Today, Musa Terry Catasus Jennings is interviewing Crystal Maldonado on her newest novel! Scroll on to read their conversation!
Terry Catasus Jennings: Hello, Crystal! I am so happy to be here with you to shout about your newest book, No Filters and Other Lies, a book that starts with a bang, when Kat Sanchez, the 16-year-old protagonist, tells us she’s a liar—right up front. Her life has some “suckiness,” well, maybe even some major suckiness and it unravels when, in a drunken moment, Kat makes up a new persona on social media. She makes up a persona who has everything Kat does not—beauty, popularity, a just about perfect life. And she is white. And she has followers! Kat has been struggling for her art, her photography, to be noticed on Instagram. But her following is meager. When she posts as her new white, thin, and glamorous alter ego, Kat’s art is finally noticed. And her alter ego’s reach may be able to help the dogs at the shelter to which Kat devotes gobs of time and love. So there is that. And then there is a family life which, through no fault of Kat's, is also full of lies. Kat has to navigate these lies to keep up appearances in her hometown. The minute you pick up the book, you know you are headed for an epic train wreck, and you have to keep on reading.
I loved what Publisher’s Weekly said: Maldonado’s writing has a warm and relatable feel, full of insight regarding societal expectations, accountability, and the need to belong within one’s own family and the wider world. That was a starred review. And it was a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. I couldn’t agree more.
Tell us a little about your book and about what brought you to this story. What inspired you to write it?
Crystal Maldonado: I was inspired by a combination of my love of connection made on social media and a desire to celebrate nontraditional family structures were big inspirations for this book. Since I was in elementary school, I’ve been making friends online—first via America Online, then on Livejournal, Tumblr, and now on social media. I’ve always heard the friends that you make online aren’t “real” friends, but that’s never been true for me. Every online relationship I created was every bit as meaningful, supportive, and fun as the friendships I have in person, and I think society is finally beginning to understand that more with the pandemic changing how we meet and communicate. Plus, growing up with a nontraditional family structure myself really made me yearn for books that celebrated families that weren’t a mom, dad, 2.5 kids, and a dog. Hopefully others who grew up in similar situations can relate to Kat in that way.
TCJ: That is so true, in the beginning, I saw social media as artificial, but I have come to appreciate the connections that I made on line. Thank you for bringing that up. This is your second book, and it’s no secret that we all struggle with that second book. Charlie Vega had me from the very beginning, and I can’t lie, I wondered, as a reader, would you be able to do the same with Kat Sanchez, and YES, you did. From the very beginning you captured me. A person who admits she’s a liar right up front, there’s no way for her life to go anywhere but down, and I knew, right away, that it had nowhere to go but up for the reader. Tell us how you got to this beginning. Was it difficult? Was this always the beginning of the book, or was this an evolution of the story.
CM: It was a little difficult! You’re absolutely right that sophomore novels can be tough, and I felt so much pressure with this one for the best reason: everyone was so kind and supportive with Charlie’s story! With No Filter, I wanted to write about a complex character who was a little unlikeable; it took a while to strike exactly the right balance in making her both flawed but someone you could root for. The best way to achieve that, I thought, would be to have this person who can admit right away how they’re flawed.
TCJ: Kat Sanchez does get that out right out of the chute! She has a very complicated back story. Where did that come from? Is that something you’re willing to share?
CM: Yes! This was personal to me. My familial structure was similar to Kat’s, although not exactly a perfect replica. I was raised by my grandparents, though, and my own parents and brother lived nearby, so the basic structure is the same. Growing up, I was so worried to share this with my peers because I feared it was too unusual, too different. Little did I know families come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations, each beautiful in its own way.
