Under a “Tortilla Sun”: Author Interview with Jennifer Cervantes (and book giveaway!)

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Twelve year old Izzy Roybal is disappointed she’ll have to spend the summer with her grandmother in a small New Mexican village while her mother is away. But when she finds a baseball with the words “Because… magic”, it begins her on a journey of self-discovery that includes the secrets of her father’s death, and her own life.

Jenniver Cervantes’ TORTILLA SUN (Chronicle)  is rich with love, family, cultural lore, and warms the reader like the glorious New Mexico sun. Jennifer was gracious enough to talk food, writing and cats with us (yes, that’s her with the Cat in the Hat).

1. Setting is so important in TORTILLA SUN. In it, the colors, tastes and flavors of a small New Mexican village come alive. Was Izzy’s grandmother’s village based on a real one?

No, the village is fictionalized, but there are many small villages still here that have a lovely old world feel to them.

How did your life in New Mexico influence this book?

New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment and it truly is. I began writing Tortilla Sun in Santa Fe and was easily inspired by the natural landscape and beauty of the place in addition to the rich culture found here.

2. Food is another critical component of this book – empanadas, burritos and of course tortillas. You even include a recipe for tortillas in the back of the book! So tell the truth – do your tortillas come out crooked like Izzy’s or round like the sun? 🙂

Truth: CROOKED…but I have practiced and now they come out round…kind of.

How important is cooking to you?

Actually, I’m not a cook (but I do love to bake). It’s one of those things I wish I was good at, but time never seems to allow me to “play” in the kitchen. But don’t worry I don’t starve my family. I have a good ten recipes I make over and over. I know—so uncreative.

What made you incorporate food so centrally in this story? While I don’t do much cooking, I LOVE to eat and I have such fond memories of being in both my grandmothers’ kitchens and the comfort and love I felt there, so I wanted to bring some of that to this story.

3. Your character Izzy is a writer – is she based on your own childhood? Did you always want to be a writer?

Izzy is all her own. And actually, writing found me much later in life. I was always obsessed with reading and words in general. I used to read the dictionary for fun and make a list of three new words a day. Yep, I was a nerd. But even with my love of language and story, I can’t recall ever thinking, “I’m going to be a writer.”

4. Izzy has a wonderful writing process – putting together ideas on index cards and eventually stringing them together. Is this reflective of your own process?

Ha…not exactly. I tend to dive right in and write one chapter after the next. I wish I was an outliner though. It’s just not part of my process, I suppose.

5. How did you choose to make loss of a parent a central issue in Tortilla Sun?

My stories grow organically and that’s how this story grew. I never set out to write about one particular issue—it just sort of happened that way.

How did you balance writing about such a difficult issue in a middle grade book?

I wanted the book to feel hopeful which is why I included certain scenes (don’t want to give any spoilers here J) and I hope I achieved that. But grief is such an important emotion and one we don’t talk a lot about in our culture, so I wanted to show the different sides of grief and how we can celebrate the life of someone we’ve lost, be happy, and still miss that person.

6. Ok, what’s with Frida, the cat in the story who thinks she is a dog? 🙂

LOL. I get this question a lot! Good ‘ol Frida…I love her. I have no idea where that came from. I have two dogs and just thought it would be hilarious to have a cat who acted like a dog. Who’s to say, cats can’t do tricks

7. Did you always know this book was a middle grade novel?

Most definitely.

Have you always thought you would write for this age group?

This is where I found my voice and it’s a good fit. I love the possibilities of this age group as well. Kids are right on the verge of discovery of self and life and it’s a time when dreams are made.

8. What are some of your own favorite books from childhood?

One of my favs is out of print called LITTLE WITCH. I read that book over and over. I also loved CHARLOTTE’S WEB, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE (the whole series), AND THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE. Loved Judy Blume too.

Recently? Oh boy, that’s so tough. I love so many books and I read probably 2-3 on a good week (both MG and YA) so this changes from week to week. With that said, this past month’s favs have to be THE PRINCE OF MIST, BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE, NIGHTSHADE, HEX HALL, CLOCKWORK THREE, BONESHAKER, and DELIRIUM… I could go on and on.

9. What are your top 3 pieces of advice for writers?

1. Surround yourself with positive people who will lift you up when the road gets tough and cheer you on when you have good news to share.

2. Read widely and as much as time allows. I study the structure of many novels I love and end up not only enjoying a great story, but I learn more about my craft in the process.

3. Be gentle with yourself and tell the inner critic to take up residence elsewhere.

10. Are your stories good medicine? I think they are but I’d love to hear your thoughts!

I hope my stories resonate with readers emotionally and I think that’s good medicine!

Jennifer Cervantes grew up believing in the magic of story and often asked “what if?” In TORTILLA SUN she brings this magic and her love of family and the rich New Mexico culture to her writing. TORTILLA SUN has garnered strong reviews and was recently honored with a Zia Book Award. Additionally, Jennifer was named a 2010 New Voices pick by the American Booksellers Association and has been invited to speak at various national conferences, including the Texas Book Festival as part of the Reading Rock Stars program, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and recently she spoke to GEAR UP students at University of Texas Pan American at the FESTIBA festival. In addition, Jennifer has presented at state and local conferences including the NMSU Don and Sarra Kidd Conference, the New Mexico Women’s Book Festival, and the Children’s Literature Inquiry Project as part of her commitment to literacy efforts in the state.

Jennifer also teaches Children’s and Young Adult Literature at New Mexico State University. She has made the Land of Enchantment her home for the last twenty years and currently lives with her husband, three active daughters and two feisty dogs.

Intrigued? Inspired? Hungry for Tortillas? Well, comment below and you could win your very own copy of TORTILLA SUN by Jennifer Cervantes! But be quick! Winner will be announced tomorrow, April 28th!

Photos courtesy of Jennifer Cervantes.