driving with faith
An Interview with lilliam rivera
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Lilliam Rivera is the author of the 2017 bestseller The Education of Margot Sanchez and currently serves as a teaching artist for the National Book Foundation. She has been the recipient of fellowships from PEN Center USA, A Room Of Her Own Foundation, and a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her short story "Death Defiant Bomba or What to Wear When Your Boo Gets Cancer" won a 2016 Pushcart Prize and was an Honorable Mention for the 2014 Goldenberg Prize for Fiction. Her second novel, the dystopic thriller Dealing in Dreams, will be released in 2019. Keep up with her on Twitter at @lilliamr and at lilliamrivera.com.
TMR: In an interview with The Rumpus, you discuss working as a Teaching Artist for the National Book Foundation. What do you find is important in teaching young people about reading?
LR: My parents instilled a love for reading at a young age. We didn't have much but we had long walks to the library. I still get excited when I read a book and fall in love. I want to immediately share that love with others. Working for the National Book Award Foundation's BookUp program is such a gift. I spend a couple of hours a week with middle grade students who love to read. They get so excited. Their enthusiasm is contagious. They are teaching me more than I them.
TMR: Can you tell us about your first experience with literature that inspired you to seek it out as a career?
I didn't think writing fiction was possible for someone like me. It took years for me to overcome the fear I wasn't good enough, that I didn't belong.
LR: My first experience with literature comes from my father. He has always been a "closeted" poet. He loves to recite poetry and would read to us from the Bible.
I come from a family of strong storytellers. Writing was definitely always going to be my goal. I spent many years working as an entertainment journalist; I didn't think writing fiction was possible for someone like me. It took years for me to overcome the fear I wasn't good enough, that I didn't belong.
TMR: YA is one of the largest literary markets right now. What do you think makes it so appealing in this era?
LR: YA is so appealing now because there is so much talent. YA is not just Harry Potter, although it includes it. I've read experimental work, books in verse, high fantasy, romantic comedies, and everything in between. Good literature is good literature. I don't differentiate it simply because it is YA. I think there is this misconception that because the point of view is from a young person, that the writing is lacking in some way. Children are way more smarter and complex than people give them credit. You find that complexity in young adult literature.
TMR: In an interview with NPR, you mention that the Bronx is a bookstore desert. Why has this been allowed to happen, and what can be done to better the situation?
LR: It's hard to answer this question. There are many factors (class, race, capitalism) that has lead to the Bronx currently not having a bookstore. I would read this New Yorker article as a starter.
The Bronx may not have a bookstore right now but the literary arts flourish in my home. Noelle Santos is bringing a bookstore, The Lit Bar, that will soon open. There is an annual Bronx Book Fair and a Bronx Book Festival making its debut in May. There is and has never been a lack of love for reading in the Bronx.
TMR: You mention in an interview with MTV that there was a novel you wrote in response to Twilight, because you didn't want to see "any more vampire movies without any Latinx people in them." Can you tell us about this book?
LR: This is a prime example of how rage can propel a person into action. I love speculative fiction. My next novel Dealing in Dreams (March 2019) is set in the near-future. I grew up watching all the vampire films, read Dracula countless times. I decided I would write a young adult novel of a girl who moves to Los Angeles and finds out the private Catholic school she is attending is filled with budding vampires. I completed the novel and shipped it around for an agent—it wasn't very good. What was great about the experience is that I was able to complete a novel. Right after, I started writing Margot Sanchez.
TMR: How do you feel about the positive responses surrounding The Education of Margot Sanchez?
LR: It's been a year since the book came out and I still receive emails from young readers all over the United States telling me how they connected to Margot. Educators and librarians are discovering Margot Sanchez and sharing it with their students. It's been such an amazing experience. Because of Margot, I get to travel and speak to young people. It really is what I've always dreamed.
