Today on the blog, we've got an interview between Musa Terry Catasus Jennings and Musa Rebecca Balcárcel, author of Shine On, Luz Véliz!
Have you ever been the best at something . . . only to lose it all?
“I wanted to hug the book when I finished. If you have ever believed in the power of second chances, Luz Véliz will light up your heart.” — Christina Soontornvat, Newbery Honor author
“[A]bsorbing and skillfully paced, laced with insight and warmth. Inspiring, smart, and beautifully written.”. — Starred Kirkus review
Terry Catasus Jennings: Hi Rebecca, I am so happy to be here with you talking about your newest book, Shine On Luz Véliz! I was able to read an early copy of this, and my hat is off to you. What a complex, layered story about a girl who, because of an accident, becomes, in her own words, a “bran muffin girl, instead of blueberry cinnamon.” Can you tell us about your story and what inspired you to write it?
Rebecca Balcárcel: Thanks, Terry! The spark for this book was meeting my real-life half-sister. We didn’t know about each other until adulthood, but when I started imagining what it would have been like to meet as kids, I knew I had to write about it! For Luz’s internal struggle, I turned to one of my own. As a kid, my parents praised me a lot and celebrated every accomplishment. This was mostly great, but at some point it occurred to me that maybe I was doing some things just for the kudos. I lost track of the inherent value in activities, and I lost track of my inherent value. This is exactly Luz’s problem. She’s so invested making her parents cheer that she forgets her worth as a person when she loses her soccer star status.
TCJ: I saw that. Her self-worth was tied to the cheers she got from her mom and dad, particularly her dad. And there are so many layers in the book, Rebecca. Let’s first take the layer of Luz’s accident. The loss that Luz feels is so well developed. When she is cleaning out the closet of her life and ridding it of all things soccer, with nothing to replace that love, the reader feels that angst. Readers understand that Luz’s identity is wrapped up in soccer and now she is lost. What was that idea based on? Did you ever have a moment like that?
RB: I did! I was a choir kid in school, and I sang at home with my parents and the guitar. I was chosen for a special group, and I did well at solo contests. I didn’t expect it to end, but it did. A particular choir director chose to embarrass me in class at a time when I was struggling emotionally already. I cried in front of everyone. The director made it clear that I wouldn’t be in her good graces anymore. I just couldn’t go back. I took up the flute and made a new home for myself in band. It turned out to be for the best, but I had to reinvent myself.
TCJ: Oh man. I was embarrassed by a choir teacher. That was in fifth grade for me. It was devastating! You’re right, I couldn’t go back to choir. And I see you really dug deep. Luz at one point says that she’s “basically okay, except she isn’t.” Her relationship to her father is so central to her identity. And her relationship to her father is primarily through soccer. Now she feels invisible. She feels like she has no worth. Then here he comes and brings a new sister for her — a person on whom he is showering all the attention he’s not showering on Luz. Tell us about how Luz feels about her dad.
RB: Luz is sad that she and her dad aren’t connecting the way they used to. Soccer gave them an automatic talk topic and an easy way to spend time together. With that gone, Luz isn’t sure what to offer. She thinks it’s on her to impress him. Worse, Dad is pulling away because he feels responsible for Luz’s injury. He doesn’t want to cause any new hurt, so he’s kind of ghosting her. Ironically, that hurts her. Until Luz calls him on it, her dad doesn’t even realize what he’s been doing. With his “new” daughter, it’s easier. He knows what to do -- show her around and make her feel welcome. With Luz, he’s a little lost until the end.
TCJ: Why don’t you tell us all about that new sister, Solana? What did you want to this new sister to do for Luz? On top of this girl coming, she is gregarious, even though she doesn’t know the language. It’s a very compelling situation in which Luz is placed. Tell us more.
RB: It was fun to write Solana because I admire her. She’s based on my real-life half-sister and also my immigrant cousins. Solana manages to move to a new place, please her new parents, adapt to a new school, and become a sister to Luz – all with a smile and a flare for making people happy. She’s pretty, too! Luz feels outshone, of course, and we eventually learn why Solana is trying especially hard. Luz learns a lot from Solana, the main thing being to appreciate people for who they are, including herself.
TCJ: An unsung hero in this story is the mother. She all of a sudden has to take in another woman’s daughter and sees everything that is going on with the family. Tell us how you came to this character.
