Maria E. Andreu is the author of The Secret Side of Empty, a young adult novel out tomorrow—March 11th, 2014—from Running Press. It is the story of M.T., a regular American high school senior who is just like everybody else with one important exception: she is undocumented. The Secret Side of Empty was inspired by events in Maria’s own life as she was also an undocumented immigrant. Keep reading for an excerpt from her first novel.
The Poetics Project: Describe your book in ten words or less.
Maria E. Andreu: An undocumented teen faces an uncertain future
TPP: The Secret Side of Empty was inspired by your life. Was it hard to write about a subject to close to you? Are there any scenes directly influenced by events that happened to you?
MA: I like to say that the emotion is all the same but the events are different. There are a few scenes that are pretty close to how they happened – I met my high school boyfriend the same way the main character meets hers – but for the most part it’s fiction. Some things are hard to write about, of course. Writing is a lot about empathy and imaging what it might be like to be in your characters’ shoes. When the characters are going through tough times, sometimes it’s hard to feel those things as you write.
TPP: Looking at reviews on Goodreads (most being five stars), a lot of readers were very invested in M.T. and her world? How did you go about creating a character with such depth that readers became invested?
MA: It’s such an honor to see how early readers are responding to the book. Of course I understand that honeymoon won’t last – even the most successful books get bad reviews – but it’s nice to know that M.T. resonates with some people. I tried to write M.T. to be like the real people I know. I think she’s a good person, but she’s got flaws too. She doesn’t reach out for help when she needs it. She does some things that are wrong. I think that by giving characters dimensions that feel authentic to people – flaws, fears, bad choices – you gain readers’ trust in your story. I hope so anyway!
TPP: What would you like your readers to take away from your book?
MA: I hope that people can feel a little less alone after reading it, that they understand that everybody has things they hide. That everyone carries some shame. And that when we finally let down our guard and show the truth about ourselves, that’s when real connection happens.
TPP: What advice would you give to aspiring authors? Is there any advice you wish you would’ve gotten when writing your book?
MA: Oh my goodness… how long do we have? There is so much! The number one thing is probably to keep writing. Separate the desire to publish from the desire to write. They’re actually two separate things. Of course, for many of us, it doesn’t feel like we’re “real” writers until we publish something, until someone “chooses” us. But that’s not true. What makes you a real writer is that you really write. So write. If you write enough, get feedback enough and work on your writing enough, you will figure out the publishing side of things.
As for things I wish I’d gotten… I’m not sure I wish I’d known anything different while I was writing this book. I wish someone would have sat me down at 16 years old and said, “Wanting to be a writer is not a crazy pipe dream. Go for it with all you’ve got.” It would have spared me decades of not feeling like I could make it.
TPP: Name three songs that would be on a playlist for your book (can be songs that inspired your writing).
The Smiths song “Here Comes Your Man” makes me think of a certain mood that the main character has when she’s around her boyfriend, like she wants to impress him and be more than she is.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” – M.T., the protagonist, goes to visit a friend in college (even though she’s in high school) and goes to see an a singing group. They do a capella stuff. It’s so deeply unhip that it’s cool. I once saw an all-guys singing group do this in a college I visited and the moment always stuck with me.
One Republic’s “Stop and Stare.” I love how this song builds. I bet M.T. and Nate, the couple in the love story in The Secret Side of Empty, had this playing in the background while they were kissing one day.
To learn more about Maria E. Andreu, visit her website.
Excerpt from The Secret Side of Empty reprinted with the permission of Running Press, a Perseus Books imprint.
One of the many good things about Chelsea is that after the very few times we’ve had a fight, she is over it fast. Like it never happened. Plus, Chelsea is Excited with a capital E about this college visit. After school on the Thursday of the drive, Chelsea is like a kindergartener who has just gotten a bag full of candy. I feel like I’m about to take a whole lot of gross-tasting medicine. For three straight days.
“Okay, I’ve gotten an oil change, had the tires rebalanced, my phone’s fully charged, I have my car charger, jeans, a skirt, makeup, road trip food. Have I forgotten anything?”
We’ve had this conversation eighteen times in the last week, and given the NASA-level charts and checklists she’s compiled, I doubt it.
“M.T., you must be excited. Why are you being such a downer?”
