In conversation with fellow Musa, Sara Faring
It’s my pleasure today to introduce Las Musas blog readers to Alex Villasante, the brilliant author of one of my favorite YA novels of 2019—The Grief Keeper.
The Grief Keeper is the tender, moving, and compulsively readable speculative tale of seventeen-year-old Marisol, a young Salvadoran who flees her country with her little sister after their brother is murdered. Marisol is offered a chance at asylum in the U.S. if she agrees to participate in a dangerous experimental trial: she must take another’s grief into her body.
A Junior Library Guild selection, an Indies Introduce pick, and a Barnes & Noble debut of the week, THE GRIEF KEEPER has been called an “engrossing debut” by Publishers Weekly and a story that “will grip readers and provoke empathy” by Kirkus Reviews.
Alex, thank you for speaking with me. Without further ado...
What was the very first seed of THE GRIEF KEEPER? Was it a question you needed answered, an image that wouldn't leave you, a character whispering in your head, or something else entirely?
The idea for THE GRIEF KEEPER came from two trains of thought I’d been mulling over – my parent’s immigration story, their experiences and sacrifices; and an article about a wearable device being tested that might alleviate the symptoms of PTSD in soldiers returning from war. These thoughts knocked around my head until they collided with a ‘What if?’ What if there was a way to take grief from one person and give it to another? Which begged another question: Who would be the giver and who would be the receiver? I followed this string of questions until I had Marisol firmly in my head. Then I followed Marisol to the rest of her story.
What fell out of the overstuffed closet in your brain (we all have one) that you knew you needed to include in this story? Did you come across any fascinating details while working on the book that you ultimately chose to exclude?
Oh, my overstuffed brain! I’m always adding details and characters and scenes that tumble out of my head in the first draft. Most of those superfluous ideas, I manage to weed out (back into that brain-space you go! Eight ghost brothers bent on revenge maybe needed for another book!) but there was another pair of siblings in this book – an adult brother and sister working through their own, very different, reasons for grief. My editor wisely saw that this pair did not add anything to the narrative, and worse, took tension away. OFF they went!
The sisters in this book shine so bright from the very first pages. What did you want to highlight in Marisol and Gabi's sisterly dynamic?
Siblings is a theme I come to again and again in my writing. There isn’t another person who will be closer to you in your life. Even if you hate your brother or sister – that bond of emotion is close and complicated. As I discovered who Marisol was, I wrote Gabi and their older brother Pablo, defining each sibling as they were in relation to each other. That’s how siblings grow, in shadows of others, in protection or competition, hatred or love or both. I wanted Marisol and Gabi’s relationship to be a centerpiece of the book because that is what motivates Marisol in the hard choices she makes.
What books, movies, and television shows do you like to think THE GRIEF KEEPER is in conversation with?
THE GRIEF KEEPER is an immigrant story, in the way YOU BRING THE DISTANT NEAR and AMERICAN STREET are immigrant stories – though these are very different. Exploring what it means to be other, what it means to feel apart, is at the core of my book. Also, as you and I have discussed, I’d say that NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishigurois a book I think about a lot in context with THE GRIEF KEEPER. (I love that book, it haunts me still. I am not putting my book on a par with that masterpiece, let’s be clear!) Like NEVER LET ME GO, THE GRIEF KEEPER explores what it means to be human, how we disregard humanity to the point of dehumanization for the sake of progress. It also questions who gets to benefit from technology and who suffers.
In the book, you beautifully and sensitively explore the way that this process of passing grief from one individual to another could be used to help the privileged and hurt the needy. As a reader, it's impossible not to empathize with GK's protagonist, Marisol, a young Salvadoran who seeks asylum in the US and is given a chance at that for herself and her sister if she agrees to participate in this very risky experiment. Detailing how this experiment affects the lives of teenagers is a visceral, intimate way of examining inequity in the world. What parallels did you hope to draw between Marisol's world and ours?
I see Marisol’s world and ours as essentially the same. The only difference is the technology. The forces that seek to make us despise otherness are here right now. The moral ambiguity that comes with having power, money and privilege is here too. Even the drive to protect the ones we love at any cost is here. We’re living in Marisol’s world. THE GRIEF KEEPER takes existing situations and turns them up a notch.
While working on the book, did you imagine a world in which the experiment was rolled out on a wider scale--where grief was eradicated in a privileged few? What did that society look like? What kind of role do you think grief plays in shaping who we are?
