Author Interview with Brenda Ortega
Presley may be smart, but she buckles under pressure – or more specifically, she alphabetizes. In stressful moments her mind grabs words and compulsively sorts the letters, like a frightened guard dog chasing its tail. So it’s no surprise when signs from the universe constantly warn her: stay out of the spotlight. That’s hard to do when her Elvis-loving mom, the school secretary, plays embarrassing snippets of The King’s hits on the PA every day. It’s even harder when the school’s biggest goofball nominates Presley for president and her campaign speech turns disastrous. Her greatest refuge from the drama is her adorable nephew. But Luke’s mom – Presley’s teenage sister – has a secret that threatens to tear the boy from the family forever, unless Presley can stop it. Maybe the universe is out to get her. Or perhaps it’s whispering a new message: Stay cool. Step into the spotlight. Summon your inner Elvis.
Stephanie: Hello, Brenda! Congrats on the B.R.A.G. Medallion and thank you for chatting with me today about your book, THE TWELFTH OF NEVER. Please tell me how you discovered indieBRAG.
Brenda: Hi, Stephanie. Thank you so much! I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to receive the B.R.A.G. Medallion, knowing what a high bar it represents. As for the IndieBRAG site, I discovered it and bookmarked it well before I published, when I was first starting to think about going indie and looking for resources. I can’t remember how I found it – one of those serendipitous trips down the internet rabbit hole – but I’m glad I did! In addition to being awarded the medallion, I’ve found great reads there!
Stephanie: Please tell me about your book? And what genre it falls under.
Brenda: THE TWELFTH OF NEVER is a contemporary young adult novel about a brainy but neurotic teen who discovers her inner Elvis while fighting to hold on to the little boy she loves most.
The story has a dual plot line, with the main character Presley facing challenges at school and at home, which dovetail in the climax. The central conflict involves a terribly difficult family situation.
I write novels along the lines of what Ellen DeGeneres described as her favorite movies in a Parade magazine article a few months back. She said, “I love stories that are inspirational yet have a lot of heartache, because I think that’s what life is.”
I’m the same way. If a story can inspire tears and cheers, then I’m in love with it. Throw in humor, and I’m over the moon. My novel adds humor to the mix, and many readers have said THE TWELFTH OF NEVER made them laugh, cry, and cheer.
Stephanie: What is one of the challenges that Presley faces at home?
Brenda: Presley lives with her mom, her sister Linda, and Linda’s almost-three-year-old son Luke. Luke is Presley’s refuge from the drama and difficulty of school. He’s lively, and smart, and funny, and he thinks the sun rises and sets behind Presley.
Linda is starting college, and because she’s a teen mom she’ll be attending a local community college instead of University of Michigan as she always dreamed. She’s waitressing six days a week, and going to school, and she’s sullen. She’s not getting along with Mom, and she has a secret. It turns out she’s thinking of giving up custody of Luke to his father, whose family does not get along well with Presley’s family.
Stephanie: Please give me an example of Presley’s personality and what her relationship is like with her sister.
Brenda: Presley is very smart, but unsure of herself. She tends to read signs from the universe when unusual occurrences happen. For example, she has a few years’ evidence to show that bad luck follows whenever her mom plays Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock” at school. And when a very large antlered deer appears at her bedroom window one night, she’s convinced he’s trying to tell her something about Linda.
Presley and her sister are close, although Linda has become increasingly distant and hard to read – sort of like the giant buck at her window, doing a stare-down in the moonlight. In Chapter Seven, titled “Always on My Mind,” Presley describes it to her friend Yvonne this way:
“You don’t have a big sister,” I say. “You don’t know what it’s like. They think they know more than you, like you’re too young to understand, but they can be touchy about it. They want to be confident, but they’re not. So I have to be careful. Linda’s like a deer that’s standing so close, I think I can reach out and touch it. But if I make a sudden move, I’ll scare it away.”
Stephanie: Does Presley get teased at school because her mom is the school secretary? How does she deal with it?
Brenda: Presley gets teased at school because her mom, the school secretary, is an Elvis fanatic. Her mom plays Elvis hits over the PA system with the morning announcements, has an Elvis clock on the office wall, and keeps a shellacked potato chip in a plastic display case on her desk, because she thinks it resembles The King.
Of course, Presley also gets teased just because some kids can be mean. Presley’s goal is to stay out of the limelight as a way of avoiding the mean girls, but at the beginning of the novel she gets elected to student council with them. What’s worse – she gets paired on a committee for planning lunchtime activities with the world’s biggest goofball, Conrad Grover III. He wants her to emcee an air bands show with him, but her answer to that is “Never.”
She doesn’t know how to deal with her troubles. That’s where her anxiety comes in – along with her compulsion to alphabetize. Her brain does it all the time, speed-sorting the letters from random words into alphabetical order, but it’s louder and faster – more distracting – when she’s nervous. It’s sort of her way of digging a hole and hiding.
Stephanie: What was your inspiration for this story? And did it come from being a teacher?
Brenda: I drew inspiration from lots of different places, including my work as a teacher. I’ve taught at a number of different schools and grade levels, and everywhere I’ve seen smart, funny, wonderful teens who are uncertain of themselves. One of the great joys and wonders of teaching is to help them emerge from the shadows into a strong, confident sense of themselves.
It was fun pairing a not-so-confident girl like Presley with another main character, Conrad, who’s the zany, look-at-me, joker type of guy. Conrad seems oblivious to the fact that a lot of his classmates are laughing at him, not with him, but he’s not clueless. I’ve known a lot of kids like Conrad, who never question their worth no matter how others might try to. I’ve always admired people like that, because I wasn’t one. I’ve had to work at being comfortable and sure.
