By AJ Eversole
Today Cynsations gets to share an interview with Guadalupe Garcia McCall, co-author of Secret of the Moon Conch (Bloomsbury, June 2023). From the promotional copy:
Award-winning authors David Bowles and Guadalupe García McCall join forces to craft a sweeping fantasy romance about falling in love despite all odds.
In modern-day Mexico, Sitlali has no family left and has caught the attention of a dangerous gang leader. She has no choice but to make the perilous trip to the US border and track down her long-absent father. The night before her journey, she finds a beautiful conch shell detailed with ancient markings.
In 1521, Calizto is an Aztec young warrior in Tenochtitlan, fighting desperately to save his city from Spanish imperialists. With his family dead and the horrors of war surrounding him, Calizto asks a sacred moon conch for guidance.
Connected by the magical conch, Sitlali and Calizto can communicate across centuries, finding comfort in each other as they fight to survive. With each conversation, they fall deeper in love, but will they be able to find a way to each other?
What is the heart of Secret of the Moon Conch?
At the very core, the corazón, of Secret of the Moon Conch is the understanding that there is great strength in Love. Pure, magical, spiritual Love has the capacity to change our circumstances in ways that we never expected or even dreamed of before.
I know that sounds a bit quixotic, or Pollyanna-ish, but it’s true. The difficulties that Sitlali and Calitzo have to overcome as they make their journeys in this book challenge and often destroy everything they thought they knew and held dear. In this book, our hero and heroine are targeted, persecuted, hunted, captured, threatened, and tormented in modern and ancient settings in ways that mirror each other in horrifying, often traumatic, ways. That mirroring challenges not just their understanding of themselves but also their faith in humanity.
However, the journey also enlightens them and makes them consider our capacity to honor and embrace Love against all odds, especially in the midst of pain and suffering. This honoring of Love is Sitlali and Calizto’s salvation, and they both learn they can access it and let it fill their cups not just in easy times of feast but also in frail times of famine.
Secret of the Moon Conch illustrates the idea that we can love each other in times of joy and celebration and togetherness but also, and perhaps most especially, in the broken, shattering, devastating moments of our lives. That practice of honoring Love is what brings Sitlali and Calitzo together. It’s also what saves them, and it’s what can help us come to terms with not just who we are but who we want to be, what we want to do, to create a safer, more nurturing world for ourselves, our loved ones, our community, and our descendant, those who would inherit our world.
What was the initial inspiration for this story?
As is the case for most of my books, the inspiration for this story came from a moment of receptiveness, an instance when the mind and the heart are unfettered and open to all kinds of wonderful possibilities, which is the best place to be when you’re a writer. Years ago, I was sitting on my couch, watching the credits roll on the television screen because I had just finished watching The Lake House with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.
The idea that two people could communicate across time, help each other, and eventually fall in love fascinated me and, because I was thinking about it, I asked myself this question out loud: “Now, why can’t someone write something like that for YA?” My husband, who was making himself a sandwich in the kitchen, a few feet away from me, heard me and said, “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe if we had a YA author in the room, we could ask her.” Of course, I laughed, but then something magical happened. My heart engaged, just turned on, and my brain followed.
Yes. Yes, my imagination whispered.
She (I named her Sitlali much later) is a Mexican girl fleeing a low-life criminal who’s fixated on her and she’s running to find her father in the U.S., because he is her last living relative. He (David Bowles named him Calizto) is an Aztec warrior fleeing from the Spanish imperialists at the time of the invasion and destruction of Tenochtitlan. My head was spinning, thinking of all the conversations, the action, the adventure, the struggles they would have to see each other through in order to find their way to safety and the security of the love they feel for each other.
Tell me about the process of working with a co-author? How did you bounce ideas off of one another?
Well, moments after I came up with the idea for this novel, I also came to a startling realization: I don’t know enough about the Nahua people, their culture, or the fall of Tenochtitlan, and it would take me years to do the necessary research and learning to feel comfortable writing this novel and doing the topic justice. Lucky for me, my good friend, author David Bowles, doesn’t just teach Nahuatl, he’s a historian and researcher, and he loves talking about Mesoamerican culture.
So, the next time I saw him at a conference, I approached him with the idea of collaborating on this book. He didn’t just say yes, he immediately started to daydream, coming up with great ideas. That day, he actually came up with the concept of the “moon conch” as the mechanism the lovers would use to communicate with each other across time. The process of working together was hard. It took us over two years to put together our ideas and plot out the novel. Every time we saw each other at some book festival or writer’s conference, we would find a quiet space to go talk about our novel. Finally, when we felt like we were ready (I had moved to Oregon by then), we hopped on a zoom and plotted it all out in a complicated graphic organizer.
This document followed a three act structure with dual timelines that included dates in both time periods and tracked the phases of the moon on those days. We had to go that extra mile because this is a magical moon conch we’re dealing with, and its power is directly tied to the cycles of the moon. After that, we started writing and sending each other chapters, alternating back and forth between consecutive his and her chapters. He wrote one chapter, I wrote the next, and so on, until we had written a total of 49 chapters, as well as a Prologue and an Epilogue. In fact, we wrote so much that we went over the word count and had to cut 31,000 words in revision, but that’s another story. I should note that we also had all kinds of resources stored in a shared google folder that we could reference any time we needed them. It was exhausting but also exhilarating work, and we loved every minute of it.
What are you most excited for the world to see about this story?
I am excited for the world to see the story of not just two lovers who came together against all odds, because even 500 years couldn’t keep them apart, but also the story of a truly special people. Because this is a story that speaks to our community’s struggles and triumphs, both present and past, and how vulnerable but also resilient we are. I’m excited to share the hope and promise that is found within these pages, the joy of not just finding our way out of the darkness but also making a way for others to follow. Because it is in solidarity and community that love is cultivated and grown and brought to efflorescence.
Do you have any advice for writers looking to write childrens-YA?
The advice I give all writers is to leave the ego locked in a dark, soundproof closet when they’re sitting at the writing desk, because this is not about us, this is about the children and young adults who will open the pages of your books, trace the outline of your fingerprints clinging to every word, every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph you’ve written looking for something to speak to them. Your words have the power to amuse, enchant, inform, enlighten, sooth, and breath new insight and understanding. That’s special. That’s a gift. Be generous. Be kind. Be fearless. Be bold. Be yourself. But, above all else, be committed. Give your heart and soul to the word, because tú corazón y tú alma will never steer you wrong.
Guadalupe García McCall is the best-selling author of Summer of the Mariposas (Tu Books, 2012) and won the Pura Belpré Award for her first novel, Under the Mesquite (Lee & Low, 2011). She was born in Mexico and moved to Texas as a young girl, keeping close ties with family on both sides of the border. She is a full-time author and abuelita and lives with her husband in South Texas. Find her online at ggmccall.com.
AJ Eversole covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing, and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She grew up in rural Oklahoma, a place removed from city life and full of opportunities to nurture the imagination. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and writes primarily young adult fiction. AJ currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas; with her husband. Follow her on Instagram @ajeversole or on Twitter @amjoyeversole.