SALT LAKE CITY — Yamile Saied Méndez always knew she wanted to be a writer. But it almost didn’t happen.

After leaving her native Argentina to attend school at Brigham Young University, Méndez decided she would study something “practical” instead.

“I wasn’t going to go to the end of the other end of the world to study art,” said Méndez, who was the first member of her family to graduate from college. “You know how it is.”

But after studying international economics at BYU and spending some time working as a translator, writing continued to call to her. So, she wrote.

Now, she’s on a virtual book tour for her newest novel, “Furia,” which was chosen by actress Reese Witherspoon for her influential book club. “Furia” is only the second young adult novel to be picked by Witherspoon for Reese’s Book Club.

Méndez said that having her novel chosen by Witherspoon was a “life-changing opportunity” that will give “Furia” a much wider audience. And Méndez is hopeful that the story will resonate with a wide audience.

Though the novel tells the story of a young girl from Argentina, Méndez said she believes that — for readers of all backgrounds — the novel can be “a glimpse into a different world.”

Path to becoming a writer

“Furia” is not Méndez’s first book. Her first was a picture book, called “Where Are You From?” which she said was inspired by a question that she hears on almost a daily basis.

The words of the book are based on a poem she wrote for her children. Her husband is originally from Puerto Rico, and so she said that the question is not always an easy one for her kids to answer, as they navigate two different backgrounds. Méndez said the book came about as she watched her children try to “find who they were.”

Méndez, who has now lived in Utah for many years, said she continues to answer that she is from Argentina. To her, the connection to her background and origin is important.

“In my heart ... I’m still an Argentine,” she explains.

Born and raised in Rosario, Argentina, Méndez studied English on her own — and later with the help of a teacher — so she could come to the United States and attend school at BYU.

After deciding to turn writing into a career, Méndez received a master’s degree from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in its Writing for Children and Young Adults program. It was there that she met her agent, and has since sold several manuscripts to Scholastic, as well as a middle grade novel, “On These Magic Shores.”

“Furia” is a new young adult novel from Utah author Yamile Saied Méndez, and is the September young adult pick for Reese’s Book Club. | Algonquin Books

Méndez said that although she worked on both “Furia” and “On These Magic Shores” for several years, they both ended up being published this year, which she said is “kind of wild.”

“But I like to think that they both came to the world at the right time ... because the market and society are both ready for these kinds of stories.”

‘Furia’

“I always say ‘Furia’ is not an autobiographical novel,” said Méndez.

Despite that, the story is based in some ways on her early life in Argentina, and is set in the neighborhood where she grew up.

Mostly, said Méndez, the novel is based on her own love of soccer — or “futbol,” as it’s called in several Latin American countries. “Furia” follows the story of a girl named Camila, who is trying to reach her goal of being a soccer player, even though her parents — and society — might not approve.

Growing up in Argentina, Méndez said girls were often not allowed to play soccer. And female soccer players around the world still face significant challenges. Until the 1970s, women’s soccer was banned in many places, including England and Germany, and in countries like Brazil, female soccer players still come up against discrimination and other obstacles.

In the background of the novel is the Ni Una Menos movement, a South American movement that began in Argentina to protest violence against women.

“Furia” is “a commentary on the kind of society that my character grows up (in),” said Méndez. “Her family, and the conflicts that she goes through inside her family, they’re just a small reflection of what’s happening in society at large.”

The novel was released on Sept. 15, which was the day that Reese Witherspoon revealed she had chosen “Furia” as the young adult pick for her book club — only the second YA book she has chosen.

“This book will set your dreams on fire,” Witherspoon said of “Furia,” in a video shared to Instagram.

Reese’s Book Club has been compared to Oprah Winfrey’s longtime book club in terms of influence. Vox called it “an industry phenomenon with the power to catapult titles to the top of the bestseller lists.” 

The book club is also tied to Witherspoon’s media company, Hello Sunshine, which has produced shows like “Little Fires Everywhere.” The show debuted on Hulu earlier this year and is based on the book by Celeste Ng, a Reese’s Book Club pick in 2017, according to Insider.

Before “Furia” was published, Méndez said she sometimes worried that “nobody would like to read a book about a girl in Argentina who wants to play soccer. And the fact that Reese Witherspoon chose it and now we have the opportunity to be featured for a super wide audience has been incredible.”

What’s next

As has been the case for many authors , the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has changed some of Méndez’s plans. She’s currently in the middle of a virtual book tour for “Furia,” with events hosted online by independent bookstores around the country.

And while she said she wishes she could do live events and meet readers in person, she’s grateful for the support she’s seen from independent bookstores, including The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City.

One worry Méndez has is that these smaller bookstores might not be getting the same number of book sales from virtual events as with author events or signings that are held in-person.

“I know that our independent booksellers have been struggling a lot, so I do hope that the numbers are reflecting people’s support,” Méndez said.

Looking ahead, Méndez said she is “fully booked” for the next couple of years, with more books already planned for 2021 and 2022. A companion to her picture book “Where Are You From?”, called “What Will You Be?”, and a middle grade novel called “Shaking Up the House” will both be published by HarperCollins in 2021.

By that point, Méndez said she hopes she can “hit the road and get to go do school visits” and “have a little closer contact with readers.”

“I’m an optimistic person,” she said. “So I like to look at the side of wonder and hope in things.”