By Gianna Macchia
Today we’re pleased to welcome Jasper Sanchez to the WNDB blog to discuss his young adult novel The (Un)Popular Vote, out June 1, 2021!
Optics can make or break an election. Everything Mark knows about politics, he learned from his father, the Congressman who still pretends he has a daughter and not a son.
Mark has promised to keep his past hidden and pretend to be the cis guy everyone assumes he is. But when he sees a manipulatively charming candidate for student body president inflame dangerous rhetoric, Mark risks his low profile to become a political challenger.
The problem? No one really knows Mark. He didn’t grow up in this town, and his few friends are all nerds. Still, thanks to Scandal and The West Wing, they know where to start: from campaign stops to voter polling to a fashion makeover.
Soon Mark feels emboldened to engage with voters—and even start a new romance. But with an investigative journalist digging into his past, a father trying to silence him, and the bully frontrunner standing in his way, Mark will have to decide which matters most: perception or truth, when both are just as dangerous.
I wholeheartedly identified with your “Dear Reader” letter at the beginning of the book. Specifically the revisionist history of our younger selves. If you could share one piece of advice with your teenage self, what would it be and why?
That people matter more than prestige. Friends matter more than class rankings. Relationships matter more than getting into the top-ranked Ivy League school. I would tell myself that doggedly pursuing the idea of being “the best” only guarantees that you’ll do it alone, and ultimately, you’re better when you let other people help.
What novels really resonated with you in high school? If you were going to pair The (Un)Popular Vote with a “classic” canonical high school text, which one would it be and why?
This might be an (un)popular choice, but I’d pair it with Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I think it asks similar questions to my novel about human nature and governance. Are humans fundamentally good, morally, and ethically—and if not, is democracy possible, or are we doomed to tyranny? I think the books would work well in conversation with one another on multiple levels. On the literal: What kinds of societies are teens capable of building, when given the chance? Will they replicate existing and often deeply flawed systems of governance, or can they imagine something new? On the allegorical: What kind of societies can any of us imagine, when given the chance, and build, when given the choice?
What did your writing process entail for this novel? Are you a plotter or a pantser? How do you develop characters?
There are two answers to this question.
The simple answer is that I wrote this novel quick and dirty. I’m a plotter, and I developed a detailed outline and character profiles shortly before NaNoWrimo 2017. I wrote about half of it that November. I finished the first draft in February. It was a monster of a draft. I stayed away from it for about a year because the book felt silly in light of, well, sociopolitical events. When I started revising in early 2019, my main focus was on cutting as much as possible. It was ready to query by the end of July.
The real answer to this question is that the process started in 2006 when I was a very naïve eighth grader trying to write about the human condition and the War on Terror and a bunch of things I didn’t know how to write about. That’s where these characters came from. The novel I wrote then was very different. Mark was forty-seven and literally the president of the United States. Ralph, Jenny, Pablo, Benji, and Henry all existed in some form or other, though not always with those names and character traits. Everything about that novel was a mess, except there was something about Mark. He was a terrible president—but I loved the purity of his idealism. He was such a bleeding heart, and, not to be cliché, but I couldn’t quit him. (That, and when I read the thing years later, I realized he and Ralph were definitely secretly in love the whole time.) So, over the next decade, I tried to give Mark and Ralph a better story, where there is no war, and no one dies, and, okay, everyone is queer. I tried so many settings and genres and identities, but the stories were never good enough. Then I finished UPV, revised it, reread it, and I thought, maybe.
Visibility and representation carry immense power, especially for young adults. How did this impact your writing process?
Representation is extremely important to me. In fact, it’s the whole reason I started reading YA. When I started questioning my sexuality in college, I immediately searched for queer books. For research, I told myself. I finished the queer classics in short order, and then what was left? In the early 2010s, the most visibly queer books I could find—the ones really marketed as gay and lesbian (because let’s be real, it was all about the LG back then)—were YA. Even as a “new adult,” technically, the representation I found in those books helped shape my identity.
I have very strong thoughts on the power of representation. Not just as a small-scale tool to help individuals feel seen, but also as an ideological force that has the power to impact culture on a massive scale. Representation is a tool to win hearts and minds—to normalize the existence of marginalized people and, hopefully, to change some social mores along the way.
I always write with this in mind and try to be mindful of the range of identities and communities represented in my work. I do my research and use sensitivity readers when appropriate. And then I cross my fingers and hope someone connects with what they read.
If I were to describe The (Un)Popular Vote to a colleague, I might say it is a high school mashup of The West Wing, Scandal, and Netflix’s The Politician, centered on a trans guy Mark, his political aspirations, and his dynamic group of queer friends. Is this an accurate summation? Where did your inspiration for the story come from?
I’d say that’s an accurate description. I have to admit I haven’t seen The Politician; it came out while I was revising, and I didn’t want to risk any accidental creative cross-contamination or start comparing myself to Ryan Murphy. But The West Wing and Scandal were both strong influences, and both are referenced in the text many times.
