Today on the blog, Musa Jonny Garza Villa interviews Angela Velez about her debut novel, Lulu and Milagro's Search for Clarity! Scroll on to learn more about her book!
Overachiever Luz "Lulu" Zavala has straight As, perfect attendance, and a solid ten-year plan. First up: nail her interview for a dream internship at Stanford, the last stop on her school's cross-country college road trip. The only flaw in her plan is Clara, her oldest sister, who went off to college and sparked a massive fight with their overprotective Peruvian mom, who is now convinced that out-of-state-college will destroy their family. If Lulu can't fix whatever went wrong between them, the whole trip--and her future--will be a waste.
Middle sister Milagro wants nothing to do with college or a nerdy class field trip. Then a spot opens up on the trip just as her own spring break plans (Operation Don't Die a Virgin) are thwarted, and she hops on the bus with her glittery lipsticks, more concerned about getting back at her ex than she is about schools or any family drama. But the trip opens her eyes about possibilities she'd never imagined for herself. Maybe she is more than the boy-crazy girl everyone seems to think she is.
On a journey from Baltimore all the way to San Francisco, Lulu and Milagro will become begrudging partners as they unpack weighty family expectations, uncover Clara's secrets, and maybe even discover the true meaning of sisterhood.
Jonny Garza Villa: I have to start off by telling everyone that this book is so good, Angela! And when I say that Lulu and Milagro's Search for Clarity is honestly one of my favorite young adult contemporary novels that I have ever had the pleasure of reading, I am not hyperbolizing one bit. With that said, I think I'd like to begin with talking about your inspiration. Where did the idea for Lulu's and Milagro's journeys come from?
Angela Velez: Jonny!!!! This means so much coming from you!!!!!!!! Oh my god!!! I still think about the opening pages of Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun and how perfect and voice-y and FUN they are!!!
So much of Lulu and Milagro's Search for Clarity was inspired by my own anxieties around college and thinking about The Future -- so scary! Like Lulu, I had a dream college and very, very big dreams (in my case, becoming an author), but I was afraid to say them out loud, let alone actually act on them, because I didn't know anyone who had ever done those things.
Once I got into my dream school and made it to campus, I remember feeling so in over my head and wildly behind my classmates, who had gone to prep schools and had won awards for all these amazing competitions I didn't even know existed! So much of Milagro's journey is inspired by those first few months of insecurity, before learning I belonged on campus as much as anyone else did.
Since my high school and college days, I've realized how quickly fear can turn into loneliness, because you're afraid of exposing your most vulnerable feelings with people, and I wanted both Milagro and Lulu to realize they were stronger together, because they could cheer each other on.
JGV: Thinking on each sister individually for a second, Lulu is this level-headed sister who's also so tightly wound. Her goal-oriented character arc is pretty clear from the get go, and I feel like those of us who know what it is to carry the hopes and dreams of our parents, who know the mental health implications of being labeled "gifted and talented" as a child, who grow up having never done anything wrong in our whole life can really connect with her.
What was the thought behind Lulu's conception and her character, especially as the youngest of the sisters, being the one to have it so much more together than Milagro?
AV: As the youngest daughter and a first gen teen, Lulu is always aware that when her sisters leave for college, it's just going to be her and her mom. There can be much pressure as the daughter of immigrants -- you're told, 'we sacrificed so much so you can make a better life for yourself' -- and you're also reminded of how important family is, and how your decisions should take family into account. In Lulu's mind, if she's going to leave her mom all alone, it needs to be for a REALLY good reason, like saving the world or getting into a wildly exclusive program.
And even though these goals are her passion, that pressure to be better than GREAT creates a tunnel vision for her, one that's reinforced by the adults around her -- to the point when she closes herself off from friendship and even romance. And I really wanted to show readers that you there's a way out of that high pressure situation, and you don't have to silo different facets of your personality -- and in fact, it ultimately benefits you to have more than one outlet for your interests!
JGV: With Milagro, we have the chaotic, whimsical, but also severely underestimated sibling. Her character arc feels very fitting as to who she is: sort of falling into these sometimes incredibly messy and other times just as beautiful moments that allow this self-reflection and realizing she's so much greater than anyone has ever let her believe she is. What do you hope to leave readers with --especially young Peruana and Latina readers -- as it pertains to Milagro's story?
AV: I wanted readers to know that they are more than the labels their family or teachers place on them, and that only you know the wild depths of your true potential!!! I think it's very hard for people to celebrate intangible qualities -- there's no room on a resume to write 'Great Friend," or fancy awards given for 'Always Stands Up For Herself' -- but those are absolutely things worth celebrating! And I wanted to show that it's okay to not have a plan and be figuring things out as you go along, as long as you let yourself be open to new possibilities.
JGV: I feel like in my teenage years, I was definitely closer to a Lulu, but, the minute I moved away to college I immediately turned into a Milagro. Is there a sister that you feel more connected to?
AV: I don't know if I can pick a favorite!!! Lulu is hands down what I was like as a teen -- I had the dream school, I was convinced if I did enough research, I could do anything, and I was also deathly afraid of messing up. There are elements of Milagro that definitely come from my real life -- especially her frenetic energy and curiosity around sex! -- but her confidence, style, and savviness was definitely aspirational teen Angela. I think I feel closest to Milagro's journey of self-love, because it's the one that I think is so, so important, whether or not you have a romantic partner!
