Steve Schafer is the debut author of a YA novel called The Border published by Sourcebooks this past September. The novel has elements of a high pitched thriller but also gets into some serious issues for discussion about immigration, disparities in wealth, and borders between countries. Steve recently visited my high school to speak to some of our students. As a follow up, he agreed to do an interview for the Suburban Barnyard.
SB: You chose to create characters who are Mexican rather than American even though you are not a native Spanish speaker nor Mexican. They come across as quite authentic, nonetheless. Can you talk a little about the process behind your character and setting creation and how you were able to pull this off?
Steve Schafer: I have spent the last 25 years living, working, studying, volunteering, or traveling throughout Latin America. In these experiences, I have always tried to immerse myself in the local culture. As with anything, the more you practice something, the more it becomes a skill. To write The Border, I leveraged personal relationships that I have had with immigrants from Mexico, plus study of books and online resources that speak to the specific area in which these teens crossed. It was a challenge, but one that I’m glad to hear ultimately came across as authentic to you!
SB: When you spoke to our students, you put up two slides of quotes about immigrants, one historic and one contemporary. We so often think of this whole debate as something new, but the reality is that it has been an issue as long as people have crossed borders. This is a perfect example of why teaching of history is so critical in education. How do you think novels like yours can help us to encourage younger generations to continue supporting the humanities as something critical to the future of modern societies and thinkers?
Steve Schafer: I’m hopeful that it underscores the value and power of story. As I mentioned when speaking with your students, facts and figures only get you so far. By telling someone about what’s happening, you may reach their minds; but by immersing a reader into another person’s world and showing them the full impact of what’s happening, you can reach their hearts. This is true for every reader, but I feel it’s especially important and powerful within YA. This is such a formidable age, and it is a tremendous privilege to be able to write to this audience.
SB: I cannot agree more! In order to create a compelling story, it seems that tragedy really has to be an element at some point. In the Harry Potter books I can remember my oldest crying over her book as she found out that Severus died...and then still more characters as the series progressed. You start out your novel with tragedy right at the heart. What made you decide to jump right into that emotion as a writer?
Steve Schafer: This story was unfortunately seeded by a real life tragedy of a friend of mine in Northern Mexico. As with the initial incident in The Border, my friend’s situation happened nearly out of the blue. There was no warning, and no explanation for why it occurred. My friend’s story begins with loss. Since this was the spark for the idea behind The Border, I wanted to begin on a similar note, then explore how someone copes with this horrific life event.
Further bolstering my interest in beginning with a strong emotional punch is fact that I like reading stories that grab me immediately and don’t let go. I knew early on that beginning with the quinceañera tragedy was the way that I would want to read this story, so that’s how I structured it.
SB: I love the beginning for exactly that reason! It completely draws you into the story from the onset. A quinceañera is such an important coming of age celebration for any teen in Latin culture and I think that is an interesting stage to begin a story about these four teens. I can’t imagine what your friend’s family, or the undoubtable countless others, real life experiences must have been like. Marcus Sedgwick wrote about similar issues with gang related violence in Saint Death. Perhaps tragedy is just part of the human condition and writing about it a way for us to purge our grief. The only thing that may match tragedy is love, which is probably why we read Shakespeare’s tragedies and romances more than any of his other works.
So that leads to another component of your story, which is love. There are some interesting relationships between your four teens. What made you choose them? And why four teens?
Steve Schafer: I initially envisioned this story like the movie Stand By Me (with the stakes dialed up much higher!), so I planned to have four boys fleeing across the desert. However, when I shared the idea with a few friends, one of them suggested making one of the characters a girl. I knew immediately it was a good call. As you suggest, it allowed me show many different sides of love--best friends, siblings, and romance. Conflict is story. By having all of these strong loving bonds in place, it gave plenty of opportunity to find conflict between the different relationships, especially when placed in a high stress situation.
The personalities for each of the characters emerged from thinking about how four people could have differing reactions to the same, tragic event. While the novel is about a group of four teens, it tries to focus on the individual stories…what drives each person on their journey and how it shapes each of them.
