Interview with Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood
Sammy’s father always said, “You got to love the world,” but he never said anything about loving Hollywood, New Mexico. Sammy always seems to lose what he loves most; first his mom, then Juliana, what next?
He Forgot To Say Goodbye
Two guys from the opposite sides of town find surprising similarities and support from each other. One is angry and cynical; the other is kind and hopeful. Both are confused by the absence of their fathers and the lives they’re learning to navigate without them.
An Interview with Benjamin Alire Sáenz
You’ve lived and traveled all over the world. What brings you back to Texas and the Southwest in life and in your writing? Would you ever want to write a book about a place very different from the U.S., like Tanzania?
In some ways, I wound up living in Southwest by accident—except that I don’t believe in accidents. I think I was meant to live here and write here and breathe here and experience the world through the lens of the U.S./Mexico border. That said, I’m very grateful for my travels as a young man. Experiencing other cultures, other countries, and other ways of thinking made be realize that the world is a large and wonderful and it awakened in me a curiosity that helped make me a writer. Yes, I would some day like to write a book about a young man who comes of age in a country not his own.
What inspired you to write novels for young adults?
I have some friends, Lee & Bobby Byrd who are publishers. They encouraged me to write for young adults. I didn’t know I had it in me, and yet, I’ve come to realize how much I love young people and the energy they bring into the world and I wanted to contribute to their lives in a small way by writing books for them. As I age, I realize that it is the young people of the world that will lead us to a better world. Imagine a world without young people? Who wants to live in that world? Not me.
How much of Sammy and Juliana’s Hollywood is a reflection of your own hometown? Did you face discrimination as a teen in New Mexico?
In some ways, Sammy and Juliana is a real mirror to the world I lived in. The discrimination we faced was often subtle. So many of our teachers had no expectations of us. They didn’t really believe that we had the capacity to improve our lot in life. That’s the worst kind of discrimination. When we expect nothing from our students, that’s exactly what we get—nothing. When we expect excellence from our students, then it means we care. It means we believe that they are capable of excellence. It means that we believe in the greatness of the human mind and the human heart and that race and ethnicity are not impediments to learning.
Intolerance is a major issue in Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood. What advice do you have for teens who may be confronted with forms of intolerance in their own lives? Do you think that reading makes us more tolerant individuals?
We all have to learn to value who we are. It is the function of the adults around us, parents, teachers, librarians to grab us by the shoulders when we are young and shake us gently and say softly: I see you. I see who you are. I see what you can become. Teens are very vulnerable people. It is a beautiful and painful and confusing thing to grow up. To any teen I would simply say: Find an adult in your world that you can trust and hang on to them. They will see you through. That adult may or may not be your parent but you cannot survive this world on your own and it is not a bad thing to need someone. It is a sad thing that there will always be those among us who are intolerant and mean and ignorant, but it is no victory to return intolerance with ugliness. What have we gained if we lose our own beauty?
And yes, reading makes us generous and tolerant and reminds us that there are people all over the world who are, after all, not so different from us.
Sammy’s friend is killed in the Vietnam War. Today, U.S. military recruitment of Latinos has increased. Did the current War on Terror or the war in Iraq have any influence on your writing?
Absolutely. You see, there seems no end to war and hate and killing. And so I just keep asking myself: when will it all end? I don’t want my students to grow up to be soldiers. I want my students to grow up and be artists and writers and teachers and the builders of a new and peaceful world. I do not think we will be an end to war with soldiers. I believe we will put an end to war with statesmen. War has been in the background of all my days on this earth and part of my impulse to write is to question the way things are. Maybe I want to imagine a better world.
Parents are important characters in both Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood and your new novel, He Forgot to Say Goodbye. They really run the gamut from caring and supportive (Ramiro’s mother) to dangerous and abusive (Juliana’s father) to completely absent. Do you think parents or peers have greater influence over the way kids lead their lives? Were any of the adults in your novels based on real people?
Parents are our first Gods. Our parents’ behavior shapes our lives for good and for bad. Many of us survive because we were loved at home—and many of us survive despite the fact that we were not loved at home. Not all parents are good parents. And that’s the truth. Sammy’s father and Ramiro’s mother are good parents. They try very hard to love their children and give them hope. Their love doesn’t always save their children. Ramiro’s mom couldn’t reach her youngest son. Her love couldn’t save him. That’s sad, but that happens too often. And other parents are selfish and incapable of truly entering into their children’s lives—Jake’s mother being an example of that. I think I want to give an honest presentation of the different kinds of parents there are in the world and I suppose I get those examples from my own experience.
One reviewer (Booklist) compared He Forgot to Say Goodbye to S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Both novels look at class struggles from a teen point of view, but The Outsiders is narrated by one of the Greasers, a poor kid. Was it important to you to have multiple narrators, letting Jake, a wealthy kid, tell his own story?
Yes, I wanted to write from Jake’s perspective because it was important for me to examine that privileged kids aren’t necessarily shallow. Jake is a very intelligent young man who uses his intelligence to mask his pain. Privilege doesn’t protect anyone from the human condition. I suppose, as a writer, I want to write about that—the human condition. In a way, you could say, that writers fall in love with their characters. I loved the character of Jake as much as I loved the character of Ramiro. Writing can make you generous, can make you love and understand people who are not like you.
You have written novels, poetry, and even picture books. Do you have a favorite?
Right now, I am in love with painting! How’s that. A painting can tell a story in a different kind of way. I think really that I am just addicted to telling stories. It doesn’t matter if the story is for adults, or young people or children. It doesn’t make any difference to me whether the vehicle for the story is a novel, a poem or a picture book. Or even a painting!
When did you start writing? When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve been a writer most of my life. I discovered I loved writing when I was in seventh grade. It was something I was good at. I was good at it, I suppose, because I loved to read. I don’t have any other explanation. But I didn’t actually start writing seriously until I was 30. I finally came up with the courage to follow my heart. I am a lucky man—I love what I do.
Is there one book that you think every kid should read? Now that you have written two young adult novels, have you been reading other YA authors? Do you have any recommendations?
Well, there are so many great books. And so many great YA novelists. Let’s see, well, I think everyone should read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I loved Nancy Werlin’s The Rules of Survival. Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street is a must-read, I think. The works of Sherman Alexie and American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. Oh, and I think every young person should read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery. I think I’ll stop there. My list would probably change day by day, but today is today so this is the list for today.