2012 National Book Award Finalist,
Young People's Literature

Carrie Arcos

Out of Reach, by Carrie ArcosOut of Reach

Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing

Carrie Arcos, Photo credit: Hank Fortener

Sofia Quintero: Of all the stories that you might've told, why this story at this time? What compelled you to pursue this idea?

Carrie Arcos: A couple of years ago, I found myself looking for a family member who has struggled with drug addiction. I was distraught and in pain because I could not help this person. I could not stop him from the life he was choosing. A little while later after finishing a terrible SF novel, I started writing in Rachel's voice. I kind of channeled the emotions I had struggled with through her character. I thought the premise of a sister looking for her missing addict brother might be cool to tackle because I don't know many books that look at addiction through the lens of a family member. I also knew I could speak to the situation and provide an authenticity and emotional truth. The process became a cathartic one.

There's that old writer's adage that says to write what you know, and I suppose that's what I did with Out of Reach. I've never been a meth addict, thank goodness. But I've known one. And I've walked alongside and held hands, pushed back, shed tears. It's a long journey; well it all is, right? When you're ready, there's hope along the way that meets you in unexpected ways.

SQ: There are quite a few "reality" TV shows dealing with addiction, and I have yet to see a person like Rachel on them. There's always the episode when the family is brought in to hold the addict accountable for the way his or her behavior has adversely affected loved ones, but these depictions don't explore how a relative might actually feel complicit in the addict's decision to use. While Rachel has a range of difficult emotions towards her brother Micah, as she searches for him, she grapples with her own inner conflict about his addiction, feeling somewhat responsible for it. As powerful and ubiquitous as television is, would you say this kind of complexity is an inherent advantage that writing in general and fiction in particular holds?

CA: Reality TV. Man, I wish we could go back in time and talk to MTV and say no to "The Real World." That's the show that got us into the mess we're in now. You can probably tell I'm not a huge fan of the genre. The problem with reality TV is that it's not reality. It's edited, cast for conflict, and sometimes scripted. If a character like Rachel was on a show confronting Micah, what would she really say? What would the viewers learn? She'd probably be presented as judgmental or uncaring or naïve to the complexities of Micah's situation. I think fiction allows for an intimate look into someone like Rachel, someone who is passed over in her family because on the outside at least, she's the "good" kid. Her inner conflict and struggle would be difficult to portray in an intervention. It's funny because in Out of Reach she actually imagines herself initiating one with Micah and thinking if she did, she would have been the hero of the family. So there's a part of her that's trying to make things right, as if she could actually help or "save" Micah from himself. And this is perhaps the hardest truth and the one that isn't at the forefront of an intervention. Rachel can't save Micah. Only Micah can save Micah, no matter what intervention is staged.

SQ: At times it doesn't seem like there's a great deal of compassion out there for people struggling with substance abuse. Given your own experience with the subject matter, was this one of your objectives when writing Out of Reach? Was the catharsis you experienced in writing it the result of or maybe even the precursor to any shifts in your own understanding of addiction? That is, did you find your assumptions, prejudices, and the like challenged or changed? Although Out of Reach is about much more than substance abuse, how would you encourage someone who might be wary of reading a book that deals with addiction to give it a chance?

CA: There doesn't seem to be too much compassion for those struggling with drug addiction, but it's heartbreaking to see someone with so much promise and potential become ravaged by drugs. And this is why it makes no sense and why maybe some have no tolerance for it. They can't understand why someone would choose to destroy themselves. Or there's the other side where there's a codependency and families try to rescue, spending their time and resources to try and help their loved one, but it just becomes this terrible cycle that is no good to either one. Of course there are all kinds of things that come into play with addiction, and I am not a professional, but I know the heartache and I know the forgiveness, and sometimes they're two different sides of the same coin. That said, Out of Reach isn't really about substance abuse per se. I know the meth addiction in the synopsis might scare some people away, but it isn't about a meth addict. It's about the sister and the friend of a meth addict. Tyler, one of Micah's best friends, goes to San Diego with Rachel, and it's been difficult for him seeing his friend become someone else as well. It approaches addiction from the outside looking in. Even though there is great pain, guilt, and anger in Rachel's journey, in the end, Micah is still her brother. Her love for him doesn’t change no matter what choices he makes. But she's angry. There's a difference between being angry and being judgmental, however, and I think sometimes people mistake the two. Rachel isn't perfect and her feelings about her brother's choices may not be "right," but they're true to her experience. In the end, it's love that drives her search and love that gives her hope, but it also requires that she make a tough decision. It's a book that looks at the complexities of sibling relationships, so anyone who has a sibling could relate to that aspect. I kind of think of it as a love letter from a sister to a brother.