RB: You’re so right! The mom is quietly, reliably making everything run smoothly, despite change and challenges. I guess this is most women I know! Especially, though, it’s a lot like my own mom. She has a big heart, but she isn’t one for self-pity. She faces things and gets to work solving the problem. She makes the best of things. Several times we opened our home to my father’s siblings and their families when they first arrived in the USA. Both my parents helped them start their life here, but mom was the paperwork do-er and the one to nail down the details, all with positivity and generosity. I try to be like her.
TCJ: So right. The moms are the ones who make things work. What a wonderful role model. I loved the character of Mr. Mac, who lives across the street. If you think of the hero’s journey, he is the mentor. He is the one who tells Luz the truth without varnish in a way that she can accept it. He guides her to accept what she has to accept. He does so much for Luz, yet, he has problems of his own, which his actions all the more admirable. What can you tell us about him?
RB: Yes, he really is that Gandalf-Dumbldore-Yoda mentor! My grandfather was the inspiration for Mr. Mac. Not only was he gently honest, funny, and wise, but his basement woodshop was magical. It was filled with saws, chisels, mallets, and hammers of different sizes, plus dowels, boards, blocks, and planks. The sense of creative possibilities and the smell of sawdust in the air never left me. Luz and Mr. Mac’s intergenerational friendship propelled this story for me. My grandfather’s knowing smile and his maker space in the basement provided continual touchstones. As you mention, though, the character Mr, Mac has his own challenges. He has an autistic grandson, and we learn that his hand tremors and occasional mood swings are caused by early-stage Parkinson’s. I took both of these situations from my own life: my dad had Parkinson’s, and I’m an au-some mom, with twin sons who are autistic.
TCJ: Rebecca, those two relationships come through so clearly, I knew there must be some very deep connections that helped you draw that character. There is one more layer, and that is her relationship with Skyler, her soccer buddy. Once Luz is no longer on the soccer team, Skyler becomes distant. Luz is jealous of the life that Skyler has because Skyler is still on the soccer team, she still has the same old friends. (All that Luz has lost due to her accident.) But there is a point in the book where Luz realizes that Skyler doesn’t have it all. That is one more opportunity for growth for Luz. Was that always part of the plan?
As I was writing the ending few chapters, I realized that I wanted to close the loop with Skyler. The girls separate, as you say, and I thought it would be cool to brings them back together after Luz grows into her new self. Luz wasn’t able to see Skyler clearly until after regaining some confidence. Then Luz can be a better friend. She can appreciate Skyler as a person, not only as a teammate who helped her win. This is when Luz finds out that Skyler doesn’t have a perfect life, and she’s now at a point where she can be empathetic. Luz is learning that people are deeper than they appear and that everyone is dealing with something.
TCJ: That is absolutely her growth pattern. She realizes that everyone is dealing with something. In the book Luz takes up computer coding, making robots. It is a drastic turn in her life. When you were a young wife and three months pregnant, you rode 1300 miles on a bicycle from Houston to Santa Fe. Your description about your move is you “climbed out of our former lives determined to see who we were.” Looking at Luz and her move to robotics made me think about that. Any connection?
I see what you mean! Yes, that bike trip was a real quest for identity, a literal journey that had a psychological goal. It’s scary to give up who you thought you were, but it’s also scary to look up and wonder if your life doesn’t match your true self. So, yes, Luz and I both made a drastic change. There’s a poem by Elizabeth Bishop called, “The Art of Losing.” Both Luz and I had to learn that losing makes space for something new. And neither of us knew what that “new” would look like. We had to let Life bring something, and we had to be open to it. You could also say, as Mr. Mac, does, that we had to build the new self deliberately – to select what we wanted to include in our lives and to select who we wanted to be there.
TCJ: You are very deliberate in your exposition of the gang problems which forced Solana to come to the United States. That also took courage. What can you tell us about that?
RB: For the storyline, I needed Solana to have a reason to leave Guatemala, but the two main reasons I made Solana’s mother a victim of gang violence are 1) real families are fleeing violence right now, and their appeals for asylum in the US have been handled in cruel ways 2) my own family was touched by violence when my aunt’s brother was shot for reasons and by people we’ll never know. While my book emphasizes the beauty of Guatemala and its people, I wanted to show these realities as well in hopes of raising readers’ awareness and empathy.
