I’m excited to present the newest student-author interview, featuring Maria E. Andreu, author of The Secret Side of Empty. This is an extra special interview because Maria visited our school, so the student interviewers got to meet her in person and eat munchkins with her. In fact, here’s Maria with the gang, post munchkin-eating.
Maria’s debut novel, The Secret Side of Empty, is loosely based on her own experiences. It tells the story of M.T., a high school senior with a wonderful best friend, an exciting new crush…and a very big secret. M.T. and her family are undocumented immigrants, and as her friends get more and more excited about planning their futures, she feels more and more alienated and lost.
Maria spoke to seventh, tenth, and eleventh graders at Friends Select, and her visit was a great success. The Secret Side of Empty is an important book, and I was thrilled that Maria could share M.T.’s story with students at my school. There’s some difficult content in the book, so it isn’t the right fit for all 7th and 8th grade readers. However, four mature and thoughtful 7th and 8th grade girls—Lydia C., Lydia S., Mary, and Lili May—were eager to read the book, and they had some terrific questions for Maria.
First, here’s what the students like most about THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY, with some commentary from Maria interspersed:
Lydia C: There are very few books that I can read in front of the TV while my sister is watching TV, but this was one of those books that I could sit in the corner and read and the TV was on and it didn’t phase me.
I love reading in front of the TV too! Sometimes it’s the only way to hang out with someone when you don’t want to watch what they’re watching. I’m glad TSSoE held your attention.
Lili May: I liked the fact that it was really well-written, so even at points when I wanted to stop reading because it was making me sad or nervous, it was really believable so I didn’t want to put it down. It was so suspenseful and I was so worried about M.T. that I had to keep reading even though I had homework.
I’m sorry I made you worried! But I’m honored that you think the book is well-written.
Lydia S.: I liked that it involved biking, because I’ve found biking to be a good way of dealing with stress. I also liked M.T.’s relationship with Chelsea and how they could stay friends even though they’re in such different financial situations.
I like biking too! And I love that she had Chelsea in her life. Everyone deserves a good friend like that.
Mary: When I first looked at the book, I liked that the flap copy had a bunch of good things, like about the reasons M.T.’s life isn’t bad, but then the flap copy turned bad when it talked about her father and things like that. When I was reading the book, I liked the description the most.
Thank you! I like closing my eyes and picturing things, then trying to put those things into words.
Now for some questions about the book:
Lydia C.: I’m curious about M.T.’s mom. I’d like to know more about how you got the idea for the mom character. Was she inspired by your mom? Also, what happens to her after the end of the book?
Definitely some of the inspiration for the mom character came from my mom the way she was when I was growing up. But I’ve known a lot of women like that. It’s hard to move to another country and not know the language and leave your whole family behind. It leaves you isolated and vulnerable.
If M.T.’s mom is like most people who move here (and I think she is), after the years she spent being afraid of this new world she slowly started to try new things. (You can see the beginning of that in the book with the job and the English classes). I bet she goes on to do really great things.
I can share with you that my mom now owns her own house and has a business that provides jobs for about 5 other people. She’s touched thousands of lives with it. So I think there’s a lot of good things in M.T.’s mom’s future as well.
Mary: Did you ever have different expectations about M.T.’s future or a different outcome of the book?
Yes, I originally wanted her to get an amnesty, which means she would have been put on a path to citizenship. I had some conversations with my editor and we agreed that it probably wasn’t realistic to end it that way in today’s political climate. It felt like maybe today’s reader would consider it too much of an “easy” ending. But I do still hope that she and others like her eventually get the chance to be citizens.
Lydia S.: Did you base the friendship with Chelsea off of a real friendship that you had?
A lot of the details of what she does with Chelsea are fictional, but I definitely had my own “Chelseas” growing up. In high school, there were 3 of us that went everywhere together. We are still friends today.
Lili May: I really thought of giving up on the book when M.T. started thinking about killing herself. What were your thoughts as you added that part? How did you decide to do that? Did you have any worries about how readers would react?
Thank you for not giving up on it! I know it’s hard to read about that sometimes. It’s difficult to imagine why someone would consider suicide.
I put that in for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted people to understand the impact of how it feels to be living a life that seems to have no good options. I wanted people to understand the damage that can do inside. Second, I put it in because it was something I thought about as a teenager and young adult. I don’t think I really ever wanted to go through with it, but when I ran down the list of how to fix my situation, it sometimes popped up in my head. I’m so glad I found reasons not to do it because my life has been amazing. None of this would have been possible if I had made such a bad decision early on in my life.
I guess the other reason I put that in is in case anyone knows someone who is feeling that sad and hopeless they will know to tell someone and ask for help.
Lydia C.: Did you have worries about getting to go to college like M.T. does because of your undocumented immigrant status?
I absolutely did. Most of the years I was in high school I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to go. (When I was in middle school I hadn’t started to worry about it yet, because my parents kept telling me one day we’d move back to Argentina and, anyway, no one in my family had gone so I didn’t even know what it was).
Even once I became a legal resident and later a citizen, it took me longer than the average person to go to college. I had to work full time and go to school at night. It was hard, but I loved every minute of it.
Lili May: Did you also have a “secret side of yourself” and not tell people about your immigration status?
Absolutely. I was in my 30s when I finally started to tell people about my story. I was so scared to do it before then.
And finally, some questions about when Maria was in middle school:
Lili May: Did you always know you would be a writer? Did you always know you would write a story based off of your experience?
I did always know I wanted to be a writer, although, of course, I thought about lots of other things too. I had a great biology teacher who inspired me to be a scientist for a while. I can be kind of dramatic sometimes so I thought I might make a good actress 🙂 But writing always came kind of easily to me and I enjoyed it, so when I was twelve I wrote in my diary, “Most of all I want to be a writer.”
I never thought I’d write a story based on my experience of being undocumented, though. Never, ever! Remember, I thought it was an ugly secret to hide. I’m glad I figured out it wasn’t. The results have been amazing.
Lydia S: What were your favorite books when you were in middle school? Did any of those books inspire you later?
I loved Judy Blume. I probably read Tiger Eyes a little later in middle school or early in high school and absolutely loved it. I also loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She wasn’t undocumented or Hispanic, but Francie and I had a lot in common. And, of course, I just loved Anne Frank. I thought, like millions of people, that if we had just had a chance to get to know each other we’d have been friends.
Mary: What was the longest book or story that you wrote then?
I wrote in diaries a lot. I used to make up stories about what it would be like if I met my favorite singers and they fell madly in love with me or if the boys I liked from afar… also fell madly in love with me. I wrote a lot about boys falling madly in love with me, I guess.
Lydia C: How much did you understand when you were in middle school about how it impacted you to be an undocumented immigrant, and how much did you not realize until later?
I didn’t understand a lot about it. I knew we were undocumented, but I didn’t understand until later how it would impact my future. When I was in middle school I still thought I would have to move back to Argentina. I was twelve the first time I wrote in my diary that I didn’t want to move there. But it wasn’t until later in high school that I realized that my options here were limited too.
I got my legal permission to stay when I was 18. Even after that I didn’t think a lot about the issue of how being undocumented had affected my life and how many other lives it was affecting. It took almost 20 years for me to “get it.” I can be a slow learner sometimes!
Everyone, thank you SO much for taking the time to read the book and to put together your thoughtful questions. I hope I’ve answered them to your satisfaction. If there is anything that is still unclear or if you think of other questions, let me know! I hope I get to visit your school again one day soon.
Thank YOU, Maria, for visiting our school and for your fascinating answers! We hope we can have you visit again, too.