The bully character: when less is more

I’m so glad toYacqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass have had the opportunity to interview Meg Medina, author of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, coming out this month from Candlewick Press. It’s a tense, tightly written novel about surviving high school. Click here to watch the trailer, and read on to hear what Meg had to say about crafting her bully, Yaqui, and her protagonist, Piddy Sanchez.

A.B. Westrick: From the opening line, Yaqui Delgado’s threat carries the tension even though her physical presence is (relatively) minimal. Here, less bully makes for more bully. A brilliant story structure! What was your process in writing the story this way? Was that first line always your first line, or did it emerge in the course of revisions?

Meg Medina: The first line of this novel has never changed, and that’s not something I can say about anything else I’ve written. It was plucked from real life, which we’ll get to a little later. As an author, it provided me with a way to reveal the main problem of the novel in one crude and forceful blow.

Keeping Yaqui as a threatening presence, rather than fleshing her out was tricky. At first I wondered if I should develop her more. Readers would wonder, I thought, about what fills someone with such rage.

In the end, I decided to tell the story squarely from Piddy’s perspective and to let Yaqui loom in the way that a scary idea looms in your mind. It haunts you and crowds out everything else.

To help me do that, I wrote in first person present and was able to get far inside Piddy’s thinking, moment to moment through all of her frightening experiences. This made it Piddy’s story, the story of being on the receiving end of random abuse.

Yaqui would have had a very rich and probably sad story of her own. But I wanted this novel to be about how a strong girl gets undone and eventually survives violence like this.

ABW: More than once Yaqui’s posse delivers her threats. This felt very real. To what extent did this character and situation come from personal life experience, and to what extent from researching bully behaviors?

Meg MedinaMM: Sadly, the events were based mostly on an experience I had in middle school in New York. The opening scene is virtually identical. A girl I’d never laid eyes on approached me to deliver the news that someone was going to kick my ass. Like Piddy, I had no idea who she meant. I can tell you that those were two very long and scary years, and I was able to pull a lot from memory.

As for research, my own children were teens while I was writing, so I had the benefit of a front row seat to high school today. I paid close attention to their accounts of notes being passed, “slut folders” on people’s desktops, hateful comments during class, girl fight websites, and Facebook “drama.”  The girl posse, I’m sad to report, is alive and well.  I also did some formal digging into how schools are responding now, the rules for suspensions, and so on. My cousin, a retired NYC principal, was very helpful.

ABW: Many secondary characters, especially Joey, Lila, and Ma, emerge as complex, warts and all. How do you go about creating your characters? How much are they based on people you know, and how much comes from your imagination?

MM:  Every character I write is a compilation of so many of the imperfect and troubled people I have loved in my life: My mother, my old neighbors, aunts – parts of them are there. But there are plenty of characters that are completely fabricated.

The key thing about characters is that they need qualities that make them irresistible and revolting all at once. If they’re imaginative, they might be liars. If they’re loyal, perhaps they’re dangerously controlling. Or they might be generous but also thieves. What I love about the contradictions and flaws is that they force you to ask good questions as a writer. Why is this character like this?

I start with a general idea of the characters, an idea about the types of people who might populate the landscape. I look around and see who has shown up for auditions, so to speak. In this case, I filled my mind with old boyfriends and cops; a building superintendent; neighbors; the owner of a beauty shop, teachers, deans. As I wrote the scenes, the individuals stepped in and revealed themselves. It was in watching them deal with problems that I really got to know them better. Lila is probably my favorite character. She’s sensual and gorgeous, but she’ll brain you with a plunger handle if you mess with her. She has such trouble with being a responsible adult and yet she is a lifeline to Piddy.

ABW: You wrote Yaqui Delgado after having written a middle-grade novel, a YA novel, and a picture book. What is different about the process of writing a novel versus writing a picture book? Writing YA versus writing for younger readers? What are you working on now?

MM: I just sold my second picture book manuscript to Candlewick, so I am now working on that. It’s about a girl whose grandmother comes to live with the family. Only trouble is, abuela does not speak English, and my narrator speaks so-so español. It’s a story about how we create connections in family, how we cross divides and reach understanding.

Picture books are so joyous for me. There is no other way to describe it. They are little poems that you have to get just right. And even after my poem leaves me, it’s still fun. For example, right now, the team at Candlewick is doing the illustrator search. I go to sleep imagining how my part will merge into something entirely new through art.

But I do love novels, too. The biggest difference between writing novels and picture book is similar to the difference between Impressionism and Realism. In picture books, I am using dabs of story and dialogue to suggest a larger world of how the family works and how the child fits into that family.

With novels, I am taking the time to draw in the hard lines, to really explore and show my characters and their troubles, step by step. Also, novels take stamina. You could be working on a piece for years, after all. And more, if you’re writing a novel for teens, you’ll be exploring the hard questions we face as we’re reaching for adulthood. I tell you, it’s not for the weak.

ABW: Thank you again, Meg, for opening up about your process in writing Piddy’s heartfelt story. I’m looking forward to giving away the ARC!

And for Richmond, VA-area folks: Meg’s book launch party for Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is this coming Saturday, March 16th, 2-4:30 p.m. at Art 180, 114 West Marshall Street, Richmond. I’ll see you there!

To win the ARC of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, signed by the author, leave a comment below. I’ll choose one winner randomly from the comments received. Deadline: March 25, 2013.

19 thoughts on “The bully character: when less is more”

  1. Meg’s new book is going to be awesome and she helps Latinos and young adults see themselves in the characters. Plus she is a great person in Richmond helping the Richmond Public Library!

  2. Great interview, Anne! I always love hearing about the process behind the writing. It makes it less mysterious for those of us still working on what we hope will be our debut. I can’t wait to read the book so I would love to win the ARC!

  3. I love all the thought that went into crafting these characters, how she draws on people in her life and the audition…great stuff. I’m also saddened that this really happened to her. As teenagers, being pushed around or abused verbally is absolutely soul searing. Good for Meg for giving this hard experience a clear voice. I can’t wait to read this book!

  4. Great interview, definitely want to read the book! I like that Meg said characters “need qualities that make them irresistible and revolting all at once.” Robert Louis Stevenson was great at that – prime example being Long John Silver in Treasure Island, but also Alan Breck Stewart in Kidnapped. I look forward to seeing how she works that out.

  5. This sounds like a perfect book for me! I love complex characters. Putting on my “to-read” list!

  6. This book sounds like a wonderful read. Having taught all boys at the middle school level and now currently teaching all girls, I can see this fitting nicely into the classroom and curriculum. Well done on this project. Well done.

  7. As a former teacher of middle and high schoolers, and someone who regularly volunteers with kids now, I can think of so many people who would love to read this book. Meg has a way not only with words, but with creating characters who are truly alive and whose stories live with their readers long after the final page has been closed. I can’t wait to read about Piddy!

    Thanks for a great interview, Anne.

  8. I would LOVE to win this ARC. I’ve been wanting to read this book since I saw the deal posted in Publishers Marketplace. Great interview. 🙂

  9. And the winner is… Nylce! Congratulations! I’ll email to confirm your snail mail address. And for everyone else, YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS is now available in bookstores.

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