Ivy from BookPeople’s Teen Press Corps got a chance to catch up with YA author Lilliam Rivera, who will be at this year’s Texas Teen Book Festival, October 23-24. Learn more about her writing process, the inspiration behind We Light Up The Sky, and more! And don’t forget to order your copy from BookPeople!
Ivy: If you had to read only one book for the rest of your life, which book would you want it to be?
Lilliam Rivera: That’s an easy one, because usually it’s Frankenstein! I re-read it every year and I always find something really interesting about it, I don’t know why. It’s this book that I’ve been obsessed with since I was a kid.
I: I’ve only just started reading We Light Up the Sky and I really like it, I love how your books are almost all different genres, that really excites me. But like, right off the bat there was a Los Espookys reference, which is one of my favorite shows!
LR: Yeah, I couldn’t write about science fiction and not include a Los Espookys reference.
I: I was wondering if there are any other movies, or shows, or books that inspired We Light Up the Sky?
LR: Yeah, for sure! I read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles when I was really young and I’m sure I was probably not ready for that book, but I re-read it of course and it’s just so good. It kind of scared me when I was a little kid and when I re-read it, those parts still scared me. The idea that Ray Bradbury was writing back then was about colonization and it’s so fascinating how he wrote about these themes that are still very prevalent now. The idea that we could just take over a land and assume that it’s okay, that no one else lives there, the concept of invisibility. So, I was definitely thinking a lot about Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and also The War of the Worlds, which is another science fiction, kind-of classic book. Those are the books that I was re-reading, going over again. I read a lot of science fiction while I was preparing to write this book but those were the two main ones that inspired me because I read them when I was really young.
I: What are some books that you’re reading right now, like newer books, or some books that you’ve read recently that are newer?
LR: Oh, I did read this book because I blurbed it: When We Make It! This just came out, it’s a novel in verse, Puerto Rican author, debut. And it’s just wonderful, very raw and hard-hitting, and I was really happy that I was able to blurb it. I’m always excited to read about a debut author, or a Latine author that’s coming up. I’m lucky I get to have people send me books.
I: Something I like to ask, because we’re a teen group, is if you have any advice for young writers, or teen writers who want to get started?
LR: Yes! My advice is to just write, you know. When I was young I was super shy, I had extremely long hair and my bangs were in my face, I would not raise my hand, don’t think I ever spoke in class, really. And with my shyness, the only way I could cope was through writing, I would write journals and diaries and all that stuff, until an English teacher forced me to write as a journalist, he noticed something that I wrote and he thought, ‘Well, she’s a writer, she has some sort of talent that she’s hiding.’ He forced me to be in the high school newspaper, and that was great for a person who was shy, because the attention wasn’t on me, I could put the attention on someone else. And I learned that I was really good at it, and that was really the beginning of my writing career. So to say this as advice: if you’re a writer, you write. You don’t have to wait for anyone to say that you’re a writer. You don’t have to publish, you don’t have to be in the school newspaper. If it was back then, I probably would’ve had some sort of Instagram, you know, maybe I wouldn’t have had my name on there [laughs], but I would’ve posted short fiction on there and found a voice. Even being on Twitter, that was my way of having a voice when I might be kind of quiet, that’s a good way for me to show different sides of my personality. But yeah, for young writers it’s just: write. You can use social media, and all this stuff. It’s just practice, and dedication. I try to dedicate time to writing, even if I write only one sentence. It’s always in the back of my mind: okay, I’m a writer, I just write one sentence. Even if I’m not published anymore, at least I’m working at my art. And it is art, and you just have to work towards it.
“If you’re a writer, you write.”
I: In a lot of the realistic fiction books I’ve read recently, the authors have to decide whether their book will be set post-pandemic, pre-pandemic, or in a world where there wasn’t a pandemic. And your book is definitely set post-pandemic, it’s part of the plot, so I wondered why you made that decision?