TCJ: It’s not surprising for me to hear this. You handle this non-traditional family structure with both care and love. It is an affirmation, as you say, that tradition has nothing to do with it. Family structures can each be beautiful in their own ways, yes. Can you tell us more about the cringe factor. I cringed so many times while reading No Filters! I kept wanting to yell don’t do that! How could you? You know better than that! Yet, even though we’re reading about fake identities and really outrageous behavior we all know will get Kat in deep trouble, it never feels fake. She is so human. Her decisions are horrible, but they are grounded in Kat’s reality and they feel absolutely normal. Tell us about that. How did that come about? Was that difficult for you?
CM: The cringe factor is so real in this story! But I think that’s a good thing. None of us are perfect, ever, and especially when we’re teenagers trying to figure out the world and our place within it. I wanted to highlight how even people who mean well can still make mistakes.
I also think there is this expectation put on marginalized authors and their characters to create these perfect people within their stories, and I think our readers deserve to see messy characters. It shows us how we are all flawed and we mess up but we can learn from those mistakes and grow as a person.
TCJ: Yes. Here’s raising a … pencil to messy characters. One of the reasons Kat gives her best friend Hari for creating the fake persona on Instagram is “pretending to be a white girl.” And she is successful on Instagram as a white girl where she was not successful as herself. Tell us more about that. In this book, the “fat” vibe is more subdued than in Charlie Vega, and the “brown girl” vibe did not seem to me as prevalent either. Kat and her friends are all “others” but that is more the background, a very normal background. The book is about a girl who made bad choices. Tell us more about your goal in writing the book. Was making a point about color one of your main goals? What themes were important to you? Would you like to share why?
CM: With Charlie Vega, I very much wanted her fatness and her Latinidad to be at the forefront of her story. I had so much to say and so many things I wanted Charlie and her characters to experience on the page related to those intersecting identities. But I also think for every story that focuses on identity, there should be another story where those identities are simply part of the character. I remember coming across a reader who said something like, “I love stories that center fatness, but I also love stories that feature fat characters living their lives.” That stuck with me because I’ve felt that way, too. No Filter was my attempt at creating this world where Kat’s body size and brownness are certainly part of what fuels her decision, but they are not the only things that do.
Through Kat’s story, I wanted to explore nontraditional family dynamics and the way in which the families we’re born into are sometimes really complicated. How do we make peace with the version of our lives we always envisioned versus the lives we have? That can be difficult and sometimes even require a bit of mourning as we come to terms to what is. I also really wanted to highlight how much pressure young folks deal with on social media. I grew up in a time when you could actually turn the internet off and walk away, and now that’s not really the case. So, I feel for teens now, and I really wanted to make this story to hopefully let readers who have felt like Kat know they’re not alone. (And maybe feel a little superior to her in the sense that they’ve probably never catfished anyone!)
TCJ: Okay, you had me both in tears and laughing there. One of the themes that I liked was the beauty of the beach. It seemed to bring calm to Kat, it was one of the places where she was the happiest. Is the beach important to you? Why did you want that for Kat?
CM: I would live at the beach if I could, and hope someday I can! My husband and I got married on the beach, and we have celebrated our anniversary there every year since we started dating. It’s a place that’s very calm and centering for me, so I gave that same feeling to Kat.
TCJ: And it worked. I also have to say that I loved the sentence “’Why’” would be the iron to my wrinkly life.” And your descriptions of the setting, the descriptions of the photographs she takes, are breath-taking. Tell me about your process. Does all that brilliance come out up front, first draft? Or is this something you consciously enhance through revision?
CM: You are too kind, Terry! Seriously! I wish my first drafts had such detail, but for me the richness evolves throughout the revision process.
I also want to give a shout out to my amazing editor at Holiday House, Mora Couch, because she always knows exactly where a description is needed!
TCJ: And along the same note, are you a plotter or a pantser? There are many layers to No Filters and scenes and characters who bring the layers together into a cohesive story. How much did you know about the story when you began? Did you plot it all or did some, or a lot evolve as you wrote?
