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Jasper Sanchez rewrites American politics in debut YA novel

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Jasper Sanchez — Courtesy photo
Jasper Sanchez — Courtesy photo

Jasper Sanchez set out to write the next great American novel in 2007. Fourteen years later, it finally hit the shelves. Despite intending to write a great political tragedy, the book Sanchez ultimately sold was instead a Queer YA rom-com about a school election.

The (Un)Popular Vote follows Trans teenager Mark Adams, who, despite getting through most of high school with a cis-passing profile, finally decides to step out of the shadows and run for student body president. However, a school bully spewing hateful rhetoric becomes the front-runner.

"The next great American novel"
While the final version of The (Un)Popular Vote has become very popular with Queer teen readers, the story is far from the original draft Sanchez wrote.

"Technically, you could say that I began trying to get published when I was 15," he recalled. "There's a long story behind the characters of The (Un)Popular Vote. They were the same characters in the first novel I ever wrote, when I was a tiny teenager who thought I knew things about politics, which I now very much disagree with."

Full of hubris, the younger Sanchez believed in his novel back then, which reflected the American political atmosphere set by then-President George W. Bush."The first iteration of Mark Adams bears little resemblance to this. For one thing, he was a Republican. For another thing, he was 44 and president of the United States. I started it around my 14th birthday and finished it about a year later. Having just taken eighth-grade US history, I thought I was an expert on American politics.

"Being a certified gifted kid who wrote a book at age [14], I thought I was hot stuff. I thought I'd written the next great American novel. I queried agents, at least one or two, at the time, because I thought this was the best thing ever. That didn't go anywhere," he said.

Eventually, he shelved the idea and started working on other projects. He graduated high school and went into an English program. He tried creating new stories but could never forget his original characters, President Mark Adams and VP Ralph.

After a while, he came back to Mark. The original novel had been painstakingly straight, but as Sanchez grew into his Queer identity, he realized that maybe Mark wasn't as straight as he had thought.

"[The original novel was] not explicitly Queer, but if you read some of the scenes between Mark and Ralph, it is pretty Gay," he said. "As I reread it, it became obvious that the subtext here was Gay. I was shipping them."

While the novel didn't work as a conservative political drama, he thought he could alter it to fit what was popular at the time. "It was 2010, so of course I wrote a dystopian, post-apocalyptic deal. It was arguably worse, but it was at least a romance and had a happy ending."

The sci-fi version of Mark didn't sell either, but through his rewriting process, Sanchez got to know his characters a lot better. "Through all of these failures, I solidified my ideas of who these characters are," he said.

Discovering himself
Sanchez was also beginning to know himself better. After graduating high school, he came out and moved to Seattle. Looking to read stories about Queer and Trans people like himself, Sanchez began getting into YA literature.

"I've been reading YA since college," he said. "I didn't read YA as a teenager, because I was pretentious and thought I'd written a great American novel. I was a snob in high school.

"I've been going to YA for Queer representation for a long time. I never tried writing it."

Shedding some of his previous "gifted kid snobbiness," he then wrote a fun novel for Mark. "In 2017, I tried to write a contemporary novel in which Mark was running for governor of California. He wanted to become the first millennial governor. And this was the first version where Mark was Trans, and Ralph was Jewish," Sanchez said.

This reworking was a romance, but it still didn't feel right.

One day, Sanchez was out getting coffee with one of his friends from high school. They were reflecting on their experiences growing up. Even though nearly all his high school friends came out as adults, they were all closeted as teens. Sanchez and his friend imagined what their lives would have been like if their friend group had been openly Queer back in the day.

"What would high school have been like if we had all been out? It was fun to talk about it. My friend would say, 'You should write a novel about this.'"

The more he thought about these "what ifs," the more Sanchez realized this was the story he wanted to write for Mark.

"From there, it was just a process of figuring out how to make them teenagers," he said. "I de-aged these characters that I know well and plopped them into a place that I know well and wrote a genre that I'd never written before."

Image courtesy of Katherine Tegen Books  

Diving into YA
So in his next iteration, Sanchez decided to make Mark a teen.

"I wrote this book as an experiment, thinking, 'Okay, I'm going to write a young adult novel. I've never written one before, but I've read them,'" he said. "It's one novel I went into without expectations. I wrote this book and I thought, 'This might be good?' Which was weird, because I wasn't expecting it."

Even though the book exceeded his expectations, Sanchez didn't feel ready to release it. Years of rejection made him insecure about sharing his work with the rest of the world. Aside from his mother, nobody had read The (Un)Popular Vote.

"I was too scared to let other people read it. I didn't think the book was good enough," he admitted.

Finally, Sanchez realized he needed to try one more time. "I felt like it was a bit of a make-or-break moment in terms of publishing. I hunkered down. I forced myself to keep working on it."

He finally sent out the queries he had been sitting on for years. An agent was interested, and within days, he signed.

"Everything happened pretty quickly from there," Sanchez said. "I did revisions in two days, because I didn't do anything else. We went on submission two weeks later, and I got an offer."

Now Sanchez is genuinely proud of The (Un)Popular Vote. His characters have come a long way. They reflect his life, beliefs, and experiences in ways a 44-year-old Mark Adams never could. Not only does Sanchez connect with the book on a much deeper level, but so do his readers.

"I want Trans kids to read this. It's a hard book in a lot of ways. There are trigger warnings. I hope there is something comforting in seeing Queer communities and what your people can do in the face of oppression if we work together," he said.

The (Un)Popular Vote may not be the next great American novel, but it speaks to modern issues of identity, youth activism, and the rights of Trans people. It is not a political drama, but Sanchez still believes readers can learn something from Mark.

"If people are reading it for politics, I hope they take to heart the critique of various 'isms' and phobias even in liberal spaces. I was particularly interested in thinking about liberal suburbs and how they fail Queer kids. I wrote this in 2017, but it's more relevant than ever," he said.

The (Un)Popular Vote is a testament to the power of listening to oneself. Once Sanchez embraced himself and his identity, his characters progressed naturally into the versions of themselves they were always meant to be. Sanchez hopes readers can learn from Mark's journey that radical self-acceptance is the first step to changing the world.