First Draft, Ep. 97: Lilliam Rivera (Transcript)
Released on 2/28/17
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays]
Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to Lilliam Rivera, a journalist, radio show host, and essayist, whose debut Young Adult novel, The Education of Margo Sanchez, is out now.
[Background rain falling steadily]
Sarah Enni: Lilliam is what I think of when I think of cool women. She’s all Bronx confidence, is poetically well-spoken, and has the kind of fashion passion that makes you realize how much storytelling goes into picking an outfit. She’s got both hustle and empathy in spades. I was so happy when Lilliam invited me over to her house to chat on a rare rainy morning in Los Angeles. Though she was on a tight deadline, Lilliam was fluster-less and wisdom-full, and so generous with her time. So, scramble for a flimsy umbrella, or just grab a warm pot of coffee, and enjoy the conversation.
Sarah ENNI: So, how are you doing?
Lilliam RIVERA: I’m good! I am good. I am in the middle of rewriting a second novel, so I’ve just been doing that. I’ve been holed up in the house doing that. [laughing]
ENNI: We will definitely get to that! I like to start at the very beginning, which is where were you born and raised?
RIVERA: I’m from the Bronx, New York. I grew up there. 183rd and Webster Avenue, it’s in the housing projects. My family still lives in the Bronx. I moved out here in, I would say, 2000 for work. My background is in entertainment journalism. Celebrity interviews and stuff like that. I moved to LA and I’ve been living here since. But, I go to New York two or three times a year.
ENNI: What role did reading and writing play in your childhood growing up?
RIVERA: It played a big part for me, I was a really shy person. My parents came from Puerto Rico and they moved to New York. They didn’t know how to speak English, but my mom learned watching soap operas. And for my mom, her duty was, she took care of us. My father worked. And she would take us to the library. That was one of the earliest memories of me, was us walking from our house to the library. It wasn’t super close, so it was a bit of a walk. She would take us there, and we would just stay there. She knew there would be a story time, and we would talk to the librarians, and the librarians would pick books out for us. When I was five, or so, I knew only Spanish, so this was my way of learning English, just by going through those books. My father was like a hidden poet. He would recite poetry, or read the Bible, and so these were the ways that we would learn words. I would fall in love with a story, or words. So, libraries were a really big part of my childhood.
ENNI: Super interesting that English is your second language.
RIVERA: Was for a second, yeah! [laughing] For kindergarten and first grade. I try to practice it as much as I can now. I speak to my parents in Spanish for the most part. I’m really rusty. But, at first it was. I grew up in that dual household of wanting to get all of the mainstream media you could get. All of the TV shows, all of the movies. And then, also, still be in love with the Spanish language through music, through TV, through family. So, it was always a dual lifestyle.
ENNI: It’s always fascinating to me when writers come from a background of more than one language. I read about someone who was raised speaking Japanese and English, and her parents really struggled with whether to raise her speaking both at home. There are studies about people engaging in abstract thought with one language or the other, and that it can make it more challenging. It’s really interesting to think about.
RIVERA: Someone was saying that if you go to another country and you’re trying to learn that language, are you dreaming in that language? That was when you crossed a threshold, and now that language has become a part of your dreams. And I was like, “Oh, that’s really cool.” I loved that!
ENNI: And then I read something recently about when people speak more than one language, they are able to grasp nuance better. It’s this whole thing.
RIVERA: It’s funny, because now, since my Spanish is so rusty… when I speak it, I feel so blunt. Because it’s so simplistic, the words and sentences I am using, and there’s no nuance [laughing] it’s just straight! And so, yeah, it’s interesting.
ENNI: Which is its own delightful way of speaking! That’s neat, and I love that libraries were so important to you. That was true for me as a kid too. We moved around a bunch, and the first stop was, “Where is the library?”
RIVERA: Now where I live, our library is so close, we can walk to it. That, to me, is so important. Just to know that the library is close… walking distance. I need to be able to go there and hang out.
ENNI: It feels like a safe place.
RIVERA: Right! It really is for a lot of kids. And I spend a lot of time in libraries, still, just working there. And for a lot of kids, those are their safety places to just be able to work, and hang out. I love that.
ENNI: When did it move from reading so much, to writing?
RIVERA: I don’t know. I’ve always written stuff. I would always carry a notepad around with me, and a pen. Because I was shy, I was really in my head a lot. So, I would write a lot. But it wasn’t something that I would… I never wrote a story or submitted any. I was a heavy reader. I definitely liked to write on my own. More like journals, and stuff like that. I didn’t start thinking about writing until high school when I was forced to do journalism. Forced to do the school newspaper, again, because I was shy [laughing]. For some reason, this one teacher kind of took it upon himself that he was going to push me into breaking out of my shell. And he was part of the school newspaper, he was the editor, or the mentor. And that’s when I began to do that, to write. So, it was him.
ENNI: One of the things that struck me about your professional path, is that it involves so many different kinds of writing. But that it started with journalism is really interesting, and it sounds like your personal background is diarist, essay and some non-fiction writing.
RIVERA: It’s always been a push for me to do things that maybe are scary and challenging. Definitely being super shy when I was in high school, doing that journalism thing was a great way for me to be able to get any kind of attention away from me, and just put the focus on the person in front of me. And I could do that. It’s easy, [well] not easy, it’s just a great way for me to have to defer… like: “Don’t look at me! Let me talk to you!”
ENNI: “This isn’t about me!”
RIVERA: So, it’s really cool. And I do like to be able to talk to other people. I find that it’s fun to interview people, even if it is entertainment stuff, or things that are outside of what I would normally live. But I find those things fascinating because they all feed into my fiction. It all feeds into my fiction, whatever it is. Whatever type of writing I’m doing, it’s things that I’m storing, and later on will come out… somehow.
