Lilliam Rivera is a writer and the author of Dealing in Dreams, The Education of Margot Sanchez, Goldie Vance: The Hotel Whodunit, and the forthcoming Never Look Back. Before taking part in a Zócalo event asking “Are We Living in a World Ray Bradbury Tried to Prevent?” Rivera chatted in the green room about the artist Luchita Hurtado, traveling back in time to see Pedro Albizu Campos speak, and why she considers Frankenstein the original young adult book.
What’s the last thing that inspired you?
This artist who just recently passed away. Her name is Luchita Hurtado. She was based here in California, but was originally from Venezuela. When they made the announcement of her passing at [age] 99, I went to look at her work again and was really inspired by it. It’s really powerful stuff by someone who I think hasn’t gotten her full due.
There’s this one piece that she did, “Untitled” It looks almost as if you’re seeing [the painting] from the point of view of the person being painted. It’s of a woman who’s naked and she’s standing on a very graphic, traditional kind of rug. There’s something really powerful in the way she depicts this woman. That’s the one where, if I had the money, I would have that in my office.
Who was your childhood hero?
My parents. They met in New York, but they’re from Puerto Rico. When they came to New York, the Bronx, they didn’t even speak the language. It’s pretty heroic what they were able to accomplish, navigating New York, even having kids, because we were a big family—it was five kids. I’m always impressed by how they managed.
What’s your favorite season?
Summer for sure. I’m from New York, and I love summers in New York. They’re intense and hot and everyone’s in your face, but it’s also magical. I love L.A. summer, too. Before the pandemic, there was always live music going on for free. I miss that. Even though I complain about the heat, I still love summer.
What year past or future would you time travel to if you could?
Pedro Albizu Campos is a well-known activist in Puerto Rico. He gave what might be his most famous speech on September 23, 1950, in Lares, Puerto Rico. That’s where I’d want to time travel to. I’ve read about it, and I’ve heard recordings of it, but I’d want to be there to see it.
Where do your best ideas come from?
I’m an avid reader, and I have been all my life. So I always read these books that I’m like, oh. For example, [my book coming out in September] Never Look Back is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. That myth I learned about in high school because I watched the movie Black Orpheus, and I loved it. So this is something that was seeped into my head for so many years, and I was like, how can I retell that myth?
So I get ideas from things I loved when I was young that I want to have conversations with still. Things that inspire me. And I want to share that inspiration with young readers.
On that note, what was your favorite book in high school?
My favorite book in high school is one that I always talk about, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I like to think about the monster as a teenager. He really wanted to get a lot of attention. So I see [Frankenstein], as the first young adult book.
I try to read Frankenstein every year. I’m slowly, obsessively reading this really amazing annotated [edition] of it right now. It’s so good. In my head, I’m like, one day I’ll do a retelling of it. I just haven’t figured it out yet. But it’s a dream.
What surprises you most about life right now?
I’ve been able to do some really interesting things online, virtually. I love to travel, and do these events obviously in person, but this summer, I was able to speak to 30 or 40 kids from all over, some from Japan and Latin American, about science fiction.
And for example, [tonight] I get to talk about Ray Bradbury. I read The Martin Chronicles when I was really young, when I was 9 or 10. We had a copy in the house. And it affected me greatly. When I moved to L.A., I was working in South Pasadena, and the library was walking distance from my job. A lot of his stuff is there at the South Pasadena Library. I was totally geeking out about it.
So it’s been really awful to be in the lockdown with the pandemic and everything around it. But it’s been wonderful to connect with a lot of people.