Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s debut offering, the haunting free-verse novel Under the Mesquite, plants her solidly on the list of authors to watch in the coming years. With restrained and lyrical language, McCall gives voice to Lupita, a Mexican American teenager on the cusp of adulthood struggling with questions of identity, mortality and meaning.

Lupita, the oldest of eight children, finds herself thrust into the overwhelming role of caregiver when her mother falls ill, torn as she tries to balance her obligations to her family and herself. Loosely based on the author’s own childhood, this simultaneously heartrending and uplifting collection of poetic vignettes will carve readers apart before putting them back together again.  

Here, McCall spoke with us about how being a teacher informs her writing, what nature symbolizes in her work, and how she learned to stop worrying and fill the white space on the page.

Find more great books that deal with the here and now among our Best Books for Teens of 2011.

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How’d Under the Mesquite come about?

I’m a junior high school English teacher. And I was always trying to find a book that would help my students see themselves. Ninety-eight percent of my students are Hispanic, and I’ve always looked for books that address their issues. So when I set about putting this together, I wasn’t thinking it would be a book but a collection of poems.

The poems started when I was teaching 10 years ago. One of my students had said, “I don’t know how to write.” So I suggested that we all do one together. I told them to think of a memory, and I wrote my own on the blackboard. I chose swimming in the Rio Grande. I gave them one minute and told them to write one stanza.

By the end of the day, my poem was perfect—I’d written it six times. I’d usually erase them at the end of the day, but then I started to write them down. They were connected with me. Then I envisioned a whole poetry collection made of memories. I wrote 32 poems and sent them out. I started working in the concept of losing a loved one.

Were the advantages of telling this story in free verse as opposed to prose?

Yes, poetry is very tight, very emotional, very close to the heart. The nature of the mother’s illness, the tightness of the family—these were aspects that need to flow in a way that was prose but poetic. In prose, I have all this room and can elaborate on everything, but with poetry, you have to get in close to the subject. The images I wanted to create for this story, I could only do with poetry. I tried in prose—but it didn’t have the emotional impact. I know I have more emotional impact as a poet.

In the past, you’ve written poetry for adults, but this book is intended for teen readers. How did the change in audience affect your writing process?

When I was writing for kids, I found myself wanting to keep my teacher persona at the forefront. When writing poetry for adults in the past, I was raw, emotional, uncensored. But when I’m writing for teens, I think like a teacher. I feel it’s my duty to write in a responsible way. I want my characters to be role models, and I find myself having to censor their thoughts and emotions. I also find writing for teens is a lot easier for me. When I’m writing for adults, it’s often more personal, and I struggle with it.

Nature itself has a huge presence in this book. What was the reason for that?

I grew up among the sun and the sunflowers. I found a lot of strength and the presence of God in nature. I wanted to have His presence in the book, but I didn’t want to have it conflated with a specific religion. When I see God, I see Him in the universe and in creation. When I look up at the sky and see a million stars, I know there’s no way we’re alone here. I wanted everyone to feel that without giving it a name.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I just finished my second novel and it’s out for consideration. It’s a prose novel. And I’m currently at work on a third, which is also prose.

No plans for more poetry then?

With poetry, I have to wait for the right story—something that calls for the tightness and the emotional impact of the form. Honestly, I’m really enjoying the prose. Now that I’ve learned to build a story, I want to fill the whole page. I covet that white space!