ENNI: Like I said before we started recording, I love talking to people who are journalists, and then who also do podcasts, because when you’re in this structured interaction, where you’re interviewing someone, you don’t usually get to ask someone like, “What is the meaning of…?” You know? These are not conversations that you have over drinks, normally. So, you get to ask the kinds of questions that I think we now ask of our characters. To me, it’s a direct correlation, but I don’t know that a lot of people put that together, necessarily.
RIVERA: It also helps, just forcing yourself to have deadlines. I feel if I didn’t have that kind of background, journalism background, where it’s so important to meet your deadlines. No one is giving you extensions, you know? You need to get stuff in. Since I have that background, it really does help me. I get really anxious. I have to hit those deadlines. I get really freaked out. That’s why I’m here and not in New York, hanging out, because I have a deadline.
ENNI: Getting real about it. One of my most strong memories of studying journalism is that I went from being an English major, to my first journalism class. And I turned something in. And the instructor – who is this thirty-five year veteran newspaper reporter – he circled every three-syllable word, and was like: “What is this? Get out of here!” Simplicity and clarity. The focus on that was totally transformative for me.
RIVERA: Oh, my god. That’s so true. I still have that. I am currently writing fashion copy for a fashion brand, and I write inspiration for their runway collection shows. So, that’s a big deal, and I love it. It talks about art, and where the designer’s inspiration came from. So, when I’m writing it, I’m trying to be esoteric, and really lofty, and dream-like [laughing], and the guy was like: “You need to tone this down! What is this word?” He’s circling all these big words. And I was like, “Oh [timid sounding], Okay.”
ENNI: I was going through a vibe, but okay, I see, I see!
RIVERA: I have to remember that, sometimes. That’s not necessary.
ENNI: The balance of clarity and poetry, it’s somewhere in the middle.
ENNI: So, when you did start writing your own stuff, high school was non-fiction. I am wondering when did fiction writing or when did storytelling factor in?
RIVERA: I didn’t start doing storytelling until I came here, until I moved to LA. I spent all that time working for magazines, and doing interviews, and celebrity stuff. And then when I moved out here, in 2000, I was continuing to do that kind of writing. Then I decided to take a class. A fiction writing class. It was an Intro to Fiction, or, Creative Writing at UCLA Extension. And that’s the inkling of starting to think that way, “Well, maybe I could write a story.”
ENNI: Let’s build to that. Tell me about going to school… for what? How did you get into magazines? Give me the background.
RIVERA: Sure. I went to school in Upstate New York, in Binghamton University. I studied History and Spanish… a minor in Spanish. It’s weird because I knew I wanted to do journalism, but I was the first person to go to college. So, it was just myself trying to navigate what schools to go to. My parents were supportive, of course, but I was figuring it out myself. And so, I was like: “I’ll go to Binghamton because Binghamton is a good school, even though they don’t have a journalism course. But at least it’s a good school, and it’s affordable.” So, these are the things I’m thinking about at that time, which is kind of young for me to be thinking about those things. But, that was the case. And so, I went to Binghamton and I studied History, because at least History still involved some sort of writing. Everything was about writing reports and trying to make those kinds of connections with history, with themes. And I did that. I didn’t do any journalism, or any fiction writing, but I did take English classes. And those were amazing. It was super exciting for me to be able to just even discuss books that I loved. Being able to be like: “Oh, let’s talk about Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Let’s talk about Toni Morrison.” And really get into those books. That was the first time that I ever had to do that. That kind of gave me an inkling of what I wanted to do. So, I went away to Spain for a year. And then I came back [and] I finished. Then I was like, “Go get a job.” [laughing] Get a job. And it was always going to be like, “I have to get a job somewhere in a newspaper or magazine.”
ENNI: It’s so interesting to me that you were so sure about journalism the whole time.
RIVERA: I just knew that it was something I could do. I knew I could ask questions. I knew I could write it. But it was also important to me that I find a place that I could do it. Obviously, all those magazines that were out, they are the same magazines that are out now. I was looking at all the women’s lifestyle magazines, like Seventeen, or Cosmopolitan, or Glamour. All of those. Allure, Vogue. And I’m trying to get into those magazines just as an assistant. The one thing that did help me, right after I graduated, I got a scholarship/internship at Rolling Stone Magazine. I don’t know if they do this anymore, but at the time, it was the first time they were doing that.
So, they were offering scholarships for five different students, or graduated students. Scholarships to just spend the summer hanging out with the editors there. So, it was myself and two other people who were in the editorial side. And it was great! Because it was like Rolling Stones! Oh, my god. So historic. [I] got to go to the office and see all those great pictures of all of the covers. And because I didn’t know any better, I was insisting on things. I didn’t know that interns are the lowest of the lows! And my friend, who became a close friend of mine, we were just like, “We’re just gonna ask.” We were just like, “We want to go to a cover shoot.” We had no qualm because we were like, “Who cares?” We didn’t know the hierarchy. A lot of the other interns, who were not getting paid, were just looking at us like, “Who are these girls? How dare they?”
RIVERA: We had no idea. It was great. Because then we were able to go to concerts, and cover little bits of it, you know? It was fun. It was my first experience in journalism. Then I knew that I really wanted to do it. But at the time, I was temping, just trying to get a job. I noticed that this new magazine called Latina Magazine was coming out. It was being done by Christy Haubegger who wanted to start this bilingual lifestyle women’s magazine. It had never been done before. I saw her in an article, and I was like, “I’m going to call her, because I need to be on that staff.” I just called her out of the blue. I’ve always been this weirdly shy person, but also very ambitious. [laughing] Like, a little aggressive! So, I was like, “I’m going to call her, because she needs to hire me.” I sent my resume in and then I got a job. That was my first journalism job.
