Debut of the Week: Alexandra Villasante and The Grief Keeper

Welcome to Debut of the Week, our series celebrating some of the most exciting new voices in YA! This week we welcome Alexandra Villasante, author of The Grief Keeper, a near-future fantasy about Marisol, a refugee of El Salvador fleeing to the U.S. border. In order to cross over, saving herself and her sister, she must agree to become a Grief Keeper, taking other people’s heartbreak into her own body.
Here’s Villasante on her inspiration, what she was like as a teen, and the books she’s most looking forward to. 

What was the spark that became this book?

The Grief Keeper was a result of two sparks—or ideas—coming together with a “What if?”

I’d read an article about research into a wearable device that could help alleviate PTSD in soldier returning from war. This caught my attention because a close family member suffers from an anxiety disorder. I love this person very much and have often wished for a ‘magic wand’ that would miraculously remove their pain.

I also come from a family of immigrants, and grew up surrounded by my parents’ stories of their hardships making a life for us in the States.

These ideas came together when I thought, what if there was a device that could transfer emotional burden—grief, anxiety, depression—to another person? If you were wealthy enough, connected enough to afford such a technology—would you use it? And who would have to take on this burden? Immediately, I knew it would be an immigrant. Privilege in this country is dependent upon people who are willing to take on burdens like child-rearing, cleaning and farm work. And often that willingness comes from a lack of better choices. I wanted to explore what it would mean for a young girl, desperate to save her sister’s life, to willingly chose to take on someone else’s grief. I also wanted to explore who would be the grief giver, and how the keeper and giver’s relationship would develop.

What were the books you had to read throughout your life in order to write it?

Where to start? I think a seminal book for me that really shaped my worldview was the Love & Rockets comics. The character in those graphic novels were so real to me, and I found myself represented in those pages in a thousand different ways. I still go back to the works of Los Bros Hernandez and fall in love with their worlds all over again.

Even though I’m a native speaker of English (as well as Spanish) I didn’t always understand English idioms—much like Marisol in The Grief Keeper—because idiomatic English was difficult at first as my parents learned English. That’s the only explanation for why as a tween I gravitated toward Golden Age mystery novels from Dorothy L. Sayer and Agatha Christie. I loved the language and I loved knowing anachronistic British idioms that my friends didn’t know—at least I knew something they didn’t! In retrospect, my 10-year-old-self trying to sound like Hercule Poirot was probably as insufferable as it sounds, but those books lead to a love of language and thinking about how language works, which is one of the ways Marisol and I are alike. We also both like watching soapy teen dramas.

What were you like at 17, the age Marisol is in the book? 

When I was seventeen I had long black hair (hmm, sounds familiar) wore black lipstick (when the nuns at my all-girl Catholic school would let me get away with it) and was never without a book or a sketchpad. I was often in my own world—friends would kick me under the lunch table to get me pay attention. But I wasn’t so much in my own world that I didn’t hear people calling me and my friends, ‘lesbo’ and ‘witch’ —some of the most common and least objectionable comments we’d get. I listened to lots of punk and alternative music and worked on my portfolio so I could go to art school in NYC. My best friends were Joyce & Maribel (and they’re still my best friends.) And I drank a lot of White Peach Slushies from 7-Eleven.

What’s an upcoming YA book you love?

Just one? How about one I love and one I can’t wait to get my grabby hands on? I absolutely adored The Art of Breaking Thingsby Laura Sibson. It’s such a compelling portrait of how keeping secrets and feeling shame can unravel a person from the inside out. It’s a truly important book in this Me Too era, particularly to keep the conversations going.

And I can’t wait for Ziggy, Stardust & MeJames Brandon. I’m ready for the heartbreak, the intense feels, the love story and all the David Bowie that’s coming my way in this gorgeous book.

How did you celebrate when you sold your first book?

It was February of 2017 and we were in the middle of a blizzard on the day that The Grief Keeper went to auction between two publishers. My agent, the amazing Barbara Poelle, said that, even though she couldn’t get to the office, there was NO WAY she wasn’t selling this book. I waited by the phone in my PJs to hear from Barbara until finally she called and said it: “You have a deal.” It was such a surreal moment. My husband and kids were home because of the blizzard, so I got to hug them right away. And then my husband brought out a bottle of champagne he’d been saving, because he never doubted it would happen. Eventually, we dug out and met some friends at the only restaurant left open. It was just us, the staff, and I’m not sure if I ever changed out of my PJs. It was a wonderful moment.

The Grief Keeper is on sale now. 

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