Lilliam Rivera, Author
Lilliam Rivera is a prolific fiction writer who is helping change the face of the young adult genre. She creates compelling, believably grounded characters that have to grow and adapt to the world around them. Sometimes they’re even forced to confront their beliefs and learn to change in order to become the person they want to be. She’s currently the author of two YA novels, The Education of Margot Sanchez and Dealing in Dreams. While they’re both vastly different in terms of setting, at their hearts, they’re following a young girl trying to understand her world and learning to interact and maneuver through it.
I have been lucky enough to attend multiple seminars that Lilliam has given on craft, characters, and world-building, and her energy and passion are infectious. The way that she writes and her attention to detail are inspiring, as is the way she keeps everything focused and centered on the main characters themselves. She believes, like I do, that characters are the heart and essence of your stories and they should be the driving force behind them.
As a history major for her undergrad, Lilliam is also deeply invested and interested in helping shape the narratives of our current time. It’s important to understand where we’ve been but never lose sight of the real struggles that are still happening to people all around us and to remember the narratives and stories that are left behind. In a upcoming book scheduled to be released in Fall 2020 titled Pheus and Yury, she’s written about a Puerto Rican woman who’s been displaced due to hurricane Maria while suffering from PTSD. It’s an important reminder that there is still a lot of work to be done and help to offer, even if there’s less news coverage on it now in the US.
Lilliam is an award winning writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Elle, to name a few. Though currently living in Los Angeles, she spends a fair amount of time traveling for pleasure, as well as for her numerous speaking engagements. Even though she has an insanely busy schedule with her recent book release, upcoming publications, seminars and teaching, essay writing, and her general daily writing practice, she still managed to fit in an interview for Lunch Ticket in August 2019. She was incredibly friendly and warm as we talked about her writing projects, her upcoming publications, and writing advice.
The interview below has been edited for length.
Sara Voigt: Well, thank you so much for doing this. I know you’re super, super busy.
Lilliam Rivera: I’m glad I’m still here and that you’re still available.
SV: Okay. So do you have, like, a particular writing habit or, like, a ritual? And do you try to write everyday?
LR: Um. I try to write every day. I mean that’s not, it’s not, you know, obviously set in stone. But for the most part, I do try to, like, work every day toward something. So it’s either working on my manuscript, if I’m on deadline obviously. Or if I’m trying to work on something or just starting, like, the creative process, I’ll try to dedicate some time just trying to free write ideas for that. Or you know, or even just reading. It just really encompasses a lot of different things. But I do try to dedicate every day to working towards what I wanna create. You know, whatever it is that I want to create.
SV: That makes sense. When you’re starting something, do you normally have one specific part of it that you know in your heart, like a specific character or like a specific setting and that’s your jumping off point?
LR: Maybe I have an idea of what I want to write. Like maybe the genre or a specific idea I want to explore. But for me to start writing, to start writing writing, is I really need to know the ending. And that could mean anything from what the ending will feel like, or it could be concrete—it’ll end this way. But I just have to have some sort of idea of what that looks like, what the ending feels like. So if I don’t have that then that means I have to keep exploring. It takes a while.
SV: Oh, for sure. I’m the same way. I need to know where I’m going before I can know where I’m beginning.
LR: Yeah, yeah. For sure. And you wanna write towards that.
SV: Right. Okay. So you did mention that you do work on quite a few things at once. How do you juggle all those different stories or articles, and different characters and plots, all that kind of stuff?
LR: It all depends on what deadlines I have. I’m really kind of strict when it comes to scheduling so that whatever’s due is due and I make it. You know, I make those deadlines. But if I don’t have anything scheduled, then I’m gonna assume that I’m not going to work on it. And then you know things pop up, [like] last minute requests that are really kind of quick turnarounds. You know, like a personal essay or things like that. Those are kind of popping up a little bit more. And those just really have to be focused and really quick. Short stories, as well.
“But for me to start writing, to start writing writing, is I really need to know the ending. And that could mean anything from what the ending will feel like, or it could be concrete—it’ll end this way. But I just have to have some sort of idea of what that looks like, what the ending feels like.”
So it’s becoming less of a luxury to kind of roam freely when it comes to creating. I feel like I have to be really focused as to what I’m gonna be working on. But then you know those are the ideas that I want. You know, I wanna write another YA novel. And while I’m waiting for notes in-between this other novel that I sold, then I have to start thinking of what I want to write. And so that’s the research process, you know, reading a lot. A lot. Just reading and watching stuff. And reading articles and taking notes and stuff like that.
SV: Is writer’s block something you’ve suffered from? If so, like how do you work through it?