ENNI: That is incredible! I love that. What do you think it was that drew you to that kind of journalism? The lifestyle, and celebrity, and that kind of stuff.
RIVERA: I think it was because I was a TV baby. I love entertainment stuff. I might have been living in a bubble in South Bronx, but I was so aware of everything that was happening in the entertainment world. That it was kind of silly. To this day my family still asks me, “So, what’s going on with so-and-so?” And I will still know, even though I don’t work in that kind of industry anymore. I’ll still know. I’m just super aware of that stuff, for the most part. And there’s something about that. It seems, especially now, it’s a very superficial kind of lifestyle. It’s very veneer and totally ties in to the magazines too. It’s very glossy. And I kind of love that, it’s all very shiny and new.
ENNI: I could talk about that forever. The nexus between being a serious person, but still recognizing the value that these are the people who are building culture. We ignore Beyonce at our peril. You know? She’s helping us to understand ourselves. It’s real.
RIVERA: It is. It does say a lot about what’s happening politically and historically. I’m totally fascinated with that stuff. I guess that’s why I always knew I wanted to do entertainment journalism. And also, I was probably a little too intimidated to do anything that was really investigative pieces. As much as I want to do political stuff - my writing always has, maybe, a little bit of a political bent to it - but to do investigative pieces, I mean, I bow down to those who do.
ENNNI: Was it extra exciting to you to be able to do a bilingual [magazine]. To be a part of building something like that?
RIVERA: Yes! I mean, this was something I’ve always wanted. It was a magazine that was going to speak about me, and for me. And to be a part of that, when it was just starting, was such a big honor to do it. We would have young people come up to us, and be so happy that the magazine was out. And it was great. It was a really small group of editors, and we all became super tight during that time. We all knew that it was important work for us, even if it was lifestyle stuff. Everything was really important. Beauty, or, what does that mean to have good hair, bad hair? Everything had a political stance to it in a way. And also, being able to celebrate celebrities that you maybe weren’t celebrating anywhere else. You don’t get those covers. And that was cool. I did that for five or six years, starting as an editorial assistant. And then became an entertainment editor, booking the covers, and stuff like that. It was really the way I learned so much, just trial and error, just learning.
ENNI: And building a start-up. When it’s a small operation, you have to do everything, and you know a little bit of everything.
RIVERA: Exactly! Oh, my god, yes.
Enni: So then talk to me about what was the draw to moving out west? What eventually drew you out of New York?
RIVERA: It was right at the time when the internet was just starting. It was like the big push. Everyone was going online. And that’s what I wanted to do. I was being priced out of New York, as so many are. And I was like: “I want to live in the City. I want to live in Manhattan. I don’t want to live anywhere else, and I can’t afford it.” You know? I can’t afford to buy a place there at the time. So, I was like: “Why are we here? Why are we staying in New York? Let’s get out of here.” So, I started looking for jobs in San Francisco, and then in LA. I was able to get this job at EOnline.com, it was part of E! Entertainment. I worked writing fashion copy… Fashion Police and Red Carpet stuff. So, I moved a little away from… still celebrity, but more into fashion.
ENNI: Was that a pull for you? Did you want to do fashion stuff?
RIVERA: Yeah, I do. I love clothes [laughing]. I do love fashion stuff. Again, it’s all beauty. It’s all being creative. It wasn’t that much of a leap. It still had celebrity ties to it, so I was still asking celebrities what they were wearing.
ENNI: How was the transition to the West Coast? How did you feel about it?
RIVERA: Oh, I was sure I was going to hate it. People said they were going to give me a year before I moved back.
ENNI: They were like, “You’re a lifer.”
RIVERA: Yeah. I mean, hard core New York. I think I was the first one to get my driver’s license in my family. When I moved out here, I had to learn how to drive. It was a bit of a challenge. I didn’t really know that many people here at all. But, after about four years, it was fine.
ENNI: After four years! That’s funny.
RIVERA: It just takes a moment to settle in. And make, and find, your tribe. I’m not gonna go back to New York. I mean, I love New York. I’m from New York. But I like to visit it.
ENNI: So, we’re caught up then. You’re writing for E! and doing fashion writing. What do you think the pull was to taking a fiction writing class?
RIVERA: I don’t know. I do remember reading Junot Diaz’s collection of short stories called DROWN. And being, for the first time in a long time – even though there had been other authors who I felt the same way - but at that moment, when I read his collection, I was like, “Maybe I can do this.” Maybe, just a little inkling, of maybe I can try. Because his writing, or the people that he wrote, his characters, his setting, was so real to me. It felt like he was writing about people I knew. And even though I read Anna Castillo, and I also read Sandra Maria Esteves, and thought of that too, but for some reason, when I read Junot Diaz’s work, it kind of gave me a little hope of like, “Okay, maybe I can do this.”
It was a good intro class, because I had no idea. I had no idea of chapters, or even how a short story goes. I’m still working that out, you know? But it was good for me to even just be able to think of characters and dialogue. I think I still have some of those stories around.
ENNI: It’s interesting to me that short stories were sort of the thing that you were like, “Maybe this is…?” [That] that was the pull for you.
RIVERA: I definitely didn’t think of novels. That would be too intimidating. But I was like: “Well, maybe a short story. Maybe I could contain it.” But what did I know? Short stories are just as hard as novels [laughing].
ENNI: I would argue harder!
RIVERA: I know, I agree!
