ALL FOUR KIDS: An Interview with Maria E. Andreu, THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY


Today, we welcome OneFour KidLit author Maria E. Andreu to the blog to discuss her debut novel, THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY. Here’s the book’s official blurb:

TSSoE_CoverAs a straight-A student with a budding romance and loyal best friend, M.T.’s life seems as apple-pie American as her blondish hair and pale skin. But M.T. hides two facts to the contrary: her full name of Monserrat Thalia and her status as an undocumented immigrant. But it’s harder to hide now that M.T.’s a senior. Her school’s National Honor Society wants her to plan their trip abroad, her best friend won’t stop bugging her to get her driver’s license, and all everyone talks about is where they want to go to college. M.T. is pretty sure she can’t go to college, and with high school ending and her family life unraveling, she’s staring down a future that just seems empty. In the end, M.T. will need to trust herself and others to stake a claim in the life that she wants.

KS: You’ve said THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY has some autobiographical elements. Which parts are based on your own experiences?

MA: Well, the big one obviously is that I too was undocumented. I went to a small parochial school. I wondered how I was going to build a “normal” life when so many things seemed stacked against me. And some small details are nods to real life too. I really met my high school boyfriend the way the protagonist meets hers. I really did have a Ms. North in my life. Things like that.

That said, the book is mostly fiction. Real life is messy, lessons take a long time to learn, things stop and start and stop in ways that don’t make for a very clean narrative. I took the real emotion of it and put it to snappier, grander action.

KS: You take exception to the term “illegal immigrant” to describe your main character, MT. Can you explain?

MA: There is a wonderful quote from Elie Weisel, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, that says, “No human being is illegal.” Calling a human being “an illegal” as if it were a noun, or even an “illegal immigrant,” has a dehumanizing effect which then opens the door for people to pile on other judgements. It basically says that the human being is illegal, not their actions. In M.T.’s case, it’s not even her own actions that have made her undocumented. Her parents brought her as a baby.

If you get ticketed for speeding, are you an illegal driver? If you’re late on your taxes, are you an illegal taxpayer? Being undocumented isn’t even a violation of criminal law. It’s a violation on confusing and conflicting civil statutes. No human being is illegal.

-steps off soapbox-

KS: MT’s major secret is that she’s undocumented. What are the other “secret sides” to MT?

MA: M.T. hides a lot of secrets. She doesn’t tell her friends what’s going on in her life, not just her undocumented status but everything that’s happening at home. She doesn’t tell her boyfriend Nate her fears and vulnerabilities. She doesn’t tell people at school what’s causing her grades to slip. When stuff finally starts to hit the fan she doesn’t want to tell anyone the truth about herself. So she’s just a bundle of secrets. She wants to go it alone. Or, rather, she thinks she has to.

The other characters have their secrets too. Her best friend Chelsea’s life isn’t as perfect as it seems. Her boyfriend Nate has something he’s not telling her. Even Quinn, whom some might consider something of an unlikeable character, has a story we don’t know at the start which reveals something unexpected about her character. Part of what I wanted to say with this book is that everyone’s got something they’re hiding or not fully revealing. No one’s life is really as it seems from the outside.

KS: MT’s future is shaped by federal regulations, laws, and policies that are out of her control. Did you have to do a lot of research on immigration policy to write it?

MA: As someone who has been undocumented, I knew a lot of the background. I’ve also volunteered for a non-profit that lobbies for immigration reform and awareness, so I get some of it there. But TSSoE isn’t a policy book. There’s actually not a lot of that in there. I’ve tried to let the reader into M.T.’s experience of being undocumented, complete with the confusion, fear and lack of information.

KS: As this community is fearless, we’d like to know something you’re afraid of and something you are not afraid of.

MA: I can almost always trace anything that’s making me afraid – problems with mates, kids, work – to the fear of not being heard and considered. Of not mattering. That is probably my biggest fear. Probably not surprising given my story.

As for what I’m not afraid of: I’m no longer afraid that I won’t do what I’d dreamed of with my life. I don’t know if ten people or a million people are going to read this book, but I know I’ve written it. How the world feels about it is out of my hands. But I can live the rest of my life knowing I put it out there. And that feels amazing.

Go Fearless Fifteeners! Can’t wait to read your wonderful stories!

Author Maria E. Andreu draws from her personal experience as a (formerly) undocumented immigrant to explore an issue that affects over one million children in the U.S. But while the subject matter is timely, it is M.T.’s sharp, darkly funny voice and longing for a future that makes this story universally poignant.
Kim Savage is the author of AFTER THE WOODS, a debut psychological thriller for young adults coming in 2015 with Farrar, Straus and Giroux/MacMillan. She is working on CELLOPHANE SISTERS (working title), also with FSG/MacMillan, her second thriller for young adults. Before writing fiction, she worked as business journalist, pitching stories along the lines of “Stigmatized Properties: When Murder Kills Property Values”. You get the idea.

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