Zibby Owens: I am so excited to be here today with Rex Ogle who's the author of Free Lunch. Rex was born and raised mostly in Texas. He says, this is a quote, “I was one of the poorest kids at a school for the children of the wealthy. I was on the subsidized lunch program and mocked endlessly. This is my middle school experience, but I think it’s an important story to tell.” A former children’s book editor in New York City, Rex and his partner now enjoy much nicer weather here in the Los Angeles area. Welcome to Rex.
Rex Ogle: Thank you. It’s true. The weather is nicer here.
Zibby: For sure. It’s nicer here than pretty much anywhere.
Rex: Yes, it amazing.
Zibby: My kids and I and my husband loved your book. I don't always say that. I shouldn’t say that. [laughter] Hold on. I really enjoy every book that's been on the podcast. Otherwise, I wouldn't have it on the podcast. However, this particular book I feel like should be required reading for all kids in America, full stop, really powerful and amazing. I just wanted to say that from the start.
Rex: Thank you very much.
Zibby: Tell everybody what Free Lunch is about. What inspired you to write it?
Rex: Free Lunch is essentially a typical middle-grade story. It has to do with wanting to be on the football team, and trying to figure out where to sit, and the transferring-to-a-new-school jitters. It also has to do with my experience which had a lot of poverty and domestic violence and how that affected my life.
Zibby: I was looking at the cover. Is he trying to sell this as a middle-school memoir? It doesn't say right away. You don't know if it’s your story or fiction.
Rex: It’s one hundred percent my story. It is not fiction. I sometimes wish it were. It is one hundred percent the things that I lived through, the stuff that I had to experience on a day-to-day basis. It’s a lot. It is middle grade. When I first wrote it, I could've written a memoir like an adult looking back at their childhood. Then I was like, no, I don't want adults reading about my childhood. The whole point of me writing this is to write a story for kids that kids can relate to and see themselves in and then also take away something important.
Zibby: Amazing. In the author’s note that you included at the end of the book, you wrote that you felt “exhausted and sad and a little sick to my stomach because everything was true.” You said, “every lunch, every laugh, every punch.” You're revisiting this extremely painful time in your own life. How was it to write about it? You had said you put it off for a long time. You didn't want to write about it. What was it like for you?
Rex: When I first started writing it, I had been dabbling in writing short stories about my childhood. I'd write a chapter. Then I'd basically have a panic attack. I was like, I can't keep writing this. I was working as an editor in New York City. There were all these books that were coming in. It was supernatural and fantasy and sci-fi. I loved those books. That's actually what I wanted to write. Everyone kept saying we need important stories and stories that can help kids live a better life or have a different experience or have hope. When someone said the word hope, I was like, god, I had so little hope as a kid. I wanted to write something that gave hope and showed kids you can live through bad things. You can still come out the other side and be better. I completely lost track of your question.
Zibby: No, it’s fine. You're perhaps distracted by the fact my six-year-old is poking me in the shoulder right now that I'm trying hard to ignore.
Rex: It’s super cute. [laughs]
Zibby: You wrote at the end of your author’s note per what you were just saying, “If you are having a hard time, my advice is simple. Hang in there. Give it time. Life likes to surprise you when you least expect it. And stay strong. No matter how dire things seem, things can change. Until they do, no one can take away your ability to hope.”
Rex: The reason that I wrote that is because as a kid, I thought I was the only one suffering with all these horrible things. I went to school. I saw all these kids. They come to school in their fancy cars and dressed really nicely. I would come in my secondhand clothes. Our car was old and beat up. I was embarrassed constantly by my life. There was some little part of me that was like, it will get better. It will get better. I don't think it gets better for everyone. I would love to say it gets better for everyone, but it doesn't. I do believe, or at least I have to believe, that if you put in the work and if you really try to make yourself a better person and have empathy for others, I think that you can make the world a little bit of a better place a day at a time. Then that will also impact your life.
Zibby: The way you were so empathetic with your mother at the scene towards the end of the book where you were like “This must be so hard for you,” despite everything she put you through, you could see her struggle and relate to that. Then you saw her open up a little, just a little, but enough. It was so powerful.
