Raquel Vasquez Gilliland is a Mexican American poet, novelist and painter. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Alaska, Anchorage in 2017. She’s most inspired by fog and seeds and the lineages of all things. When not writing, Raquel tells stories to her plants and they tell her stories back. She lives in Tennessee with her beloved family and mountains. Raquel has published two books of poetry.
KayLynn Flanders: I am so excited to be interviewing you, Raquel! Let’s dive in to the questions.
Why do you write? Why YA?
Raquel Vasquez Gilliland: I really love what Elizabeth Gilbert has to say on creativity as a human inheritance: “Human beings have been creative beings for a really long time—long enough and consistently enough that it appears to be a totally natural impulse. To put the story in perspective, consider this fact: The earliest evidence of recognizable human art is forty thousand years old. The earliest evidence of human agriculture, by contrast, is only ten thousand years old. Which means that somewhere in our collective evolutionary story, we decided it was way more important to make attractive, superfluous items than it was to learn how to regularly feed ourselves.”
So writing, to me, is a part of that creative inheritance. I also paint, and dance, and knit. Writing, though, has always been my favorite, and I think it has to do with the fact that everything we are, from individuals to whole cultures, is informed by storytelling. There is a power in stories, which is something I’ve known since listening to the old stories my family tells.
As for YA, there is something to the emotional charge of young adulthood that lends itself to phenomenal storytelling, particularly when writing about firsts—first love, first heartbreak, first best friendship, first friend break-up. For many of us, young adulthood is where we learn the first crushing truths about the world we were raised in—for instance, I left the Catholic church as a teenager, and my YA books so far navigate my discomfort and comfort with the religion. It’s also important for me to write about consent in relationships. I was not taught about consent and this left room for very traumatic experiences in my first relationships.
KF: How do you balance the creative aspects of your life with everything else that needs to get done?
RVG: It is such a cliché, I know, to say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” but that’s really the only way I can get my writing done, particularly if I’m on deadline. I just turned in a novel to my agent, meaning I have spent the last several weeks in that world, writing and revising and editing in my spare moments. Today was the first day I really felt some distance from that project, and I took a look around my room—clothes piled up, tissues thrown about, and my bathroom mirror needed a wipe. I took an hour and picked everything up, and lit some vanilla incense, too. Now my bedroom, office, and bathroom are great—they’re sparkling and smell amazing! But I couldn’t let the chaos get to me while I was working so that I could get it done.
KF: Besides writing, what other hobbies do you have?
RVG: I’m a painter, though I haven’t been able to paint anything besides in my sketchbook since before my son was born. Now I am itching to get back into it, especially since I have written a picture book that could use some illustrations! Besides that I knit, though I am very much a beginner. I read, of course. And my main hobby right now is gardening!
KF: What advice would you give aspiring authors?
RVG: You don’t have to write every day, but you do have to write consistently. And read, write, and study poetry.
KF: What was the first spark of inspiration for your book?
RVG: I wrote about this very spark in depth in the acknowledgements of the book, so I’ll excerpt that here: “Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything arrived in my life one evening in Tallahassee, Florida. I was taking a walk among the magnolias, the hibiscus, the wisteria. Everything smelling soft, sweet, sticky like honey. The sky was sealike in color. And there, as I took a step on the sidewalk, the idea came: a UFO crash in the desert. I knew the only occupant was Mexican, I knew she was an undocumented immigrant, and I knew she was looking for her daughter. The second image of the book arrived soon after: that daughter, in class, reading a letter to a boy who’d been hateful to her. These were the two scenes that began this whole adventure.”
KF: What is something secret you included in your novel that readers wouldn’t figure out by reading? (Ex: a personal experience or name or nod to something you love, etc.)
RVG: The first time I ever spoke with someone about experiencing micro-aggressions as Mexican-Americans was in high school, with a fellow classmate named Juan. Juan passed away when he was only twenty-five. I gave Sia the surname of Martinez for him.
KF: Why is family such a strong theme in your book?
RVG: Family is a strong theme in my life! And it’s that way for many Latinx cultures. Growing up with a close family was difficult at times because it felt like everyone was in my business! But there were and are good elements, too. We take care of one another. We talk all the time. The bond with my family is strong and I’m not sure I could imagine writing a book in which that theme wasn’t there.
KF: You deal with some difficult topics in your book. How did you go about handling those issues in a way that would resonate with readers?
RVG: I recently was told about my work that I don’t condescend to readers. And I think that is key when writing about difficult topics. You write them in a way that is real and true to the experience and the trauma. As a young adult, I, in particular, like many young women, experienced massive amounts of sexual harassment from men of all ages. This is something I think I will always explore in my writing because the only thing I was ever taught about it was to accept it (which, granted, is sometimes the safest thing in that moment). It enrages me that so little has changed. I want young readers to know they’re not alone with what they’re going through. And in order to do that, a writer has to be honest about this world, and the experiences of those who are vulnerable within it.
KF: What message do you hope readers take away from this book?
RVG: I would love it if people read my book and felt more wonder at our universe, more respect with our place in it, and more compassion into how we treat the people and environment around us.
KF: What other projects are you working on?
RVG: I just finished my first adult romance novel. I have a first draft of my third YA novel to revise, and I’m drafting my first MG novel in-verse! Oh! And my second YA novel is coming next year with Simon & Schuster, and it’s called HOW MOON FUENTEZ FELL IN LOVE WITH THE UNIVERSE—a foodie, road trip, enemies-to-loves romcom.
Congrats on the release of your debut novel, Raquel! You can visit Raquel’s website to learn more and follow her on Twitter and Instagram, as well as order SIA MARTINEZ AND THE MOONLIT BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound. And don’t forget to add it on Goodreads!