SQ: In recent years, there has been extensive debate over the recent popularity of "dark narratives" and heavy themes in young adult literature, from dystopian fantasy to contemporary stories that deal with substance abuse, suicide, and even sexual assault. One journalist even referred to it as “desperation lit.” Why do you think readers are so drawn to such topics and what do you hope they will gain from reading Out of Reach?

CA: I don’t think the popularity of such narratives is really that recent. Well, I guess it depends on how recent is defined. I know there were such narratives published in the 60’s and 70’s. However, during my first years of teaching high school, there were two books I couldn’t keep on my shelves in my classroom because they were so popular: A Child Called It, about a boy who survives horrible abuse at the hands of his mother, and Speak, about a girl who is struggling with depression after a rape at a party. My students were fascinated with reading about the traumatic situations the protagonists went through. They were drawn, however, not just to the suffering or “dark narratives” but to the triumph of the protagonist and to the hope that the books ultimately leave the reader with. I think there’s an identification that happens when reading these books, not necessarily in the specifics but in regard to the struggle.

Let’s face it. Adolescence is a time of wrestling with everything from the physical through the emotional, so these books provide maybe some kind of working through but at a safe distance. To know that others suffer but come out stronger, changed, more human in a way, is quite powerful. I love the quote at the end of season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when Buffy and her gang have just defeated the mayor and have saved the world. Oz says, “We survived.” Buffy responds with, “It was one hell of a battle.” To which Oz counters, “Not the battle. High School.”

I already know those who have loved ones who have struggled with addiction connect to Out of Reach, and I hope that others can gain a little more of an understanding into the complexities of addiction, how it extends beyond the addict. I also hope they’re entertained and moved by the story, so they’ll think about it beyond the last page. And cry. If it can make them cry, that’s always good.


SQ: Which authors did you read as a teen, and whose work in the genre do you enjoy reading now? Why? What would you like to see more of in young adult literature?

CA: As a teen I read pretty widely, but I loved Robert Cormier, Judy Blume, those Sweet Valley High books, Ray Bradbury, Richard Bauchman, who I found out years later was Stephen King. I loved realistic fiction with an edge as well as Science Fiction, and those two elements combined? Awesome. 

A writers I’m loving in the genre now are M.T. Anderson. His stuff is great, but you must read Feed. Markus Zusak because of his novel The Book Thief. Melina Marchetta for On Jellicoe Road and Gene Luen Yang for American Born Chinese. Meg Rosoff’s pretty great too. Oh, and Patrick Ness, Lois Lowry, Cornelia Funke… There’s just too many.

I would like to see more characters, especially protagonists, fall out of the white, middle class American distinction. A book that does this very well is Ship Breaker. I don’t see why we can’t have more books that reflect the multi-ethnic or global identities of teen readers.

SQ: Many young people who are avid readers tend to be aspiring writers, and they often ask, "How did you write your book?" Describe your writing process. What is the most important piece of advice you would give to a young aspiring writer?

CA: Writing takes discipline. I would say showing up and sitting in that chair is the first step. Pushing through tough spots is another. And finishing. You must be able to finish. I usually begin with a character and setting. I try to have a sense of where the story is leading and maybe what’s at stake in the story. One practical tip I’ve put to use is the advice that Hemingway wrote about in A Moveable Feast. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that he would always finish at a point where he knew how he would begin the next day, so when you come back to the work, you could immediately begin.

SQ: Finish this sentence: "Adults also should read young adult literature because..." 

CA: It’s such an exciting, rich field.

Sofía Quintero is the author of several novels and short stories that cross genres. Born into a working-class Puerto Rican-Dominican family in the Bronx, the self-proclaimed “Ivy League homegirl” earned a BA in history-sociology from Columbia University in 1990 and her MPA from the university's School of International and Public Affairs in 1992. After years of working on a range of policy issues from multicultural education to HIV/AIDS, she decided to pursue career that married arts and activism. Under the pen name Black Artemis, she wrote the hip hop novels Explicit Content, Picture Me Rollin’, and Burn. Sofía is also the author of the novel Divas Don’t Yield and contributed novellas to the “chica lit” anthologies Friday Night Chicas and Names I Call My Sister. As an activist, she co-founded Chica Luna Productions (chicaluna.com), a nonprofit organization that seeks to identify, develop and support women of color who wish to create socially conscious entertainment. She is also a founding creative partner of Sister Outsider Entertainment, a multimedia production company that produces quality entertainment for urban audiences. Quintero’s first young adult novel, Efrain’s Secret, was published by Knopf in 2010. To learn more about Sofia and her work, visit blackartemis.com, sisteroutsider.biz or myspace.com/sofiaquintero.

Photo credit: Hank Fortener