Once we hit the road, though, it kind of is fun. Route 95 curves wide and unlovely in front of us as we head north, across the stop-and-crawl George Washington Bridge traffic and into New York State. The leaves are turning and the radio is playing good music. Chelsea is driving slow by the rules of the Chelsea-verse, keeping on the right side of the road and holding the wheel with both hands.
“Siobhan kicked out one of her roommates so we could bunk with her. Not sure about the other one. You and I can share the one bunk if we have to.”
“And she says there’s some kind of frat party we should go to.”
Not excited about the frat party.
And Siobhan is going to her Women in Antiquity class tomorrow if you want to go with her. She asked her professor and it’s okay.”
“We’ll see,” Chelsea says mockingly, trying to get me to laugh. I know I am being un-fun, but I can’t seem to get into it.
Chelsea waits until we’re almost at the Connecticut border to ask, “So what’s with the no college thing, M?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re not going to Argentina and you don’t want to tell me, right?”
“No! Wait, what?”
“I’ve been scared about that since you said you weren’t going to college.”
“Where did that come from?”
“Well, you always used to say that.”
“I did not.”
“Of course you did. At the end of every school year. Starting in kindergarten. Don’t you remember? You would say good-bye because you were going to live in your . . . it was something about an oval house or something? Do they make houses oval over there?”
“God, Chels, no. My dad had this crazy idea about building us a round house. La Casa Redonda, he called it. And that was like a million years ago. When was the last time you heard me say that? I only said that because my dad would tell me to say good-bye to all my friends because we were moving away.”
“I don’t know, you looked pretty happy about it.”
“I did not. I was a dumb kid anyway.”
“What ever happened with that business your parents were building in Argentina?”
“I don’t know.”
“You always told me they were sending all their money over there and that’s why you
couldn’t . . .” Suddenly she looks embarrassed. She just says, “Remember?”
“No.” But that’s a lie. I do remember.
When I was little, my father would come home and hand his tips over to my mother. Before they started cutting off the electricity. Before my father started staying away more and more hours. Before he started walking in through the door like his feet weighed a ton. Back then, my mother would take his tips and put them in a big old metal box that was drilled into the wall in a kitchen cabinet, because my mother said thieves never looked in the kitchen. The box was hidden behind bags of lentils and some cans.
One day, my mother and father took all the money out of the box and handed it over to their friend, whom I called Tio Roberto. He used to come over for dinner every Sunday and they would talk for hours about the business they would build back home. Tio Roberto was going to be their partner. The business would make us all rich and would help us move back to be with the family my parents always missed so much.
It must have been about a year after that when I walked into the kitchen to see my father holding his head in his hands, his elbows on the chipping table, my mother’s arms around him. I must have been about nine, because I remember it was one of the first times I was allowed to walk home from school alone.
“What happened, Ma?”
“Nothing,” said my father.
“We might as well tell her, Jorge.” Turning to me, she said, “It’s Tio Roberto and the business. Our business is gone.”
“What do you mean gone?”
“Gone. Just . . . Tio Roberto stopped calling us and stopped answering when we called. And today we sent my sister’s husband over to talk to him and the business was closed down. Just gone. Everything.”
My father made a weird noise, his head still in her arms.
“But he has to give us our money back, right?”
“We can try, but I don’t think so,” said my mother. “I don’t know what we can do from so far away if we can’t even find him.”
“Are we moving back to Argentina now? Maybe you can find him and make him give us back our money.”
“We can’t go back like this,” said my father, muffled.
“Like what?” I said.
“We came here with nothing. We can’t go back with nothing after all these years.”
“Monserrat Thalia, don’t worry about it. Go do your homework,” said my mother.
And that was the last I ever heard about our business. But I don’t want to tell Chelsea any of that.
She’s still talking, keeping both hands on the wheel as a giant tractor-trailer passes by us. Chelsea says, “I can’t tell you how many times I went home and cried to my mom about all the times you told me you were moving down there. And she always used to tell me that if you really moved, we’d visit you.”
“I never knew that.”
“Yeah, well, if that’s what you wanted to do, I wanted to be happy for you.”
“You’re crazy. I’m not going anywhere.” I wonder if I told her the truth now how she would react. I want to tell her. I start to figure out the sentence in my mind. But I can’t get over the thought that she would pull back in disgust that she’s been having a sneaky little illegal in her life all this time. That somehow I’ve infiltrated her pure, perfect, charmed life and made it dirty.
“Not even college, apparently.”
