YA Novelist Michelle Ruiz Keil’s Debut Book is About Surviving Trauma and Finding Love as a Queer Latinx
Michelle Ruiz Keil is about to release her first book June 18 but considering the hype surrounding All of Us with Wings is already receiving it’s easy to assume she’s an established novelist. It was selected as one of Barnes & Noble’s most anticipated #OwnVoices YA books and a Book Riot must-read debut book and most anticipated LGBTQ book of 2019. This YA fantasy debut is about love, family, and healing set in a post-punk San Francisco and following the story of a 17-year-old Mexican-American girl named Xochi, She was living alone in San Francisco until she met 12-year-old Pallas and her pagan rockstar family who live in one of the city’s famous Victorian homes. She takes on the role of live-in governess for Pallas and together they accidentally summon a pair of ancient creatures set on avenging the wrongs of Xochi’s past.
Keil is an only child who was born to a teen mom and a father who later passed away at the age of 30, both parents instilled a love of reading in her. She grew up in the Bay area and at 17 dropped out of high school and moved to San Francisco to study acting. She found a passion for theatre writing plays and her first play Pure Gold Baby produced in Oregon. She’s the founder/former director of The Portland Teen Actor’s Workshop and Milk & Honey Community Studio. She’s been reading tarot cards since she was 16 and, like the lead characters in her book, spirituality plays a big role in her life. She dedicated the book to her grandma, Luciana Ruiz Dudley, the matriarch of her Mexican family and her husband, whom she has two daughters with. She lives in a house in the woods above downtown Portland, Oregon and has a “coyote familiar” named Stella and is a self-proclaimed coyote whisperer and mythpunk word witch.
Here she talks about the post-punk music subculture and its role in the book, finding community as a mixed-race queer Latinx, and how this book is a love letter to those who overcame their traumas.
This is a magical coming of age story with a Latinx protagonist, what was the writing process like for your first book and why was this the story you chose to tell?
Writing this book was the result of a dare. Some of the teenagers at my daughters’ Free School decided they wanted to try NaNoWriMo [an
internet-based creative writing project]. Since I was a playwright, their teacher asked me to co-facilitate the class. I did it mainly to dare the kids into finishing their books—basically, if I can do it, you can do it. I also let them pick the story I’d write out of four possible plots. The one they chose eventually became All of Us with Wings.
Xochi is a bisexual and biracial Mexican-American girl trying to build a new life in San Francisco, can you explain how you decided on each of those elements to develop her character?
Like Xochi, I ran away to San Francisco at seventeen and fell in love with the city. I’m also mixed-race and bisexual. A bookseller once told me they were excited for my book because so many punk and post punk stories are centered on white people, but black and brown kids were there as well, playing in the bands as well as dancing to them. I wanted to write about a subculture where everyone is mixed and queer and making art and practicing magic and riding around on motorcycles. I wanted to capture the joy and relief of finding a community where, for the first time, all the parts of you are seen and accepted.
The friendship between Pallas and Xochi is key in the story and though they differ in age, sometimes Pallas is the wiser character. Can you talk a little about their friendship and how you developed the character of Pallas?
I’m very interested in a certain kind of hero that we don’t often talk about. There’s a book I read in college, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, [it] was the first place I encountered the term “emotional labor” and it really resonated with me, describing a skillset that includes empathy, conscientiousness, creativity, and endurance. These characteristics often show up in a trusty sidekick, but I wanted to see them shining out in a main character.
I also love governess stories—so many of my early literary heroines came of age working as teachers or caretakers-Anne Shirley, Jo March, Sara Crewe, Jane Eyre. The nanny/governess aspect of All of Us with Wings comes out of that.
Pallas’s character allowed me to explore another literary love—the story of the very precocious child. Pallas’s personality and personal style, cat hat and sharp tongue included, are mostly an homage to my two amazing daughters at that age.
There are elements of brujeria especially in the development of the Waterbabies, can you explain why this was important to you and what research went into it?
I encountered stories of the Waterbabies at a Pacific Northwest hot spring and became deeply fascinated by the idea of creatures who appear as children but are actually ancient beings with extraordinarily power. I went down a research rabbit hole and read about such creatures worldwide. It was important to me to not re-write any of the stories I read but rather to find my own manifestation of that energy. There was an eco-horror element to many of the stories, the juxtaposition of innocence and an ancient understanding of natural law not centered around the lives of humans that was particularly compelling. And there was definitely an element of wish-fulfillment present as I imagined creatures that would avenge the wrongs of an abused child.
The elements of brujeria came from my own writing and spiritual practices– lighting candles and drawing cards, spaying charged water. When I wrote the Waterbabies, I did it from that space, but was hard to find the correct tone for them. Finally, I decided to try writing their POV chapters in verse. I had a deadline for my editor and also a high fever. That combination seemed to create enough heat and pressure to find their voices.
You feature multiple narrators and develop their distinct point of views, what was it like developing and writing these different perspectives and characters? Do you have a favorite?
