Connie King Leonard is the author of Ooligan Press’s newly acquired title Sleeping in My Jeans, a YA novel about a teen girl who has to live out of her car with her young sister and mother. I had the pleasure of sitting down with her to discuss what inspired her to write a book about being homeless, what message she hopes it will send, and the unique protagonist at the center of it all—Mattie Rollins.
How did you find out about Ooligan Press?
I saw it in Willamette Writers, and I went online and saw you were looking for NW literature about a marginalized population. My point in my query was that the homeless are a marginalized population that we aren’t dealing with.
Was your novel always called Sleeping in My Jeans?
It started out being called Homeless, and that’s when Andrea Brown (my literary agent) said, I can’t publish homeless, I can publish teen angst-oh-by-the-way I’m homeless, but I can’t publish homeless. Fortunately, Ooligan wanted Sleeping.
That’s interesting, because homelessness is one of our country’s biggest issues.
You can walk by people on the street and think, they’re not my problem, but in a way they are your problem, because they take resources in terms of police, health issues, and emergency rooms. All of us are paying that cost, and a humanitarian cost too.
Do you think we become numb to it?
We get use to it and we don’t see them anymore. That’s absolutely true. People walk by and they might say hello to someone else, but they wouldn’t to someone who looked like they were on the street. But housing is so expensive, even in the story; it isn’t that Rita is a drug addict—she has two jobs, she’s going to school. It’s not like she is a person who has an addiction. Housing is expensive and hard to get.
It was stated recently in Willamette Week that domestic violence is the number one reason women in Oregon become homeless.
I wouldn’t doubt that. To be honest, I didn’t spend a great amount of time researching domestic violence. When I wrote it, it just seemed like it evolved to that was how she ended up on the street. I know Eugene has a women’s shelter just for women who end up leaving those situations. There are probably women staying in abusive situations simply because they have nowhere else to go.
Is that what inspired you to write the book?
I look back and I guess there was an incident. I was a teacher in middle school. I taught mostly sixth and eighth grade. One of my goals as a middle school teacher came from that the kids come in as sixth graders and haven’t had to keep their stuff, they’ve had it in a desk with them, and now they’ve got a locker and have to learn to bring their stuff from their locker and have it in class. The goal is be prepared. Well, it’s a few months into the school year, and this kid—nice kid—knows the rules, but he doesn’t have his science book. Every day I go by and check kids and ask if they have their science book. He never had it. I finally stopped him, and I said, I want you to go home, and I want you to look through your house, especially your room, and I want you to look for that science book. He turned around and he said, five of us live in a camper on the back of a pick-up, and my science book is not there. I never hassled him about the science book again, and just went over and got him another book and laid it on the table. He was a great kid, he never was any problem. It just made me aware that while I grew up kind of poor, we always had a roof. It made an impression on me. I’d never thought of myself as privileged because my background isn’t one of wealth at all, and yet I never had to worry about where I would sleep.
That puts a lot into perspective.
Yeah, and the thing about middle school, and high school for sure, is that kids don’t share stuff. Even when you know there’s abuse going on, they will not say a word, so to have that one boy whip around and tell me point blank that he didn’t have his science book—wow. That’s where it’s coming from. I have a vision of Mattie as one of my students.
Your novel is fiction, but it rings true. Do you think it represents real stories of women and girls on the streets?
Absolutely, I think so. Just by the stories I mentioned. I thought, what happens if Mom doesn’t show up? And if you have no backup, like aunts and uncles and cousins and all that, you have nowhere to go. People end up being desperate and go back to the abusive situations. I think we’d be shocked to know what these kids have had to deal with.
Is a greater awareness something you hope to achieve with your book?
I hope that kids read this story and think, okay, there’s other kids out there struggling. Whether it’s economically or not, they aren’t the only kid that doesn’t have the perfect family. Family is the main theme of this book; it’s holding them together.
Why did you choose to have Mattie be biracial?
It is a choice. First of all, I don’t think we have enough stories for kids of different ethnic groups. There’s not many where there’s just an ordinary kid in an ordinary place who just happens to be biracial. So, that’s sort of where I was coming from. I had this picture in my head, and I also thought, she’s biracial, I know people of color put up with an horrible lot of abuse in Oregon. I worried about this issue when I wrote her this way. I don’t want people of color to take offense that I just made her that way and don’t have a background, but I also feel like with the years coming by, there’s more and more kids of mixed heritage, and there are not enough stories about them. I just thought, why are all these strong female characters white? There might be friends of mixed heritage, but the hero is often white.
Mattie is such her own person.
Yeah, she is, because she’s kind of got a shell. She’s focused on school because she’s determined that she’s going to get somewhere, and she’s not gonna let what she thinks is petty stuff drag her down. I hope it came across that that’s why she’s so cold to Jack when he tries to get to know her.
She starts to worry less about the things she did in the beginning.
It’s just how the story would go. You’re not worried about straight As so much as keeping it together, which is unfortunate. Some of the people that are out there for real could have gotten a college scholarship if life hadn’t gotten in the way.
I really hope this book gives people some perspective.
I hope so too. I’m just thrilled that you’re taking it on.
Do you have any suggestions for how to get involved with helping the homeless?
We give to Oregon Food Bank pretty heavily. Things like that help so many families. St. Vincent de Paul in Eugene is an amazing organization to donate to, and it raises money to build affordable housing.