It warms my heart when incredible writers get the recognition and love their books deserve, and it has been amazing to see A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow get selected as a Reese’s Book Club pick and hit the New York Times Bestseller list. I am so excited to welcome Laura Taylor Namey, author of The Library of Lost Things and A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow to the blog to discuss her books and mental health today. I love both of Laura’s books so much and can’t wait for her third, which is expected Fall 2021. You can find Laura online on Twitter and her website.
Taylor: In your debut novel The Library of Lost Things, a big part of Darcy’s story and emotional arc is learning to let people into her life and also to let herself live her own story instead of through her favorite novels. Can you talk about how you approached writing about trust and emotional support in the book?
Laura Taylor Namey: Darcy had spent so much time filtering many of her major life moments and her emotional upbringing through literature and other girl’s story arcs, drawing her out of that required a deliberate step by step approach. I began with hitting Darcy with some new life challenges with high external stakes. These immediately showed Darcy that she had to begin trusting those she already relied on even more. Darcy first went to her safe people, and then took the encouragement and fortification she’d gain to be able to move forward toward her goal. I used the method of, “do a little, then do a little more, then one and two and three steps more.” As she moved and progressed, she learned where, and in whom to place a wider scope of trust and encouragement, and she grew into her own personhood naturally and fluidly.
Taylor: In The Library of Lost Things, Darcy’s mom is a hoarder and I really appreciated the empathetic and compassionate approach that you took to crafting their situation and that Darcy had towards her mother, partially due to counseling. Can you discuss how you came to include this issue in the book and how you approached including it with such empathy and care?
Laura: When I look back into that time of outlining and plotting, three totally different aspects of world building seem to enter my process all at once. Writing a girl who escapes into books, I had to give her a world that she’d want to escape from. Secondly, I found that hoarding wasn’t represented widely in YA and I could add to what would hopefully turn out to be positive and sensitive rep. Lastly, I have my own memory of being in a hoarder’s home from my college days that I wanted to explore. Once it became clear that Darcy’s mother would be a hoarder, I deliberately set out to not tell a story about hoarding itself, but instead, to tell the story of one family, and one hoarding mother, and one hoarding daughter. I was never trying to paint a universal portrayal of the way hoarding manifests itself. That’s impossible. Hoarding takes many different shapes, tones, and wears many faces. In Library, I am showing only one “type” of hoarding and one possible way it might look inside a unique family.
Creating authentic, sensitive, and meaningful rep required more than just reading books, online research, and firsthand accounts. I partnered with a doctor of psychology who treats hoarders. She vetted every word of my manuscript more than once and was invaluable in guiding me through this portrayal.
Taylor: In your latest young adult novel, A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, Lila gets sent to spend three months in England by her family because they are worried about her mental health after she deals with a trifecta of tragedies (the death of her grandmother, a breakup and her best friend leaving for a health aid trip in Africa). Can you talk a bit about what inspired Lila’s transcontinental story and how you came to include these various struggles she faces?
Laura: The part of Lila’s story centering around her trip to England was inspired by true events in my own Cuban family. When I was young, two of my Florida cousins lived with my family in California after their parents, (my tíos) felt they needed a change of pace, and an emotional break. This is quite common in Latinx families. There’s a history of stigma within some Latinx cultures surrounding mental health issues and psychological care, including the Miami Cuban community Lila comes from. Although there has been change and some growth, especially among younger generations, consulting a psychologist for emotional trauma would not typically the first step in navigating grief or tragedy in Lila’s world. As shown in my book, Lila’s parents’ generation would be much more likely to seek counsel from a priest or other religious leader as a first step. Then, if necessary, they would consider sending their teen away for a short break to the loving care of a trusted relative. This is what we see right away in the Reyes family unit.
It’s important to note that this is a cultural norm. Whether right or wrong, it’s real and I needed to portray it authentically and carefully. In Cuban Girl, Lila’s mother recognizes that Miami, while being Lila’s place of culinary success and glory, is too full of ghosts and has become somewhat toxic to her healing and recovery. Lila’s harmful actions stem from a desire to regain and exert control. She’s perseverating herself through Miami, and mentally and physically returning to the withered roots of her pain. She’s in denial in a way that stunts her recovery. Señora Reyes sees a summer in England as a chance for her daughter to slow down and find some tranquility and insight. And maybe even some new outlets for a little joy. I put Lila through a lot right before she graduates high school. She loses her most beloved family member, her best friend, and her boyfriend so it’s three differing aspects of loss and love. It’s a lot! But again, too many of us––and too many teens––will have years like this. I wanted to show one girl’s path back into the world after such a season.
Taylor: Both of your books feature not just mental health representation, but also neurological health issues that I don’t see often in YA – Asher’s struggle with post-concussive syndrome in The Library of Lost Things and Orion’s mother’s dementia in A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow. Can you discuss why and how you included these issues in your two books?