TCJ: It is a very difficult topic, but it helps Luz Veliz shine even more. You show very clearly the fear that many immigrants, even legal immigrants have of ICE. Another very courageous position. Thank you for doing that. Why was it important for you to broach that subject?
RB: Kids are living with this fear, and I didn’t want to ignore that. Lots of immigrant families have members with a variety of legal statuses — citizen, green card holder, legal resident, etc. Complications can arise that put a mother or grandfather or a cousin in jeopardy of being deported, even when trying to do things the legal way. Also, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers aren’t always treating people with dignity. And they make mistakes. I’ve heard of citizens running away during a raid just because they were afraid that they wouldn’t be believed, meaning a delay in being treated like the citizen they are. Kids with undocumented family members are suffering even more because they know their caregiver might be gone when they get home from school. It’s heartbreaking. I want to add that US policies in Central America have shaped that region’s economy and government. My mother served in Guatemala in the Peace Corps, but not every action by our country has been as positive in its consequences.
TCJ: Well, that’s something that all of have in common, “not every action by our country has been as positive in its consequences.” Cuban history is rife with that, as well, unfortunately. Let’s talk about book one vs. two. How different was writing Luz from writing The Other Half of Happy?
RB: So different! I wrote Happy over six years, with the leisure of creating something in isolation, just sharing with my critique group with no deadlines and no knowledge of the publishing industry. Happy started as a book of prose poems! When I got an agent, I turned it into a novel and revised a lot. When it sold, I still didn’t have a clear plot. I added the main plot in the last big rewrite. Can you believe it? With Luz, I knew I wanted to write a novel. I wrote a synopsis and an outline. The book sold with that and ten chapters. I wrote it in about nine months total (only five months after the contract was signed), doing the bulk of the drafting in spring 2020 during lock-down. A deadline from the publisher helped!
TCJ: And let’s end by talking about craft. You have written essays and poetry. Tell me about your writing journey.
RB: I trained as a poet, getting an MFA and having a small university press publish my first book, but I love all the genres. Non-fiction has the power of “this really happened!” plus a sense of one-on-one with the reader. Fiction gives me room to follow a character across time and meet all the people in their world. Poetry-writing created a rich soil for me, though, because it taught my ears music, and it gave me permission to play with figurative language. I set myself free in poetry in ways that would have been hard had I started in fiction. Now I can bring that experience to my novels. I hope it makes them interesting, sentence by sentence, as well as interesting at a story level. My goal is to harness all the powers of language to touch heads and hearts.
RB: I love those words, harnessing all the powers of language to touch heads and hearts. Thank you. Now, can you tell us what is in the future for you? What can you share with us?
TCJ: I'm excited to share that Inkyard Press will release Boundless, an anthology of short stories written about and by multi-racial/cultural authors, in summer 2023! I co-edited the collection with YA author, Ismée Williams, and also contributed a story. I hope the book will give multi-culturals representation and give everyone an insider's look at the experience. It's been an honor to work with the contributors, which include some of my idols like Jasmine Warga and Erin Entrada Kelly. I'm also drafting a new novel that uses magical realism and takes place in Guatemala!
TCJ: That sounds like an all-star cast. I am very excited to see that book that you co-edited with Ismée and which features Latina powerhouses. Wonderful. And I can’t wait to see what you do with magical realism in Guatemala. It was delightful to talk with you and I wish you the very best in the future.
Order Shine On, Luz Véliz today!
Bi-cultural Rebecca Balcárcel loves popcorn, her kitty, and teaching her students at Tarrant County College as Associate Professor of English. She is the author of SHINE ON, LUZ VÉLIZ! and THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY, which was named a Pura Belpré Honor Book, an ALSC Notable Book, and the Best Middle Grade Book by Texas Institute of Letters. Her next book, a collection of short stories by multi-racial/multi-cultural authors, comes out in 2023. Rebecca is both a co-editor and a contributor.
Terry Catasús Jennings is a Cuban-American writer who immigrated to the United States after her father was jailed in Cuba by Fidel Castro’s government. She was twelve at the time and knew no English. The Little House of Hope/La casita de esperanza is a semi-autobiographical story in which immigrants give each other a helping hand in a new country. Her goal in life is to lead us to embrace our common humanity, as well as sing the praises of Cuban food. Terry is represented by Natalie Lakosil of Irene Goodman Literary Agency.
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