L.A. Libros Fest: Interview With Monica Zepeda

John Tommasino, Cybernaut, Van Nuys Branch Library,
Monica Zepeda and her debut novel, Boys of the Beast
Monica Zepeda will be one of the featured performers at the Los Angeles Libros Festival, a free bilingual book festival for the whole family

Monica Zepeda is a third-generation Mexican American from Southern California who lives by the beach with her husband and their unbelievably cute cats. She earned an MFA in playwriting before working in the entertainment industry. The award-winning independent film she wrote, Collusions, is available on most video on demand platforms. Her jobs have included a bookseller in London, a researcher of miracles, and she is now a Teen Services librarian. She won Lee & Low’s New Visions Award for her debut YA novel, Boys of the Beast, the story of three strangers who also happen to be cousins and their road trip in their Grandma Lupe’s classic Thunderbird. In addition to writing, Monica collects cupcake recipes and loves to travel.

Monica will be one of the featured authors at the Los Angeles Libros Festival, a free bilingual book festival for the whole family. L.A. Libros Fest will be streamed live on YouTube on Friday, September 23, from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. The Festival will be in-person at Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, September 24, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with select Saturday programs streamed live on YouTube.

Our tagline this year is Read, Dream and Celebrate en dos idiomas. How do you think your books and stories help us accomplish this?

I’m a third-generation Mexican American, and I don’t speak Spanish, so I’m here to represent the pochos. And the ‘dos idiomas’ to read, dream, and celebrate are the languages of food, of music, and of traditions. The boys of my YA novel, Boys of the Beast, are inspired by my nephews, who all have very different lived experiences. But the thing that binds them is their Mexican American heritage, the cultural touchstones that their parents and grandparents have passed on to them. Boys of the Beast lets pocho teens know that their experiences are valid and their voices should be heard, too. 

What are some of the things you do to bring to life the world you’ve imagined?

One of my favorite things to do before I begin writing a new work is to create a playlist. The songs I choose help me develop the characters and setting, and I’ll add songs as I progress. My debut novel is contemporary YA fiction, but the music is mostly from the 1980s because the main characters are driving a car from the 1980s, and they have a pile of old mixtapes. There is a Boys of the Beast playlist on Spotify, so you have an idea of the kind of songs I listened to while writing.

What stories inspired you as a young reader?

I loved The Chronicles of Narnia and comic books, especially Wonder Woman. Escapism was part of it; finding a hidden, magical world was really appealing to me because I grew up in a dysfunctional home. And there’s this duality to Wonder Woman—people underestimate Diana Prince but she’s secretly this kick-ass princess—that I saw as a role model. Maybe it was because I started wearing glasses in the fifth grade, but Wonder Woman meant a lot to me. There weren’t a lot of stories about smart girls back then, and none about smart brown girls. At least Wonder Woman was brunette.

What is your creative process like? How long did it take for you to write this novel from idea to publication?

My background is in screenwriting and I have an MFA in playwriting. I’m very character-focused and dialog driven. So I spend a lot of time getting to know my characters and figuring out what they’d do in a given circumstance.

I had the seed of the idea years and years ago when my nephews were growing up, but I started to finally create characters and develop storylines in 2015. I worked through two full drafts before I submitted it to Lee and Low’s New Visions contest in the fall of 2018. I found out that I won in February 2019 and Boys of the Beast was slated to published in fall of 2020. Yeah, well…it was finally published in April 2022.

You created three very different protagonists for this novel and you stated in the Author's Note that you share likes and experiences with each of the three young men. What was the biggest challenge in creating convincing characters and writing in their voices?

It was super important to me that each boy have a unique voice. That’s why the chapters are all first-person, present tense POV. I wanted the reader to see what each boy was thinking and how that thinking changed as they got to know each other, but I also had to make sure that readers didn’t get confused about which boy they were reading.

During the drafting phase, I separated each chapter out into an Ethan, Matt, or Oscar file so I could read so I could read everything in just a singular voice. That helped me make sure word choices and physical mannerism for each character were consistent.

You manage to address the social dilemma of school shootings in the novel without being cliched or preachy? Why did you choose to tackle such a tough topic?

School shootings (or any mass shooting) makes me feel so helpless and angry. They continue to happen and it seems like if any law is passed to help prevent them, another law is passed somewhere else to make gun access easier.

Creating Oscar helped me voice that helplessness and anger, and I hope that readers can relate to that as well. It’s a form of national trauma and we’ve got to talk about it if it’s going to get better.

If your book was turned into a movie/series, who would you cast?

I’d love to see Boys of the Beast as a limited series, but I feel that anyone I’d name would be too old by the time it got made. And I’d really like to discover some great young Latinx actors to play the boys.

“The first time I held a physical copy of my book, I hugged it. So many years in the making, and I was finally holding my own book! It was utter joy. I’ve been writing since I was eight years old…Boys of the Beast is my book, my voice, my heart.”

What advice would you give to young writers?

Read, read, read. Read the old stuff. Read the new stuff. Read books that you don’t think you’d like (at least give it fifty pages). Read nonfiction. Read graphic novels. Read EVERYTHING. After a while, your brain will start to see what’s good and why it’s good. And all the reading will give you ideas of things you want to write about, sometimes because the stories you want to tell aren’t being told yet.

How did you feel the first time your work was published? How was your publishing journey?

The first time I held a physical copy of my book, I hugged it. So many years in the making, and I was finally holding my own book! It was utter joy. I’ve been writing since I was eight years old. I was an English major and have an MFA in playwriting. I’ve written for television and films and video games, largely forgettable things that I was paid to write the way other people wanted them written. But Boys of the Beast is my book, my voice, my heart.

I left the entertainment business to become a librarian because I was burned out. I wrote a novel that got some interest from agents and publishers, but nothing came of it. I wrote another novel—Boys of the Beast—which won Lee & Low’s New Visions Award. The New Visions Award is for unpublished authors from marginalized communities, and winning means, they publish your book! I was so thrilled to win, but COVID did push back the publication date from 2020 to 2022. But I loved working with my editor, Cheryl Klein, who also brought me in on the cover design process. Most new authors don’t get that opportunity, but I was able to put my two cents in on who the illustrator was (Raul Allen, who did an amazing job!) and to give feedback on the cover design.

What are some challenges you encounter when writing?

For me, writing is a challenge of time management and emotional energy. I work full-time as a Teen Services librarian, so even if I find the time to write, how much emotional energy do I have to put into my writing? I always want to write honestly, which takes a lot of emotional energy, digging away at characters until you find their truth. So a playlist is one way into a character or sometimes I just journal, writing out ideas and thoughts about the characters and how they would react to different plot points or storylines. Then, if I’m lucky, that magic happens when I actually get energy from the characters, and it makes me excited to tell their story.

How do you think libraries make our world a better place?

I’m a librarian, so I’m totally biased, but libraries are awesome! They are so important to their communities because they build communities—whether it’s storytimes or literacy programs or computer classes or any of the many services that libraries offer—libraries are a place of gathering. And though that gathering was virtual for a while, libraries are a safe place for people. A safe place where they can explore and discover new things. And it’s free! There’s no other place like it.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing another YA novel, but this one is historical fiction. It’s inspired by my uncle, who was exposed to chemical gas experiments by the U.S. military while he was a soldier during World War II. It’s also going to cover major events in Los Angeles during the 1930s and 1940s, especially the Zoot Suit Riots.

Books by Monica Zepeda

Book cover for Boys of The Beast
Boys of The Beast
Zepeda, Monica

Monica Zepeda at L.A. Libros Fest

Sep 24, 2:30pm
New Voices in Teen Lit