LR: Um. I don’t know. I try not to use the words “writer’s block.” I try to think of it as sometimes you need to do more research. And that might mean just going right back to your character and what they want. ’Cause sometimes you forget what they want. [LAUGHS] It’s like going right back into asking your character questions and just trying to understand their desires and their fears more than anything. And this is really going back, back to, you know, the beginning of exploration. So, usually if I’m stuck somewhere in my plot or something, then I just take a step back and I just step away from it. And sometimes it might just be fear that I have that’s stopping me from continuing. And I have to really examine that a little bit, not dwell on anything. I just, you know, I take a break. Go take a walk, take a shower, maybe not work that day [on it], work on something else. And then maybe start again, you know; try again the next day.
SV: Well that’s good to hear because I always get that question and I’ve had a lot of professors who’ve been like, “Just push through it.” And my thoughts are always, sometimes you just need a break because maybe, like you said, it’s just a matter of a mental block or something.
LR: Right. It might just be that tipping point of whatever is, whatever your character is in fear of. Maybe you’re going through it, as well. You know? You might be embodying your character and you’re afraid to step into something else. Like I really try to pay attention to those things, because usually it’s true.
SV: I was gonna talk a little bit about Dealing in Dreams. And I know you just mentioned that you start a project kind of knowing where the ending is headed.
SV: So can I ask kind of how this story came to be? You know, it’s the girl gangs, the dystopian future, like all these different elements. How did that happen?
LR: I grew up reading The Outsiders so that was like a really big deal for me when I was in high school. And I also read Clockwork Orange when I was in high school. So those two books were, like, kind of pivotal in a strange way for me. Like, I could relate to both of them in a strange way. I mean, considering that I was a girl from the Bronx living in housing projects at the time. So those two realities were far from my own reality, but I can still relate to the desire to have a home, and also the desire to create a home and create family. So, yeah, I don’t know. I always just kind of wanted to create a Latinx version of those books, a Latinx mix of those two books.
“Resistance is different, you know. There’s resistance in joy, resistance in romance. Like, that to me is really super empowering that whatever things that are being written right now, that that also is push back against any kind of restriction or [that] only one voice can be heard.”
And that’s really where that idea came from. I was like, Oh, what kind of book would I like to have read? And I’m going to write it. It’s going to be violent and it’s going to be messy. And it’ll just have things that I would have loved to play around in. You know, like these words and objects that are futuristic. I had a good time just really falling into the rage of those characters.
SV: You made a good point when you said that it was kind of the desires of the characters that you could relate to. Because I find that in a lot of fantasy or sci-fi or fantastical settings, sometimes it feels more grounded just because the characters’ desires do hit so close to home because they’re such personal desires.
LR: Yeah. Depending on [the person], some people really love hard fantasy and fall into the other world of it. And me, I like to have it be hints of things that seem, you know, the possibility seems really eminent. And also [the setting] just seems familiar as well. To me, it’s always character first. And then the setting after.
SV: I know that you have a lot of capitalism critique in Dealing in Dreams. But are there any other themes or messages that you would hope that a reader picked up?
LR: I mean, I don’t know if a reader would have picked it up, but I’m always writing about class, for sure. And race. I guess specifically what I was writing about was the medical experimentation done on Puerto Rican women, specifically when it comes to the opioid crisis. So, you know, there was a survey done which was listed in a article—I think it was in The Atlantic—about, you know, the Sackler family and the history of the opiate drug. And there was just a little one-liner where it said that like ninety women, Puerto Rican women, were the first to use the drug. And I was just like, Wow. No one talks about this. That study was never published, you know?
And you know, it was sponsored by Purdue. And so then it’s just like this whole thing about the history of using women of color, especially in this island, as guinea pigs for these drugs that are highly addictive. And obviously now it’s known, right, that they’re highly addictive. I was just really thinking about that when I was writing Dealing in Dreams and I was thinking about, you know, sueños obviously is the currency of my Mega City where Nalah lives, and she lives by that currency. She falls into that system of giving it out. And so it’s really a way of sedating the masses. You know, not allowing them to up-rise.
Yeah. So that’s really what I was thinking about when I was writing it. But I don’t know if anybody would know that unless I say it in an interview [LAUGHS].
SV: But I think it’s always interesting to see how the reality that we’re living in does shape some of the things that we write and tends to find its way in.
LR: Yeah. For me, I love fiction. I love creating worlds, these fictional characters. But then I’m always in the back of my mind trying to think of the things that drive me, you know? And usually those are things that are historical and things that are happening in present time. How do I write about these huge themes that affect me or affect my people of color without it being a history lesson?