They’re influences for Mark and his friends, too; they’re the campaign team’s Spark Notes for campaigning. There are some specific, references, too. One of my favorite scenes in the book—and the most controversial among my publishing team—is directly inspired by Jed Bartlet’s iconic monologue in “Two Cathedrals.” I watched clips of Matt Santos campaign speeches on repeat while writing Mark’s speeches. And, I’m not sure if I should admit this, but I always hear Mark’s dad’s voice in my head as Olivia Pope’s dad, played by Joe Morton, who gives these brilliant monologues with a very recognizable cadence.
The inspiration for the story was really a confluence of factors. As I mentioned before, these were old characters in want of a story. But the decision to de-age them and put them in high school was a complicated one. For years, I’d been having conversations with my (gay) best friend about how funny it was that our entire high school friend group ended up being queer even though none of us were out at the time. He kept telling me I should write a novel about how high school would’ve been if we’d all been out. Every time, I refused, saying I didn’t want to write a self-insert novel and swearing I would never, ever write a novel about our hometown. Then our hometown burned. One of the 2017 California wildfires destroyed 6,000 structures in my hometown; it came within two blocks of my parents’ house. After that, I stopped blaming that town for keeping me from discovering my identity, as I’d always believed it had. I wanted to dissect that belief and that place. And lo and behold: I didn’t need to write a self-insert when I had a full cast of characters I’d first created when I lived in that town.
Like some sentiments felt by characters in the book, today’s teenagers can be disillusioned by politics. They are skeptical (rightfully so) of the process and the people, however, you made it relevant and digestible through your plotline and characters. Why did you choose to highlight the socio-political aspects you did? What impact do you hope they have on readers?
This was a hard book to write, politically speaking. For one thing, I was keenly aware that I was writing Americana. Even as satire, it’s hard to avoid glorifying or valorizing the aesthetics of Americana, and I worried that taking any measure of glee in the electoral process might seem like tacit acceptance or approval of the status quo—of a system that systematically disenfranchises and fails marginalized communities every day. So it’s a difficult thing, describing the giddiness of the campaign—patriotic bunting and American flag pins and the retro version of John King’s magic map—while juxtaposing all that with very real issues of homophobia and transphobia.
I chose to focus on queer issues in a liberal California suburb because that’s what I grew up with. A very liberal town, where everyone and everything is polite and accepting on the surface, but underneath—
I didn’t want to write a liberal book; I tried to write a progressive book, with an emphasis on the need for systemic change, because those are my personal politics. And I hope readers see past the bunting and understand that elections alone are not enough and slapping a flag pin on the perfect candidate doesn’t guarantee change. But I also hope readers understand that being too jaded to act only guarantees that nothing changes.
Some might critique Mark for his naivete and idealism. His father definitely belittles his campaign, gender identity, and idealistic beliefs. However, despite people’s pessimism, why is it important to hold onto hope?
In his farewell letter to the American public before his death in 2018, Senator John McCain asked the American people not to “despair” in the face of… well, Trump. He said it was important to believe because “nothing here is inevitable.” I’m sure no one wants to hear me quote John McCain, and yeah, most of the letter is some aggrandizing American exceptionalism bullshit, but those four words stuck with me. Nothing here—anywhere—is inevitable.
Our current political reality is not inevitable. Our institutions are not inevitable. Our social structures are not inevitable. They only become inevitable if we believe they are. If we lose our ability to imagine better and more equitable alternatives. If we stop trying to change them. If we accept the party line that hope is a hopeless thought experiment.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Hope is hard. I probably wouldn’t have been able to write this book—to write Mark—if I weren’t an idealist at heart, but I’m also a terrible pessimist. Like Mark, I have trouble believing my own spin. But it’s through writing characters like Mark that I keep the faith. Because hope is work. Imagining better futures is cognitive and emotional labor, and like most of the jobs you find on idealist.org, it usually doesn’t pay very well. But just like any other job, you have to keep showing up. Keep hoping. Keep doing the work.
There is a scene in chapter 14 where Mark goes to Benji’s house to discuss the campaign. A brutally honest conversation takes place where Benji highlights the difference between their two worlds, despite both being part of the LGBTQ+ community, and in turn questions Mark’s motives for running. Benji says:
“I know what you saw upset you, Mark. It opened a door to a whole bigoted underworld of Utopia Heights you never knew existed. It shocked you, and now you’re on a crusade to change it. But it’s not an underworld to me. This is the Utopia Heights I live in; this is my normal.”
Why is this a pivotal moment for Mark’s character? How is Benji’s response representative of the reality that exists for so many people in the queer community? How can we fix this?
Let’s face it: Mark is privileged. White. Upper-middle-class. Passing privilege as both cis and straight if he needs it. Conditional male privilege. We can debate Catholicism, but it’s certainly a more privileged religious identity than many. And—here’s one we probably don’t talk about enough—he lives in a liberal area with access to queer community and health care and resources. He may not be accepted by everyone—*cough* his dad *cough*—but in the Northern California Bay Area, his personal worst-case scenario still isn’t catastrophic.