CM: I’ve always traditionally been a panster, starting stories more on feelings and emotions and vibes than real structure. With No Filter, though, I used an outline for the first time and it really helped, especially with the basic plot. But you’re absolutely right that a lot of it evolved as I wrote. I think this probably happens to a lot of writers! Sometimes you get in there and your characters have ideas of their own or you don’t discover a plot hole until you’re deep into the story. For me, I struggled with figuring out how Kat’s secret identity would be discovered. Through writing this book, I discovered I’m not quite a pantser or a plotter, but I fall somewhere right in between!
TCJ: I get that. I start as a very loose plotter, but go where the characters and the story take me. I bet more of us are in between writers than one or the other. Now let’s talk about Kat’s possible excuses. Kat actually had many excuses she could have used for her behavior, but she never resorts to blaming her mistakes on others, or her situation. She takes ownership of her mistakes and tries to work herself out of the consequences. Was that a conscious decision on your part? Was there ever a point in which you wanted to use the excuses she had?
CM: It was a conscious decision I made for Kat because I wanted it to be clear at all times that Kat had made a bad choice. Of course, the circumstances around her influenced her, but it was always her decision to lie and then continue to lie. She’s a smart girl who got swept up in something. I wanted her choices to be understandable, but not excusable.
TCJ: There are so many ways that this book could end. Most of them are pretty bleak. Without divulging any spoilers, can you tell us your goal for Kat?
CM: I really wanted Kat to come out on the other side of her journey feeling more secure in herself in nearly every way. I wanted her to embrace everything from her hair to her friends to her vulnerability to the very life she had been given. At the beginning of the story, I think Kat feels a little helpless, like the world around her is making decisions on her behalf; by the end, though, I think she realizes she is the one who gets to make decisions based on her situation. There is great power in that.
TCJ: And you accomplished what you set out to do! The apology, to me, is perfect. What was your goal there and did you struggle with getting it on the page? I can imagine it was difficult. Was there a lot of rewriting for that scene and that whole relationship?
CM: There was so much writing and rewriting in this scene! It was hard to strike a balance between desperately wanting these two characters to make up and remain friends and knowing that what Kat did was actually quite serious. What I knew going in was that the apology needed to be sincere, honest, and that Kat needed to hear some hard truths. You can’t steal a friend’s photos and come out on the other side completely unscathed. That was a really tough but important lesson for Kat to learn.
TCJ: Hear, hear. It was a really tough lesson, and the scene as it is in the book, is just perfect. Brava. Now, this is, of course, your second book. What can you tell us about what writing the dreaded “Book Two” was for you? Would you like to share how writing Kat’s story was the same as and different from writing Charlie’s story?
CM: Ha! I am so appreciative that you plainly put it out there that writing your second book can be challenging. It’s so true! For as much as I absolutely loved writing this second story, I experienced quite a bit of imposter syndrome and doubt with it. I worried my first book was a fluke and that I was doomed to fail, which I definitely didn’t worry about so much with Charlie’s story. I was more concerned then with just getting words on the page! I would also say I wanted to prove to myself with this book that I could write another first-person narrative that didn’t feel identical, that I could create another character who was flawed but redeemable. I hope I achieved that!
TCJ: I love you saying you suffered from imposter syndrome. It’s so true. I don’t know that we can ever get over that. Now I know that when we first began this conversation, you told us about how positive your experiences with social media are and have been. But No Filter is a commentary on the grip social media can have on a life and the fact, that whether we lie or not, social media, can be an artificial, fake realm which can lead us to believe that we are hated or loved without any link to reality. Why was it important to you to focus on social media and its benefits and pitfalls?
CM: I actually appreciate social media quite a bit for the way it brings people together, especially marginalized communities. Social media has brought such deep joy to me personally. I’ve met so many wonderful people through it, like you and everyone in Las Musas, fellow 2021 debut authors (shout out to the 21ders!), and incredible friends throughout the years. But I’m also a lot older than the characters I’m writing.
