Author Interviews Tanya Guerrero

A.J. Sass interviews Tanya Guerrero for HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA

Tanya Guerrero is Filipino and Spanish by birth, but spent her childhood living in three continents—Asia, Europe and North America. Upon graduating from high school, she attended Boston University, where she studied Screenwriting. Over the course of eleven years, she’s worked as a photo editor in children’s educational publishing, operated her own photo studio and freelanced as a writer.

Currently, she lives in a shipping container home in the suburbs of Manila with her husband, her daughter, Violet, and a menagerie of rescued cats and dogs. In her free time, she grows her own food, bakes sourdough bread and reads lots of books.

A.J. Sass: Hi, Tanya! First, a big congratulations on the release of your debut middle grade novel, HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA! Can I ask how you’re feeling on this momentous day?

Tanya Guerrero: Hi Andrew! I’m so glad to be chatting with you about my MG debut, HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA. I’ll admit, that debuting at this time is extremely challenging. It’s awfully hard to be happy about the release of my book when there’s so much suffering and uncertainty at the moment. Managing my stress and anxiety has been difficult, and I imagine almost everyone out there is experiencing the same thing. One thing that comforts me, is knowing that readers might be comforted by how my main character Pablo learns to manage/confront his own anxiety, with the help of trusted adults and friends of course.

AJS: I can absolutely understand the mixed emotions since no one in the writing community could’ve imagined this happening. Has it changed the way you approached your debut in any way, or has it just been full speed ahead with respect to promotion for you?

TG: Honestly, I’ve had to lessen my exposure to social media to keep my anxiety levels lower. That said, I’m choosing to promote with the “less is more” attitude, since I don’t think that overdoing promo will make a huge difference in sales. What I’ve decided to focus on are Twitter chats, giveaways, virtual book-fests and communicating with teachers and librarians. I also have a debut buddy now, Kaela Rivera, MG author of CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS, from the #21nders debut group, who is helping me do some extra promo, and I couldn’t be more grateful!

AJS: That’s wonderful! I love how the writing community has stepped up to support #Roaring20sdebut authors and, likewise, how authors are giving back to their communities and educators during this trying time.

Speaking of stress and anxiety, the main character in HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, Pablo, struggles with managing worries about so many aspects of his life, from a relationship with a distant father to his mother’s decision to take in an orphaned child with a cleft lip (not to mention persistent fear associated with germs and the ocean). Why was it important to portray anxieties like these and make them such a major part of Pablo’s story?

TG: I’ve always had anxiety. There have been times in my life when it’s been better or worse, and since childhood, I’ve learned to manage a lot of it on my own. When I was a kid in the 1980’s, therapists and meds were not as common as they are today, so back then, many who had anxiety had to deal with it themselves. Even in the present time, when diagnoses, therapists and meds are the norm, there are kids that may not have access to them because they live outside the US, or come from families who cannot afford it, or come from cultures where it’s not commonplace or accepted. There have been several MG books that highlight anxiety, however, I was seeing that the majority involved diagnoses and treatment. I saw a void in the representation of anxiety, so I felt it was important to feature a kid like Pablo, who has a somewhat different experience with anxiety as what has already been represented.

AJS: As someone who dealt with anxiety myself as a kid, it really was comforting to see a character on the page with similar struggles. I have to admit that as much as I identified with Pablo, the character I fell in love with most was Chiqui, the orphaned girl Pablo’s mother takes in. She captured my heart, even though she spoke very little during the course of the story—I’ve also never seen a child with a cleft lip represented on the page, let alone portrayed in such a sensitive and nuanced way. What’s your background with this condition, and did you have to do any research to write Chiqui in a realistic way?

TG: Congenital anomalies are quite common in developing nations like the Philippines. Because there is a large population living in poverty, who cannot afford proper nutrition and healthcare, it’s not unusual to see kids and even adults with untreated cleft lips/palates, and other conditions such as talipes equinovarus (TEV) or congenital talipes equinovarus (CTEV), commonly known as a club foot. Initially, I had written Chiqui as a traumatized orphan without the congenital anomaly, but at the suggestion of my editor (who was born with a cleft lip herself), we decided to revise her character to have one. I think it helps to give Pablo some perspective on his own situation, and that sometimes, being brave for others, can help us to overcome some of our own fears. It also serves as an educational opportunity for American kids, and even adult readers who know little about congenital anomalies, or have never met anyone who was born with one. Part of my research involved getting in touch with local organizations such as Smile Train Philippines, Operation Smile Philippines, and Mabuhay Deseret and hearing about some of the children they have helped over the years. What really struck me was that many of these kids have had to live in social isolation, never going to school because they were bullied or made fun of, or even fearing being in public situations because they would be stared at. So besides highlighting the obvious physical issues of a cleft lip, I thought it was really important to highlight the psychological aspects as well.

AJS: I love that you were able to highlight an issue facing developing nations so effectively without making it feel like you were trying to educate readers or pull them away from the main plot of your story. Speaking of the plot, Pablo evolves a lot in this story. I especially noticed parallels between Pablo’s brotherly relationship with Chiqui, and Pablo’s increasing willingness to step out of his comfort zone when it comes to facing his fears head-on. What impact did Chiqui have on changing Pablo’s worldview with respect to his fears, his understanding of what it means to be a family, etc.?