It’s so hard to pick a favorite! I loved writing Peasblossom, who is based on a real life bookstore cat with the same name. I also really enjoyed writing Kylen, the snarky bass player. He is very different from me, but his voice was so clear and easy to write—and, I thought, pretty dark and hilarious.
Filling All of Us with Wings with multiple voices seemed like the only way to really tell the story. I think that, because of my background is in theater, voice comes pretty naturally to me. My very favorite scenes are the ones where the whole household is together in the kitchen. I just imagine it’s a play I’m directing and use the characters movements to keep the dialogue flowing.
You incorporate magical realism into the book which is huge in Latin American literature, can you talk about why that was important to you?
Magical realism is really just regular Tuesday to me. It’s how I see the world– full of life and purpose and magic. A few stories I’ve written are straight up contemporary, but even then, there is magic around the edges.
This is geared toward young adult readers but the book deals with serious issues including rape, underage romance, domestic violence, and drug use. What was the writing process like with such difficult subjects involving young protagonists?
I wanted to write a coming of age story for the girl I used to be. As an abuse survivor and mixed-race Latinx, I’ve struggled with empowerment and identity. Although promising and bright, I found myself unable to follow the prescribed path of
high school, college, and career as the effects of my childhood trauma became too obvious to ignore. I had to find my own rites of passage, my own path to becoming an adult. In practice, it was a hard story to write. There were many elements of the plot, many decisions Xochi makes in the story, that I tried to prevent or change. As a parent, I wanted to protect Xochi the way I’d protect my own girls. The way I wish I was protected. Eventually, I had to tell a story consistent with the character I’d created and true to my own experience as a young adult. I had to remind myself that it’s possible to feel empowered by something at seventeen that we see very differently a few years later. I also reminded myself that every choice I made, even the most perilous, was an honest attempt at finding myself that eventually led to the sweet life I have now. I had to trust Xochi to walk that path, too.
What message do you have for young readers who can relate to some of the trauma you write about?
In the beginning of the book, Xochi sees a movie called Wings Of Desire, an 80s art film about an angel who falls in love with a trapeze artist from a low-rent travelling circus. In the film, there is a character playing an actor visiting Berlin with a knack for recognizing angels—because he used to be one himself. He senses the lovelorn angel’s presence and holds out his hand in the empty air. “I can’t see you, but I know you’re there.” He touches his chest and smiles. “Friend,” he says. “Compañero”.
That’s what I hope All of Us with Wings is—my hand out to people who are struggling through the darkest part of the forest. My love letter to those who’ve made it out.
Can you explain the significance of the title and why you chose the family to be a part of a rock band and how that plays into the story?
The title comes from the song “Three Days” by Jane’s Addiction and is an ode to found family and complicated love, just like my book. As for Lady Frieda, the All of Us with Wings, I wanted a way to weave in some of the less known but, to me, more interesting parts of the late 80s indie music scene–the way certain bands were using magic, body modification through piercing and tattoos, and experimenting with communal living as part of their creative practice.
As a Latinx writer, how did you approach these Latinx characters and elements to represent the culture?
I knew I wanted to write about a character that struggles with finding her place in her culture. Personally, I’ve struggled with feeling Mexican at home with my family and rootless when I’m out in the world because it’s hard to place my ethnicity visually and because previous generations of our family have really valued assimilation so my Spanish isn’t great. I’ve had no connection with my Colombian side of the family which was disrupted by trauma. It’s a diaspora story I wanted to tell, this sense of rootlessness and loss of connection and hunger to be seen. It’s also an element that draws Xochi and Leviticus, Pallas’s father, to one another– even though their getting close is a very bad idea.
What was the most challenging part of writing your first book and what has been the most rewarding so far?
The most challenging part of writing All of Us with Wings was teaching myself to write a book! Many people I know have several practice novels in the drawer, but my practice novel was just five versions of this same story. It took years, but I never could put it down.
The most rewarding thing had been connecting with so many kindred spirits through the writing and publication process, from my agent and publishing team to other writers and readers. It’s been pretty amazing!
Who were some of the Latinx writers that influenced you during the making of this book?
Anna-Marie MacLemore’s debut The Weight of Feathers made me believe there was a place for my kind of story in the world. Tehlor Kay Mejia, who is my critique partner and dear friend, has taught me so much about trusting my voice. Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes is a book I return to often. Estes is a Latinx storyteller and Jungian analyst who uses fairytale as a map for women’s stages of life. Her work helped me ground the experiences of Xochi, Pallas and Gina, Xochi’s mother, in story arcs that made organic sense.
I’d also love to mention the support I’ve gotten during my debut year from Las Musas, a collective of Latinx YA and MG (Middle Grade) authors. From organizing panels and twitter chats to boosting each other’s work and crying and celebrating together, Las Musas has been the gift of my debut year.
YA fantasy by Latinx writers is becoming more popular and it continues to grow, how does it feel to join the ranks with your first book?
Like joining the coolest possible coven!
What would you like readers to take away from this book?
My favorite books make me feel seen and known and accompanied—less alone. My deepest hope is that All of Us with Wings will be that kind of company for its readers.