Rex: The thing is, I saw my mom suffering not just in her own little ways like struggling with money and not being able to pay the bills. At the time, middle school was this big awakening for me, as it is for most kids. For me, it was also tacked on that, I'm embarrassed. I'm ashamed. I had all these feelings, but I never considered how it felt for her to not be able to put food on the table and to have to go to the grocery store and do welfare. Throughout the book in sixth grade, it was how it impacted me. I realized, oh god, she must be suffering too. Not just that, but the domestic violence, of course, takes it to a whole other level.
Zibby: By writing about such a personal and painful experience, if there are kids out there who read this who are relating to this and don't talk about it or don't want to share it, what would you like to have happen as a result?
Rex: I would love for kids to know that there are at least hotlines they can talk to if they can't talk to a grandmother or a relative or a friend at school or a trusted teacher. I didn't feel like I had those things. If I had known there were hotlines -- in the eighties, we didn't have the internet. Things are so much more readily accessible. If they can just get to a phone, there are hotlines for domestic abuse. There's suicide hotlines. There's different places that kids can call and hear a friendly voice if they don't have one in their life. I hope that my book instills that in people, in kids especially. There are resources out there. There are people that will help them.
Zibby: It’s also so important especially for middle schoolers who by their very age, they're becoming more self-conscious and knowing all the things that other people are going through. It’s not just about their things. You're embarrassed about the things you were embarrassed about. Somebody sitting over there is embarrassed about something else, just like your friend at the end of the book whose name I'm forgetting.
Rex: I know his name in real life. I always get confused with the fake names.
Zibby: Your best friend in the book who was like, “I'm embarrassed by these things. I'm ashamed to admit this.” Every kid has their thing. Look at all the things going on. You don't know what goes on in people’s families.
Rex: You really don't.
Zibby: You have to be so respectful of everybody. It’s such a good lesson for the more self-centered times of life, and a good lesson for grown-ups too. This is not just for kids. Your story is a universal message.
Rex: I started writing it five years ago. I'd write a few chapters. Then I would get depressed because I was reliving this stuff. I was having to go to extra therapy. I needed to cry and to talk. Writing these things, re-experiencing them is so painful. Again, I clung to, this is an important story. It needs to be written. Growing up, I read plenty of books about rich princes and all these people who are good at something. I felt like I didn't have anything that I was good at. I felt like I was lacking in so many ways. This is a good story so that kids who are in similar situations can pick it up and be like, oh, my god, I'm not alone. I'm not the only person on the planet suffering. Now as an adult thirty years later, I look around the planet, my life was pretty easy.
Zibby: No, it wasn’t.
Rex: [laughs] I mean compared to some of the things going on.
Zibby: Okay, fine. Yes.
Rex: It’s just so crazy that we live in a world where these things still happen. Now as an adult I'm like, we’re such an evolved species. Maybe we’re not.
Zibby: You talk a lot in the book about how reading helped you as a child even though your teacher made fun of you and didn't want you reading Stephen King in your class. You always seemed to be drawn to books. Tell me about how books helped you.
Rex: I loved books. I don't know what it was. I remember when my parents split when I was five, I had a stack of Dr. Seuss books. I went back to them over and over and over again. Then when I was a little older, I discovered Alice in Wonderland. I loved Alice in Wonderland. There was something about escaping into a world so unlike ours. I very much gravitated towards genres like fantasy and magic or science fiction. I was the same way with movies. I always thought that I would be the next JK Rowling. [laughs] Fingers are still crossed on that one. When I started writing nonfiction, it’s such a different experience. As a kid, I don't think I gravitated towards that. I definitely wanted to escape reality. Books were such a great way of doing that, especially comic books. Reading X-Men with such, “The whole world hates and fears me,” that's kind of how I felt at my school. Kids don't like me, but I didn't have anything against anyone. I wanted to make the world a better place. In my own way, I'm doing that through books now. I'm now the writer that I wanted to read as a kid but was too scared to, so full circle.
Zibby: Full circle, that's amazing. Tell me about your relationship with your brother Ford. I developed such an attachment to him after your book. You basically were his primary caregiver. You did everything for him at such a young age. Tell me about your relationship now, your relationship then.