ENNI: So subtle, and so much work in every word.
RIVERA: It’s true. It takes a lot of time to work on one story.
ENNI: So, when you started writing, were your stories Young Adult? Were they genre? What kind of stories came to you first?
RIVERA: They were definitely Young Adult, for sure. I wanted to write about a quinseañera. I didn’t have one, but I wanted to write about one. That was one of the first short stories that I tried to write. I always went back to this young voice. The dialogue always seemed younger to me.
ENNI: I read a couple of your short stories to prep for this. And you have a voice. To me, it seems when a writer has a strong voice - and by that, I mean vocabulary, and colloquialisms - and it seems like [your writing] feels very authentic for a young voice.
RIVERA: That’s one thing that I feel I’m strong in. And I feel comfortable writing dialogue when it’s coming from a person who’s young. When it comes to adult writing, adult short stories, I always go back to the Bronx. Everything is set in the Bronx. I’m pulling from my home. In a way, they’re all trying to discover something, right? So, with the young people, it’s the first of the firsts. The first discovery. And when I’m writing adult, as well, I’m thinking of that. Of being in a city, and being one of the first of being in that city, and what that’s like. And it almost feels science fiction to me. It’s all genre, in a way, you’re almost trying to conquer what that newness is.
ENNI: Yeah. Ooh, I like that. That’s a really fun way to think about it. We’ll just jump around a little bit, but one of my questions about your science fiction… I was reading an interview you did about BETWEEN GOING AND STAYING which is a short story you wrote (an interview with Lilliam about the short story here) and you can describe it in a second, but it sounded like, in the interview, that you were able to go into a few different cultural practices and throw them together. So, it seems like science fiction was a way for you to explore culture in a way that was not necessarily limiting it to what you experienced in the Bronx.
RIVERA: Right, I mean, I guess for that short story. It was set in a future Mexico, Sinaloa, Mexico. And I was thinking of what a future would look like when a funeral becomes more of a big celebrity, big deal. And people do that now, these tributes, and stuff like that. But I imagine[d] what that would be like as a woman who kind of does that for a living. She’s a professional weeper. And I was thinking, to me, the stuff that I was researching for that short story was really just thinking of traditional ways of funerals. Ways that people are trying to deal with death. And in Puerto Rico recently, [chuckles], it’s just such a weird thing that I remember someone telling me this, it was a film director who told me this new trend. In Puerto Rico, at funerals, they’re embalming their loved ones in positions of what they used to love to do. For example, if a person is a musician, then they’re gonna embalm him as if he’s playing his instrument.
RIVERA: And this is a trend that’s happening in Puerto Rico! And I was like: “Oh my god! That’s amazing!” I was like: “What does that mean? That’s amazing!” And it was at the time that I was writing this story, so I incorporated that in my story. I also was writing about [the] history of dance in the Sinaloa, Mexico area, and what that means to be traditional dance ceremonies, and how they incorporate it in real life. But also, what that would look like in the future. There’s something about… ‘everyone’s doing this’. There’s something about rushing to be in the future. Wanting the levitating car, or whatever, the self-driving car. But also, wanting to honor the past, and incorporate both of them. That’s how I see the future. We [are] all like: “What were our ancestors doing back then? How can we bring that to our future?” All this thing about organic. Everybody wants organic. Can you plant your own stuff? Make your own food? How do you do those things? It’s sort of like this going back-and-forth thing, you know? So, that’s how I envision the future, of incorporating high-tech, and then very down, dirt-level stuff.
ENNI: I was just describing a new podcast mini-series that I’ve been listening to, to my mom. And I was like, “So, it’s this podcast mini-series, and all these actors are playing these roles, and blah-blah-blah.” And she was like, “Are you talking about a radio show?”
ENNI: And I was like, “Uh. Yup! I sure am!” And it’s on my phone whenever I want it to be, and that’s the only difference. I was like, “Me and Shirley Temple.” You know?
RIVERA: Right! I totally get that. I like that we’re going back to these things that, maybe at the time they used to be super innovative, and now it’s like, “Let’s go back to that.” It’s more than just nostalgia, though. It’s incorporating this new life.
ENNI: Exactly. The only difference is that now the radio is portable to me. And I can listen to it when I want, and I can share it with my friends in this other way. I’m really responding to what you’re talking about, with grieving and mourning, and this thing that’s never gonna change. We’re never gonna get rid of culturally, personally, and though we are modernizing and changing so much, so much is staying the same. We’re still just people. And fundamentally what we’re dealing with is so similar.
RIVERA: Yes. There’s something very theatrical when it comes to funerals. I’m always fascinated when I talk to other people. When someone passes away, it’s terrible, but I was like, “But how do you guys mourn?” In my household, when someone passes away, we mourn their bodies for three days. They’re in a separate room, but you’re there to be able to see them. But there’s also a dance, in a way, a dance of who’s going to lose their mind, who’s going to make a lewd joke, who’s going to get pissed off. There’s this dance that’s happening, that I’ve seen, and I kept thinking about those things when I was writing this short story.
Of what this means to have this high-end theatrical funeral. In that short story, it is about being drug narcos who are overtaking in justice, and people being kidnapped, all those kinds of things. Things that are happening now in Mexico. And I was trying to think of what that would look like, being like social justice. And how the youth are going to go back to the past, and try to bring it to the future. And how they are going to fight whatever is happening. So, it was my way of thinking about [pauses] a lot of things that were happening currently. The shooting in Charleston, the drug violence in Mexico, things that are happening currently. How to write short story fiction without it being so non-fiction.
