Hi everybody, and a big thanks to Ashley (great name!) for having me by. I’ll give you the synopsis of my new novel, The Knife and the Butterfly, and then after that it’s one of my favorite scenes from the first part of the book. The little numbers throughout correspond to my notes at the end about what inspired certain details. I hope you enjoy.
About The Knife and the Butterfly:
Azael Arevalo wishes he could remember how the fight ended. He knows his MS13 boys faced off with some punks from Crazy Crew. He can picture the bats, the bricks, the chains. A knife. But he can’t remember anything between that moment and when he woke behind bars. Azael knows jails, and something isn’t right about this lockup. No phone call. No lawyer. No news about his brother or his homies. The only thing they make him do is watch some white girl in some cell. Watch her and try to remember.
Lexi Allen would love to forget the fight, would love for it to disappear back into the Xanax fog it came from. And her mother and her lawyer hope she chooses not to remember too much about the brawl—at least when it’s time to testify. Lexi knows that there’s more at stake in her trial than her life alone, though. Azael needs the truth. The knife cut, but somehow it also connected.
Excerpt from Chapter 6:
After Pops got picked up, me and Eddie laid low for a week. When we heard that the CPS people weren't coming by to look for us anymore, we headed back to the Bel-Lindo Apartments. The Bel-Lindo was bad parents and crackheads, dog shit and dirt for lawns, and pissed-off fools everywhere, but it was still home. There were things I liked, too. Like Jorge Ledesma’s grandma praying out on the balcony to beat the heat in summer. Or the soccer games with the little guys on the dirt courtyards between buildings. And nowhere else in Houston you could find Mrs. Guzman selling calling cards and Coronas and spicy-as-fuck cheetos  right out of her living room window.
Even after Pops got sent back to El Salvador, we stuck to the Bel-Lindo. Our old neighbors knew how things was for us—no moms, no pops—and they kept an eye out and told us when an apartment went empty so we’d have a place to crash for a couple of nights. 
When people got evicted, they didn’t bother cleaning the walls or carpet or nothing before they split. Those empty units could be pretty sick. Used condoms and weird stains and a million cockroaches, some dead, some alive. Torn-up photos, suitcases that didn’t zip, broken dishes. All kinds of random shit.
When Eddie forced the door to 17B, he knocked over some trash bags. He gave them a kick, spilling used toilet paper everywhere.
“Nice work, shit-for-brains,” I told him. “You check the kitchen.”
“Fuckin’ Mexicans never flush it,” Eddie grumbled.  He used his foot to push a Barbie doll head over toward the trash pile, then he headed for the kitchen.
I went into the bathroom to see if there was anything worth keeping. An old, gunked-up bottle of dollar-store pine-scented cleaner was all I found under the sink, and I thought the drawers were empty till I pulled the bottom one all the way out. At the back there was a message in girly writing Sharpied right onto the rough wood. 
I aint doing this cuz you cheated on me. Not cuz you hit me.
Its cuz if I dont Im scared I wont ever leave you. The way
Ima go, I wont have no way to come crawlin back. I aint
gonna have this baby. Where me and him is goin, nothing
can hurt us.
I stood up fast, not wanting to think about what I just read. But it was like the girl’s message skipped my brain and jumped into my legs, and I started kicking the shit out of that drawer. Every time I kicked it shut, it bounced back open, and finally I just had to shove the drawer back in.
I walked out of the bathroom, and there was Eddie chowing down on some old crackers like nothing bad happened in this shithole. But I didn’t want to talk about what I found, neither. So when he tossed me a package of Pop-Tarts, I caught it and opened it up. Some girl and her baby was dead, and here I was, eating her food like it didn't even matter.
