Interview by: Ivy M. and Zoë G.
In case you missed it, the 12th annual Texas Teen Book Festival took over the virtual world on Halloween weekend! One of the amazing authors in the line-up was Lilliam Rivera, who most recently released her book, Never Look Back. Ivy and Zoë BOTH loved Never Look Back (read their reviews here and here, respectively) and were so excited to get to interview Lilliam and ask all their burning questions! Check out the interview below.
Psst– Get your copy of Never Look Back here! Orders come with signed bookplates!
Zoë: What inspired you to write a Greek myth set in the Bronx?
Lilliam Rivera: So, Never Look Back was inspired by Hurricane Maria. [It] landed in Puerto Rico and destroyed a lot of homes and affected my family. We had an uncle who went missing, who was eighty years old and we couldn’t get a hold of him cause communication was down. So when that happened I was really distraught and just very depressed with how our government was handling it, and I didn’t know what to do. I had to write a book and everything I wrote was really dark and depressing. And then I thought about this movie that I loved, it’s called Black Orpheus and it’s a 1950s classic kind of film. It’s a retelling of the Greek myth set in Brazil during Carnival, and I saw [it] when I was like eight or nine and I loved it so much. Then I started thinking about the movie and I thought maybe I could find a way to write about Hurricane Maria and find a way of writing about getting out of my depression. In a way even, writing towards love and writing towards hope. That’s really why I started writing Never Look Back. I needed to find love, I needed to find hope somewhere, so that’s where the book came from.
“…writing towards love and writing towards hope. That’s really why I started writing Never Look Back.”
Ivy: The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of my favorites and I think a lot of people know the ending is very tragic. And every time I read a retelling of it I’m always wondering ‘Oh how’s it going to end?’ and your ending, which I loved, was not quite as tragic. It was still very sad, but there was hope at the end. I was curious how you made the decision to have a more hopeful ending?
LR: It was hard, I was struggling to find the right way of writing about the ending. I knew I wanted the novel to focus on Eury for the most part, because the original story of Orpheus really is about [him] and his journey to the Underworld to find his wife. We know the tale, it always ends tragically. So, I knew I really wanted to do this idea that they both had to die in some way, something within them had to die. That could be their belief in something, that could be the notion of what they thought was true. You know, Pheus was a nonbeliever, he thought his gifts were frivolous and this notion had to die for him, he had to kill this notion. And Eury had to overcome a lot of different things, she had to overcome the stigma of this mental illness, she had to overcome this idea that she wasn’t worthy of love or beauty. I kept thinking of it in that sense. So, if you read the book, we don’t know what’s in store for these young lovers. That’s the way I envision it in my head, and I have hope that they will continue.
Zoë: Were any of the characters based on anyone in your life, or people you met, or a random stranger you met on the street?
LR: Pheus and Eury are not people I know, but I really believe that all my characters are, in some way, extensions of me. They are like branches of me, so every single one that’s some part, or personality of mine, or some past life of mine, that I’m working towards or working out. So that’s how I feel. They weren’t based on anyone I know in particular, unless I forgot.
Ivy: Do you think you would’ve read your own books when you were a teenager?
LR: Oh yeah, I would’ve loved it! I think I felt that even more so when I wrote Dealing in Dreams because I was just like ‘Oh my gosh, I would’ve loved this!’ Badass girls, kicking butt all the time kind of adventure, that’s the kind of book I love. And then with Never Look Back it’s this idea of summer love. I didn’t have any of that when I was young. I was a nerdy girl, I was at home, I was reading books, I was not going outside, so that idea of summer love is something I wish I had. So, yeah, I would’ve loved to read any of these books.
Zoë: Why did you decide to become an author?
LR: I would say I started this process around ten years ago, but it was a very slow process. My background is in journalism, I was an entertainment and fashion journalist. I would interview people, do a lot of red carpets, and celebrities, and fashion stuff. I ended up moving from New York to LA because I started working at E! Entertainment and all that pop culture crap. So in my writing life, I started very young. As soon as I got out of college, I started writing. But I didn’t believe I could be an author until like ten years ago, when I started to venture, I started to take classes. I just felt like writing a book was so outside of my realm that I didn’t know if it was possible. It took me a long time to just slowly come up with the idea: Okay, maybe I could write a short story, maybe I could write this scene… I did it piecemeal by piecemeal, tiny bits until I was able to tackle a novel. And now I’m like, I’ll just try whatever I can. I’ll try graphic novels, comics, something new, because I always love writing and I want something new to challenge myself, to do something different.