Laura: When I set out to write these two characters, I wanted to write two young men who were working through issues that placed them within the moving framework of my story in the best ways. Asher’s PCS allows him to play off Darcy in a manner that serves both of their individual arcs and their relationship arc. PCS and recurrent migraines can be dream-busters in many industries. They can keep a devoted pilot out of the air, and that’s where I needed Asher. Also, they can contribute to challenges with mood, diet, attention span, and stress level. I brought Asher onto the page during a moment where he was struggling physically and emotionally. Asher being Asher at this time was the boy I needed to fit into Darcy’s own growth and trust arc. He comes to discover the fluidity of goals and dreams, and about adjusting them to write a revised story for himself. Darcy learns how to be the author of her own story.
Orion’s mother suffers from a condition that I wanted to personally tribute, in honor of people in my life. Also, I wanted to explore the relationship and emotional exchange between Orion and Lila within this particular realm. Lila comes to England with great loss and meets a boy who is also carrying and working through a different kind of loss. Yet, their outlook and coping skills differ at times. I wanted to build an atmosphere where they could banter and work through what is hurting them, gain mutual insight, and develop deep trust. Lila and Orion come of age together by learning and growing together, and by caring for one another. Again, I worked with a psychologist to ensure all of these character arcs, and the way I portrayed these incredibly sensitive and weighty conditions and topics, was authentic and sensitive. That means more than anything. I want to create characters who live, stumble, grow, and love in the truest of ways.
Taylor: Both of your books also highlight this struggle between individual happiness and family obligation. For Darcy, it was choosing her own happiness over the obligation to protect and help her mother. For Lila, it’s finding new sources of happiness in England outside her tightknit Miami family and their family-owned bakery. Can you discuss how you approached this tension in both of your books?
Laura: Darcy exhibits a trait that I personally find important and beautiful in storytelling: sacrifice. If authors portray sacrifice through heartfelt motivation, it can truly help create a sympathetic character readers can root for. In TLOLT, I wanted to show that teens can, and do, make extremely difficult sacrifices for their beloved family members despite their age. Also, we feel a sense that it’s finally Darcy’s time to find her own identity away from books, and separate from being the daughter of a hoarder.
I took a different approach when I created the character of Lila Reyes. I wrote straight out of the playbook of my own Cuban family upbringing. Many Cubans, especially first generation children of immigrants, have skyscraper high work ethics. In Lila’s case, she was brought up infused with so many skills from her abuela, and also the pride of living in a family with a thriving business and being able to contribute. Lila is a skilled cook and baker. She wins here, and early on she earns love and respect within her community for feeding her neighborhood such delicious treats. She grows with a mantle of pride, and the deep stirrings of history and legacy. She feels that her abuela and parents have created a wonderful place, and it’s her loving duty and honor to carry on the business with her sister. Being a Miami Cuban baker and business owner becomes a treasured part of her identity. It’s a way to stay close to Abuela’s spirit. When Lila gets to England, the world opens up. She begins to wrestle with the notion of being Cuban outside the seat of her Cuban roots––Miami. In the end, Lila learns more about the way identity and legacy operate within our minds, emotions, hearts, responses, and motivations.
Taylor: Both of your books do something really gorgeous and remarkable: they balance so much humor, heart and romance with darker or heavier emotional issues. Can you discuss a bit about you strike this balance in your writing?
Laura: Thank you! I spend a lot of time crafting emotional arcs and I attempt to give a lot of time and space to allow my characters to grow naturally through their trials. Part of that is honoring the notion that we rarely embody only one emotion at any given time. Feelings and emotions cross state lines and tangle together when we go through something, whether it’s mainly “happy” or “sad.” We are storehouses of memory and history, and an emotional event in a book rings most true to me when it’s lightly shaded with many contributing emotions. There is usually an alpha feeling in a given scene. But then other feelings ring that scene and the people living them out, drawing out texture and depth. Opposing emotions illuminate opposing emotions. Carving out a variety of scenes that vary in weight, humor, and poignancy can create a whole package that mirrors the way we look and live as humans.
Taylor: What are some of your favorite books with mental health representation you’ve read recently and loved?
Laura: I am going to plug two amazing books coming out spring of 2021. Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea Kemp does a spectacular job unpacking the mental health stigma found in many Latinx cultures and the Mexican food on nearly every page is a delight to read. And The Half-Orpan’s Handbook by Joan F. Smith is a brilliant study in grief recovery, processing the aftermath of suicide, and a prime example of the role humor plays in navigating adversity.
Taylor: Lastly, do you have any self care tips and tricks you’ve been using this year and would like to share?
Laura: I am simply drawing close to the activities and people who bring me comfort and joy whenever it is safe. I’m also finding comfort and care in small moments, whether it’s a socially distant coffee date with a friend or a walk on the beach, or devoting an entire weekend to reading a new book.
Taylor: Thank you so much, Laura!
Laura: Thank you so much for the thoughtful questions!
Laura Taylor Namey is a Cuban-American Californian who can be found haunting her favorite coffee shops, drooling over leather jackets, and wishing she was in London or Paris. She lives in San Diego with her husband and two superstar children.
This former teacher writes young adult novels featuring quirky teens learning to navigate life and love. Her debut, The Library of Lost Things, published fall of 2019. Her #ownvoices project, A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow is a Reese’s Book Club YA pick, New York Times Bestseller. A third title is following fall 2021 from Atheneum Simon and Schuster.