An interview with Raquel Rivera, award-winning author of five books for young readers, including Tuk and the Whale and Orphan Ahwak. Hear about her interest in fairy tales, her advice for creating tension-filled scenes, and her childhood fear of the toilet witch. 25 minutes.
Read the full transcript;
[1:10] Interview with Raquel Rivera
CA: Have you ever written a story based on the news or a historical incident?
RR: All of my historic books are thoroughly researched. So definitely with the last book, Yippee’s Gold Mountain, before I could even figure out the plotting, I had to do so much research to understand what sort of things might happen to him. …History, I find, is tremendously inspiring, whereas the present day for me it’s harder for me to come up with plot points. …
[2:05] CA:… Have you ever riffed off a fairy tale or another story?
RR: Not consciously but it’s a really good idea. … I’ve been doing a lot of reading actually over this pandemic time about scholars’ thinking on fairy tales and stuff like that. And women’s roles in fairy tales… and how we can make them new for ourselves.
[3:45] CA:… Has an object ever figured prominently in one of your works?
RR: Yes. In Tuk and the Whale, my book is talking about two different ways of seeing the world….there’s a world of things and then there’s a world of knowledge. … when you have a European culture coming over, what is so very impressive that they have is things. … Their knowledge is — it’s not that impressive, right? … But look at the stuff that they’ve got! …. So in that story, yes, I think there was a lot about objects.
[5:40] CA: Do you have a favorite plot twist?
RR: … I was so excited by my plot twist for Yippee’s Gold Mountain… I realized this character needs to be speaking in the first person because I have no other way of leaving them gender neutral. … I wanted their gender to be undetermined…Then halfway through the book, there’s this disclosure. …. And the idea is for the reader to ask themselves whether they made any assumptions up until that point when the gender is revealed. ….
[7:20] CA: And do you have any favorite techniques either that you use or that you can recommend to young writers for building tension?
RR: …. So the question is: What’s going to happen? Oh my God. Right? So, you need to slow down the lead-up to the answer. And that’s the only way to build the tension. And that would be picking out certain kind of key details to a situation. … Just the fewest most key details. … all the details to make it happen can also ruin your suspense. … So it’s kind of a balancing act…
[8:50] CA: … Do you tend as a writer to change the beginning of your story after you’ve completed it, or do you tend to keep your beginnings?
RR: Half and half. … I try to think of things in terms of scenes. … Each scene begins with like the biggest grab that you can possibly find in that scenario. Because we can always go back and explain how we got there in the scene.
[10:00] CA:. Do you have any advice for young writers on how to begin a story?
RR: If you have an idea, you’re 100% on the road there. Just write down the idea. … Don’t worry about how it’s going to look. Don’t worry about how it’s going to sound. …. But first just get out that like embarrassing awkward idea, and later on you can make it as perfect as you like.
[11:25] CA: And do you have any advice on ending stories? What kind of ending do you like?
RR: I have a great deal of respect for sad endings if they’re done well… For me personally, the amount of emotional investment in a story is too much. Like I don’t want to spend three years with something that ends badly. … I think that as somebody who’s writing for young people, … we want to train ourselves to be optimists. We want to train ourselves to be resilient. Because that’s how we get through life. …. But never a joyful happy-ever-after ending because I don’t buy those either. It’s a way that my characters can feel stronger for having been through what they’ve been through…
[13:20] CA: Do you have a favorite setting from fiction?
RR: For reading, I really enjoy historic settings because it’s fascinating to me how we used to be, the material of our lives, the classic story that’s running through, the humanity that’s running through, just fascinating to me.
[13:40] CA: And do you have some favorite fictional characters?
RR: I love Meg from A Wrinkle in Time. …. Of course everybody likes Anne, of Anne of Green Gables. … I liked following characters when I was little.
[14:15] CA: And are there any setting or character exercises that you would recommend to young writers?
RR: … one interesting thing to do is to pick a well-known setting – that might be as simple as your bedroom or … the court where you play basketball … and start describing it in as much detail as you can. … do they create a sense of something? A sense of foreboding, a sense of nostalgia… What kind of mood have I created with that? And what maybe can be useful in another context?
[15:15] CA: Do you have a favorite point of view to write from?
RR: I’m very much stuck on the inside of a character. … So what I was trying to do with my present draft was take the position of the narrator who’s on the outside… I wanted a narrator who was their own voice, the Godlike voice. It’s just not as easy for me. …
[16:15] CA: And did you tell stories around a campfire as a kid?
RR: Not really, no. Maybe that’s why I have such a crappy plot skill. I did a ton of reading. …
[17:15] CA: And do you have any favorite scary stories or movies?
RR: I’m not a big fan of scary things, but Red Dragon…and there’s a scary movie Hellraiser. … I don’t know what it was about those two. … there did seem to be underlying it some very kind of meaningful ideas …. I think that it’s also possible to insert tremendously scary things inside of non-scary stories, and that’s quite bearable for me, too. Again, so long as I can skim through it or step back to the, say the doorway, and watch my TV from a very very very great distance.
[19:30] CA:. And do you have any phobias?
RR: I’m tremendously tense in deep water. I don’t like things coming up at me from my feet… I remember in younger years I was terrified of sharks. …
[20:05] CA: And what do you think is scarier: humans or monsters?
RR: … when I was a kid … monsters were definitely high on my list of scarier. … There was a toilet witch, for example. …. I created a story where if I flush the toilet, if I ran fast as I could and jumped into my bed before the noise of the toilet stops, then I would be safe from the toilet witch… nowadays I would say that people really don’t scare me that much at all…, the monsters that come up from the deep and nibble on your toes? They’re terrifying.
[21:45] Raquel Rivera introduces herself
RR: My name is Raquel Rivera. I’m a writer, artist and a performer. I’ve been based in Montreal since 1999. And since moving here I’ve written and published five books for children and young people. In addition to that, I like to do artwork, I like to do acrobatics, and I like to do drumming with a batu cada group, which means it’s like a drum orchestra. We practice a couple of times a week and we perform – well, less now, but we used to perform a great deal around the city and around Quebec. That pretty much sums me up, I guess.
[22:45] Find out more about Raquel Rivera
You can hear more creative writing advice from Raquel Rivera on Cabin Tales Episode 3.5: “Author Interviews about Inspiration”; on Episode 4.5: “Author Interviews about Plotting”; and on Episode 8, “The Never-ending Story,” about revision. You can find out more about Raquel Rivera and her books from her website at RaquelRiveraWasHere.com. There you’ll find videos, photos, and readalouds.
[24:55] Thanks and coming up on the podcast
I’ll be back next week with leftovers from my interview with Robin Stevenson, BC author for all ages. Thanks for listening.
Music on the podcast is from “Stories of the Old Mansion” by Akashic Records, provided by Jamendo (Standard license for online use).
Host: Catherine Austen writes books for children, short stories for adults, and reports for corporate clients. Visit her at www.catherineausten.com.
Visit the Cabin Tales home page.
Raquel Rivera is a writer, artist and performer based in Montreal. She has published five books for young readers. She also writes about books for Constellations, a library and online database of quality children’s literature, for use by teachers, librarians, and the public. Visit her online at www.raquelriverawashere.com.