TMR: You've said that The Education of Margot Sanchez is like "Pretty in Pink in the Bronx," and you've spoken of your love for John Hughes films. What about Hughes films appealed to you when you were young?
LR: I grew up watching those films! They played such a big role in my childhood. The world Hughes created was so outside of mine that at times it felt as if I was watching science fiction. Lately, I started re-watching them and it's shocking how problematic they are with such a disturbing lack of people of color. However, with Pretty in Pink, I could still relate to Andie's desire to be wanted, the issues of class, and of her trying to understand her father. There are definite similarities to Margot and Andie. They are both navigating the messiness of a first love while trying to stay true to themselves.
TMR: Some YA authors, like John Green, David Levithan, Sarah Dessen, and more, have made collaborative YA books. What author would you most want to collaborate with, and what story would you be interested in telling?
LR: I love this question because I believe it will happen to me one day. Because of this, it's hard for me to state who I want to work with. I don't want to jinx it by naming the person. Is that weird?
TMR: Can you tell us about your upcoming book Dealing in Dreams? What was the inspiration behind this book?
LR: I'm really excited about this book. Dealing in Dreams centers around Nalah, the leader of an all-girl gang who desperately wants to live where only a few are allowed. She believes that violence can lead her to her dreams. The novel is about sisters, gender roles, and a system that is rigged from the start. I was inspired by the cult classic film, The Warriors, and Mad Max: Fury Road. I also kept in mind the opioid epidemic and the lack of treatment for people of color plus the illusion of wealth as pertaining to our current president. I hope readers will like it!
TMR: "Every morning I wake up with self doubt," you tweeted, and that if it gets really bad, you'll write out your fears. What does this process look like? How does it help you overcome your doubt?
LR: Self doubt is such a beast. When it is really getting to me I usually pull up a blank page or document and write out my fears: I'm afraid I don't have enough words. I'm afraid I won't publish another book. I'm afraid I'm boring. On and on and on. I let it all out on the page. When I'm done, I don't usually keep the document. I try to let it go. The next day, I go right back to work.
TMR: Your Twitter timeline references a book you've been working on since January, and you're unsure if it will work or make sense, and yet you keep going because you like it. What is the importance of continuing even if you worry it might not work out?
LR: As I mentioned before, I deal with self doubt every single day. I like to joke that I'm 50% confident and 50% doubt. If I allowed my self doubt to win I wouldn't get up in the mornings. When I'm writing it feels as if I'm driving with the headlights off. There's a slight idea of where I'm going, the beginning, and perhaps, the destination. I'm driving with faith.
TMR: What advice might you offer aspiring writers struggling with this same problem?
My job is to continue writing stories with the determination that the stories will reach those who need it.
LR: Force yourself to show up to the page. Fear and haters and your own mind will stop you. You have to push through the tangled mess. Tell yourself: I have a gift and a job. My job is to continue writing stories with the determination that the stories will reach those who need it.
TMR: What sort of future can you see for Margot in the America of 2018 and beyond?
LR: I can see Margot becoming more and more involved in the community. As the Bronx changes, so does she. Her relationship with her father and brother will continue to morph. I would love to see how that dynamic changes.
TMR: As a writer working to spotlight the underrepresented, what words of advice and/or comfort might you offer to those who still feel unseen?
LR: I've had the privilege of meeting young kids in border towns and back in the South Bronx. Some of these students have never met an author before. This is usually what I say to them: "There are so many people who don't want us to succeed, who don't believe we can. I know you are worth it. I know your voice is needed. There's no doubt in my mind. You don't need permission from someone to call yourself a writer. You are the minute you write down your truth."
TMR: Do you find that literature can help make the world a better place?
LR: I do believe literature can help make the world a better place. Case in point: this president has been quoted as stating that he doesn't read. This fatal flaw in him shows again and again how much he lacks empathy. When you read about other people's lives, you build empathy. The "other" stops being something to fear and becomes human. Reading saves lives.