Rex: Our relationship then, I think that in the book I should've made it a little more round. There were times when he really aggravated me because I was almost ten years older than him. Instead of playing with my friends or reading books, I was giving him baths and cooking dinner for him and teaching him how to read. The thing was we had so many moments where I wanted to protect him from what I went through. I just loved him so much and so hard. It’s funny because now, we’re super, super, super tight. I have friends who have siblings, they have the ten-year age gap. They're not close to them at all. Me and my brother talk once a week now, if not twice a week. We’re always checking in on each other. He owns a big ranch down in Texas. He's a nurse. We talk all the time. It’s great.
Zibby: Did he read the book?
Rex: I sent him an early draft of the book. He's like, “I can't wait to read it.” He's not a reader, so he hasn’t read it. He's read parts of it. He has said, “I read one chapter. I need a break.” He knows a lot of the stuff that happened, but he doesn't remember. He lived through his own stuff when I went off to college. He dealt with other stuff. We actually have another brother who's ten years younger than him. He actually had a very similar experience to what I did with a different stepdad. Same mom, different dad, different stepdad, but we are super tight.
Zibby: Do you think he knows the lengths you went to protect him and everything?
Rex: Absolutely. He went through similar things. His dad was abusive, but not to him. Then his stepdad was actually not abusive, but my mom was a little bit more so. She, I think, can't help herself. She went through a lot of stuff when she was a child. That's a whole other story.
Zibby: I'm not going to let you leave. I want to sit you down after this. I want to know everything. After going through his book with you, I care so much about you and yet I've just met you.
Rex: Thank you very much.
Zibby: I was googling to research anything new. I read your really heartbreaking essay on HuffPost which you called “The Day My Dad Kicked Me Out For Being Gay Changed My Life Forever.” You talk about literally being kicked out of the house, being homeless, not having any place to go, and finally calling your abuela who's this shining light in Free Lunch and now in your life. She basically saved you. Tell me a little about that heart-wrenching experience. Let me put you through all your misery again. You can go from here to your therapist’s office.
Rex: [laughs] My abuela, I love her. She's still around. We talk almost every day. She is still in Texas. I actually moved out when I was sixteen and lived with her and finished high school. Then I ended up leaving to go get to know my dad when I was seventeen. As soon as he found out I was gay, he booted me out. He did say I had a choice, in his defense. If I wanted to stay, I could go to church and therapy and lead a heterosexual lifestyle. After living with my mom and having to deal with so many things, I was like, I can't have another person telling me what to do. I will opt out. I went to New Orleans and then lived on the streets. That was a whole other difficult part of my life. My publisher actually came to me after reading the HuffPost article and was like, “Can you write a book about this, a YA book?” I was like, “That may take me a while because a few years ago, I wrote a book called Free Lunch and it took so much out of me. I would need a couple or three years.” He's like, “Let me read Free Lunch in the meantime.” I gave it to him. That's how this book got published.
Zibby: No way.
Rex: That's actually how Free Lunch came to be. The experience of being kicked out was devasting. My mom was already not a safe space for me. Now my dad, who I moved in to get to know, booted me out. It felt like I didn't have a mom. I didn't have a dad. I was already struggling with a traumatic childhood and then also coming out. I came out late in life because I had so much other stuff to deal with when I was younger. It was not a priority or even something that I thought about needing to deal with. I know there are other kids who deal with it at a much younger age now. To them, again I want to say, hang onto hope. There are resources out there. You're not alone. I wish I had the internet as a kid. There are so many resources. You can just google stuff. I hope kids know that. I'm sure they do. They're much more smart -- much more smart? [laughter] They're smarter than I am when it comes to technology.
Zibby: My four-year-old who you just met ordered fifty-seven things on Amazon the other day, arrived at my house, a whole menagerie of Paw Patrol characters. Kids today, yes, they're on the internet. They know. [laughter] Yet despite everything you went through, you have picked yourself up. You've written books. You're a book editor. You've ghostwritten tons of books. How did you get from there to here?
