"'Another day finished, gracias a Dios.'
Seventeen-year-old Marisa's mother has been saying this for as long as Marisa can remember. Her parents came to Houston from Mexico. They work hard, and they expect Marisa to help her familia. And they expect her to marry a boy from the neighborhood, to settle down, and to have grandbabies. If she wants a job, she could always be an assistant manager at the local grocery store.
At school, it's another story. Marisa's calc teacher expects her to ace the AP test and to get into an engineering program in Austin—a city that seems unimaginably far away. When her home life becomes unbearable, Marisa seeks comfort elsewhere—and suddenly neither her best friend nor boyfriend can get through to her. Caught between the expectations of two different worlds, Marisa isn't sure what she wants—other than a life where she doesn't end each day thanking God it's over.
What Can't Wait—the gripping debut novel from Ashley Hope Pérez—tells the story of one girl's survival in a world in which family needs trump individual success, and self-reliance the only key that can unlock the door to the future."
Welcome, Ashley Hope Perez, it's such a pleasure to have you here!
AK: In What Can’t Wait, the heroine, Marisa, has a tough time at home, at balancing familial obligations and the steps she needs to take to reach her goals. One of the things I love about this story is how well I was able to relate with Marisa. What kind of personal experiences influenced the telling of this story? Is Marisa a facet of your own life?
AP: Someone (my two brain cells can’t seem to remember who) said that all writing is really autobiography. That is, we writer types end up putting parts of ourselves everywhere, even when we don’t mean to. In that sense, threads of my self are surely woven into Marisa’s character. But she is more strongly inspired by the stories and experiences of my students. One of the awesome things about teaching English is that I got to hear amazing stories from my kids.
AK: I noticed that you really grasped high school life and adolescence when you introduced the other teenagers in Marisa’s life. Was it a difficult and challenging experience writing in the young adult genre?
AP: I never thought about writing YA until I taught teenagers. My students inspired me with their stories, but they also told me I ought to write a novel for them. In fact, once they knew I was a writer, they bugged me about it almost every day. I tried to write the novel my students would want to read. I hope many, many other readers find What Can’t Wait, but my students were my first—and most important—audience.
AK: And speaking of these other characters, which one was your favorite to write for? Which one took the most time to develop?
AP: My favorite character is Anita, Marisa’s five-year-old niece. Kids get to say things older characters can’t, and she’s so darn cute. She’s based on a little girl I taught in a bilingual program in Austin almost ten years ago. Actually, I should hunt her down since she’s actually old enough to read What Can’t Wait now.
The most challenging character for me was Alan. He supports Marisa, but it was important that he not be too perfect. Drawing out his flaws was a process.
AK: What was your reason for setting this story in Texas?
AP: I’m from Texas, and the story is set in Southeast Houston because I wrote it for my students in Southeast Houston. I wanted them to open the book and think, “This is my world.” We read for lots of reasons, but sometimes we want to see something we recognize from our lives.
AK: I loved Ms. Ford! I wish I had a teacher like her right now. Was there an influential and motivating person in your life that Ms. Ford reminds you of?
AP: It’s so funny that you loved her... she has her good moments, but isn’t she a little pushy and insensitive at times, too? Ms. Ford is a lot like me my first year teaching: driven to the point of driving students crazy. Like me—until I learned to listen to my students—she often forgets to ask that important question of “What’s going on in your life?” before she gets on Marisa’s case for not performing.
(AK: Still, I liked her a lot!)
AK: Let’s talk boys. Alan is sweet, tough, and caring. Plus, he’s an artist! Does Alan remind you of anyone in your life? What was one key personality trait you felt he needed in order to fit well with Marisa in a relationship?
AP: I had one boyfriend in high school who was artistic (a musician), but Alan is more based on one of my students who was a talented artist and designer. The one quality Alan HAD to have is his understanding that Marisa has to go for her dreams in order to be who she is.
AK: Why write a YA novel? Did you consciously choose to write a young adult novel?
AP: As I mentioned before, I write YA because I write for my students. Yes, it was a very conscious decision—I don’t think a person accidentally writes YA. To be effective, the writer has to be absorbed in what matters to teen readers. I love writing YA because it gives me a clearly defined audience. I can imagine my students’ reactions—when they might get bored, what they’d want to know more about.
AK: Do you have any future projects underway as we speak? If so, what can you tell us about it?
AP: My next novel is coming out in 2012. It’s called The Knife and the Butterfly, and it follows two characters—one a Salvadoran immigrant teen, the other a white girl—through the aftermath of a deadly gang fight they both experience first hand. I’m currently working on a third novel, but I don’t want to talk about it because I’m superstitious about writing in progress.
AK: What is one thing you want your readers to get out of reading What Can’t Wait?
AP: That every one of us has to figure out what can’t wait—both right now (as in, Anita needs clean pants because she just peed on herself), and in the long run, in terms of our dreams and goals. And that doing something about those dreams today, in spite of the messy nature of our daily lives, is the only way to make them come true.
Thank you so much, for taking the time to answer all of my questions, Ashley!
Want to know about my feelings on the story? Check out my review of What Can't Wait !