Pato’s voice is closest to my own, which is why I chose him as the narrator. Marcos’ is most distant—his reactions are often opposite of what I would do, which made him one of the most rewarding characters to write. Gladys has profound inner strength, which the others need. They also need to remain together—she is the glue. As for Arbo, this story needed a character who could bring levity to impossibly dark situations. His character is the only one who was also inspired by someone in Stand By Me--Vern, played by Jerry O’Connell.
On a separate note, Saint Death is high on my TBR. I hope to get to it soon!
SB: It is a wonderful book by another wonderful author! I like the way you played each of the characters strengths in the situation, but I also like that you made them real by showing their weaknesses. I think perhaps that is what made me like the book the best. You didn’t divide everyone up into neat piles of “good” and “bad”. We are all a mixture of both and that is what makes life interesting but also challenging. From a writing standpoint, I think it is often difficult to create characters who are not flat and one dimensional. How were you able to keep from falling into that pit?
Steve Schafer: They all start pretty flat. I have an idea of the general character arc, but it’s monotone. As I start writing them, that’s when the nuance surfaces. I think about them in a particular scene and wonder how they might react--exploring that range of possibilities is how their personalities are born. For me, the key to making someone more multidimensional is to imagine how that individual can surprise you...doing something that isn’t inconsistent with their character, but not the most predictable reaction. These little surprises add up to create complex personalities that are fun to work with.
SB: I suppose that is in many ways how we are as individuals, isn’t it? That’s why it’s hard to put us into little boxes when you actually bother to get to know us. You never know how we are going to react when the going gets tough until we are faced with reality. And in the same way that people are messy mixtures of character traits, the issues we grapple with in real life are also more difficult than the neat little piles of “for” and “against”. I think you make that point very clear in this book with the issue of immigration. Immigration is a challenging debate not just for Americans, but all over the world. We like to think that it is a new issue, but it isn’t. What do you hope for all of us moving forward with this debate over the course of the next ten years? What about the next twenty? Thirty?
Steve Schafer: It is challenging and it has always been challenging. We need to continue to push empathy. We need to understand what these people endure. What would it take for you to leave everything and everyone behind to move to a place where you may not speak the language, where your professional skills and credentials may not be valued, where you may not have any family or friends to support you? When we truly get the magnitude of this decision, I believe we have the perspective to set the right tone for the conversation.
What gives me hope for us (as a people) is the same thing that gives me hope for this issue--we have an evolving moral compass. Behaviors and attitudes that were acceptable in recent history are no longer condoned. This progress isn’t linear and our online world has become so noisy that it’s easy to overlook the evolution of majority views. But I do believe they evolve. As an example, an ABC News poll in September found that 86% of our nation supports DACA. I can’t think of much else that this many of us agree upon! This gives me great hope, and I’m also hopeful these attitudes will continue to win ground in the coming decades.
SB: What about the drug cartel issue? The violence has been written about in fiction and nonfiction and it has been at the center of a multitude of films for decades. Perhaps it’s media sensationalization, but the situation only seems to get worse. What do you see as the best steps the United States can begin to make toward helping to stop the violence?
Steve Schafer: It’s easy to point fingers outward, but I believe we are to blame for this. We are the primary consumers of the products these cartels provide. As long as we consume their drugs, the cartels and related violence will exist. We have to impact demand. As to how we do this, I’m at a loss. I personally don’t believe that broad legalization of all substances is a good idea, nor is it easy to convince people not to do drugs. Maybe the first step is simply to get people to acknowledge the true cost of drugs goes beyond just harming their own bodies--it creates an industry that does massive harm to millions.
SB: I don’t have answers either, but I agree with you completely about hope. I became a high school teacher as a second career for exactly that reason. I see hope far more than I see doom for the future. Thank you for sharing your ideas through story, school visits, and this wonderful interview -- I look forward to reading your new book when it comes out!