An Interview with Connie King Leonard

Connie King Leonard is the author of Sleeping in My Jeans, a YA novel about a teen girl who has to live out of her car with her mother and young sister. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Connie 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 Ooligan Press?

I saw an announcement in a Willamette Writers newsletter from Ooligan Press and went to the website. Ooligan was looking for work set in the Northwest dealing with a marginalized population, and I felt Sleeping in My Jeans fit that criteria. I checked with writer friends and found Ooligan had a good reputation as a reputable publishing press.

Your novel is fiction, but it rings true. Do you think it represents real stories of women and girls on the streets?

I do. Women and children are sometimes victims of domestic violence, which puts them in a vulnerable position—particularly if they don’t have the resources to afford to live on their own.

But abuse isn’t the only reason women end up in the street. The loss of a job, a major medical expense, and countless other catastrophes can destroy their ability to meet basic housing expenses. Even families with two adults working full time find themselves with financial problems.

What inspired you to write Sleeping in My Jeans?

I set the story in Eugene because I could visualize Rita parking Ruby in different areas of town, and I thought the best place she could leave Mattie and Meg after school was the city library.

The story was inspired by a sixth grade student I had in science class. Teaching kids to come prepared for class was one of our school goals. That meant bringing your binder, book, and pencil. I checked every day to make sure my students had what they needed.

One boy, I’ll call him Johnny, was a good kid and worked hard in my class, but mid-year he quit bringing his science book. I’d remind him and he would nod that he understood. One day, I said, “Johnny, I want you to go home tonight and look through your room for that science book.”

Johnny whipped his head around and said, “There are five of us living in a camper on the back of a pick-up. My science book is not there.”

Students in middle and high school do not always share the hardships and problems in their lives like elementary students. Even when teachers ask kids if they are okay or need help, older kids don’t open up like little ones. Johnny’s outburst was a shock. I was sick, disgusted with myself for not being in tune with my students.

I got Johnny another science book, but I have never forgotten him, because he taught me a huge lesson. The farm where I grew up in North Dakota was small and poor, but I always had a roof over my head and food on the table. I was privileged.

Why did you choose to write Mattie as biracial?

I am glad to see more wonderful stories being published about kids of color, which is great, but I still don’t see many about biracial kids. From my first idea for this novel, I pictured Mattie as strong, brave, and biracial and couldn’t think of her any other way.

What do you hope your book will achieve?

I want kids to know they are not alone in their struggles, whatever those hardships may be. In Mattie’s case, she has a small and beautiful family, but she lives in extreme hardship. Other kids problems are different, yet sometimes they feel like they are the only kid in school that doesn’t have a perfect life. Mattie is strong and resilient, and I hope kids learn from her determination to strive for a better life.

I also want people to be aware of the lack of affordable housing and know that not everyone goes home to a warm house or even a small apartment. Some of the students in their school may be living in a car, camped in a tent, couchsurfing between family and friends, or living in a shelter.

I hope my readers will enjoy Sleeping in My Jeans and will care about Mattie and her family as much as I do.

Do you have any suggestions for how to get involved with aiding homeless and domestic abuse survivors?

My biggest suggestion is to be aware that the person sleeping in a doorway is a human being. He/she may have serious issues that you and I can not help with, but that person deserves our compassion.

Many people now use the term “houseless” instead of “homeless”, because the new term recognizes that the tent on the side of the freeway or the beat-up minivan parked on a back street is someone’s home. I am training myself to switch terminology.

Lastly and maybe most importantly, we need to fund affordable housing as well as shelters for victims of domestic violence, teen runaways, families in need, veterans, and people with addictions and mental illness. It is a huge task, but one that is being tackled by some great organizations. St. Vincent de Paul in Eugene is doing an amazing job of providing housing options for people in all sorts of circumstances. Food for Lane County and the Oregon Food Bank are two other organizations that provide immense help to so many people in our state.

A portion of the sales of Sleeping in My Jeans will be donated to St. Vincent de Paul for the building of a youth house for houseless teens.

An Interview with Connie King Leonard

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.