Hey there! I'm so excited to introduce today's #BeyondTheBio guest, Marie Marquardt. I had the privilege of meeting Marie at the LA Festival Of Books this April and immediately knew I had to interview her. In addition to writing YA, Marie is also a college professor and an immigration advocate. She works with El Refugio, a non-profit in Georgia that helps detained immigrants, and has advocated for immigration reform on NPR, BBC America, and NBC. Her two novels, Dream Things True and The Radius Of Us, both deal extensively with the need for immigration reform. Especially in light of the current political climate, I'm so excited to spotlight Marie and her books. Let's get to it!
James: Hi Marie! Thanks so much for joining me today. Ever since you and I met at the LA Festival of Books earlier this year, I’ve been hoping for a chance to introduce you to our readers. Your most recent book, The Radius Of Us, came out at the beginning of this year. What’s it about?
Marie: The Radius of Us is a love story about two teenagers struggling to overcome their past and become survivors together. Gretchen was a funky, progressive, Southern white girl who was a victim of assault after work one night. She suffers debilitating panic attacks and has lost connection to her old self. When the story opens, she sees Phoenix chasing a dog through a neighborhood park. She mistakes him for her attacker and then feels incredibly guilty and embarrassed about it (as she should!).
Phoenix was not her attacker. He is an eighteen-year- old university student who took his little brother and fled a dangerous community in El Salvador, after gang members threatened to take their lives. He and his brother were separated at the U.S./ Mexico border, and he was sent to detention. Now he’s living in a posh Atlanta suburb with the kind couple (He calls them “sweet, churchy lesbians”). They found him a lawyer, got him out of detention, and took him in.
As Phoenix works to be reunited with his brother and to get permission to stay in the United States, he and Gretchen develop a deepening connection. But the shared past experiences that improbably link them also have the potential to tear them apart.
James: I know that this story is a very personal one for you. Can you tell me a little about what made you want to write about the need for immigration reform?
Marie: This book was inspired by the many young asylum seekers from Central America that I have become friends with over the years. I’ve been working with undocumented immigrants in the South for a couple of decades, and I’ve been honored, for the past six years, to help run a Georgia non-profit that supports immigrants and asylum-seekers in detention. I often visit with young men who share much in common with Phoenix. They’re incredible, resilient, and brave. I think their stories are so important. Not many people know what’s happening to make these young people seek protection in the U.S., or what life is like for them when they arrive. I hope this story will give readers some insight into that, while also giving them a great love story.
James: You wrote this story before the election of our current President, but it in many ways feels like a response to some of his rhetoric. Was that intentional?
Marie: I certainly have no intention of engaging our current President – I even have him blocked from my Twitter feed. But I feel very strongly that we need to be talking and thinking about immigration in new ways. I want for our conversations about immigration to be about real human beings –people who live, love, and struggle in complex ways. I’m exhausted by the caricatures that we see and hear every day. I also can fall into deep sadness or searing anger about those caricatures, but I try not to. Instead, I write, and I also work hard to support my immigrant friends and those who advocate with and for them.
James: One of the things I loved most about The Radius Of Us was the way you portrayed Phoenix and Gretchen. They are both so, so different and so, so similar. How did you go about creating this paradox?
Marie: I’m so glad you asked this! One of my favorite things about writing love stories about people with different background, nationality, and ethnicity is that it offers a chance to dive deep into this seeming paradox. Sometimes people say to me: “Isn’t it amazing how love can erase the differences between us?” This is a bit frustrating for me, because it’s clear that love doesn’t dissolve our differences. The differences between Gretchen and Phoenix are very real, and they are shot-through with dynamics of power and privilege. What love does in relationships like theirs is offer a safe space and opportunity for them to examine those differences, to understand them more deeply, and also to recognize all the things they share in common. I think it’s so important, in our current climate, both to be very honest about the systems (like racism and xenophobia) that are working hard to tear us apart and to celebrate and honor the things we share in common.
James: I also loved Phoenix’s relationship with the “sweet churchy lesbians” who took him in after he is bailed out of detention. We need more queer parents in YA. Was that something that you thought about while writing?
Marie: Yes, absolutely! I am very fortunate to live in a community with a broad range of family configurations, and some of the best parents I know are queer. I also love that many of these parents also are, indeed, “churchy.” The contemporary South is a diverse, complex, fascinating world! I hope my stories will challenge readers to think more carefully about what’s going on down here, and not to make simplistic assumptions about Southerners.
James: Drawing is such a big part of this book, especially in regards to Phoenix’s brother. Do you have any art skills yourself?
Marie: Nope. I am a terrible artist, but I knew those sketches needed to be a part of the story, so I set out to find a collaborator. I was so fortunate to be able to work with Carlos Morataya on this project. A mutual friend connected us, and the first time I saw one of his sketches, I knew he had captured Ari’s “voice.” As we worked together over the course of a few months, I learned that Carlos shares much in common with the protagonists of my story. If you want to learn more about him, you can read an interview we did together here.
James: What other books would you recommend to someone who enjoyed The Radius Of Us and wants to read more YA fiction featuring undocumented immigrants?
Marie: The Secret Side of Empty is a great story about an undocumented teen navigating her senior year and trying to hide her status. It’s written by Maria Andreu, who also was undocumented during much of her youth. Ibi Zoboi’s beautiful new book American Street is about a Haitian-American girl whose mother is undocumented, and is being held in immigration detention. And, my first YA novel, Dream Things True, is the story of an undocumented teen who came to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of two.
James: So what’s next for you, Marie? Any future projects you can tell us about?
Marie: Yes! I have a book coming out in February 2018 called Flight Season. We just got the cover for it, which I love! It’s about that one unexpected summer that changes everything. It’s a love story, but also a story of friendship and the sacrifices we make for our friends. Of course, it also deals with immigration themes. In this story, the issue I’m struggling to work out is access to healthcare – is it a right or a privilege? And should our ability to access quality health care be linked to our status as citizens of one country or another?
James: Last question, so let’s make it a fun one. Since you’ve been on NPR, I’m stealing this question from my favorite NPR podcast Code Switch. What’s something that’s giving you life right now?
Marie: Okay, this is going to sound strange, but here goes: birds.
For Flight Season, I had to do a bunch of research on birds, and I read a fabulous book called The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman. Reading it was a great escape from the insanity of our world right now. It reminded me that, while we humans are making a mess of things, we also are coexisting with these extraordinary winged creatures. They have complex social and emotional lives that have nothing to do with us. And, even though we are destroying some of their habitats, they are, for the most part, living all around us, and almost entirely independent of us. I hate to make a bad play on words, but the truth is this: tweets have absolutely no effect on the birds living in my yard. Somehow, this gives me comfort. When things get nutty and overwhelming, I often stop to listen to the birds, and I watch them for a while. They’re so cool, and they’re everywhere!
That’s it for today’s interview with Marie. If you'd like to connect with Marie, you can stop by website or visit her on Twitter. And don't forget to come back here next week, when we'll have one of the PickMyYA teen readers hosting the #BeyondTheBio interview. You won't want to miss it!