Oh God, I did think about that. I had, at one time, a more grandiose vision of this book as a sci-fi fantasy dystopian. Evil corporations, rebellious teens, conspiracy and murder plots (sidebar: I’d totally read this book if anyone wants to write it!) But ultimately, I decided I wanted to explore the personal effects of grief and sacrifice. I wanted to dig deep into the emotion and the connection and the consequences. I needed less plot twists for that and more hands reaching to touch each other.
While reading THE GRIEF KEEPER, I was so moved by Marisol's fierce protectiveness of her sister, Gabi--and by her desire to preserve Gabi's innocence. How would THE GRIEF KEEPER differ if it was narrated by Gabi? Would you ever consider writing a MG version from her point of view (I'm only asking because I'm desperate to read it)?
I love Gabi. She’s the character I didn’t know I’d love so much until her voice started singing out to me on the page. I think a book told from Gabi’s perspective would be lighter and more buoyant, because Gabi has the privilege many younger siblings have; they know they have someone who always has their back. Fair or not, that means they get to be more carefree. Gabi is also quite different in her personality. She looks for beauty. She likes speed and breezes in her hair and she likes loud. She’s much more of an extrovert than Marisol.
While working on the book, did you learn anything surprising about yourself that you might like to share?
That I could write a hard book. I had this idea initially in late 2015 and I submitted it to my agent, Barbara Poelle along with other book ideas that were less hard. THE GRIEF KEEPER became the fourth book I went on submission with Barbara, and the books before were good, interesting and all within what I thought of as ‘my wheelhouse.’ THE GRIEF KEEPER was decidedly outside of my comfort zone – so much research, so much heavy exploration of feelings. So many stories that had to be gotten right. I wasn’t sure I could do it. I not-so-secretly hoped that Barbara would choose one of my other ideas that were lighter and fluffier. No such luck. She told me (and other friends echoed her words) to write the hard book. I didn’t think I could. But I found out I was wrong!
What do you hope readers will take away from reading THE GRIEF KEEPER?
Everyone deserves love. It sounds so easy and most people would agree immediately with this statement. But when you actively apply it to people who are different from you; who look different or speak differently or love differently – that’s when it becomes harder. Believe that this is true and act accordingly. Everyone deserves love.
What's next for you, Alex?
Sleep? Ha ha. No. I’m going on tour with the Grief Keeper [Sara, want to include the graphic of where I’ll be in the blog post? I’ll attach it here] and I’m looking forward to talking to readers and gushing about all the AMAZING Las Musas books out in the world. There’s a spooky South American tale called THE TENTH GIRL that I cannot wait to get my hands on (seriously, where is my copy??) and I’m about to get edits on my second book any day now – though I can only share that my next book contains another strong, but unusual sibling story, a trip to the Hindenburg crash site and going to summer school for failing Religion.
Sara, thank you so much for these thought-provoking questions- I had a blast!
Las Musas books are proud to announce two new expansions to Las Musas family: Hermanas and Madrinas.
HERMANAS is a selection-based mentorship program for unpublished Latinx kidlit writers. It will connect unpublished writers with current Musas and Madrinas. Mentees will benefit from the craft and industry experience of their mentor and will have the opportunity to ask for publishing/marketing related advice and/or receive help with a specific manuscript.
Mentees should be Latinx (comfortable identifying on the female spectrum) authors who would like guidance on a specific Middle Grade or Young Adult project for a period of six months.
We will be selecting up to five Hermanas. Priority will be given to marginalized community members and those who can demonstrate advanced progress on their MG/YA projects.
APPLY TO BE AN HERMANA
MADRINAS is comprised of Latinx established authors who would like to provide advice, mentorship, collaboration, camaraderie, and more among our growing collective. Our As Musas they will be able to ask their fellow Musas for help promoting their new projects and of course, a sounding board for whatever they may need.
MEET THE MADRINAS & LEARN MORE
LAS MUSAS started in the Fall of 2018 as a collective of women and non-binary (identifying on the female spectrum) Latinx MG and YA authors coming together in an effort to support and amplify each other’s debut or sophomore novels in US children’s literature.
Since then we have continued to grow and change as we build from this seed and interact with the publishing community. Because of this we hope the Hermanas and Madrinas programs will help us continue to expand our community and reflect the rich variety of voices in the Latinx community.
- Las Musas
Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución.