“Ooooh, burn. Score one, Miss O’Hara. What’s with all the parental college pushing?”
“It’s just going to be so weird not being together next year. Don’t you think?”
“Yeah. I think.”
“Plus you’re so smart. I just want you to . . . you know. Whatever. You force me to sound like a dweeb.”
I poke her with my elbow affectionately. “To be honest, it doesn’t take that much forcing.” She laughs. “Come on,” I say. “We need some sugar.”
“Agreed,” she says, as I reach into the backseat to the giant stash she brought and breathe a sigh of relief that she’s letting us drop the school conversation.
It’s about 6:00 p.m. when we finally roll through the huge stone gates. For a minute, it looks like we’re really in a Disney princess movie or a medieval fairy tale. The buildings all look like perfect Gothic castles, tall spires reaching up past postcard orange and red trees. I love it so much I hate it.
The Red Bull I had on the way in the hopes of getting myself more “up” for this is making my heart pound. Siobhan is waiting for us in red Abercrombie sweatpants and a hoodie. She hops in the backseat.
“You made it,” she says. “I’m so excited! We’re going to have a great time!” I think I like her even less when she’s happy. It’s like watching a reptile dance.
Then she spots my Red Bull and points to it. “Do you love Red Bull? I love Red Bull. I don’t think I’d be surviving college without it. You know?” Then she grabs my forearm and talks ten thousand words a minute like she’s just had twelve Red Bulls.
At least someone will be jumpier than I am.
“So first, there’s this a cappella thing that I said we’d go to. My boyfriend’s in it; you can meet him. Then there’s the party at Psi. But we can’t stay out late because I’ve got class tomorrow morning. You coming . . . M.T.?”
Eeek. She’s trying.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Awesome! You’re going to love my professor. She’s the coolest.”
She shows us where to park and puts a visitor’s pass on the dashboard, and we take the long walk to her dorm room. I’ve never seen a college campus before and it makes me ache more than ever to know I won’t be able to go. The buildings are even prettier up close, with gargoyles and architectural details in stone, statues that look a gazillion years old. We walk up to a building with ivy growing up its walls—ivy, of course—and Siobhan leads us inside.
At least the inside looks like it’s seen better days. It gives me a flash of wicked satisfaction. The overhead fluorescents are awful, and the paint looks as bad as any apartment I’ve ever lived in. The industrial-strength carpet is worn through in the middle of the path, mysterious black stains spotting it. Siobhan leads us through the maze, left, then right, no views of the outside world, until I have no idea which direction I’m walking. Then she stops at a door that looks like every other door, covered with a message board with things stuck and drawn on it. Siobhan’s says: “Hi Cuz!!” and “Hello, Siobhan’s Cousin!” and “Study group changed to 11:00 tomorrow,” and “Tracy let me borrow your charger. Come snatch it back. B.” and “TB, your band blows.” This last one Siobhan rubs off with her index finger.
“Home sweet home,” she says, swinging her door open and letting us in first.
Inside, it’s like you’d expect Siobhan to live if she got sent to white-collar prison for starving her slaves or something. She’s got cinder-block walls, but she’s made them fashionable somehow. There’s a Monet and an inspirational quote. She’s got very clean-looking white curtains. Her desk is immaculate, with color-coordinated accessories, like Better College Dorms and Desktops is on its way for a photo shoot. It’s tight quarters, but everything is in matching Container Store so-chic plastic boxes of various sizes. You can see a mile away that she’s gotten Top Bunk, because her beige comforter with tiny pink roses is neatly spread over it.
“Sorry about my roommate. She’s such a slob,” Siobhan says, kicking some shoes under the bottom bunk. The bottom bunk has a camouflage bedspread and a poster that says, “My karma ran over your dogma and your dogma had to be put to sleep.”
I like the roommate already.
“Where’s your other roommate, Siobhan?” asks Chelsea.
“The other one went home for the weekend,” says Siobhan. Her ears flame red again in a flash and I remember the Spanish roommate from the Bronx. Her bed is covered in a plain blue comforter that looks too short. A chunk of bare sheet shows at the bottom.
Siobhan and Chelsea are off and running talking about holidays, dinners, family stuff. I take a minute to look around the room. I get a wild urge to put my nose up against her walls and take a long sniff, to inhale them, to suck this place in, to make it live in my lungs when I get found out for the imposter I am and get escorted off the premises, out of the state, and out of the country.