Rex: I have to say it was my abuela. I'm working on a book that won't come out anytime soon about her life. Her life makes my life look so easy and simple. What she pulled herself up from always encouraged me to keep pulling myself up and to keep working. Basically she said, “If you put in the work, it will eventually pay off.” I moved to New York City when I was twenty-three. I went with a thousand bucks and a duffel bag. I was like, I'm going to work in book publishing because I want to be a writer one day. Coming from where I came from, I never wanted to be a starving artist. I was like, I can't just write. I need go in. I need to work hard. I need to get to know the industry. I worked in book publishing and supported myself and learned the ins and outs so that I could put food on my own table and take care of myself because I don't have parents that I can rely on. My abuela, as amazing as she is, has a lot of other grandchildren to take care of too. I didn't want to take advantage of her. She was always like, “If you need anything, I’ll always be there to help.” New York is an expensive place. I moved there. I literally just worked my way up.
Zibby: Quick timeline clarification for me. You get kicked out. You're homeless in New Orleans. You go back to your abuela. You end up living with her?
Zibby: Did you go to college?
Rex: Yep, finished college.
Zibby: Finished college. Then you moved to New York?
Rex: Then I moved to New York, yeah.
Zibby: All right. Resume, thank you. You're in New York. You found a job in publishing.
Rex: Yes, and I've been writing, writing, writing nonstop. For the first ten years, I got the same note all the time, which was, “There's no heart in this. There's no emotion in this.” Really? But the action and the plot and the characters! They're like, “But where's the heart?” I realized that all the stuff that I had been avoiding as a kid is exactly what -- I don't want to write about bad things. I want to write about happy things. I want everything to be happy all the time. I don't want to write sad things. Then that's when I was like, maybe I should try. Maybe I should confront what I've been avoiding since I left. That's how Free Lunch was born. I started writing. I went full tilt. I was like, I guess I'm just going to write the most painful parts.
Zibby: You do what everybody says to do, go right there. It’s obviously not easy. Now you've moved out here to LA. Are you still working in book publishing? You're writing full time?
Rex: I'm writing full time. I love it. I'm so happy. It’s really great because this is what I've wanted to do since I was a kid, was be a writer. It’s one of those things where I never thought I'd be able to do it. I always thought I'd need to have a job. Now I'm just so happy to be writing. As a kid, I always wanted to escape reality. Now I'm helping other kids to escape reality. Maybe escape is the wrong word. I don't want it to sound so, “Reality is the worst place ever.”
Zibby: No, reading is an escape. It’s an emotional escape, release, shift in mind-set.
Rex: Yes. Books taught me so much because I didn't have parents who gave me a good example, but I learned a lot of great examples on how to treat other people through books. Librarians saved my life, essentially. I was at the library every Saturday morning. I would stay there all day with Shelby. I'd read books. He'd take naps. Librarians, they loved me because I was there all the time. They would always recommend books. I was always reading up. It was great.
Zibby: You've done a lot of book under a pseudonym. Why is that? Is that what you're doing also now?
Rex: When I was a book editor, they said that I could write, just not under my own name because it would be a conflict of interest to be Rex Ogle the editor, but also Rex Ogle the writer. Also, a lot of the stuff I was working on was like 8x8s for LEGO Star Wars. Those are all funs books, but it’s nothing that is going to change the world. I wanted to save my name for a book that was really important to me. Free Lunch is obviously very important to me.
Zibby: What else are you working on now? You have this abuela book.
Rex: Yes. I am working on a graphic novel with Scholastic about getting glasses in sixth grade. It actually takes place at the same time as Free Lunch, but it’s a Disney version of my life. Most of it’s true. It’s also a pure and fun, very Raina Telgemeier Smile and Sisters book. I wanted to also write something light because at the same time I'm also writing my follow-up to Free Lunch, which is called Punching Bag. If you thought Free Lunch was heavy, Punching Bag is going to be a little bit heavier. The thing is, after I wrote Free Lunch, I was like, it’s important to talk about these things. I can only speak for myself, but growing up, I thought I was the only kid with violence at home. Now I read statistics, and they blow my mind. That's not possibly true. There can't be this many people living with violence in their lives. I'm working on something that's more focused on domestic violence and self-harm and depression and essentially, pulling yourself out of that. Mental health is such an important topic. I've been in therapy for the last fifteen years trying to get to a better headspace after the things that I lived through. I want kids, and adults, I want to everyone to know that they're not alone. No matter what happens in their home life, they can still be a good person. They're worth something. They can be loved. They can love themselves, which is maybe the hardest thing to learn.
