We couldn’t be more thrilled to share Raquel Vasquez Gilliland’s interview with Loriel Ryon, author of INTO THE TALL, TALL GRASS.
But first, here’s a description of this magical, middle grade novel:
A girl journeys across her family’s land to save her grandmother’s life.
Yolanda Rodríguez-O’Connell has a secret. All the members of her family have a magical gift—all, that is, except for Yolanda. Still, it’s something she can never talk about, or the townsfolk will call her family brujas—witches. When her grandmother, Wela, falls into an unexplained sleep, Yolanda is scared. Her father is off fighting in a faraway war, her mother died long ago, and Yolanda has isolated herself from her best friend and twin sister. If she loses her grandmother, who will she have left?
When a strange grass emerges in the desert behind their house, Wela miraculously wakes, begging Yolanda to take her to the lone pecan tree left on their land. Determined not to lose her, Yolanda sets out on this journey with her sister, her ex-best friend, and a boy who has a crush on her. But what is the mysterious box that her grandmother needs to find? And how will going to the pecan tree make everything all right?
Raquel: Where did you get the idea for INTO THE TALL, TALL GRASS?
Loriel: The spark of the idea for Into the Tall, Tall Grass came from one my earliest childhood memories. My dad was in the Navy and when he was on long deployments, my mom would sometimes take us to south Texas to visit her family. One summer, after we’d been away for a long time, we came home and my grandfather opened the blinds to the back porch. The guy they’d hired to cut the grass had only cut the front yard, not the back. For the whole summer. So, the sight was shocking. The grass had grown as tall as the house. I still have that image in my mind, of being probably about 4 years-old and the intense orange porch light in the darkness and the tall, tall grass. That was the image I had in my mind when starting this novel. And even through all the edits and changes and revisions, that image was always consistent. From there I built the world and the family and the secrets.
RV: One of the things that wowed me from the very beginning of INTO THE TALL, TALL GRASS is the setting. It's so immersive, and reads like a character, with its own motivations and whims and powers and preferences. How did you develop this world, and what inspired it?
LR: The setting is inspired by the desert where I live. I actually didn’t grow up in New Mexico, I lived in Florida for the first chunk of my childhood. So, when we first moved to the desert, I was twelve, and far from happy about it. My brother and sister seemed excited by the prospect, and I was devastated. We were leaving all my friends and classmates. The only school I’d ever really known. I think I understood that we would never go back, and that was hard to swallow at twelve. I remember when we drove up and I saw the mountains for the first time, I thought they were fake, like a backdrop for a movie set. I wasn’t happy at all about our new home. It was hot. It was dry. Everything was brown. It took me a long time, and many moves away (and back) to appreciate the beauty of the desert. But over time, I grew to love the expanse of the deepest blue sky you’ll ever see. The radiant pink and orange sunsets. Beautiful mountains, incredible plants and resilient wildlife. This story is my love letter to New Mexico that took me far too long to appreciate.
RV: There is a beautiful juxtaposition in your book, in which magic abounds-- butterflies flutter in Wela's hair, bees accompany Yolanda's sister, Sonja, the land itself grows the tallest of grasses in hours-- and at the same time, your characters are deeply devoted to science. How and why did you include both influences?
LR: I am a total science geek. My favorite subject in school was always science and biology. I have two bachelor’s degrees: biology and nursing. In sixth grade, when we had our first genetics lesson, I was absolutely astounded. I couldn’t believe all the things they were telling us about genetic traits and family pedigrees. It was as though something finally clicked into place for me.
It felt like magic in real life.
Science is rooted in the real and there are rules that it follows. I think sometimes too, as scientists, we can get so caught up in the realness and the rules, that we forget to see the magic that sparked our interest in the first place. The awe and wonderment of discovery. There is so much magnificence in the way an octopus camouflages itself on the bottom of the ocean floor by changing colors, or the complicated dance honeybees use to signal where nectar is. The intricate pattern of a snowflake. Our body’s immune response to an invader. Science is pretty magical if you think about it.
RV: There are two story lines in INTO THE TALL, TALL GRASS-- the main one is Yolanda's, as she journeys to save her Wela. And the secondary one is Wela's, who, for the first time, tells of the wondrous and tragic history of her family and the land. How did you balance the two so perfectly in your writing?
LR: Well, it was not in my original plan to be honest. My focus was Yolanda’s story, a grouchy lonely girl who was struggling with not having the family gift, losing her best friend to her sister and figuring out how to feel about losing her grandparents. Wela just sorted butted in. And she butted in in first person, which gave her voice a totally unique flow to the narrative. At first, I was unsure how it would work, a grandmother’s point of view in a middle grade story? I didn’t know much about publishing, but even I knew that was risky. But in starting Wela’s point of view where she was the same age as Yolanda helped bridge that gap. From there, it flowed organically, Wela revealing little bits here and there that illuminated Yolanda’s understanding of the family heritage and secrets. Yolanda needed to come to understand everything in order to change, and through learning Wela’s story, it finally gave her the courage to do that.
RV: I always love to hear the story of how authors choose their character names. How did you do that for this book? All of the names are so beautiful, and so fitting.