TG: Most of us who have anxiety, have a hard time seeing beyond our own problems and fears. It’s really challenging to not get totally wrapped up in ourselves and what we are going through. But I discovered through my own experiences, that oftentimes, my anxiety would lessen whenever I had someone else to worry about. At first it can feel overwhelming, but little by little, that feeling of helping someone else, whether a person or an animal, can really help lessen those anxious feelings and fears. For Pablo, it gave him a mission, a sense of purpose that grounded him, and made him feel like he was needed and belonged to something greater than himself.

AJS: That’s lovely and, ultimately, it also gave him a sister. Another beautiful aspect of your story was your descriptions of its setting in the Philippines. You paint Pablo’s home so vividly that it often felt like the setting was its own character. What was it like writing about the country for a largely American audience?

TG: Part of my mission is to show kids, particularly American kids, that there is a whole world outside of what they are used to. It’s possible that some readers have never travelled outside the US, or if they have, they may have only gone to places like Europe or islands in the Caribbean. So when describing a place like the Philippines, especially in the eyes of Pablo, a kid who feels displaced, I felt it was important to be realistic about the good and bad (at least from his viewpoint). At first Pablo isn’t at all happy about being in the Philippines, he hates the heat and mosquitos, and the chaos of it. Even the food seems strange to him. But as he goes through his physical and emotional journey, he begins to open up to new experiences and places, and finds that there are many things that he grows to love. I did this in a way, so as to not pander to the reader, but rather challenge them with unfamiliar places and foods and even language—many times I don’t even translate what is being said in Tagalog. For me, this was my way of saying that the world does not revolve around the American culture and the English language.

AJS: As someone who didn’t travel outside of the US until my later teens, that really strikes a chord with me. And I personally love that you included a glossary of Tagalog terms at the end of the story. I bet kid readers will too. How does it feel knowing that your story may be one of the first to introduce readers to words and phrases in Tagalog?

TG: Since there are instances in my book where I do not translate the Tagalog words, or even give context, my team at FSG BYR felt it was important to supply a glossary for readers to refer to should they want to. Allowing readers to do their own homework, by having to flip to a glossary, is also a lesson that kids will benefit from. In a culture of instant gratification, it’s important to teach kids that having to do a little work (research) is always a good skill to have. I came from the generation where we had to research the old fashioned way, in libraries with card catalogs and microfiche newspapers and magazines, so this is something I am accustomed to. I really do hope readers will come away from reading my book with a newfound curiosity about other countries, cultures and languages. The world is a pretty huge place, after all!

AJS: I absolutely agree. Anything that expands a child’s worldview is wonderful and needed. Do you mind giving us a little background on your journey to publication? Was HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA the first novel you wrote?

TG: It took me two books to get my agent. The first book I wrote got nothing but rejections. Gosh, I must have gotten at least a hundred! My second book though, was a lot more encouraging. I received plenty of partial and full requests, one of those was from my agent Wendy. She only took a couple of weeks to read my entire manuscript, and afterwards, we had a phone conversation which led to an offer of representation. Once I had my agent, I was feeling a lot more hopeful that becoming a published author could possibly become a reality for me.

HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA was the third book I wrote, my first two were YA books that went on sub with a couple of close calls, but ultimately ended up being shelved. I had gotten feedback from one editor that my voice seemed quite young—more juvenile than the YA market. So I decided to give MG a chance. In a way, moving to a different age group kind of refreshed my creative juices. I wrote the draft fairly quickly, in about three to four months. And when my agent read it, she felt quite strongly that it was polished enough for submissions, (I edit heavily when I draft). It initially went out to six editors and after six weeks it went out to two more. One of those editors adored it, and requested a call with me to discuss a revise and resubmit she wanted to suggest. I loved her ideas, so I rolled my sleeves up and revised the first fifty pages. About three months into subs, my agent got the call that they loved my revision and that acquisitions had an offer.

So that’s basically how I decided to pursue writing, and how my journey to becoming a traditionally published author happened. All in all, the process took about five years.

AJS: Yes, it does seem to take so much longer than many people assume. I’m glad you found a good match in Wendy–and also with your editor! You recently announced a second middle grade book. Congrats! Would you be willing to tell us a little about what it’s about?

TG: Yes! My second MG book, ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE, is scheduled to release Winter of 2021. In this story, my protagonist Alba, (who is Filipino/Spanish/American) moves to Barcelona, Spain to live with her estranged grandmother. Here is the official synopsis:

Twelve-year-old Alba doesn’t want to live with her estranged grandmother in Barcelona.

But her mother needs her to be far, far away from their home in New York City. Because this is the year that her mother is going to leave Alba’s abusive father. Hopefully. If she’s strong enough to finally, finally do it.

Alba is surprised to find that she loves Barcelona, forming a close relationship with her grandmother, meeting a supportive father figure, and making new friends. Most of all, she discovers a passion and talent for baking bread. When her beloved bakery is threatened with closure, Alba is determined to find a way to save it—and at the same time, she may just come up with a plan to make their family whole again.

And stay tuned. I’ll be doing the cover reveal for ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE, very soon!

AJS: I seriously can’t wait to see it! Thanks so much for answering my questions, Tanya, and congrats again on the release of HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA! I adored Pablo’s heartfelt, relatable story, and I’m so thrilled it’s out in the world for others to fall in love with too now!

TG: Thanks, Andrew. It was so lovely chatting with you, and I am super excited for readers to discover both our books!

Congrats on the release of your debut novel, Tanya! You can visit Tanya’s website to learn more and follow her on Twitter and Instagram, as well as order HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound. And don’t forget to add it on Goodreads!

In addition, you can add Tanya’s second book, ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE on Goodreads here!