Zibby: Are you, I hope, planning on going to schools and talking?
Rex: Yes, I am.
Zibby: Is someone managing this for you? May I suggest that you do this?
Rex: Yes. I really want to. I will say the one thing is, I'm a super nervous speaker. I'm really good one-on-one. Put me in front of an audience and I start to get very anxious. I think I'm going to start taking classes because I really do want to start speaking in schools. I've already got a few lined up. I'm going to Texas for the Tweens Read Festival in Houston, Texas. Then I'm going to Washington DC to speak at some schools. I'm really excited about that. Again, I just want to go and tell kids they're not alone and it’s going to be okay, or it will be okay one day.
Zibby: Or you need to do YouTube videos.
Rex: I've been thinking about that too.
Zibby: You could do that at home and have someone set up a -- even just talking to you like this, I wish this was being filmed. I want people to see you talking about it. It’s so compelling. If you could reach people that way and the book -- I’ll stop giving you career ideas. You don't need them.
Rex: [laughs] I appreciate. I need all the help I can get.
Zibby: You don't need it. The book is amazing. I know it’ll all be great. Have you thought about this being a movie? Have you dabbled into that at all? Do you not want that?
Rex: I have mixed feelings on it. I know a couple comic book writers for different comic books who became movies. Comic book movies are notoriously awful, except for Marvel. They're amazing. The great thing about writing is you can write a story and you only have yourself to hold you accountable. I guess your editor and your publisher will step in and be like, “Maybe don't do that.” With movies, there's so many cooks in the kitchen that I worry about it. If Free Lunch became a very Disney version, I would be very weirded out. At the same time, I think it needs to be honest. If there is a movie or TV show that was on point and really stuck to the message, which is that horrible things happen but you can survive those things, as long as it stuck to that, I think I'd be okay with it.
Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?
Rex: Get ready to be rejected. I've logged over a thousand rejections. The first five hundred, every single one was devastating. Then I can't remember who it was, but someone told me that they read online that someone looked at rejections as badges of honor. That's a great way to look at it. Rather than look at each rejection as someone saying, “No. You're worthless. You can't do this. [Indiscernible],” I am putting myself out there. Eventually, I will trick someone into saying yes. [laughs] It’s true. When I wrote Free Lunch, I finished it three years ago. Working in publishing, I took it out to all these agents and editors that I knew. Surely, someone will say yes. They all said no.
They're like, “It’s too heavy. It’s too dark for the age group. If this was for adults, if this was young adult, but middle graders shouldn't read this stuff.” You realize that middle graders live through this, number one. Number two, we live in a country where middle graders are on YouTube. They're seeing things on the internet that are way above what they should be looking at. Also, kids at this age are getting shot by police officers in the street. They're living through horrible things. With the internet, they're seeing this stuff online. At the very least, my book provides context and also hopefully an optimistic point of view, so why can't it be published? Everyone was like, “Nope, too dark.” I'm very happy Norton took a chance on me.
Zibby: I am too. Thank you, Norton.
Rex: Thank you, Norton. [laughter]
Zibby: Thank you, seriously. I know it wasn't easy to go through and relive all of that stuff and write it. As a reader, for me, for all the kids -- I know you say it’s dark even for the age group. I'm telling you, my little kids -- the way you write is so captivating. Whatever I can do to help you get this book out into the world, let me know. I am such huge a fan. I am rooting for you in every way.
Rex: Much appreciated. I did try to put some fun things in there, like the Christmas tree scene, [indiscernible/laughter].
Zibby: Yes. They were laughing. Owen was really.
Rex: That's life. It’s not dark all the time. It’s definitely a mix.
Zibby: I didn't mean to suggest that this whole book was so dark.
Rex: I think I was suggesting it, so I wanted to make sure.
Zibby: This whole book is not dark. There are some very funny scenes and some also very everyday struggle scenes, just anyone going through middle school. That's it. It’s part of the everyday. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Rex: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Awesome. Take care.