“So, do you, M.T.?” It’s the first time I’ve heard Siobhan say my name not-reluctantly.
“Do I what?”
“Do you need to take a shower before we go out?”
“I . . . guess.”
“I hope you brought flip-flops like I told you to. Those swim team girls are brutes with mushrooms growing between their toes.”
I don’t own any flip-flops. Maybe not so much with the shower, then.
“It’s okay, M, you can borrow mine,” says Chelsea.
We shower and change into jeans and T-shirts with hoodies. We’re only a couple of hours north of the city, but it’s way colder, and the damp spot in my hair by the nape of my neck gets icy cold on the walk from Siobhan’s dorm, across the quad, down a path behind some buildings, around a bend, and into a building and a big, vaulted ceiling room. It looks like a church gone rogue, all the architecture but none of the statues designed to make you feel guilty. There is a fire burning in an enormous fireplace tall enough to walk into.
There is a little wooden stage and a bunch of uncomfortable-looking wooden chairs arranged facing it. A cluster of guys is standing between the stage and the chairs. Siobhan goes all “happy girlfriend” mode on us. “There’s Josh,” she whispers, like she’s just told us the juiciest secret ever.
I can only describe Josh as a blond bear, with a big, almost squarish chest and beady blue eyes. It seems he is covered with blond fur. I’ve never seen a blond furry person. I associate furry with dark hair.
Blond Bear walks over with and intertwines his fingers with Siobhan’s effortlessly, almost like scratching his forearm. A couple of his friends follow him. They’re all in white button-down shirts.
“Josh, this is my cousin Chelsea and her friend M.T.”
“Chelsea.” Josh nods in her direction. Then he looks at me. “Empty?”
The friends make that weird man-giggle that guys do. I know Josh is not being particularly nice, but I kind of like “Empty.” I’ve never thought of that before, surprisingly. For all my stellar grades, I actually stink at word games and figuring out what initials stand for. I seriously think it’s, like, the one “English-as-a-second-language” quirk I’ve got. I’m a little disappointed in Quinn “Is-her-name-Mousy-Rat” Ford and her crew for not coming up with this one.
Empty. It could mean a lot of things. Devoid. Unburdened. Without baggage.
“Yeah, it’s a big, existential statement, my name,” I say.
Chelsea says, “M. Period. T. Period.”
“Oh, so you’re, like, too T. S. Eliot to have a whole name?” says one of the friends.
“Maybe you just haven’t scored high enough to hear it yet,” I say, deadpan.
The friends laugh nervously, and one of them backhandedly smacks Josh in the chest and says, “Let’s go, it’s time to get started.”
Siobhan grabs Chelsea and drags her to the front row. I follow reluctantly, only because I know I won’t be able to find my way back to Siobhan’s dorm on my own.
In a little bit, the white-shirted bunch gets up on the wooden stage. It’s only about as tall as a milk crate. It creaks.
They begin. Some of them start saying, “A-wee-mah-weh, a-wee-mah-weh, a-wee-mah-weh, a-wee-mah-weh.” Some other guy starts wailing, “Weee.” All of a sudden, Josh belts out with something about a lion and a jungle.
I sideways glance at Siobhan. She’s got a rock-star-is-in-the-house glow in her eyes.
There’s an awkward retro weirdness to the whole thing. If I didn’t want to leave so much, maybe I’d think it kind of sounds cool. It’s amazing how they all sing different parts but sound like one whole song, almost like an orchestra of voices. But what kind of guy wants to sit around with a bunch of other guys and sing without instruments? If you can sing, shouldn’t you do some kind of chick-magnet rock-band thing? Instead of this barbershop quartet, super-unhip gig? I glance around as much as I can without moving my neck to see if anyone is laughing at them, but everyone seems to be into it.
Strange land, this college.
I will always be a stranger everywhere. With my parents, I am too American. With Americans, I am a spectator with my nose pressed against their windowpanes, watching their weird rituals and rites of passage, never quite understanding them completely. A little chunk of me will always be a stranger everywhere, different chunks of stranger in different situations.
They do a pretty cool “Bohemian Rhapsody” and a downright sweet “California Dreamin’.” Nothing from this century. Finally they step off the stage and there is some polite clapping. I am surprised at the little flame of “Come back” that jumps up in my heart before I remind myself how stupid the whole thing is.