ENNI: We started this question because I wanted to explore the function that genre serves for you. And it seems, by not limiting yourself all of the time to a contemporary, grounded to the real-world, present-day narrative, you’re able to deal with a lot. Charleston is not inherently the same thing as [unintelligible] Mexico, but by getting rid of reality, you can make it something that you can deal with in this world that you construct.
RIVERA: For me, I feel hopeless sometimes when I’m reading stuff that’s going on in the world. “How do I involve myself? How do I become socially active?” My work is the way I can do it. It’s the way for me to grapple death and feeling hopeless. I think, even though short stories are super hard to write, those are the ways for meto deal with people who are stuck in those kinds of worlds. It doesn’t necessarily have to be genre, like I said before, I’m thinking of the immigrant experience, or the newness of maybe even a young adult girl going to college for the first time, and what that feels like. And that feels very much like a world where there are rules and regulations that you don’t know. And you’re figuring it out. And that feels very science fiction, very fantasy, to me. [laughing]
ENNI: Now that you’re putting it that way, it’s so interesting. And a pattern for you. Having to learn English, and being the first one to go to school, being the first one to learn to drive, moving to the West Coast. There’s been a lot that.
RIVERA: Those are all those ‘news’, all that newness, right? Of me being the first, and not knowing what I’m doing, but just doing it anyway. And failing, you know? But just trying. It’s the way I try to tackle things that seem so overwhelmingly big, and it’s like, “Okay, how can I tackle this through a character?”
ENNI: Ooh, that’s so interesting. I love that! So, you start writing short stories. I’d love for you to lead me through starting to write fiction, and then short stories, and then how did you come up with Margo Sanchez?
RIVERA: I started taking the UCLA classes. I took one or two after that. And then I met a writing mentor. He’s Al Watt and he started this concept of, “Your Novel in 90 Days. Or, “90-Day Novel”, I think it’s called. A mutual friend of mine told me I should check him out. He was doing this out of his house, at one point. I went to check him out, and I met him, and I started going to his house once a week. And he would go through this process of trying to [help] you write a novel in 90 days. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was like: “Ah, let me try. I have an inkling of an idea.” I was telling someone the other day, the inkling I had was… Twilight movie came out, and I was like: “You know what? I’m sick of these vampire movies that have no Latinas in them. That have no Latino based genre. And I’m just over it.” So, I was like, “I’m gonna write a novel.” [laughs] And it was basically, just anger. And that propelled me to: “Let me try to write a novel. A vampire novel.”
ENNI: Oh, my god. That’s amazing.
RIVERA: And it was gonna be Young Adult. And it was gonna be set in the West Coast. It was gonna be a girl from the Bronx who moves to the West Coast and finds her high school has a bunch of vampires. And I was like, “I’m gonna do it.” I did it through the 90-Day Novel, through Al Watts guidance, without really knowing anything, but just trying. So, I didn’t do short stories, I just went into this novel.
ENNI: That was the first big crack? Let’s try this?
RIVERA: Let me just try it in 90 days. And I did. I did a draft. I did a couple of drafts. And I just focused on trying to learn how to write a novel.
ENNI: How did that go?
RIVERA: It was hard.
RIVERA: It was hard, but it was doable because his method really helped me. And it’s still a method I use now. It’s always driven through the character, and it’s the arc, and three act story. And it just helps me. He has questions that I’m able to ask, and I keep asking. And I go back to the character and what they want and what they need. I’m continuously asking these questions. So, doing that, it really kind of broke the intimidation of it. Of like: “Okay, I can do a novel. Look! I did it in 90 days.” [It’s] crap! But I was able to produce a big chunk of work.
ENNI: It’s there. It exists.
RIVERA: It exists. Exactly. So, I was like, “Okay. I can do this.” Then I started doing Margo Sanchez. I did it, again, with Al Watt. And we went through the 90-Day novel. I had an idea of what Margot Sanchez would be like. I knew it was gonna be in the summer. And I knew it was gonna be contemporary, set in the Bronx. And I really wanted it to be all of the things that I loved in Young Adult when I was reading them. Like Judy Blume, kind of sense of discovery… of this is the summer I’m gonna discover this. For me, Young Adult, [pauses] you’re so young and you’re so at the cusp of being an adult. And maybe you’re a little too sheltered, but now is when your eyes wake up. You know? You wake up [laughing]. And so, I wanted that. I wrote a draft, again, in 90 days with Al Watts. And it was very different from what I have now, obviously.
ENNI: It’s also very different from your first attempt at novel. You went in kind of an opposite non-genre… really back to your experience.
RIVERA: I don’t have a formula [laughing] I just write whatever! I’m like, “Oh, genre. Oh, contemporary.”
ENNI: I assume you love that. What made you move on to a new idea and not worry about the vampire book anymore?
RIVERA: I sent out that novel a couple of times, and a few agents asked to read it, and that was good. But I didn’t do a heavy push for it. But I felt like, “Okay. This is a good start.” I felt like, “Okay, I know I have some skills.”
ENNI: And then this new idea, and wanting to move on to something else?
RIVERA: Yeah, “Let me give this one a rest, and let me start something new.” And the good thing about what Al Watt taught me, is that you’re just building your portfolio. You’re just building these ideas. So, let’s move on to the next one. I was fine doing that. Just keep moving to the next project.
ENNI: It’s really important.
RIVERA: Yes, it is! Because if you’re stuck with that one project, and you feel like, “This is the project!” You could stop writing. I’ve seen so many people do that. I’m in it to win it [laughing]. Writing is my passion and there’s always another project I could work on.
ENNI: That’s so freeing! I think some people are so afraid they aren’t gonna have another idea, and it makes them feel that way. And it’s like, “Well, you won’t, unless you jump off that cliff.”
