The Sweetest Debut: Lilliam Rivera on Bowie, Star Wars, and Trying to Stay Calm Post-Trump


Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

Lilliam Rivera’s debut YA novel, The Education of Margot Sanchez, looks at the Bronx adolescence of the titular character. Rivera told us about her Star Wars quibbles, her early affinity for Bowie’s style, and writing in the car while she waits to pick up her daughters.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

Pretty in Pink comes to the South Bronx in this coming-of-age novel about a Latina forced to work at her father’s failing supermarket in the South Bronx.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

I tell my relatives that the book is about them. No, I’m kidding! I tell them it’s a novel for teens about growing up in the South Bronx, New York. It’s about family, gentrification, and trying to find one’s voice.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

I started a draft of this novel back in 2008, which is kind of ridiculous to admit but I was still trying to figure out the ropes. Each draft was a learning experience. I wouldn’t be able to recognize what I wrote in 2008 compared to the version I ended up with.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

The Catcher in the Rye is a book that everyone names as being perhaps the first young adult novel but when I read it back in high school I just found it to be boring. I still find it a bit boring.

A book you’ve read more than two times.

I’ve read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, first the English translation and then in the original Spanish. His work inspires me so much.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

My favorite show to binge watch will have to definitely be Game of Thrones. If you did not hyperventilate after watching last season’s “Battle of the Bastards” episodes, I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve actually watched that episode a few times because it is so intense.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

The last movie I watched in theaters was Rogue One. I’m a big Star Wars fan so I’ve had high hopes for these new films. I’m going to sound like a hater, but I thought the film was just OK, and that the actor Donnie Yen basically stole the whole movie. Don’t hate me.

Who is your fashion icon?

I love fashion. At one point in my career I was a fashion editor and I recently worked as a copywriter for a fashion brand. I think David Bowie is my fashion icon. I was so young when I first saw him in the movie The Man Who Fell to Earth. I was this shy girl living in the housing projects in the Bronx and his strangeness spoke to me.

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

I would buy a house in Puerto Rico. I’m originally from New York and whenever I could, I would fly to the island. Now that I’m in Los Angeles it’s not an easy trip to make but if I had money, I would set up a writing residency in Puerto Rico.

Did you have a new years resolution for 2017? If so, what?

My New Year’s resolution is to try not to freak out. This is of course closely tied to the following question.

What freaks you out the most about four years of Donald Trump as US President?

I wake up every morning completely freaked out. The only thing I can do is convert my constant rage and fear into fuel to use against this racist administration. I just have to be more vigilant and continue to do the work that I do. Resist.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

I definitely prefer a silent library. Libraries are beautiful sanctuaries. It was where I learned to love books as a child. I still love discovering a new library.

Do you write at a desk, bed or couch?

I write at my kitchen table since I don’t have an office. When I’m done I tuck away my laptop in a butcher block I’ve converted into my desk. The side of my refrigerator features images that inspire my current project.

Is morning writing or late-night writing your go-to-time?

I feel I’m a stronger morning writer but since I usually don’t have that luxury, I write at night for at least two hours.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

I write really messy drafts. I’ve done 90-day novel classes and have produced two novels using that format. But it takes years for me to edit those drafts. I can definitely churn out a first draft, rewriting is a whole other beast.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I guess I do pay my bills with my pen. I’m a freelance writer. For the past year, I worked as a copywriter for the fashion designer Tadashi Shoji, writing fashion inspiration for his runway shows, product descriptions, etc. My background is also in entertainment journalism, so I’ve done that from time to time, and have been a staff editor for various magazines and online sites.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

I write at night for two hours before going to sleep. I also spend a lot of time driving my daughters around, so I write while I wait for them to finish whatever extracurricular activities they are involved in. My car is my second office.