an in-depth review on Monday and on Wednesday a follow-up chat on the overarching ideas Ashley is covering during her blog tour. Today we've got some thoughts from the author herself on what it means to write a book with an edge--and what it doesn't mean.
With no further ado, here's Ashley:
The term “edgy” is flying around in talk about The Knife and the Butterfly and the voice in which it’s told. And trust me, I’m thrilled that I (cautious rule-follower to the max in all other areas) have pulled off writing in the voice of a 15-year-old boy who happens to be homeless, in trouble with the law, and caught up in a gang.
What’s the one thing that would make me happier? If I could give “edgy” the particular edge it has for me.
The thing is, the edge that interests me most has little to do with sex or gangs or profanity. These are, in my view, simply accidents of my characters’ world (think: inner-city, no safety nets). Sometimes when I’m talking about this aspect of The Knife and the Butterfly, I feel like a woman giving a tour of a house she’s renting: “I know, I know, I wish the wallpaper in here were nicer, but this is what I’ve got to work with.”
The world of The Knife and the Butterfly is, indeed, a world on loan. It’s borrowed from the news (the gang fight that opens the novel was inspired by an actual event in Houston). It’s borrowed from the alleys and taquerías and run-down parks that I scoped out while writing. It’s borrowed from interviews with Houston teens and MS-13 members that I read.
Now, this is where I could say, “the book has to be rough because the world it’s about is rough.” There’s plenty of truth to that, but it’s not the truth I want to take up right now. And my novel, like all fiction, is far from a facsimile of the actual world. The cussing is scaled WAY back from reality (for a teen like Azael), and most of the violence and sexual stuff in The Knife and the Butterfly is thematic, not explicit or graphic.
What if we think about the “edge” in a new way? What if it’s not so much about the themes and material in the book but rather about how that book and a real reader relate?
In that previous sentence, X stands for the edge. It might be the beauty of language (or its deliberate plainness), a character, or even a turn in the plot. The important thing is that a truly edgy book doesn’t leave us intact; it makes us vulnerable to something—an emotion, a thought, a realization, a fear, a discovery, a way of seeing—and it forces us to reckon with it. Certainly this edge is different for different readers, even when they are reading the same book, but we all need it to evolve our reading lives.
I doubt that I need to remind anyone of the whole debate sparked by Meghan Cox Gurdon’s Wall Street Journal article, “Darkness Too Visible.” (If you have no idea what I’m talking about or want to know my take, look at this or this.) The only thing that I want to bring back from that piece was the longing—false nostalgia, even—for safety in books. As a parent, I understand this feeling. Really, I do. But I am more than just a parent. I am a reader, a writer, and a student of literature, and in those roles, I have come to believe that safe books are inert books, dead books.
If we feel 100% safe with what we’re reading, if we meticulously avoid the chance of encountering the edge, we’re very unlikely to be deeply affected by our reading. There has to be an element of risk and exposure in the reading relationship if anything very profound is going to occur. A great book is not a safe place for the reader.
Don’t misunderstand me. An edgy book needn’t be dark or peppered with profanity. But there must be something about the book that takes the reader to a place she could not have said, in advance, that she wanted to go.
That something is the edge I hope readers will find in my writing. The rest… it’s just wallpaper.
Thanks so much, Ashley, for stopping by and sharing your writerly thoughts! And, for readers of this post, you can visit Ashley's blog, follow her on twitter @ashleyhopeperez, or find her on facebook.
Watch for more insights into the writing of the novel throughout Ashley's The Knife and the Butterfly blog tour. See the full tour schedule here.
You can buy The Knife and the Butterfly from your favorite local bookseller or order it online.