LR: So, this might be a complicated explanation (hopefully not!), but the first character name I had was Violeta. (Wela’s sister). I just always loved that name and thought it was so pretty how it rolls off the tongue. Some of the names I choose are names that my husband and I didn’t agree on for our kids. So, I like to start there sometimes.
Yolanda means violet flower in Spanish, and I don’t want to spoil anything, but Yolanda and Violeta have a connection revealed later in the book.
Wela and Welo are a variation of what my mother called her grandparents. They were Walita and Walito, shortened versions of Abuelita and Abuelito. And it’s funny because for the longest time, I thought my great-grandmother’s real first name was Walita. (It was Maria de la Luz). It was important for me to have a nod to them but make it a little different. So, it was Wela and Welo. I consulted numerous Spanish-speakers to try to make sure the spelling made sense, since it was a nickname and I wanted it to be as correct as possible.
Sonja means wisdom. When I first started the story, I thought of her as the character who was the wisest. But through revisions and deepening of the characters, I actually think in the end, the wisest is Sanghita. I actually had trouble with her name for a while, but Sanghita means music in Hindu. Since she is the flute player it just sort of made sense in the end. And I love her nickname, Ghita.
Hasik means smiling in Hindu. I had a sensitivity reader look through the story, and they noted Hasik wasn’t a very common name and suggested I try something else. But I really liked the meaning behind his name, because that is who he is. A smiling, happy boy.
RV: Groves are so rich in lore and among fairy tales-- in particular, I think of 'The Handless Maiden' and her grove of pears. What was it that inspired this long-gone grove, and what made you choose pecans, specifically?
LR: So funny that you asked this. So, my great-grandmother on my father’s side actually had a couple pecan trees on her property and every Thanksgiving we’d go and an uncle or cousin would climb the tree and rain pecans down on us. We’d come home with bags full of pecans. It was a yearly tradition and a very fond memory from my childhood. I knew I wanted to set the story in an orchard in the desert. And being in the desert, I wasn’t sure what kind of orchards could grow in New Mexico. After some research I found there are many pecan groves in southern New Mexico where my book is set. And southern New Mexico is absolutely gorgeous. It was a perfect fit for my story.
RV: Which of the characters is most like you? Were any inspired by people you know, or family members?
LR: Yolanda is probably the most like me. I was a pretty grouchy kid growing up. Every year on my birthday, my sister likes to post photos from our childhood where she and my brother look great, and I am pouting and usually have some sort of grouchy face. (and there are more of these photos than I’d care to admit). I don’t know why I was so grouchy; I just was. I didn’t want to be. It was something I couldn’t really help. So, I channeled that when I wrote Yolanda. I channeled my feelings of frustration and jealousy and general grumpiness at that age. But fortunately for her, Yolanda gets to change during the course of the story. She learns to let people in and be vulnerable. She gets to change the course of who she thinks she is and become a better person by the end.
The grandparent relationships mirror a lot of the relationships I had with my grandparents. I was fortunate enough to have all four of my grandparents around for much of my growing up and each relationship was so different. From watching I Love Lucy with my jokester Grandad, to eating the delicious cooking of my often-worried Memaw, to trying to get my somewhat serious Peepa to laugh, to making so many things with my hands-on Nana. That connection with them was really important and formative for me. I think all of my relationships are somehow written into this book and helps form the foundation of the complicated nature of those relationships.
RV: What sort of research did you do for INTO THE TALL, TALL GRASS? Did any of it surprise you?
LR: I did research on lots of different things. From pecan orchards and family inheritance patterns, to rituals surrounding death and dying in India.
Part of what was really important to me was focusing the story on the maternal family line. So much of literature and society places importance on the father’s family line. Last names are typically given that way. I loved learning how some matriarchal societies choose to pass on the mother’s name and focused on the mother’s line. After I had my children, I was astounded by everything I went through and it felt so ancient and primal. I was fascinated by mitochondrial DNA and how that is passed on from mother to child indefinitely. THAT fascinated me. The mother’s line is the one that is passed on forever (at least in terms of genetics). Then I went down the rabbit-hole of understanding different mitochondrial traits and actually found that many cause disease. Then I thought, what if it caused a magical trait? From there I spent (probably too much) time making the family pedigrees and tracing the trait through the family line.
RV: Did you write this book with a detailed outline or plan, or did you just write and see what happens? And what was the editorial process like?
LR: I had no plans when I started this story. And to be honest, I rewrote the beginning at least four times before I figured who was even in the story. After that it just flowed and it took a lot of revising and tweaking. Initially, I had a lot of concerns about Wela’s storyline, but it just didn’t feel right to not have her voice in there. In weaving it in with the main storyline, it sort of forms this lovely double helix, a nod to DNA. (science geek, I told you!) There were lots of revisions, a few rounds with my agent and a couple with my editor. The wonderful thing about revision was having the story get closer and closer to the image of what I wanted the story to be. That is the beauty of revision and a great editor. They see what you are trying to do and help you get it there.
RV: is next for Loriel Ryon?!
LR: I am always working a few different things at one time as I like to draft cycle between projects. I’ve got two different middle grade projects, one in its very early stages and another that is further along. I’m hopeful that I get to continue writing for this wonderful age group.
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