Ivy: I didn’t know you had a background in journalism, that’s really neat. Was that an interesting transition, from that to fiction?
LR: You know, if you write for entertainment and fashion it’s literally science fiction! You are interviewing people who have a life that’s surreal, that doesn’t make sense. So when I was interviewing these people it always felt outside of my realm, you know. I came from a very humble background, I grew up in the projects, we were very much poor. And for me to have these interviews with celebrities, they were always super fascinating because I looked at it like I was interviewing someone from outer space.
Zoë: What inspires you to write in general, just to sit down and write?
LR: I think it’s just mostly because I have stories I want to tell, I have ideas, and I just want to get them out. There’s so many stories and that’s the one thing that’s always the problem, you know. I have this great idea and I just wanna, lemme just go into that idea! And then I forget I have a deadline, I have to finish this book, I have to rewrite it (and rewrites are always painful for me) and so I struggle with it because I’m like ‘Uhhh I don’t want to do it, I’d rather go play with the new toy!’ It’s really just disciplining myself to, ‘Okay, I have to work, I have to do work, I have to try to do the work every day cause I have a deadline.’ And I always have a deadline, and even if I don’t have a deadline deadline I always force myself to make a deadline, because if not I’m not gonna do anything.
Ivy: What are some of your favorite books right now? YA or otherwise?
LR: There’s a book that came out by a debut author from Puerto Rico, her name is Amparo Ortiz and it’s called Blazewrath Games. And it’s young adult but it’s a little younger and it’s so great. It’s like an Olympics-style race game, but it’s dragon racing and the characters, the girl represents Puerto Rico. And I just think it’s fantastic. Then I’ve been reading Mark Oshiro’s latest novel, Each of Us a Desert, I love that book too. He’s such a powerful writer, his prose is amazing. What have I been reading… I’ve just been reading really scary novels that are not YA, and just horror books, living my life through horror.
Zoë: Do you plan on writing other books based on Greek myths in the future?
LR: Not personally, it’s not in my future. Well, I should say, not now, not a retelling. But I feel like all of my novels are retellings of some sort? I’m always thinking of books I read in my past or when I was in high school and just like ‘Oh what would that version look like if I wrote it?’ and not beat by beat but just like… I used to love The Outsiders so I’m like, okay what about girl gangs? In the future? What does that look like? And I’ll just write that. So I’m always thinking of things that inspire me, images in my head, or someone that I’ll see, a young person, and I’ll be like wow, okay, what would that be? I don’t have a retelling but I guess if I did I probably would try to do a retelling of Frankenstein, but I don’t have an idea for it yet. But that would probably be the one, because I love that book so much, so I’ll have to figure out a way to do that.
Ivy: What are some of your favorite horror books?
LR: Frankenstein is one of my favorites, I’m a nerd. I have this big annotated Frankenstein book, which I haven’t gotten through, I’m slowly going through it. And it’s perfect for me because it has the history and letters and the time frame of when she wrote it and I’m like ‘Ugh, I love that kind of stuff!’ I’ve been reading a lot of Latin American and Mexican horror writers, female horror writers and those are super fascinating. And they’re not young adult, but they’re debut authors and I’ve been going through those a lot and they just have a really unique point of view. And of course I read Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and that was really great, and it’s not super scary or gruesome, it’s just atmospheric. So those are good, it’s just that time of year, right?
Zoë: If you could be any color, what would you be?
LR: Ooh, any color? It would have to be blue. I love the ocean, although I’m afraid of it. I love the water, I miss Puerto Rico so dearly, last time I was there was in January and I was by the beach and it’s so warm. So I always think of blue, it’s the thing I go to when I get a little anxiety I think of Puerto Rico, Hawaii, I think of those warm waters and I’m just like, calm.
Ivy: What do you want to write about next, or what’s inspiring you to write next?
LR: I guess I’m inspired by scary stuff, so I’m really gonna try to write a little bit darker for my next young adult book, which comes out hopefully next year. I won’t say anything about it because I’m in the throes of re-writing it, but it’s set in Los Angeles so it’ll be the first book I’m writing that’s outside of the Bronx. I’m excited about that, so we’ll see, but it’s a little bit scarier. I’m curious how that works, but it makes sense from Never Look Back to tread in even darker moments. And then probably my next one will be so light and happy!
Thank you Lilliam for doing this interview! We had so much fun!
And guess what? You can still catch the replay of Lilliam’s TTBF panel, “Watch Your Back” along with authors Kalynn Bayron and Jennifer Lynn Barnes here!