A Conversation with Rex Ogle, Author of PUNCHING BAG
Store favorite Rex Ogle (Free Lunch) has a new YA memoir coming out next month, and we can’t wait for you to read it. It’s called Punching Bag, and it follows Rex through an adolescence marked by poverty and domestic violence. It’s a powerful read, each heartache underpinned by moments of light. In her review for the store, events coordinator Cathy Berner described the book thusly: “We can tell that Rex is walking beside us as we get glimpses of love and of hope. And at the end, we know Rex survived and has thrived. This is an extraordinary memoir that's a hard, but vitally important, read.”
Below, read an exclusive Q&A between Cathy and Rex. Then, be sure to register for the Punching Bag launch event on October 5. Rex will be interviewed by Isaac Fitzgerald, and it’s a conversation you won’t want to miss.
Cathy Berner: I loved Free Lunch and called it "a window, a mirror, and an all-around empathy machine" in my review for the shop. You deliver that once again with Punching Bag. Can you tell us a bit about this memoir?
Rex Ogle: Punching Bag opens with the most devastating moment of my childhood: learning about the passing of my unborn baby sister. I was seven years old when my mom blamed me for her death, and for the next decade, I carried that guilt around with me, believing that I was somehow responsible for the domestic violence that lived in our house alongside us.
But in high school, where the story really begins, I began to question the past and who was truly to blame for the abuse that existed between my parents and myself. Over the course of the book, I attempt to put together the pieces of what happened that night between my mom and stepdad, and in doing so, learn to try to forgive not just them, but myself.
CB: Punching Bag walks such a fine line balancing the tough circumstances of your early high school years with hope. How do you find that balance?
RO: That was the hardest part of writing this novel: not giving into the full darkness and the weight of the events. But I did it as a teenager, and so did it again, by tapping into what kept me going, which was very much my sister. I didn’t—and still don’t—claim to know what happens when we die, but my sister’s spirit was something that joined me in life after her death. I wanted to live for both of us. So when I felt at my worst, she was there to lift me up, and guide me to put one foot after another and keep going. I took that and tried as much as possible to put that into the writing.
CB: Both Free Lunch and Punching Bag provide a voice to circumstances that students face but might not be able to share. We know you've visited schools in person and remotely. Have you been able to visit with students who feel reflected in your books?
RO: I have, and in a lot of in-school meets and Zooms, there’s often one or two kids that linger after everyone else that sticks around to talk to me. It’s heart-wrenching to know other people, especially young people, are dealing with poverty and bullying and violence at home in this day and age. I wish society was at a point where these kinds of traumas were eliminated, but we’re just not there yet. I felt so alone as a boy, going through what I did, so it’s an honor to be able to share my story and let them know they’re not alone in their struggles.
CB: I know that you have so many upcoming projects! Can you share a little about what's next?
RO: First up is a middle grade fantasy trilogy—The Supernatural Society—which is about three friends who learn that their town is full of monsters, myths, magic, and mad science that only they can see. I also have a graphic novel called Swan Lake: Quest for the Kingdoms, coming out under my pen name Rey Terciero, which is a fantastical adventure reimagining of the classic ballet. And in terms of memoirs, I’m writing a book of free verse about my Abuela, the woman who has always helped me to live a better life.
CB: As I know from your afterword and from the store’s work with you, you not only survive but you have thrived. We're all so glad to know you and are so grateful for your work. Congratulations on the new book, and thanks for your writing.
RO: Thanks for the kind words. But trust me, the honor is all mine. ☺
A New York Public Library Best Book of 2021
The companion to Rex Ogle’s award-winning Free Lunch is a searing account of adolescence in a household torn by domestic violence.