And I’m so glad you brought up this scene between Mark and Benji because it’s one of my favorites for exactly this reason. Mark moves in social justice circles, so he understands he’s privileged in an abstract sense, but sometimes he forgets the real-world consequences. And that’s what privilege means, right? It’s the ability to forget. But with Benji, Mark sees the consequences. Literally. It’s a harsh wake-up call for Mark, and much of his struggle going forward is figuring out how to navigate questions of privilege. How does he use his privilege without occupying the “savior” role and taking up space from the very people he’s trying to support? And how does he navigate any of this when there are identity categories in which he lacks privilege, and some of those are invisible?
I am far from the first to say this, but most queer communities have huge problems with intersectionality. And I’m using the phrase “queer communities” very intentionally here because I’ve never met a queer community that was one-size-fits-all and welcoming to everyone. Personally, I’ll admit that I’ve faced problems as a trans person in cis queer spaces, as a non-passing trans person in trans spaces, as a fat person in queer and trans spaces, and the list goes on. I think, or at least I hope, that most white queers realize there is a massive racism problem in white queer communities, and that queer spaces are all too guilty of replicating the same oppressive power structures of cis society in our own communities. I don’t have easy answers on how to solve these problems, but the first step is recognizing them. Once we’ve named them, it’s on both individuals and groups to do a lot of introspection and have hard conversations. But that’s just where it starts.
Having spent my life as a high school educator, I am a sucker for young adult coming-of-age stories. In what way does your novel fit this genre? What do you hope students take away from it?
I do think my novel qualifies as a coming-of-age story in that it’s a classic struggle of a young adult trying to find their place in the world. While Mark is very secure in his queer and trans identities, he hasn’t yet figured out how to live openly as a trans person. He knows he wants to be out as trans, rather than staying stealth—though I do want to underline here that that is Mark’s goal, and no trans person owes anyone their visibility. But Mark’s bombarded with the message that the world doesn’t want someone like him. So his coming of age arc is, in my opinion, about how to find your place in a world that doesn’t want you.
Here’s what I hope students take away from my novel: This world can be a terrible place, and more likely than not, people and institutions alike will try to use any kind of difference against you. Too often, you will be told there isn’t space for you; you will be made to believe this place isn’t for you. So yes, I know all too well that this world can be brutal, but I want students to know that it doesn’t have to be. If you put in the work, it doesn’t have to be.
What is one question I did not ask, but you’d love to answer?
Well, the question I’d ask myself—and do ask myself, frequently—is how my novel fits into the growing canon of trans and nonbinary YA. And the answer is, when I was writing this book, I absolutely never could’ve imagined how exponentially the canon would grow in the next few years, or that I’d be debuting in a record-breaking year for trans and nonbinary books. A record-breaking day, even, with three other awesome trans and nonbinary books.* So, I’m thrilled to add my voice to this expanding group. What I will say, as a white transmasc author, is that the canon is still mostly white trans boys, my protagonist included. I’m so excited we’re starting to see more books from trans and nonbinary authors of color—and that there is so much demand and excitement for those books. I’m excited we’re starting to see more nonbinary and genderfluid books. I really hope the burgeoning canon continues to diversify. In particular, there aren’t very many books by or about trans girls or transfems, let alone trans girls of color, and that’s a gap I’d really like to see filled. But overall, I’m feeling hopeful about all the trans YA to come.
*The Ghosts We Keep by Mason Deaver, The Witch King by H.E. Edgmon, and The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitzsimons—add them all to your TBR if you haven’t already!
What’s next? The YA world needs more Jasper Sanchez!
I can’t say very much about it yet, but there will be another YA Jasper Sanchez novel coming to you in 2023. What I can promise you is that it is extremely queer and has a trans protagonist and other trans side characters. It’s also a political novel, but it’s set in a very different arena and addresses very different issues. I’d also say that its internal politics are actually more progressive than those in The (Un)Popular Vote.
Gianna Macchia is a Milwaukee-based educator and high school literacy coach. She believes reading cultivates empathy, and the more educators can encourage students to read, write, think, and discuss outside of their own perspective, the more they can contribute to building a more accepting, socially aware world. She thinks we should never doubt the power of representation and visibility, especially for adolescent youth. When Gianna isn’t engrossed in YA books, she and her wife enjoy traveling, live music, hiking, cooking, and snuggling their pets Gatsby, Atticus, and Huckleberry, the literary brothers from different mothers.
Jasper Sanchez is a transmasculine author from the heart of Northern California wine country. He earned his BA in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania and his MA in cinema and media studies from UCLA. He now lives in Seattle with his cat, Simon, who might be more opinionated than he is. When he’s not writing, he can be found wandering museums, scouring the city for the best espresso, and annotating lists of his favorite Star Trek episodes. You can visit him online at www.jaspersanchez.com.