JGV: When it comes to the difference between liking and loving a book, for me, it's all about voice. And I think this is something you've done perfectly. You've written a dual POV story, centering these two very different sisters, and the way both of them are equally loveable and I felt so in tune with who they are as individuals is truly iconic of you. What was your process with finding Lulu's and Milagro's voice and figuring out what they think of and how they respond to their world?
AV: GAH!!! This is so nice to read and I'm grinning SO big!!!! For each sister, I really had to think about what they wanted in each chapter, and what their strategy would be to get it. For Milagro, it usually involved roping someone in and breaking as many rules as possible, while Lulu was more likely to do extreme research and go it alone.
Sometimes I'd still get stuck, so I'd try to do something each character might do -- play a pump-up song for Milagro, or really nerd out over a tiny detail (lots of wikipedia spirals) for Lulu. Both of those really helped get me in the right mindset for each sister.
JGV: My favorite trope with young adult novels is the coming-of-age trope. This frame of time we focus on within the character's life where they both feel as grown up as they've ever felt but also going through obstacles that continually remind them how little they have actually figured out and how young they still are. And, as it pertains to Lulu and Milagro (and even their oldest sister, Clara), I think this really is one of the best coming-of-age stories I've read in a long time. What has your own emotional journey been like writing this story centering very brown, first generation girls with very different --- but intertwined -- journeys and different mindsets?
AV: With this book, I really wanted to show all the emotions that latinx girls -- especially the first gen ones -- go through as they try to "make it" in a country that's totally foreign to their parents. For me, so much of my Latinx identity is tied up in being Catholic -- my parents are very religious, and I went to Catholic school for 14 years. For a long time, Catholic Mass was the only place I could hear Spanish spoken by someone who wasn't related to me, but it was also was the source of a great deal of turmoil with the messaging around sexuality, gender, and how relationships should work.
I wanted this story to show Milagro, Lulu, and Clara poking holes in that religious messaging -- particularly the idea that women can't own their sexuality, or that they need to be protected from men, or that they can only be "good" or "bad" with no shades of gray. And I wanted to show that this messaging harms all people -- including the "good girls," because it instills a real fear of failure! Being able to write (* spoiler alert! *) happy endings for these three girls has really been healing and joyful, and then hearing from readers that this speaks to them and their experiences has really magnified the joy. I feel so lucky!
JGV: Can we talk for a minute about college? Both of our debut novels really get into figuring out where our characters want to be at post-high school (or maybe being fine having no idea), on applications, on finances and paying for college, on their families' opinions of where they want to be. And I think the biggest difference is while my main character's thoughts behind it all center on where he wants to be when he grows up, Lulu and Milagros seem to be more what do I want to be when I grow up and, more so, how do I get there?
You mention your own work in higher education helping you mold their journeys, but was your own high school-into-university years of life also an inspiration for how your characters interacted with their futures?
AV: Yes, absolutely! I was so lucky that my family was extremely supportive and encouraging of my college dreams, but it also meant that we were all figuring it out together. There was no traditional road map for me to follow in the US and no generational knowledge about US higher ed. I also was VERY aware of my dream schools' diversity stats, and how impossible it felt that I could somehow be part of that small percentage. This was compounded by seeing classmates visiting their parents' alma maters and so easily rattling off the schools they would attend. I just remember that time being so anxiety-filled and like I was somehow behind everyone, and I wanted to show that this is a common feeling!
JGV: Are there any lessons or reflections you've had so far as you hit this huge point in your debut year you'd like to share with everyone reading?
AV: This whole experience has really magnified how grateful I am for people doing book work in the world! The reception that I've gotten from librarians all over the country has been thrilling, the way Las Musas has been SO supportive, the bloggers and bookstagrammers taking gorgeous photos and hyping up these sisters -- I'm so, so full of gratitude for the support. It really does take a village to get books in the hands of teens, and I feel very luck with the people in my little book village!
JGV: And, to close out this conversation, I'm sure you've gotten this question so many times, but I'd love to hear whatever you can tell us about what's next for you!
AV: Oh gosh, I'm still VERY much in the messy drafting stage, but I'm working on a book that delves into the visual art world, and how all you need to "be an artist' is to create -- which is something I very much believe in!
Purchase Lulu and Milagro's Search for Clarity today!
Angela Velez grew up in Baltimore, under the watchful eye of her Peruvian immigrant parents. She has a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. Angela lives in Pittsburgh, with her piles of books, three plastic flamingos, and one wobbly disco ball. Lulu and Milagro's Search for Clarity is her first novel.
Jonny Garza Villa is a product of the Great State of Texas, raised along the Gulf Coast and a decade-long resident of the Alamo City. They are an author of contemporary YA, writing stories that incorporate their own identities as a queer Chicanx and have been known to be equal parts emotional, chaotic, and joyful. Jonny's short story, "Constellations in an Electric Sky," appears in inQluded web magazine's JOY issue, and their debut YA novel, FIFTEEN HUNDRED MILES FROM THE SUN, is set to release in summer 2021.
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