How The Knife and the Butterfly was inspired by the students I never got to teach
Ashley Hope Perez
I’ve talked a lot about how I wrote my first novel, What Can’t Wait, because my high school students in Houston challenged me to write about their experiences, to show how hard it could be to meet their obligations at home and follow their dreams. By contrast, The Knife and the Butterfly is mostly about the experiences of the teens I never got to meet, the ones who slipped through the cracks in the system or dropped out of school like the protagonist, Azael.
This is not just a hypothetical situation. In Houston schools, the de facto dropout rate is an astonishing 50%. These dropouts get classified in lots of creative ways, but the reality is, out of a starting freshman class of about 1550 at the high school where I taught—which was typical—only around 800 graduated. Since I always taught seniors, this means that there were tons of kids who disappeared from school before they got to my class.
So I still drew on my experiences, but school actually plays a very small part in Azael and Lexi’s lives. In The Knife and the Butterfly, I had a different set of issues to contend with that pushed me well beyond the world I knew. The biggest instance of this was researching MS-13 in Houston. I wanted to show the complex role it played in Azael’s life without glorifying gangs—or implying that every gang member is a ruthless animal.
I also had to get over my own perspective to inhabit Azael’s when it comes to street art.
Boring, rule-bound me: That’s a nice, white building.
Azael: Big-ass blank wall like that? It’s just asking for some color.
I still think it blows to deface someone else’s stuff, but I loved finding something I could relate to in what Azael does. I realized that making a mark on the city around him is a way of fighting the fear that his life doesn’t matter. Not that different from what I do as a writer. It’s more subtle and complicated than that, of course. But you get the idea.
The Knife and the Butterfly will resonate with readers who’ve been in situations like those of the characters, but it can also give other readers a chance to imagine another life, one with different compromises and challenges. And no matter how ordinary or tortured we appear, we’re all complex. Here’s what Azael has to say about our layers (because I like to let my characters’ have the last word whenever possible):
Reading Lexi’s notebook also makes me think how everybody is off the record in a way. Not just fools like my pops who didn’t get their papers straightened out. Not just dropouts like me and Eddie wanting to stay out of the system. I mean that whole part inside of you that nobody else even knows is there. There’s a Lexi that talks trash to Janet, a Lexi that crosses her arms in group, a Lexi that writes in her journal. But there’s also this Lexi that nobody knows about, a Lexi inside of Lexi. That’s how somebody can be getting high or going to church but at the same time still feel like a seven-year-old kid locked out of the swimming pool. That’s how I can be clicking Eddie in, kicking the shit out of him but somewhere deep inside feel that I’m still his hermanito. Down there, there’s a little guy who just wants us to go home and make some ketchup sandwiches.
P.S. from Ashley: If you love The Knife and the Butterfly, check out Matt de la Peña’s Ball Don’t Lie or Connie Porter’s Imani All Mine. These novels have stuck with me for years, and they feature characters with powerful, distinctive voices and tough lives.
P.P.S. More interviews, excerpts, guest posts, and secrets (including two truths and a lie) coming throughout this month’s The Knife and the Butterfly blog tour. See the full tour schedule here.
Check out Ashley’s blog, follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
Add The Knife and the Butterfly on Goodreads.