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Nivea Serrao
March 10, 2017 AT 04:17 PM EST

The story of The Inexplicable Logic of My Life actually begins with Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s other YA novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

The day that book was first published also marks the day his mother died. And it’s something his latest book, which sees the teenage Salvador (a.k.a “Sal”) cope with the illness and eventual loss of his beloved grandmother ‘Mima,’ explores.

“All of my work comes from something that I’m dealing with that I put in the book,” Sáenz tells EW. “This book has a lot of stuff about my life. I was lost in this great sadness and I didn’t know I was going to react that way. I thought I was going to take my mother’s death very well. And yet, it just hit me.”

It was this grief that inspired Sáenz to make the trajectory of the novel about Sal’s grandmother’s death, and the way his family deals with it. Explains Sáenz, “A lot of people say that I don’t write plot, I just write people. But that really isn’t true. I just don’t hit you over the head with the plot. That’s all.”

To that effect, The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is filled with people, each of whom have their own personal issues they’re confronting, navigating, and attempting to get over. Vicente, Sal’s gay artist father, is dealing with losing his mother, but also possibly letting a former flame back into his life. Sam and Fito, Sal’s best friends, both have contentious relationships with their respective mothers.

“In some ways, Vicente is too good to be true. I’m not nearly as virtuous as that man, but he’s a projection of who I would have liked to be, had I been a father,” explains Sáenz of the inspiration for those characters. “I knew girls like Sam when I was growing up, who were tough and soft at the same time. I really loved them. So in a way, Sam is my tribute to them.”

And then there’s Sal himself. Complicating matters for the teen is the fact that his dead mother has left him a letter he has yet to open. This only compounds his questions about his identity as a Mexican-American, since he’s adopted and not biologically related to the man he calls his father.

“Anyone who lives on the border, because we live on the border we’re always reminded of it,” says Sáenz about Sal’s inner conflict, and the novel’s setting in El Paso, Texas. “There’s always going to be someone who’s going to remind you that you’re not Mexican really, because they are from Mexico, And other times I’ll think, ‘I’ll never be an American.’”

But Sáenz says he doesn’t think this is a bad thing. “We cannot rely on nationalisms to give us our identity,” he says. “By virtue of the fact that we were born in this country, that makes us virtuous? That’s ridiculous… We think that because we were taught to think that. It isn’t the nation we belong to that makes us good or decent or smart. It’s other things. It’s not even the family we belong to.”

And family is at the heart of The Inexplicable Logic of My Life as the book delves into parent-child relationships—both the good, and the bad. For Sáenz, it was to make a point about the discourse of family in the United States.

“We have Vicente, who’s a very decent man and a very good father, and we have Sam’s mother Sylvia, who’s a terrible mother. She’s not a terrible person. She just wasn’t interested in mothering. So just because you’re straight it doesn’t necessarily make you a better parent,” says Sáenz. “I wrote this whole book as a backdrop of what’s happening today, where there’s no sense of frailty or vulnerability in our public discourse. No sense of humility or forgiveness… And it makes me sad because it isn’t true that it doesn’t exist… I wanted to infuse the book with this sense that there are still people in the world who are humble, and who know what the word sacrifice means. Those are old-fashioned words, perhaps, but I don’t think they should be dated.”

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is available now.

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