SV: Yeah. Well one of the things that I think we’re seeing a little bit of pushback on is how a lot of the younger generation is trying to enact some of these changes. Or at least raising awareness on things. I mean, I’m thirty and I still get the comment of, “You’re too young. You don’t know what’s going on in the world. You can’t possibly form an opinion.” You’ve talked about how you’re trying, or how YA should be kind of the face of the resistance because that’s, you know, the future generation.
LR: I mean my thing is like, that’s the stuff that I write. Resistance is different, you know. There’s resistance in joy, resistance in romance. Like, that to me is really super empowering that whatever things that are being written right now, that that also is a pushback against any kind of restriction or [that] only one voice can be heard. Right? So I mean, I may not write typical romance novel stories, but that’s not to say that that isn’t part of the resistance, right?
LR: I was thinking and talking about it yesterday with a friend. It’s like, I could probably write it, but the things that I’m writing [from] within my heart, like those are the things that I’m struggling to deal with in my own life. The class and racism within the Latinx community, and my place, and this issue of being here and Puerto Rico is all the way over there on the island. All those things that are like pushing and pulling, you know, the stuff that I wanna write.
SV: Right. And kind of on that topic of balancing outside forces, you’re now teaching for AULA [Antioch University Los Angeles] a bit. How is that going, by the way?
LR: Oh, yeah, it’s great. It’s been fun to read everyone’s packets. I think it’s so awesome that we could talk about books that I love, and I can be like, “Yeah, you should read this book and it’s a YA book.” I mean, that, to me, is like, that’s really awesome.
SV: That’s good to hear! One of the things that we’ve talked about a lot in our program is kind of using our writing as a way to push forward some of these social justice narratives and these social justice ideas.
SV: I feel like that’s something you do very well in balancing a very real-world issue with a story. Do you have any advice on how to balance that in your writing?
LR: Man. Um. It really does go back to how I want to present a story. Like, to me, everything is an oracle story, right? That’s the basis of everything, right? When I went to Puerto Rico in December, and I would ask people about what happened during Hurricane Maria. Everyone, everyone wanted to talk about it because they want to tell their story. So, it’s just like, in my head I’m looking at it, I’m listening to them, and I’m also thinking of what would a character look like if they were trying to embody that story as well? Without it being, you know, the historical research paper that I would have written in college. [LAUGHS]
’Cause I was a history major, you know? It’s all about story. Like, tell me the story. I wanna know how your brother got addicted to opiates. Stuff that happened and I’m just like, okay, this is the way I would bring in this one character. How do I write about Hurricane Maria without it being about, like, I hate Trump? So this is gonna be about a girl who’s suffering from PTSD because of Hurricane Maria. You know? So it’s just a matter of how to enter a social justice story and how to enter it without it being an afterschool special. And that, to me, is about how I tell a story. How I do that and pinpointing it to one person and exploring that one person’s point of view.
SV: That’s good advice. And I liked your comments like history is kind of just a bunch of stories. You know, it’s about what can kind of stand the test of time and also who who’s telling the story. I like that idea of you’re trying to find the stories that connect you to the bigger picture.
LR: Yeah. It really is about who gets control of the narrative, right? So that’s why it’s super exciting to be writing young adult and not shy away from the bigger themes that I want to explore. Because I think young people, they are already in it. They’re already talking about those things, you know?
SV: Right. Did you get any pushback ever for having some of your characters talking about or taking on these bigger issues or dealing with them?
LR: No. I’ve been really lucky that I’ve had editors and publishing houses that are more than willing to help guide me to explore those issues, even to dig deeper. Especially with Dealing in Dreams, for example, [which was] edited by Zareen Jaffrey at Simon and Schuster. There was never pushback. It was more, how do we get more into it? Like, let’s explore this even more. You know? And that’s like a blessing to find someone who wasn’t even questioning the bigger themes I was trying to capture.
SV: We’re dealing with the reality of the world and the political climate and societal climate and all that stuff. So how do you kind of balance your writing life or your fiction writing life from your essay writing life or your personal life and kind of keep them all from overwhelming you?
LR: Oh, yeah. I don’t know if I do. No, I’m kidding! [LAUGHS] I mean, to me, it all blends in. Every single thing that I’m writing in some way is gonna inform the next project. So even if I’m writing a personal essay about, let’s say for example, Puerto Rico’s recent national strike denouncing their governor, right? [NOTE: This is in reference to the July 2019 protests in Puerto Rico that demanded the governor Richardo Rosselló resign. Rosselló did eventually resign in early August 2019.] I’m writing about it as a personal essay and how it affects me. All of that is going to inform my next project; whether I see that or not, it is. I’m gathering these pieces which will show up in my young adult novel for sure. So, my thing is just, everything I write, I’m gonna figure out a way of exploring in my next project that’s going to be my heart project.