This week Ann Dávila Cardinal stops by the Musas blog to talk about her debut novel FIVE MIDNIGHTS! FIVE MIDNIGHTS is a YA horror novel set in modern day Puerto Rico which uses the myth of El Cuco to examine topics such as identity, loss of faith, and substance abuse. But first a little more about the book...
If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping through Puerto Rico. But the clues lead them out of the real world and into the realm of myths and legends. And if they want to catch the killer, they'll have to step into the shadows to see what's lurking there—murderer, or monster?
OK, Querida! Let's get started!!!
1. What was the first image or visual that sunk its teeth in and wouldn't let go?
I love this question! Honestly, it was the amorphous image of El Cuco. I know, that sounds contradictory to the question, right? But when I first found out about him, that he was present in many different Hispanic cultures under different names, I kept asking people, "but what does he look like?" Most people just shrugged, some had their own images. But the idea of him not having a set shape was SO intriguing to me. Because ever since I was little, my imagination was always WAY scarier than reality, so I imagined him like the English boggart, taking the form of the thing you feared most. I loved that they found Naomi Romero's illustration of him for the cover because I think she really captured the visual that was in my head.
2. Speaking of monsters. Some people in the genre believe that the monster must never be visible - or at least not fully - in order to keep the tension up. Are you of this camp and how did you wrestle with keeping your monster amorphous being while keeping the dread a very tangible thing?
I actually had a lengthy discussion about this with my brother George. There was a scene where El Cuco took the form of a huge snake, and I got very detailed about it, describing the muscled body, the triangular head. George felt that level of description took away from the tension for the reason you mentioned. Since he's a psychoanalyst and understands much more of the human mind than I do (and has a dozen years of horror reading on me) I took his advice and went less specific in the end, more of a formless evil but with snake-like qualities...the sound of scales scraping, slitted yellow eyes, that sort of thing. He was right: it upped the tension. So I guess my answer is that I'm coming over into the less visible camp...slithering over, you might say.
3. I feel a bit of my chef side coming out with this next question. As I was reading I kept getting hints of classic tales and authors like dash of flavor coming out. I'd read a page and think, "oh here's a hint of King here," in the best way. What are some of your influences as you were writing this?
Oh, influences as I was writing it? I mean, I think at this point in my life I've had so many years of gathering influences that their voices are all in there, you know? I mean, what horror writer isn't influenced by Stephen King? Whether they admit it or not. I was a huge fan in my youth. And Anne Rice, Interview With a Vampire came out when I was 13. Gorgeous Gothic literature (don't even mention the movie to me. Sheesh! Tom Cruise as Lestat?).
But mostly when it came to horror it was movies that influenced me the most. I was lucky to be around for what I feel is the absolute heyday of horror cinema. And a childhood friend of mine, Maitland McDonagh, is a horror film critic, so she brought me to more films than I can count. Some great, some awful. I would answer the phone and find myself talking to Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger) or Michael Rooker (Merle in The Walking Dead) who were calling for their interview (both have really sexy phone voices, BTW). Fifty-six years of these story-lines, literary and cinematic, wound their way into my psyche, so I'm not surprised they're visible in my work...or that I have spent years in therapy.
4. ...you talked to Robert Englund!?!?! WHAT?!?! We need to sit down and just walk through everything and also help me get new glasses. So, as someone who also juggled multiple storylines - how did you keep personalities separate? How were dynamics particularly important for the story?
Oh, it was just a hello and a "Hi, can I speak to Maitland McDonagh?" type thing, but it was enough for me to fangirl out! But Michael Rooker called me "Darlin'." Sigh.
Keeping the personalities separate wasn't the hard part for me, it was during the revision process, my agent or editor would say, "Lupe needs some more substance" then I would beef up Lupe, and then Javier would seem one-dimensional. It's kind of like when you fix up one room of your home, the others suddenly seem shabby. I eventually hit on the right balance, though. But it is a balance. And the dynamics between the two were so important because to me they represented the two cultures that I was stretched between as a kid. I think that's something that a lot of teenagers can relate to these days. They sometimes fight, but mostly compliment each other.
5. Speaking about culture. I notice that Lupe shares your last name (Dávila) and the moniker of Gringa-Rican in the book. Can you talk a bit about if and how you spoke to that feeling of being between two places and what it meant for Lupe to carry your last name?
It’s so interesting. It wasn’t until you sent this question that I realized Lupe had that name before I did! I was born Ann Marie Hagman. My dad was a Swedish/Irish/English 6’2” gringo. I was named after my great aunt, Ana Maria Dávila. We were born on the same date. But my father thought Ana Maria was too “ethnic.” I’m still disappointed my mother caved. When I got married, I took my husband’s Native American name, Cardinal, and used Hagman as my middle name.