RIVERA: Right. You just have to continuously think that there’s something else you can work on. I’m glad I went into it that way, because I really would have stopped at one point. But, it was also my background. I was always writing something. So, if it wasn’t gonna be that novel, then it will be another novel.
ENNI: That’s a really good point. For a while, I wrote for a newsletter that was every week, and sometimes, you’ll be like: “How the hell am I gonna fill this newsletter this week? What can possibly happen in five days?” And then it ends up fifteen pages worth of stuff happened in five days. And the one thing I can count on is that stuff’s gonna happen, things are always gonna change and be new.
RIVERA: Because I’ve gone through a monthly magazine, and I’ve done weekly, and then I’ve done online, [which] is like non-stop, never ending! So, you always have to start thinking of ideas, ideas, ideas. Your mind works that way after a while, it’s like: “Ah. This is another idea. I can throw that in.” And you walk around and jot down ideas, right?
ENNI: You become like a factory.
RIVERA: Exactly! You’re like, more and more! So, I think that totally helps. That background of being able to produce content all the time.
ENNI: So, before we talk too much about [Margo Sanchez], do you mind giving a breakdown of what the book is about?
RIVERA: Sure. Margo Sanchez is a coming-of-age story set in the South Bronx. She’s fourteen years old, and she is forced to work at her father’s supermarket in the South Bronx, after she stole some money. So, she’s being punished. And she is going to find out a lot during that summer. She meets Moises [?], she learns about her brother, her father, and it’s a summer of discovery for her. Margo was a little bit of a Princesa.
ENNI: First, right off the bat, it struck me, Margot gets busted… because she wants to buy a new wardrobe.
RIVERA: [Laughing] I know! It’s like my dream.
RIVERA: Like, of course she would!
ENNI: One quote you have about the book, that struck me, is, you said, “My novel tackles the seduction of privilege with Margo Sanchez’s longing to align herself with the privileged few.” So, she’s at what, a prep school?
RIVERA: Right. Her parents are sending her to this really expensive prep school, which they pay for. Which is interesting. She’s not a scholarship kid, they’re paying for it. They are living this upper-middle class lifestyle. They don’t life in the South Bronx. They live in sort of the outskirts of the South Bronx, and they don’t want to believe they are in the Bronx. They live in Riverdale. It’s totally different. And they want to make sure that their daughter, who is their one daughter, who is the youngest, gets everything. But [pauses] the father is struggling with that kind of lifestyle, right? Because, obviously, she’s doing things that she’s not supposed to be doing. Like stealing his credit card for clothes.
ENNI: To buy clothes!
RIVERA: Right, to buy clothes. Which she believes is the only way she can survive in this prep school world.
ENNI: For her, the clothes are one of the really important ways she is presenting herself.
RIVERA: Exactly, it’s like all masks. This is her armor of how she’s gonna present herself. And clothes are really important for kids… even now. So, clothes did play a part of it, but it’s also presentation. What does it mean to her to have her family own this supermarket in South Bronx. It’s a supermarket that’s kind of failing. It looks rundown and is not new anymore. What does that mean to even own a supermarket. It’s kind of… tacky! [laughing] It’s not a cool thing! It’s not like they own franchises, you know? But, she’s making up these stories about it. Like, “Yeah, they own a franchise.” It’s not true. She’s making up these things because she believes that’s the only way she can be a part of this crew.
ENNI: I love discussing it like a mask, like the roles that we play. As her eyes open to what she is constructing, versus where she comes from. Is there a recognition that both are presentational in some way? Or, is one seen as more authentic and real?
RIVERA: Hm. I feel that with Margot, again, it’s that combination of both, right? How is she gonna be authentic? And what does that mean for her to be authentic? She grew up with her father saying that Puerto Rico was too small of an island for him. That, “We’re not visiting Puerto Rico anymore.” What does that mean to someone who is growing up shunning those aspects of being Puerto Rican, and being Latina. Or, even having her hair blown out. Her hair is super curly, but she blows it out because she believes that’s the proper thing to do.
So, it’s that struggle for a young person. Margo Sanchez wants to elevate herself. That’s the push that her parents have been stating to her. She’s going to be the savior of this family, in a way. So, that burden means she has to deny a lot of things. Like her culture. Like her hair being straight. Like: “No. I’m going to only listen to pop stars. I’m going to speak like I’m white.” Things like that. To have her shoved into this supermarket setting is great, because then she’s forced to deal with the fact that people work. And people struggle. And it doesn’t matter if you’re going to prep school, or if you’re in the South Bronx in the supermarket, that everyone is struggling. Everyone is competing. Everyone wants to do better. It doesn’t really matter that whatever your father, or your family, is feeding you, isn’t necessarily the right path.
ENNI: It’s really interesting to me that her assimilation into a white culture is being promoted by her own family.
RIVERA: Right. Yes! It’s definitely that burden of… you are their hope. The hope is to align yourself with whoever has the power, right? Whoever is succeeding. When she meets Moises, I feel there’s that moment of… he’s presenting that it doesn’t have to be that path. You can incorporate both, in a way. It’s definitely that moment of revelation of, your parents aren’t perfect, and maybe they don’t know what they’re doing! [laughing] Right? That moment when you finally see that your father is full of flaws, and your mom too.
I find that interesting. The pressure of doing those firsts. The first person to go to college, and what does that mean to my parents who would not even think twice. I withdrew from college after the first year. I couldn’t handle it. It was too much of a change for me. I felt really alone. And my parents were just in shock. They were like: “What are you doing? This is an opportunity you do not let go. You just don’t squander that. That’s crazy!” And I couldn’t explain to them what I was going through at the time. You just don’t do that. You just do the work. You don’t have options. You just plow through anything. But, I withdrew, and then I came back and I finished. But it’s that sense of responsibility. You have to be the one.
