Las Musas is thrilled to share Karla Valenti's interview with Claribel Orgeta about her upcoming novel Ghost Squad (Scholastic, 4/7/20), which Kirkus called a “warmly-spooky middle grade debut.”
Before we dig in, here’s a teaser of this phantasmagoric adventure: For Lucely Luna, ghosts are more than just the family business. Shortly before Halloween, Lucely and her best friend, Syd, cast a spell that accidentally awakens malicious spirits, wreaking havoc throughout St. Augustine. Together, they must join forces with Syd's witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head-on and reverse the curse to save the town and Lucely's firefly spirits before it's too late.
Karla Valenti: One of my favorite elements of the story were the cucuyos and the role they play in Lucely’s adventure. What are cucuyos, and where did this idea comes from?
Claribel Ortega: The cucuyos (or fireflies) in Ghost Squad come from Dominican folklore, actually! The folklore says that fireflies are the souls of our lost loved ones watching over us.
KV: I love that for many reasons, not least of which is the idea that we are never far from our loved ones, even if they no longer live among us. So, what was the inspiration for Ghost Squad?
CO: Ghost Squad was inspired by my brother whom we lost to cancer eight years ago. We used to catch fireflies when we were younger, and when I learned of our folklore I always thought it would make a great story. I wanted to write about grief in a way that would open up the conversation but not steer it in any particular direction. I wanted kids to think about loss or see loss in a different way.
KV: Stories that create spaces where readers can inhabit and explore their grief are so important. The death of a loved one can be devastating, and books like this can provide a way for us to cope with that loss. For a reader, that’s a gift. For the writer, however, it must be quite challenging to open yourself up in a way that allows you tap into that grief and convey it on a page like that. What was the most difficult part of writing Ghost Squad?
CO: The hardest part was writing about family passing and death, as someone who is still learning to grapple with grief. It could also be cathartic sometimes, but it was definitely challenging too. There are times when I feel okay talking about grief as well, but since it’s such a big part of the book and the inspiration behind it, sometimes people will ask me about it without me expecting it and those times can be really difficult. It’s part of the experience and process. Though, like you said, when you open yourself up with such a personal topic, it will be challenging. I hope it helps people who are struggling know they’re not alone, and I hope it’s a tool for parents and teachers who need to talk about grief and loss with their kids.
KV: What was the easiest part about writing this book?
CO: The easiest part to write was the friendship between Lucely and Syd! I am lucky to have a lot of wonderful friendships to pull inspiration from, and I loved writing about two girls leaning on one another and being there for one another through it all.
KV: So do you have a favorite scene (and why)?
CO: There are so many! There is one in particular involving Chunk in the cemetery but...I can’t say more than that because I want people to experience it for themselves (haha).
KV: Yep. I know exactly what you’re talking about! What about your favorite character to write. Who was that (and why)?
CO: Tia Milagros and Babette! I love writing about older women who are part of the adventure and not just cast aside. They’re also the two funniest characters in the book, and humor is one of my favorite things to explore when writing.
KV: I loved that that they were a constant presence in the book, and I think they perfectly capture the role our tías play in our real lives: they are never just cast aside but ever-present, supportive, and true forces with which to contend. You actually have a lot of characters in your story, how did you manage to make them all so unique and with distinct personalities? (related question: are any of them based on people you know in real life?)
CO: I come from a huge family, and I definitely pull inspiration from them, not to mention names (Benny, Tia Milagros and Mama Teresa are all real life names of my family members). Characters are one of my strengths in writing, I love coming up with them, and give each one detailed backstories, hobbies and likes/dislikes, even if those things never make the actual page. It helps me round them out and write them in a way I feel is compelling and fun.
KV: They definitely feel larger than life, and it’ll be fun to see them all play a role in the upcoming film. Speaking of which, the book is being turned into a movie. How did that come about?
CO: That was all Scholastic! I know they had been working on it for a long time, and it sort of just unfolded from their hard work and development.
KV: What is your involvement as an author in the production of the film?
CO: So far nothing, but that is normal.
KV: So, what's next in the storytelling realm for you?
CO: I have a graphic novel called FRIZZY coming out in 2022 from First Second, and I’m currently working on a few different witchy books which I hope to talk more about soon!
KV: All great news, and I’m excited to read more of your work! Before I let you go, where can readers find out about you or buy your books?
CO: Readers can follow me on Twitter and Instagram @Claribel_Ortega, my website is Claribelortega.com, and if they’d like to pre-order Ghost Squad they can do so at BuyGhostSquad.com!
KV: One last question, anything else you wish to share with your readers?
CO: I’m just so excited for the book to finally make its way into reader’s hands. I want as many kids as possible to read it, but I especially hope it makes it to those Dominican kids who’ve never seen their culture in a book like this. We’re capable of having warm, sweet, adventures too, and I hope Ghost Squad is just one of many in the near future.
KV: Thanks for your time and for writing such a wonderful book!
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