On April 5 at 6:30pm, we are hosting Lilliam Rivera in conversation with Cecil Castellucci, in celebration of her new book, The Education of Margot Sanchez! We were able to ask Lilliam a few questions in anticipation for her event. But first, a little background on Lilliam.
Lilliam is a 2016 Pushcart Prize winner and a 2015 Clarion alumni with a Leonard Pung Memorial Scholarship. She has been awarded fellowships from PEN Center USA, A Room Of Her Own Foundation, and received a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her short story “Death Defiant Bomba” received honorable mention in Bellevue Literary Review’s 2014 Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, selected by author Nathan Englander. Lilliam was also a finalist for AWP’s 2014 WC&C Scholarship Competition.
Lilliam’s work has appeared in Tin House, Tahoma Literary Review, Los Angeles Times, Latina, USA Today, Cosmo for Latinas, Sundog Lit, Midnight Breakfast, Bellevue Literary Review, The Rumpus.net, and Los Angeles Review of Books.
And now onto the interview…
The Education of Margot Sanchez is your first novel (Congratulations!) and has been described as “Pretty in Pink comes to the South Bronx.” It tackles themes like race, class, privilege, culture and identity. Where did the inspiration for this novel come from?
Although the novel is not autobiographical, I was inspired by my first summer job where I worked with my father. My father was a nurses’ aid at a private hospital in New York. Up to that point, my father could do no wrong. He was the man of the house and made all the decisions, but here he was at this job being told what to do. It was a really humbling and eye-opening moment for me. I wanted to capture that moment when you really see her parents as people with desires and flaws for the first time.
Your novel is YA (Young Adult) and is geared towards teens. What attracted you to that audience as opposed to adults?
Like so many teenagers, I grew up reading The Outsiders and all of the Judy Blume books. Those novels shaped my childhood but I’ve always wished that there were books about the Latinx experience. I knew that if I ever had the courage to write a novel that it would be geared towards young people.
There is a growing call to action regarding including more representation of diverse voices, identities and cultures, in literature, television, and movies, so that people around the world see themselves reflected in mainstream culture. Was this something that was important to you while writing Margot’s story, and how have your readers responded?
This recently happened to me at a school visit in East Los Angeles. I asked the high school students if they could name a Latinx actor. They couldn’t. One student said Sofia Vergara. Another student said Gina Rodriguez. But they were stumped at figuring out a Latino actor. There’s still so much work to be done. I want bookshelves to be filled with many diverse books just like I want all types of media to reflect the world we live in. There is no set Latinx voice. We are so different and I can’t wait for young people to have that option.
You’ve mentioned before on your blog that author Matt de la Pena’s novel Mexican Whiteboy was a big influence on you when you were writing your novel. Can you talk a little bit about why?
When I first read Matt de la Peña’s novel I knew I found a voice I could relate to although he was writing a contemporary story set in California. His writing tackles issues of class and race with such nuance and heart. I aspire to do the same.
Are there any other authors/books/writings that have influenced your work?
There are so many authors that have inspired me, from the legends (Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Mary Shelley) to current authors (Victor LaValle, Junot Diaz, Meg Medina). I’m always excited to add a new author to my list of writers I love.
You host a monthly literary radio show called “Literary Soundtrack” on RadioSombra.org. Can you tell us about that experience and how that got started?
Radio Sombra is a community-run radio station out of East Los Angeles. When the collective asked me if I was interested in hosting a radio show, I knew I wanted to interview authors about their craft. There are so few outlets that cover literature and I wanted to do so with the focus being on featuring only authors of color. It’s been so great doing it! I get to speak to writers I admire like Mat Johnson, Laila Lalami, and Ana Castillo, to name a few.
What’s next for you? Are you working on anything currently?
I’m currently finishing up another young adult novel that will be out from Simon & Schuster, hopefully, sometime next year. The young adult book is tentatively titled Dealing With Dreams and it is set in a near-future Bronx where girl gangs rule the streets. It explores the notion of violence, finding a home, and the power of sisters.
When you write, do you use a computer or pen and paper?
I use my lovely laptop.
Are you a Pantser or Planner?
I plan out my novels with a rough outline that I eventually ignore.
What is something you absolutely must have while writing?
I must have my steaming cup of mint tea.