework, wearing the same clothes several days in a row, disruptive, seeking approval and love, escaping in books. And then I’d meet their parents and things would make sense. Parents who’d lost their teeth. Parents who couldn’t stop scratching. Parents who were rail thin. Parents who were prostitutes. Parents gone for days, leaving their families confused. Parents who felt bad about this. And they do feel bad, but can’t/won’t/don’t anything about it. I wanted to let those young people know, those children of addicts, that they are not alone. And that yes, life can be super shitty, so shitty that you want to crawl in a hole forever, but that there are options and choices—painful ones sometimes, but options and choices nonetheless, that will make life better. Education and writing being two of them.
- How did you connect with Cinco Puntos Press to publish your debut novel?
I was an elementary library tech for almost six years. One of my duties was to order books for the library. The thing was our stacks didn’t reflect our demographics, which were mostly Latino; there were hardly any books that had characters that the students could see themselves in. So, I began searching for books from “diverse” authors, or about “diverse” characters. One publisher that kept coming up was Cinco Puntos, and I really like their mission and their quality of books. I had sent them a few other manuscripts, which they had rejected (and I don’t blame them because they need some work) and, when I finished writing it, I decided to send them Gabi, A Girl in Pieces. The submission process with Cinco Puntos is a little different than with other publishers; you have to call Lee first and pitch her your book before they take your manuscript. When I called I made sure I had rehearsed. I had a script and everything; I was so nervous. But she said to go ahead and send my first ten pages, so I did. One day I got my SASE in the mail, after getting a rejection earlier that day from an agent, and thought, “Great, another one.” But when I opened it, written on my query letter, was, “This is interesting. Will look at the rest. Regular mail please.” Good God, I was excited. Then they asked for a PDF, and then they said if no one else had accepted it, Cinco Puntos would be happy to publish it. I couldn’t have been happier.
- Can you share any information about your upcoming projects?
Besides grading, which is my biggest ongoing project, I am writing a fantasy novel/novella/series (?) (the book hasn’t really told me what length it wants to be, just yet) about a young girl who is on a quest to retrieve an item which contains the souls of her family. I am also working on poems and children’s books.
For more information about the Morris Award Blog Tour, visit the Cinco Puntos Press website. There will be several more stops here at The Pirate Tree, including my review of Jessie Ann Foley’s The Carnival at Bray next Monday.