LR: Well, because I thought we would be done by now. [laughs] It was wild, because this book, I wrote it two and a half years ago. Then I was re-writing it, and I knew I was going to talk about COVID, because of Luna being one of the characters, she’s grieving her cousin, and I was grieving, and I’m still grieving people that I’ve lost to COVID, or just to old age and not having the normal things that we would do to celebrate their life, unable to do those things. So I was just really in that mourning stage and I don’t feel like a lot of people have been given the space to mourn, it’s all, let’s go back to normalcy, let’s go back to what we’re missing and I’m just like, that’s not possible [laughs]. We’re denying a lot of people who are mourning, who have to deal with a lot of grief. So that was important for me, to write about COVID in there, I just assumed we’d be over that huge hump. And sometimes I feel we’re close, and then sometimes… I didn’t know that the themes that are in my book would just play out in the extreme, as I see it in the daily, the way people decide that their individuality, “freedom,” is more important than the whole of the community, which is basically the theme of the novel itself. So, I would hope that we would be over it. It was interesting, because a lot of people were torn, ‘Do we talk about it? Do we not talk about it?’ But my books are all, even if it’s science fiction, I am grabbing a snapshot of the world that we’re living in. So it’s important for me to document that too.
I: What’s one theme or message you really want young people to get out of reading your books?
LR: Let’s see… I’m a storyteller, and I want my readers to be able to enjoy the stories I’m telling. You know, that is my goal in life, to be able to craft a story that lives within me and be able to put it on the page and have any reader connect with it. So I, for the most part, I write characters that are mostly Brown characters, or Black, but ultimately my goal is to be a storyteller and to continue to write these stories. So you notice that all my books, they’re all in different genres, you know, like I’ve done contemporary, I’ve done dystopian, this is science fiction, and I love being able to jump around because I have a lot of stories and I hope that my readers will join me in discovering the next story, whatever that is.
“I love being able to jump around because I have a lot of stories and I hope that my readers will join me in discovering the next story, whatever that is.”
I: Do you remember when the seed of the idea for We Light Up the Sky came to you, like where that inspiration was?
LR: Yeah, I do! It was 2019, I think… I’ve always wanted to write this book, I’ve always wanted to write a ‘Oh, what would this look like if we had an alien invasion and Brown kids are the ones who are going to be in the center of this?’ I knew that eventually I will write this kind of story but the impetus of this particular story happened in 2019 because Elon Musk did some sort of satellite, spaceship-like thing around my neighborhood. I live in Los Angeles, and it was literally outside my window, outside my door. I was following it on Twitter and I was like ‘Oh look it’s going to be outside!’ so I went outside, in front of my house, to see if I could see it, this spaceship, kind-of shuttle thing. And I missed it, the sky was dark, there was nothing out there. But these boys, who were these three Brown boys, these three Latino boys, were in front of my house and they were about to rent these scooters on their way, and I was like ‘Oh man I missed it!’ And these three high school boys came over and were like ‘No, we got it! It’s on our phone, we took pictures!’ And they showed me their pictures and we were all kind of giddy about it, you know, we were just like wow, this looks wild! It was a spaceship above Fairfax, which is like walking distance from where I live! And then they scooted away, [laughs] these strangers. And that was just the impetus of the story, that little seed of like ‘Oh, this is a story!’ I could imagine these kids just chasing this spaceship around. These are the kids who bus into the neighborhood, because they go to Fairfax High School and they live all over the city, so I was just super fascinated by that. And I loved their curiosity, I was curious about them and their curiosity sharing that story with me. So that was really the little seed.
I: Earlier you talked about how you love Frankenstein, do you think you’d ever want to write your own Frankenstein? And if so, what would that look like?
LR: I do, I do want to write a retelling of Frankenstein, I just don’t know what that is. Strangely enough, I’ve read a lot of versions of Frankenstein, my favorite one is Kiersten White’s book The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein. I’m like obsessed with versions of Frankenstein, but I haven’t figured out what [my version] would look like yet, so that might have to be like a future… I don’t know what it is, because I’m so aware of all the different versions… What would I bring to that conversation, you know? How would I interpret Frankenstein? And so, I haven’t found that yet. Not yet.
I: What projects are you working on right now and what are you inspired to write about in the future?
LR: Right now, I am taking a very long break. [laughs] I’ve been working really hard, and I need to fill my well when it comes to inspiration. I have big, like, inkling of stories that I might want to write next in the young adult world. I do have a book, that’s a middle grade book, that’s coming out two years from now, which is through Kokila, and it’s about a Latina who wants to be a synchronized swimmer, but her mom’s a feminist and definitely against that, and she’s a big girl too. And so I wrote that book, which hopefully comes out in a couple of years. But in the meantime, I’m just going to read a lot and work on maybe some ideas, some future ideas, I’m sure something will come up soon.
Look out for Lilliam Rivera at the Texas Teen Book Festival! You can order her upcoming novel, We Light Up The Sky from BookPeople!