Another inspiration came from the many teen parents I’ve encountered in my life. They have a difficult road – much harder than they know when first starting down it – and I wanted to convey the struggle of that.
More than anything in my writing, I’m interested in the paths people take to find their true voice. With this book, I wanted to layer the main story about a teen girl stepping through her fears with the difficult choices her older sister – a teen parent – is grappling with at the same time.
Stephanie: How long did it take to write your story and who designed your book cover?
Brenda: I worked on the story on and off for eighteen months, taking it to a writing group for feedback, revising, taking it back to my group, and revising some more, on and on.
A talented designer named Derek Murphy of CreativINDIE designed my cover, and I love it. With the simplicity of the crazy Elvis clock, Derek captured so much of what I wanted the cover to convey: the quirkiness of Presley, her mom’s obsession and Presley’s love-hate relationship with Elvis, plus the forever time reference in the title – which is also the title of an Elvis ballad, by the way. THE TWELFTH OF NEVER and all of the chapter titles refer to Elvis songs.
Stephanie: What do you like most about writing and how much time do you devote to the craft?
Writing for me is love and joy and pain and laughter and struggle and escape and… you get the idea. It’s part of the fabric of my life. I’ve always done it, and I always will. I love every aspect of it – even the tear-out-my-hair moments when I’m not sure I can craft a piece the way I imagined it. I love the intensity of focus, the immersion of diving into my own depths.
Unfortunately, I don’t always have as much time for writing as I would like to spend doing it. Because I’m an overworked high school English teacher, and I’m the mom of two active young people, I sometimes have to steal moments here and there for writing my own stuff. But I’m always working on craft – even if it’s just by reading constantly, reading as a writer, and rereading my favorite works.
Stephanie: Do you work with an outline or do you just write?
Brenda: I’m an in-betweener. I have a rough sketch of three acts, with a general idea of movement that will occur within the acts, but I don’t have details worked out. For me, part of the joy of writing is the discovery that occurs during moments of struggle. I write my character up a tree, throw rocks at her, and then I must determine a way out.
Stephanie: What book project are you currently working on?
Brenda: I’m working on another young adult contemporary novel, titled UNLEASHED, about a teenage girl struggling with her family’s breakup, whose revenge plan goes awry – and ultimately shows her the way back from despair to hope.
It’s about how families can seem so fragile yet prove so resilient, about being lost and finding a way home.
Stephanie: What advice would you give to a teenager on how to define themselves in school among peer pressure and all sorts of challenges a teenager faces?
Brenda: I think peer pressure is a subset of a larger issue: the fear of not fitting in. Only fearful students succumb to peer pressure, so developing courage and fortitude in students is important for me as a teacher.
I tell my students the most freeing thing in the world is to accept that some people will like you and some won’t, and it’s not necessarily rooted in logic or even personal interaction. I remember a time when I was in the library of my high school, and I overheard some girls talking about me – negatively, to say the least. I peeked around the bookshelves to confirm who was talking, without ever revealing my presence there, and I couldn’t believe it. These girls had never hung around with me or had any sort of real conversation with me, yet they had all kinds of ugly opinions about my looks, personality, and general shortcomings.
That was a light-bulb moment in my life. I realized I had no control over other people’s opinions of me. Some people were going to view me negatively, and I couldn’t dazzle them into liking me, or I couldn’t hide away to keep them from noticing me.
More importantly, maybe, was the fact that their opinions really had no bearing on me or my life. So what if I heard them? Those mean words from girls who barely knew me weren’t accurate or true. Their words didn’t even hurt, as much as they perplexed me. At that moment, I realized they didn’t matter to me. I could do and be anything I wanted, and people might whisper behind my back, possibly even laugh out loud, but who cares?
If we can reach that point, then we all can engage in the struggle of trying to figure out who we are, what we’re good at, and what truly brings us joy. That’s not easy, either, but it’s better than being buffeted by the opinions of strangers.
In THE TWELFTH OF NEVER, Presley builds to a similar yet different light bulb moment in the climax.
Stephanie: What are some of the positive things people have said about your book?
Brenda: Many of my reviewers say the characters seem real – complex and flawed and relatable – and that Presley’s journey feels triumphant.
I’m always happy when readers tell me they laughed and cried while reading it. When I was a kid, books seemed magical in that way. It amazed me how – from across the span of space and time – a writer could use words on a page to connect with a reader so intensely as to make him feel something – anger, sadness, joy, fear, surprise – whatever, anything at all. My teenage daughter is one of my first readers, and a tough critic, and the day when a particular chapter made her cry was an exhilarating moment in my life! Hmm. Does that make me a bad mother?
Stephanie: Thank you, Brenda!
Brenda: It was my pleasure, Stephanie. Thanks for all you do!
Brenda Ortega started out writing for newspapers in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Detroit. She lives with her husband and two children in Michigan, where she now works as a high school English teacher.
Like the main character Presley in her debut teen novel, The Twelfth of Never, Brenda is a compulsive alphabetizer. Her mind sorts the letters from random words into alphabetical order on a daily basis. It happens instantaneously, which her students think is pretty cool. However, as a kid Brenda feared the out-of-control alphabetizing meant she was mentally ill – because wouldn’t that be a definition of the term? Unable to control one’s own mind? Now she knows we probably all have mental oddities that could classify us as less than normal, and there’s a better word for it: human.
A message from BRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Brenda Ortega, who is the author of, The Twelfth of Never, our medallion honorees at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, The Twelfth of Never, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.