This week, we've got a fantastic interview between Musas Karla Valenti and Donna Barba Higuera, in honor of Donna's latest novel, THE LAST CUENTISTA! Scroll on to learn where she got her inspiration from, her research process, what else she's got in store, and more!
Karla Valenti: To borrow from Betsy Bird's review of the book:
A delicious mix of dystopian fiction, Mexican folklore, and good old-fashioned high drama, this is the kind of science fiction that has the potential to lure in even those people that don’t usually indulge in futuristic fantastical imaginings.
What was the inspiration for THE LAST CUENTISTA?
Donna Barba Higuera: The idea came from a simple writing prompt. “Take a traditional fairy tale and make it Sci-Fi.”
I decided I didn’t want to use those stories that get tons of airtime: Snow White or Cinderella, The Little Mermaid or something that gets tons of airtime. So instead, I chose The Princess and the Pea.
Then came the…“So how do I make a story about a girl that couldn’t sleep because there was a pea under her pillow Sci-Fi?” I decided the “pea” would be the “P.E.A” or pellet of extended animation. (I know… I know… cheesy) that would put the character to sleep for her journey through time and space. But of course, the P.E.A. would malfunction, so she’d be awake for the journey that took hundreds of years. When the girl arrived, humans would be very different than when she was supposedly put to sleep hundreds of years before.
It was just short story without a lot of detail. But I liked the premise.
I explored the idea further. How would I feel if I knew I was leaving Earth for a journey to another planet that took hundreds of years. What would I take with me? What would I value most? And what if, when I arrived at the new planet centuries in the future, humans no longer valued those things?
I had the beginnings of my novel.
KV: That’s’ a fascinating origin story! A great example of running with a story prompt. So, what were some of the challenges you faced in crafting a world set almost four centuries into the future?
DBH: Well, the first challenge is that I’ve never been to another planet. I had only my weird imagination.
Still, I had to read and gain an understanding of how this world I was creating would hypothetically work. I had to study how tidal-locked planets worked and how and where on this type of planet humans could survive. Ninety percent of the details I wrote on those challenges never made it into the book. But I still had to ensure the parts that did make it in were accurate.
But the great part about writing fiction, is you get to make stuff up! The terrain, plants, and animals, I imagined what I would find magical or scary or fascinating if I’d read this book when I was a kid. As writers, we get to create places readers to which readers will want to escape.
Another challenge, I had no idea how astrophysics work! Many adult sci-fi writers pride themselves on explaining in great detail a spaceships propulsion system and such. This felt daunting, and quite frankly, boring.
But, I heard Fonda Lee once say, “When writing science fiction for children, kids don’t really care exactly how the ship worked to get from Planet A to Planet B. They just want to know your characters got there.” Thank you, Fonda Lee! That opened up the possibilities for me.
KV: That makes sense. However, your story does have a lot actual science behind it. What kind of research did you have to do to write this story?
DBH: This book does have lots and lots of SCIENCE! Go STEM! My undergraduate degree is in Biochemistry, specifically Cellular Physiology, but I have no clue how astrophysics or astronomy work for the most part.
I had to study the logistics of a comet impact and if it was even possible for Halley’s comet to hit Earth. As it has an ice core (lucky from a fiction stand-point), it is indeed possible! And I needed to know what would happen to Earth if this were to occur. I also researched bioluminescence, refreshed my memory in genetics, and as I stated earlier, tidal-locked planets.
With science fiction, writers still have to do is make sure the imagined parts are feasible. Readers would find the rest of your story unbelievable if the parts anchored in science don’t hold up.
KV: This story is quite different from your other work. Was it difficult to shift gears? What were the most challenging aspects of writing science fiction?
DBH: I think my wheelhouse is more Sci-Fi/Fantasy. I was a huge Trekkie and grew up on The Twilight Zone. I read Tolkien, LeGuin, Bradbury…
So, I actually think Lupe Wong Won’t Dance, was a departure from how my mind normally works from a writing standpoint. But since, I’ve shifted back and forth from writing The Last Cuentista to writing scenes with Lupe Wong Won’t Dance and picture books like El Cucuy Is Scared, Too!, and I’ve discovered it’s not so hard to switch gears.
I just have to get into the mind of the character, remember which world I’m in, and the story starts to fall into place like a movie in my head.
I suppose one of the parts I thought would be challenging for this story specifically, was to find a way to integrate Mexican folklore and oral storytelling tradition into a Science Fiction novel.
I have a lifelong love of Sci-Fi. I grew up on Star Trek TOS (The Original Series) and TNG (The Next Generation), Star Wars, and The Twilight Zone. I’ve also always had a love of ancient folklore and stories passed down through generations.
Many of us from Latinx descent also heard tales of warning or parables as well as creepy stories used as threats to make us go to sleep or eat our dinner. The tradition of oral folktales felt just as natural to me as the techy, far-fetched Sci-Fi I’d read or see on TV.
I suppose those two things seemed incongruous, but because I love both of them so much, for this story of Petra—a girl traveling across the stars and clinging to what she loved most—they ended up melding harmoniously.
KV: The ending is not quite an ending. Adoring fans want to know, does that mean there will be a sequel?
DBH: The short answer…sort of. I can’t speak to the specifics, but let’s just say, the same world (or galaxy) has other characters with stories that need to be told.
KV: You are developing a rapidly-growing body of work. Can you tell us about your other stories?
DBH: Lupe Wong Won’t Dance released Fall 2020 with Levine Querido. Lupe Wong has had quite a year! It won the Sid Fleischman award for humor, the Pura Belpré Honor, and PNBA best book of the year, as well as the ALA Best Books for Youth list.
I write picture books as well. My book El Cucuy Is Scared, Too! illustrated by Juliana Perdomo released recently with Abrams Kids. It is a finalist for Best Picture Book with the International Latino Book Award. And I should have more good news I can share soon!
KV: Can’t wait! Where can fans and readers find you?
DBH: My website with social media links, contact information, and educator guide information is: www.dbhiguera.com
Buy The Last Cuentista today!
Donna Barba Higuera grew up in a tiny desert town in central California surrounded by agricultural and oil fields. Rather than wrangling dust devils, she’d spend recess squirreled away in the janitor’s closet with a good book. Her favorite hobbies were calling the library’s dial-a-story over and over again, and sneaking into a restricted pioneers’ cemetery to weave her own spooky tales using the crumbling headstone for inspiration. Donna’s Middle Grade and Picture books reinvent history, folklore, and or her own life experience into compelling storylines. She still dreams in Spanglish. Donna lives in Washington State with her husband Mark (who she met at an SCBWI regional conference) their four kids, three dogs and two frogs. Donna is represented by Allison Remcheck at Stimola Literary Studio. https://www.dbhiguera.com/
Karla Arenas Valenti writes stories for and about kids, taking readers on journeys seeped in magical realism and philosophical questions. Her storytelling is heavily influenced by her Mexican heritage and layered with ideas and concepts she’s picked up in her many travels around the world. She currently resides in the Chicagoland area with her husband and three kids, two cats, and hundreds of books. Karla writes middle grade novels and picture books (including the “My Super Science Heroes” series). She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette at Erin Murphy Literary Agency. https://karlavalenti.com/
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