“I’m telling the stories that I want to tell.” A conversation with Cristina Moracho
In Cristina Moracho’s debut young adult novel Althea & Oliver (Viking), Moracho treads a familiar path, that of young love and friendship, but takes a decidedly “road less traveled” in plot and character development. Following the story of lifelong best friends, the titular Althea and Oliver, Moracho paints a vivid portrait of adolescence, heartbreak, and growing up. Moracho throws a wrench into the everyday story of two best friends, one of whom feels something more than friendship for the other, with Oliver’s mysterious sleeping disorder. When he begins falling asleep for long stretches of time, the two face their first real separation. What follows are their individual journeys that take them both from a sleepy town in North Carolina to the overwhelming New York City.
KAIT HEACOCK: What challenges did you face when writing teen characters? Who did you have a harder time writing, Althea or Oliver, and why?
CRISTINA MORACHO: A lot of the challenges I faced writing the teen characters in Althea & Oliver were about striking a certain kind of balance. I wanted to create a set of characters who were smart but not unbelievably clever. I wanted them to talk like actual teenagers. I wanted them to have a certain level of self-awareness without being overly sophisticated. I definitely faced a greater challenge writing Oliver–trying to authentically portray a character who is suffering from a rare illness, and also not wanting him to be defined by that illness, was not easy, especially considering the fact that he’s asleep for large chunks of the book. His feelings for Althea are also, in some ways, more complicated than her feelings for him, and so were harder to articulate for the reader. It’s comparatively simple to express the unrequited romantic love Althea has for him; in his case, he loves her and is attracted to her but he isn’t in love with her, even though he often wishes that he were.
KH: Did you set out to write a young adult book or did you set out to write a book about young adults? Are these classifications in your mind when you write or are they what the publisher and the bookseller add for easy recognition?
CM: I set out to write a book about teenagers, these teenagers in particular, and didn’t think much about how the book would be classified until it was time to sell it.
KH: I have met writers and readers who take offense at the YA classification. How do you feel about it?
CM: For me it was much more about finding the right home for Althea & Oliver than it was about whether it would be published as YA or adult fiction. I was so unbelievably lucky to end up with my editor, Sharyn November, who completely understood the book and what I was trying to accomplish with it, and did an amazing job helping me get the rest of the way there. And my publisher, Viking, has been such a champion for A&O, on every possible level, from the book’s design to getting it published in half a dozen foreign countries. At the end of the day all of that is, to me at least, way important than where A&O gets shelved in the bookstore.
KH: Why do you think some books featuring young protagonists are deemed literature (perhaps most famously The Catcher in the Rye) and others are deemed YA? How do you think the distinction affects you as a writer?
CM: I think that line between “literature” and YA has gotten pretty blurry. There’s so much crossover now; everybody reads everything. Something like The Catcher in the Rye kind of predates YA fiction as we know it, and there’s certainly plenty of contemporary books being published as YA that I think more than qualify as literary fiction. So far the distinction hasn’t really affected me as a writer; I’m just telling the stories that I want to tell.
KH: I am twenty-seven and I devoured Althea & Oliver (I also cried at the end). What is the appeal of YA for adult readers?
CM: Thank you–it’s always amazing to hear that the book has resonated with someone on that level. It makes me feel like I’ve pulled off an incredibly difficult magic trick. I think good stories and well-drawn characters appeal to all readers, teen and adult alike, and the breadth of YA fiction is really astonishing. It’s such a rich category, and it encompasses every genre, and there’s so much excellent writing, that to me the question isn’t so much why adult readers read YA books as it is why wouldn’t they.
KH: The ultimate draw of this book for me was the journey of self-discovery Althea went on and the realization that her life was bigger than her heartbreak. What has the reaction to the book been from your teen audience?
CM: There’s been a lot of really positive responses from both the teen and adult audiences. A few readers have been disappointed that the book doesn’t have a typical happy ending, but mostly I think people have found it refreshing to come across a story that takes its characters on a less traditional path.
KH: What do you hope readers will take away and value from Althea & Oliver?
CM: The idea that the book is really about beginnings, for both of these characters–the beginning of the rest of their lives.
Find a copy of Althea & Oliver on IndieBound.
Cristina Moracho is the author of Althea & Oliver (Viking). She holds an M.F.A in fiction from Brooklyn College, where the first chapter of Althea & Oliver was awarded the Carole and Irwin Lainoff Award by author Jim Shepard. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and tweets at @cherielecrivain. (Author photo by Craig LaCourt.)
Kait Heacock has a B.A. in English/Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University and a M.S. in Writing/Book Publishing from Portland State University. By day, she is a publicist at The Overlook Press. Kait blogs at www.kaitgetslit.com.