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She's got stories to tell

September 6, 2013

Carrie Arcos gained confidence through CSULA's creative writing program.

Carrie Arcos

Carrie Arcos' debut novel was recognized with a National Book Award nomination.

Earning a National Book Award nomination is a major accomplishment in publishing. That Carrie Arcos ('07 M.A.) achieved one last year with her debut young adult novel, Out of Reach, makes it all the more special.

The National Book Award is America's top literary prize given in the categories of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and youth literature. Past winners are an impressive collection of well-known authors-from William Faulkner to Maurice Sendak.

Just being selected as a finalist is a big deal for a new author like Arcos.

As a youth, Arcos loved reading, and was especially drawn to the young adult genre, in which characters teetering at the edge of childhood are often challenged by adult topics.

"I remember reading Judy Blume's Forever (which addresses teenage sexuality) under the bed covers and thinking please don't walk in mom!" recalls Arcos.

As an undergraduate at Westmont College, Arcos studied English and philosophy. She kept a journal and wrote on its cover "To be a writer, you have to have something to say." But that phrase became an obstacle. "For the longest time, I was intimidated by that. I don't know if that was good for me or too much pressure," she says.

After college, she downplayed writing in favor of something more certain-sharing her love of literature by teaching high schoolers.

Arcos is comely, warm, deeply caring and a great listener. She's the kind of teacher who takes great effort to match a student with the right book. Novels such as Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky, and Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, all dark, realistic works, were in heavy rotation among her pupils.

"Young adults are drawn to darkness. I don't know many people whose teen years were idyllic. Most of us were going through this intense suffering of first loves and broken hearts and pain, just surviving high school," she says. "But what is different in young adult versus adult literature is that it always ends in hope. There's always a way out."

The birth of her first child in 2002 triggered a personal re-evaluation for Arcos. After talking with her husband, David, she decided to take a shot at writing and enrolled in the Master of Arts program's creative writing track at Cal State L.A.

"Cal State L.A. was there when I really needed it," she says. "I thought about teaching at the college level, but was looking at options. Having children, not necessarily wanting to go back to work full-time-all this stuff was in my head."

Going through admissions, submitting a body of work, attending classes in literature and writing all helped to build Arcos' confidence, especially surrendering manuscripts for peer and professor review.

"That was instrumental for me to meet deadlines and get constructive feedback from writers and professors. Almost like having my own writers group. It made me believe that I can write and have something to say."

After graduating in 2007, Arcos taught at Biola University, but committed to write almost daily. Many mornings, she'd be at the opening of Swork Coffee in Eagle Rock, tapping away on the computer while baristas pulled espresso shots. As many aspiring writers do, she sent short stories to literary magazines in hopes of getting published. But after a couple years of rejections, she had an epiphany.

"Why am I writing short stories? I read them to teach them, but I read novels and I love young adult. I know the voice, I get it. So I just bypassed all that and did a novel."

Out of Reach, follows a teenage girl, Rachel, as she attempts to locate her missing addict brother. It's about how an average American suburban family handles a major problem, such as drugs, and concepts of guilt, love, frustration, responsibility and personal growth are explored. It is inspired by some of the experiences Arcos had as an adult dealing with a family member's methampetamine addiction.

Young Democrats Club

Though writing it was cathartic for Arcos, it's not biographical. To prepare for the book, she researched meth addiction and spoke to addicts.

"The emotional realities of the book are true in the sense of that struggle of how much do you keep searching and trying to help this person, and when do you pull back," Arcos explains. "There's this unhealthy co-dependency that can happen in families dealing with this. A lot of Rachel's story is learning how to still love her brother and decide to move forward."

Arcos met an agent online who requested the manuscript. That agent ended up being Kerry (Evans) Sparks ('07), a fellow CSULA alumna, at Levine Greenberg Literary Agency.

Shortly before the book's release in October, news came that it had been recognized by the National Book Foundation as a finalist in the Young People's Literature category. Well-respected young adult author Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising) was among the experts serving on the judges panel. The Foundation awarded William Alexander's Goblin Secrets the category's top prize in November.

More recognition—International Reading Association Young Adult Fiction Honor Book for 2013 and a nomination for the California Book Award—came in the months following the National Book Awards ceremony.

The attention opens new possibilities for Arcos. She'll become a permanent member of the National Book Foundation family and will receive continual support and help in promoting new books. It also means that editors are more willing to give new works a look, though Arcos admits it doesn't guarantee anything.

Now, Arcos is on a break from Biola University so she can focus on her writing career and raise her three children, Aiden, 10, Matisse, 7, and Judah, 5. Former students and even strangers have contacted Arcos through her blog, Facebook and Twitter to give feedback and talk about the book.

She also teaches writing workshops at local high schools and attends book festivals, where she makes appearances alongside the same young adult authors whose books were in heavy circulation in her high school classroom.

"I was at the Ontario Teen Book Festival with other young adult authors. I got to meet Stephen Chbosky, who was a speaker. Being a peer to these writers that I've studied and taught is like coming full circle. It's beyond what I could have imagined."

Look for Arcos' next young adult novel, There Will Come a Time, to be published in 2014.