Lilliam Rivera on Writing Teenage Girls from the Bronx
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Lilliam Rivera is the guest on this week’s Otherppl. Her new YA novel, Dealing in Dreams, is available from Simon & Schuster. Rivera’s previous novel, The Education of Margot Sanchez (February 2017) was nominated for a 2019 Rhode Island Teen Book Award, a 2017 Best Fiction for Young Adult Fiction by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), and has been featured on NPR, New York Times Book Review, New York magazine, MTV.com, and Teen Vogue, among others.
Lilliam has also been awarded fellowships from PEN Center USA, A Room Of Her Own Foundation, and received a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation and the Speculative Literature Foundation. Lilliam’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Elle, Lenny Letter, Tin House, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and more. She has been a featured speaker in countless schools and book festivals throughout the United States and teaches creative writing workshops.
She lives in Los Angeles.
Lilliam Rivera: I love that time period. I know a lot of people freak out about that time period, like who wants to go back to high school? I know I don’t but I love that I was able to go back. To me, it’s a discovery of firsts: the first time you kiss someone, the first time you discover your own sexuality, the first time you find out your parents are drug dealers, whatever it is. I love that.
Brad Listi: It’s ripe for fiction. It’s ripe for narrative. That time of life is supercharged. The stakes seem so high. Every micro-interaction that you have in high school, I have some recall of that. My problem when I conceive of my own writing or I imagine writing a story that takes place in those times is that my recall feels so limited. Do you have extra recall of those times and experiences?
LR: I do. I vividly remember the feelings of alienation or the feelings of being other. All those things I loved going back there. I think I have a strong talent of capturing dialogue, specifically if I’m talking as someone from the Bronx. I grew up in the Bronx so I know that I can capture that dialogue.
BL: Which is a very specific dialect.
LR: [laughs] Yes, it is, especially if we’re talking Puerto Rican or Nuyorican Bronx dialect. It’s very specific. So I know I can capture that, but I do have fun writing those relationships. Those fun, intense relationships. Those are the times you’re having the most intimate relationships that could be your best friend.
BL: Especially amongst girls.
LR: Yes, I love that. It’s so intense and could be violent and fraught. I love digging deep into those relationships.
BL: Did you make a financial consideration as you started as a writer where you read about the literary marketplace and saw that YA books have a bigger market and sell more? Does that factor into your considerations creatively?
LR: No. When I started writing fiction, I would always go towards that voice. It would always be a 16-year-old girl. I knew I could capture that. I was still, at the same time, writing literary short stories, and those literary short stories tended to be adult.
BL: So you do both.
LR: I do both. When I write short stories, I tend to think of adult themes and writing through an adult point-of-view. When I write my bigger projects, I always go YA.
BL: That’s an interesting split.
LR: Yeah, I don’t know why.
BL: It’s good to work both muscles. When you write younger characters inside those short stories, it sharpens you, and vice versa.
LR: There’s definitely more room to play with the dynamics and relationships when you do it in a young adult book. I also feel in YA there is a lot of experimentation happening in the market, and in the marketing and trends in the YA world. There’s just great stuff, and I want to be part of that conversation. I grew up reading Judy Blume books. I grew up reading S.E. Hinton. I wanted those books to feature a Latina person in the forefront, so I want to be able to write those.