When we threw down our blankets, Eddie passed out right off, but I lay there thinking for what seemed like forever. I almost wanted the neighbors to get into it or for somebody to break a bottle in the parking lot, anything. It was too damn quiet, and I was stuck with what I knew about that girl beat up on by her man and thinking she had to off herself just to get away from him. Finally I went and sat in the bathroom and got out my
Mostly I tagged for MS-13, but when I got my hands on enough cans, I’d work out a real piece, like the one I did to honor my moms on the wooden fence between the Bel-Lindo and the vacant lot. I showed that shit off for two weeks before it got painted out by some punks on a city work crew getting their community service hours. Erased, just like that. Some writers take pictures of their work and show it off that way. Me, all I got to keep was the memory of killing it out there with my cans, the thrill of throwing something up on a wall without getting caught. 
I was still thinking about the girl who wrote the message. Thinking about her by drawing. I started by sketching in the shapes. “Bel-Lindo” in big letters across the top. Over the bottom half, trash spilled out of some bags to spell out, AINT SO PRETTY. I drew an X-ray shot of one of the trash bags to show a girl all curled up around herself. And inside her stomach I drew an even smaller figure with the weird alien eyes and big head you see in pictures of unborn babies. I put a speech bubble out from him that said, “Damn! Already fukt!” 
After a while, Eddie banged on the door and asked if I had the runs or was I jacking off? That made me laugh. I put away my black book and went out, but I still couldn’t sleep. Sometimes you just can’t.
 When I used to teach in Houston, my students were crazy about spicy cheetos. They would eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and sometimes they did. I remember begging a pregnant student to swap her two bags of cheetos for something more nutritious from my lunch. They never called them “spicy-as-fuck” cheetos to my face, but this phrase is something I overheard when I was doing hall duty one day. I scurried back to my room and wrote it down in my writer’s notebook.
 This bit—the brothers sleeping in abandoned apartments—came straight from the news about the event that inspired the novel. I still have the quote that I pasted into my research file, although I've lost track of the specific source. Here it is, followed by a translation: “El último lugar donde durmió fue la casa de Marlene Martínez, una vecina que lo conocía desde niño. ‘Había días en que dormía en departamentos vacíos,’ dice ella.” TRANSLATION: “The last place where he slept was the house of Marlene Martínez, a neighbor who had known him since he was a boy. ‘There were days when he slept in empty apartments,’ she said.”
 Until I worked with teens in Houston, I had no idea there was such animosity between Mexican-Americans and immigrants from El Salvador. But there is. I remember having to work long and hard just to get students from these different backgrounds to cooperate on class projects. So that’s where Eddie’s snide remark comes from.
 Confession: I am totally obsessed with bathroom graffiti. I wrote an essay about it once in college, even. Of course, usually I read what’s on bathroom stalls, but this part of the scene is a kind of spin-off of some of the extremely personal confessions I've come across during my many years as a bathroom wall reader. There’s something intensely personal and very frightening about seeing a message like this one and not knowing what happened to the person who wrote it.
 I can’t even tell you how much time I spent researching the logistics of canning and graffiti clean up. A lot. A LOT. This is stuff I knew nothing about, but I studied tons of Houston graffiti, stalked online tagger and street art groups, and even watched a YouTube video that explains how to steal (“rack”) spray paint. Not what you imagined as an author’s research, huh?
 A couple of things here. First, I used to have a student who doodled constantly, and while it annoyed me at first (especially when he chose to do it directly on the top of his desk) I came to realize that drawing for him was what writing was for me. I write to discover what I think—he drew to accomplish the same. The second thing I wanted to mention was that “Lindo” in the name of the apartment complex means “pretty” in Spanish, hence Azael’s commentary, “AINT SO PRETTY.” The third thing: I know the cussing fetus is disturbing. But this is how Azael sorts out what he’s just seen. The fact that he does anything about it is, in a way, pretty mature.
Ask for The Knife and the Butterfly from your favorite local bookseller or order it online.
More interviews, excerpts, guest posts, and secrets (including two truths and a lie) coming throughout Ashley’s The Knife and the Butterfly blog tour. Click to see the full your schedule.
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