ENNI: It’s all on your shoulders. At a very young age.
RIVERA: I know so many kids who have to go through that.
ENNI: So, how much of the book was based on your personal experience? And how much was projecting to a kid now? How did you think about that?
RIVERA: I definitely write about things that have happened to me. I grew up denying a lot of my culture at one point. At one point saying, “No. I’m an American.” Not even thinking about what it means to be Latina. My parents are very strong [laughing]. They are very huge advocates of culture. They drape that Puerto Rican flag. And it’s about music, and arts, and who are doing the great things. My family are all politically active. They’re really culturally active. So, I didn’t grow up in that kind of isolated world in that sense. But, for whatever reason, I thought at the time, when I was young, that I had to deny that. And, so I guess for this book, in a way, it’s a way of exploring my youth. Things that maybe were a little cringe-worthy at the time.
I feel it’s universal in that sense of all young people have to go through that. The connections you have with your family, those are the people who are really shaping you. And what does that mean? And they have their own dreams, and their own goals. And they might be misguided in a lot of ways. I’m fascinated by that. I guess that the kernel of the story was that I ended up… my first summer job was working with my father. And I totally forgot about this, but it’s true. I worked with my father for my first job.
ENNI: Which was doing what?
RIVERA: He works as a nurse aide. And I worked at this hospital in Manhattan. And it was a summer of revelation.
ENNI: Yeah. Working in a hospital… that’s real!
RIVERA: It’s real, yeah. It was an interesting summer. I came from a big family of five. And my mom took the brothers to Puerto Rico that summer, and I stayed with my sister and my father in New York. So, I was working with my father, and we all stayed together for that summer. And it was really eye-opening, that summer. I learned a lot of stuff about my father that I didn’t know about, that might be considered a little ugly. And just secrets, you know? So, I wanted to write about it. I guess it was through fiction that I wrote about it.
ENNI: The other part of Margot that I really want to talk about, is the second half of the quote. I’m quoting at you all of the time! This is from a blog post you recently wrote. You said: “I keep circling back to this theme, when I think of the many races that voted out of fear. That people of color will take over their narrative.” So, it’s not only Margo figuring out who she is to herself, but also her presentation. And, of course, I’ve been talking to everyone in my life about the election. How we are feeling after that. Like you were saying, writing is our form of resistance, expression, survival. And that Margo’s narrative is so specific, and so American, but what we saw this year, was white people being like: “Wait a second. I thought ‘American’ was my story.”
RIVERA: Yes! There is the quest to own the narrative. That’s something that I keep going back to throughout this whole election, is: “Who’s writing this story? Who wants to produce this story?” And, the person who I will not name… the racist! He likes to present a lot of different stories, and he feeds that monster. This is the lie I’m going to feed.
ENNI: Well, talk about masks!
RIVERA: Right! Like talk about masks, right?
ENNI: There’s not a real person anywhere in there!
ENNI: It’s whatever applause line comes next.
RIVERA: It’s really fascinating. So, there is that push. And I notice a lot in the Young Adult community, of these hashtags that were going around like, “Keep YA Kind.” And what does that mean? To keep YA kind. And who are you talking about? And, again, it’s about people trying to control the narrative. I’m such an advocate of… there are so many stories out there. Like my Latina story, my Margo story, is just one aspect of what one Latina might go through.
ENNI: It’s only one aspect of you!
RIVERA: It’s just one aspect, right? There’s so many. So [many] different ways of writing these stories. People are just so afraid of new. They are so afraid of allowing new voices to come in. But they all just want to control. There’s this great novel [by] Laila Lalami, it was one of the Pulitzer Prize nominees. It was about a black conqueror, during Ponce Le Leon and the Spanish conqueror’s, and he was one of the explorers. He was the only black explorer, ever. And she writes a fiction account of it. And the whole thing is about, who gets to write that story? And he was a translator. So, it was just fascinating! Even though it was a fictional account, but it was historical. It’s again, everyone wants to control that story. And it’s so fascinating to me. I’m just like, “Oh my god. Who is wearing these masks?” I’m continuously going back to these stories. That idea of putting on that mask. The only way I can do resistance, besides writing letters – because I love that, right? Writing those letters, or emails, or Twitter, or whatever – is really through my fiction. Because, if not, I’ll feel hopeless.
ENNI: I talked a little bit, like I said, to everybody. But, I woke up on November 9th, and I was like: “Oh! My whole life has to change! I have to change what I’m writing. I have to change how I think about…” And to some extent, I’m trying to figure out how I can live, without being angry all the time. But, I woke up, and I was like, “Oh my gosh. Everything has to change.” And I’m still figuring out what that does mean for my fiction. What story ideas I go through with. How I treat my characters. They’re not living in Obama’s America anymore. How are these kids coping with this?
RIVERA: For me, I know [pauses], it wasn’t more so of how I change, because it’s always been this way. I mean, honestly, I wasn’t as surprised that he won, in a sense, because he was selling that good line, you know? I remember when I went to New York last summer, I was in a cab with someone. I tell this story all the time, because it’s really indicative of why he won. I was in a cab, being taken to the Bronx, and we passed some sort of golf course, or something with him, and I muttered to myself some insult, and the cabbie was like, “No! Why don’t you like him?” And then we had this huge discussion. And I’m basically screaming back-and-forth with this guy. This guy who clearly is not from America. But, was going to definitely vote for him.