“So it’s just a matter of how to enter a social justice story and how to enter it without it being an afterschool special. And that, to me, is about how I tell a story. How I do that and pinpointing it to one person and exploring that one person’s point of view.”
Yeah, so balancing it, I don’t know if I do a good job balancing it. I just, I write a lot because, you know, that’s the way I make some money. And it’s always good to make money. [LAUGHS] But also it’s just good for me to do it. It forces me to write things that maybe I’m a little afraid to write about. I was afraid to write middle grade and now you know, by chance, I’m writing a middle grade novel next year. I was afraid to write personal essays and then someone asked me to write a personal essay. So I try to do the things that make me feel or that might be uncomfortable.
SV: Yeah. You’ve kind of mentioned a few times some future projects you’re working on. Is there anything you can share with us or that you’d like to share?
LR: Sure. This was announced recently that I’m writing a middle grade novel for Little Brown Books for Young Readers. It’s a novel that’s based on a comic book of Goldie Vance. It’s late 1950s, ’60s, and she’s a sixteen-year-old who wants to be a detective more than anything. So, she’s really like a biracial Nancy Drew in a way. And she’s super sweet and just really gung-ho and I really kind of love her. And so I got to write that middle grade novel and that comes out next year [NOTE: Goldie Vance: The Hotel Whodunit will be published March 17, 2020]. That’s really fun because she’s just a go-getter and not full of angst. We want her to win. And that’s awesome. So it was really a fun challenge to write a mystery and write for like younger readers.
SV: That sounds great!
LR: And then my next YA book comes out Fall 2020 and that one is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. It’s set in the Bronx, NY. Pheus—his name is Pheus—is a wannabe bachata singer and he falls in love with Eury, who’s a Puerto Rican displaced from Hurricane Maria. She’s suffering from PTSD but she’s also being followed by an angry spirit. And so then there’s that. Those two books!
SV: I know you have a limited amount of free time, but what do you like to do to relax or refocus, recharge?
LR: I think what I like to do is, I just like to be near the water or the pool and just lay out in the sun. Like, that’s what I like to do. I just want to just chill out and do nothing. Then I’ll like to go see art and you know, just be around art. Everything that I’m looking at I’m just trying to get inspired by. I try to do that and it’s weird cause I don’t know if you do this, but it feels sometimes that when I’m relaxing, it’s very focused relaxing. So I’m like, “go see art,” but it’s really in relation to whatever I’m writing.
SV: That’s good. And I know you mentioned that you like to read a lot, especially when you’re in the creative process. So is there anything in particular that you’re reading right now that you really liked or anything you’ve read recently you want to share?
LR: There are two books that I, that are beside me that I wanna read. So I’m just gonna shout them out because I want them to get that and I need to read them. But I have blurbs I have to write ’cause sometimes I have to read work stuff.
LR: Angie Cruz has a book called Dominicana that comes out in a couple weeks or early next month and that just looks good [NOTE: Published September 3, 2019]. And then another book is Jacquira Díaz’s Ordinary Girls [NOTE: Published October 29, 2019], which is a memoir, which I definitely want to read ’cause Jacquira’s an amazing writer. She’s Puerto Rican and I know her. I rarely read memoirs, but I just know that this one’s going to be good. So they’re not YA but then Ordinary Girls probably starts off with young girls, you know?
“I would say just really dedicate time to your art. Really take it seriously. I take my time seriously and I’ve always been this way, even before any contracts, even before any agents, I was just writing.”
SV: Well sometimes it’s good to read outside of your genre, just to kinda see what else is there and it might spark something.
LR: Oh, yeah. I try to read everything, even poetry, whatever it is. I just try to read as much as I can.
SV: That’s always good. And then my final question is just, do you have any last pieces of advice for any aspiring writers? Which is a very broad question, I know! [LAUGHS]
LR: [LAUGHS] I would say just really dedicate time to your art. Really take it seriously. I take my time seriously and I’ve always been this way, even before any contracts, even before any agents, I was just writing. I would have a full-time job and I would take my laptop and I would write during lunch. I would get there early and I would write for an hour before everybody showed up. So I just took it very seriously, because no one else is going take it seriously.
SV: That’s absolutely true. If you don’t have the deadlines set by other people, they’re really your own. Like you’re really the only person that’s going to keep you going forward.
LR: Yeah. You have to really just push yourself to make space. Make time and space for your work.
SV: Well that’s the last question I had.
LR: This has been good; it’s been great. Thank you so much.
SV: Thank you! Good luck with your travels!
LR: Thanks, Sara. Bye.