When you’re a teenager and you’re on social media, I think there are so many social media pitfalls. While it can definitely be used for good, it can also be painful to scroll through and see people living lives that seem better than yours or to see a friend post a photo at an event you weren’t invited to. So devastating! I really wanted to emphasize that social media is very much a mirage and we can’t take it at face value. Yet, there is something beautiful about the connections we can forge there, too. Finding a balance with it is key, so I hope that is something readers take away once they finish the book.
TCJ: YES!!! Would you like to tell us what your writing day is like and was this different for Kat than it was for Charlie?
CM: I’m a very sporadic writer in terms of actually getting words on the page. I work full-time, I’m a mom to a toddler, I have a delightful husband I love spending time with, a cute dog, I volunteer… so really, I have to actively fit in writing where I can. Sometimes that means I don’t write a word for months. But the process for me is a lot of daydreaming and listening to music, reading other books, watching movies, living life (as much as I can during a global pandemic) — all of those things together contribute to my writing. I like to get to the place where I’m longing to write and then it all seems to come out at once. That’s not to say it’s easy. Sometimes I swear getting each word down is like pulling teeth, but I get there, eventually.
I would say my process for writing Charlie’s story was much more romantic. It was kind of that dreamy way I’ve always envisioned writing, where I would come to it whenever I felt creative. I wrote in coffee shops and on my lunch breaks and at the park with my laptop, whereas parts of this second book were written with a pen in one hand and holding apple slices for my toddler in the other. Either way, I’ll take it!
TCJ: Well, with the wonderful books you write, we will all take whatever way you can do them. I am sure all our readers are dying to know, what’s next for you?
CM: I’m so excited to say that I have another book forthcoming from Holiday House in Fall 2023! I can’t quite talk about it yet… but it’s coming, and I promise lots of feelings, romance, and drama.
Thank you, Terry, for the most wonderful interview and all of these thoughtful questions. It has been so much fun getting to know you over the last year and I love that we get to root for each other as authors and friends! The Definitely Dominguita series is up next in the reading queue for my daughter, and we’re very excited about it. Thank you again!
TCJ: Loved doing this, Crystal!
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Crystal Maldonado is a young adult author with a lot of feelings. Her debut novel, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega, is a 2021 New England Book Award winner, a Cosmopolitan Best New Book, and a POPSUGAR Best New YA Novel. Her next novel, No Filter and Other Lies, explores teenage life in the social media age—and the lies we tell to ourselves and others.
By day, Crystal works in higher ed marketing, and by night, and by night, a writer who loves Beyoncé, glitter, shopping, and spending too much time on her phone. Her work has been published in Latina, BuzzFeed, and the Hartford Courant.
She lives in western Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and dog. Find her everywhere @crystalwrote or crystalwrote.com.
As a child, Terry dreamed of being an author, but she was dissuaded from a writing career and instead majored in math and physics at the University of Richmond, in Virginia. She worked in finance for many years. Once her children were born, she stayed home and became a very committed volunteer. Terry decided to give writing a chance once her kids reached high school. The first essay she ever submitted—about teaching her daughter to drive—was published by The Washington Post. Since then, she has published other newspaper and magazine articles and written a weekly humor column for The Reston Connection newspaper. She wrote educational content for the Smithsonian Science Education Center and internet sources. Then, she advanced to writing award-winning science and history-based nonfiction books for children. With Definitely Dominguita, she has fulfilled her dream of writing fiction for children.
What Terry loves about working on the Definitely Dominguita series is revisiting books she loved as a child and imagining a modern, but similar, adventure for Dominguita and her friends. Most fun was creating the mythical suburban town of Mundytown—a fun place full of caring characters—where Dom and her crew have freedom to roam.
Terry lives with her husband in Reston, Virginia and enjoys spending winters hiking and biking in Southern Utah. She enjoys visiting with her four grandchildren and often encourages them to bring their parents. She is the member of SCBWI and the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DC.
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