So, to me, that was the person who voted. Because they were sold that dream of living in the penthouse. It was the glossy gold of… this is what rich is like. And if I vote, then maybe I can be part of that rich. So, again, it’s that allure of privilege. It’s the allure of like, “I’m gonna live that lifestyle.” The celebrity lifestyle. The social media lifestyle. The Instagram [lifestyle]. I could live that, if I’m this close to this guy. I always think of that moment. It makes sense to me. People in my family voted for that, because they really believed that line.
ENNI: You’ve been adjacent to celebrity for so long, and, of course, as a journalist and as a person, you’re looking at it and you’re like, “This is all… not fake, but this is all very constructed.” Do you feel like that’s been your lens looking through this whole thing?
RIVERA: Yeah! Definitely. We are living in a reality world. Reality TV World, right? And celebrities…yeah, it’s great! [laughing] To see it. Cause I’m coming from someone who has not lived that, you know? But, I participate in it as well.
ENNI: Well, we all do. And we’re all doing it on Twitter and Instagram. Constantly. That is real, but it is interesting to think about whether this will be any kind of wakeup call to that.
RIVERA: Maybe. I went through – not to date myself - but I went through Regan, and I went through the Bush’s [laughing]. And, um, [pauses, tries to think of how to put this], not to say homeboy is just horrible. He ispretty horrible. Who knows how bad it’s gonna be? I don’t know, it’s just all about preparation. I feel like when that happened, the next day I [said], “Well. I’ve got to prepare myself. I gotta get [hands clap] stuff ready.” I have to just really be prepared, you know? And see how that’s gonna work. And that’s how I feel.
I read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. If you read that, then you’re prepared. Because she really states what is happening in a weird, strange, way. That book states exactly how the world is gonna be if we let it. It’s really dark, but, it helped me get through it. I literally read that as I was voting. It helped me, like, “Okay, this is what’s going down. Alright, alright.” People want to control that narrative. They want to be PC [politically correct], or whatever. And it’s not reality. No one’s believing it.
ENNI: No one’s believing which one? The false narrative?
RIVERA: The falseness. Yeah, the false narrative. There are a lot of people, obviously, who are. But, there are also a lot of people who aren’t. It gives me a little hope.
ENNI: There’s millions more, right? Technically? We’re in a bind. So, spinning off that, you’re writing a new book now. Revising a new book now. Are you thinking about that as you move forward as a writer? We talked a little bit about all your writing is political. All your decisions, to some extent, are political.
RIVERA: I think the book I’m writing now, it’s definitely Young Adult. It’s set in the near future, in the South Bronx. So, it’s a little genre – I guess, a little genre, I don’t really know what that means. But, it’s about girl gangs in the future. It’s this world I set up, where girl gangs kind of rule the streets.
ENNI: That’s awesome!
RIVERA: It’s sort of my take of what that means.
ENNI: Are you still doing Al Watt type of…? You said that still guides you.
RIVERA: This novel, I had a really rough draft of it. I went through it again, like 90-Days. I did it [when] I was pregnant with my second child. And I was just like: “I’m gonna write this novel. I’m gonna write a really bad draft. But I’m gonna do it because if I don’t do it now, I probably won’t.” So, I forced myself to do it.
ENNI: That’s a deadline! Giving birth.
RIVERA: [laughing] I’m gonna write, even though I’m really pregnant. I’m excited about it. It’s a little different, but it still has that strong sense of dialogue, even if it is in a future world. It’s still the Bronx.
ENNI: So, we wrap up with advice. You’ve given a lot of great advice along the way, but I’m wondering if you have any basic advice you’d give to new writers?
RIVERA: Yes! My big advice is to carve out a moment to write. It does not have to be so intense. I have two kids, they’re young, I have a full-time job, and I write every day. I don’t play around. And sometimes writing means writing in the car. Waiting for some kid [laughing] to come out. I will take that moment, even if it’s an hour. All you need, really, is two hours to dedicate time to writing. Carry a notebook. Just start jotting things down. If someone says something funny, just jot it down. Say, “Can I use that?”
ENNI: Ask for permission.
RIVERA: Exactly. You want to get into that. [Writing] really is like a muscle. You want to continuously use it every day. And after a while, your body just [snaps fingers]. It doesn’t have to be in a library, or an office, or in front of your computer. You can work, wherever it is.
ENNI: That’s huge.
RIVERA: It is! It’s freeing. I used to play that game of like, “No, I have to write. It has to be at a certain time, and I have to be in front of my computer.” Now, I take my computer, usually, everywhere I go. I’ve spent so many hours waiting for people, that I just write in the car. It’s literally my second office.
ENNI: Anything works, you know? Well, this has been so fun. Thank you so much. It’s been a great conversation.
RIVERA: Thank you!
[closing music plays]
Thank you so much to Lilliam. Follow her on Twitter @LilliamR and follow me @SaraEnni and the show @firstdraftpod You can also find the show on Instagram and Facebook but for links to all the things Lilliam and I talked about in this episode, as well as a searchable archive of all previous 90 plus episodes, and a link to sign up to the First Draft newsletter, check out FirstDraftPod.com. If you liked what you heard, please think about subscribing to the show on iTunes and leaving a rating or review there. Every five-star review brings me back to the days of my high school summer jobs, and [pauses] makes me grateful I never have to do that again!
Thanks so much to Hashbrown for the theme song, and to Collin Keith and Maureen Goo for the logos. Thanks to intern of the millennia, Sarah DuMont, and transcriptionist-at-large, Julie Anderson, for their help in keeping the lights on. And, as ever, thanks to you, fashionista scofflaws, for listening.
[theme music fades