After my mother died I held tight to the Dávila side of me, a way of keeping her around. When I started writing this book six years ago, I gave the character my maternal family name as an homage. Then I realized I’d worn the Hagman name for 55 years and I felt more Dávila. So I changed my middle name to Dávila. In traditional Spanish families we would keep all these names anyway.
When I called my Tío Esteban to tell him I was legally a Dávila now, he said, “you always were, Sobrina.”
6. Puerto Rico - of course - plays a big role in Five Midnights. It is also squarely in the present delving into a lot of the social, economic and emotional status of the island. Can you talk a little bit about your approach, any hesitations you may have had or how setting can often become another character?
Oh, so many hesitations. I've never lived on the island for more than a few months. I know that when you hit that one thing, that "Wait! no one uses that expression in Puerto Rico! That's more a Mexican expression!" you lose readers. They no longer trust you. So I worked hard on that and had many many other eyes on it, people who live and work on the island year-round.
And when setting a book on Puerto Rico, how does it not become a character? Good Lord, the pull from that land is extraordinary. It's a drug that gets in your veins and you think about all year long (particularly during the long hard winters!). And it would be irresponsible to not address the more difficult situation the island is in these days. Even pre-Maria it was a tough time. I saw it start in the 70s and 80s when my mother's town started to change. It was farmland, bucolic, then drugs came in and I learned the term tiroteo when I was a small child. It was hard to watch because I wasn't seeing it every day, when I came back I would be shocked at the changes, and my aunt would be surprised, because she was like that frog in the proverbial boiling water, it happened slowly so she didn't notice it encroaching on her private jungle.
Initially when I wrote about Puerto Rico I portrayed it as idyllic, heaven, the way it is in my heart. But that's not fair either. That's exoticizing it. I love it with all its brightness and dark corners. I love it with all my heart.
7. You deal with a lot in this book, from colonialism, substance abuse, faith and loss of faith, culture clashes and family. Did it feel like too much at times? Why was it necessary? I promise after this I'm going with fun questions!!
Oh boy! You are asking the tough ones! But that is fitting given the content of the question. I mean, yes, it’s a lot. Some of that was intentional, and some just came organically when telling the story, like loss of faith. That just happened naturally while telling Javier’s story. I think loss of faith is often a prerequisite for addiction. Not always, but often.
And substance abuse was just part of my daily life as a child. I had to hide the car keys sometimes, and clean the house and do the laundry. When you’re young and you can’t rely on the adults in your life you don’t have a lot of time to feel sorry for yourself, you just do it. I hope i can reach a reader growing up in a similar situation and give them some kind of hope.
You asked if all these things were necessary. I don’t know about that, but I think all those things are there because they’re part of my own story. And no matter how hard I try to write away from that, it always bleeds through one way or another.
8. Let's switch this up a bit and do some fun ones! How about what are some of your favorite horror texts or movies and why?
Favorite horror...that's a tough one. In terms of books, loved The Ruins by Scott Smith. Great book, the movie...not so much. Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay. Very different kind of horror, more sociological based. I actually had coffee with him at BookCon this past weekend and grilled him as to what he thought was actually going on in that novel and he wouldn't answer. In terms of young adult literature, anything Daniel Jose Older writes makes me happy, and Zoraida Cordova's Brooklyn Brujas series is FIRE. Love her work. But my favorite young adult horror of all time was The Forest of Hands and Feet by Carrie Ryan. It's ten years old and is still the most gorgeous writing in the genre.
Movies...I loved Bird Box based on the novel by Josh Malerman. And A Quiet Place. Both made me think, a lot. Which is always something I like. And Get Out which was ground breaking in SO many ways. Of course I love the classics, anything by David Cronenberg or Guillermo del Toro. And as far as television, I'm a zombie enthusiast, but my love of Walking Dead is waning, I"m sorry to say. Though it will always have a special place in my heart and the first season is BRILLIANT. And I'm really in to the Danish series The Rain. Very interesting.
9. LAST QUESTION!!! If you could write from the POV of any monster - tell their story, get in their head - who would it be and why?
I would be Chupacabra, but since I LOVE goats, I would be goat KISSER rather than a sucker. Besocabra? Snort!
Buy a copy of Five Midnights wherever books are sold or borrow it from your local library!