Zoraida Córdova's debut novel, Vicious Deep, launched her into the world of young adult fiction in 2012. Since then, she’s grown her portfolio of novels and diversified into the Star Wars universe and into romance, writing as Zoey Castile. Her latest novel, The Way to Rio Luna, marks her entrée into writing middle grade fiction and weaves themes of isolation and hope through a story rooted in family. Córdova spoke with PW from her home in New York about what it’s like to write for a new age group, and how writing has led to collaborations and friendships.

The Way to Rio Luna is your middle-grade debut following plentiful success writing for YA. Can you tell us what inspired you to step into middle grade?

The thing that made me want to start writing middle grade was I’ve always read it, even though I aged out of it. I still read middle grade, like Percy Jackson and Soman Chainani’s [The School for Good and Evil] series. I had this idea about a boy searching for family. All of my stories, whether they’re YA or adult or middle grade, have always included and will probably always include an element of family. After talking to Mallory Kass, my editor at Scholastic, it was more of a try-to-concept what the magic of The Way to Rio Luna would look like, how will it fit into the canon of other middle grade adventure stories about fairy tales coming out. I wanted to stick to a more classic feel of a kid in search for something wondrous. I know that when I was younger I was always in search of magical doors or gateways that would take me into a cool place like Narnia or through the looking glass.

How has writing YA and middle grade differed for you?

I still outline the same way. I always think about what the ending’s going to be first, so the process remains the same. When it comes to voice in writing for middle grade, there’s a level of honesty that you can’t fake. The middle grade reader is just so aware and in tune with the adventure. I try to remember what I was like at that age and if [what I’m writing] felt like a true experience for me, then I think I did a good job. When I write YA, I think about who I was as a teenager and I think that as long as we don’t let ourselves forget things like that we can write the most honest books that we can.

The theme of isolation played a definitive role in the story, particularly with Danny and his foster families with the Exile King and with Llewellyn. Can you talk more about why you chose to focus on that and how you feel that may speak to young readers in light of the current pandemic?

When a kid knows that they’re special or wants to be special there’s an inherent loneliness that comes along with that. I always think about how nobody knows what you feel like when you’re a kid. People try and adults will tell you, “I felt that way when I was your age,” etc. But no one truly knows. So we’re always in search of more. In The Way to Rio Luna the “more” aspect is the magical land and [Danny] finding his sister. As far as the pandemic goes, I think right now more than ever, we need fantasy books and books that allow kids to escape into a world that might have a controlled excitement and danger. Depending on what their family’s level of communication is, they might not understand truly what’s happening [in the real world]. So I think the responsibility of fantasy is now to create gateways for kids, during this time period and even beyond.

You talk in the book about Rio Luna being this magical place for Danny and his sister. What is it for you? What’s your Rio Luna?

When I was younger, my Rio Luna would have been just a place far away. That was the land of actual fairies, right? I used to do long-distance hiking and my summers were dedicated to, “Okay, I’m going to go to here.” Last year, I went to Scotland and hiked 200 miles in the Western Isles the Outer Hebrides. So my fairy place is returning to these beautiful scenic locations that feel otherworldly. When I was in the Outer Hebrides where they had the Callanish stones, it felt like this place was mystical and I could touch one of the standing stones and just fall into a place like Rio Luna. There’s something very pristine about nature to me—I think that wilderness always comes with a sense of magic.

In reading the book, the words “hope” and “belief” both came to mind when thinking of Danny, Glory and Llewellyn. The focus is on holding on to what you believe in and holding on to hope, especially with Danny. What messages are you hoping for readers to take away?

I think that the message really is not just one of hope. I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I wrote a Star Wars novel and Star Wars to me is about hope, so that message is in all of my books—I think children’s literature needs to have messages of hope. But it also needs to have messages of unity in a way that doesn’t feel hammered in. What I wanted to do with Rio Luna was get away from the chosen one motif because I think responsibility, like a lot of things about life, should be shared with people. It’s great that one person can make a difference, but what if three friends got together and they shared this magic? So Danny, in having his book that is magical and that will lead him to his sister, shares his belief with Glory and then Llewellyn, so they can ultimately share in this magic. I think that’s the message that I would like people to come away with—we can share this burden and we can share all of these things.

What was it like writing a book about a book?

It was a little strange because I never really thought of myself as a writer who would do a meta-narrative. I had to track the stories of the book, The Way to Rio Luna [mentioned in the novel], and my novel and how the stories within the fictional book parallel the adventure that my character needs to go on. That was a little hard, but it was also a lot of fun because a lot of the characters Danny, Glory, and Llewellyn meet along the way were inspired by some of my friends and my writer friends. I think if you know a lot of young adult [authors], you will have picked up on the names of the characters. Doing that was strange and [required] a bit of work, but definitely fun to play with. I don’t know if I would do it again, but it was a really interesting exercise.

Can you tell us about your podcast with Dhonielle Clayton? How did you meet and start collaborating?

We met at a Romantic Times Book Lovers convention in 2015. Dhonielle had her debut coming out, Tiny Pretty Things, co-written with Sona Charaipotra. The way that RT worked, there’s a lot of romance stuff and there were a lot of these shirtless buff romance models walking around with their long hair and kilts, different outfits and leather jackets. Dhonielle was just sort of hiding in a corner, like “I don’t like this. This is weird. I’m just a YA author.” Nobody explained to her what this convention was like. We were both slated to be at the young adult pajama party, so I was like, “Stick with me, kid. I’ll show you how to live.” But not really. We realized we had a lot of mutual friends, and both lived in New York, so that’s how we became friends. Neither of us likes to stay at home for very long, so we’re travel buddies as well. We just go somewhere and write. Last year we went to Amsterdam and that’s where I finished my Star Wars novel, on New Year’s Day. We’re kindred spirits that way.

We share an uptown office with another author named Mark Oshiro, one of those co-working spaces, named Deadline City because Dhonielle, Mark, and I seem to be in this vortex of deadlines together. Dhonielle then had this idea where she wanted to start a podcast and asked if I would do it with her. Our angle was that we want to talk about what happens after you get a book deal. Nobody really tells you what happens after the book is published—things like how to maintain relationships with your editors, how to keep writing a book, how to keep your work fresh. Also, we both like to tell jokes, to make fun of each other in a lighthearted way. That’s just how our friendship works. There has to be a little bit of levity with the serious aspect. So, we have the podcast and we love working on it—hopefully we can expand it eventually and try to connect with as many writer people as we can.

What was it like writing for Star Wars?

At the beginning, it was super stressful because there’s such a history and an inheritance of what Star Wars is—it’s larger than life and I just wanted to do a good job. Once that pressure went away and I had a chance to sit down and write the novel, A Crash of Fate, I allowed myself to remember everything that I love about Star Wars. If I had told my teenage self that I was going to be writing a Star Wars novel when I was 31 or 32, I would not have believed it. A lot of what went into writing my book was watching the movies to study the source material, see what other writers have done in the past. I do that in any genre that I write in. I read romance novels because I write romance novels. I read fantasy novels because I write fantasy novels. I think that because all of our books are in conversation with each other, I have to do my due diligence of understanding my genre and the people who are my colleagues at the end of the day.

What’s next for you?

I have a lot of things that are coming up. I have the third and final book in my Brooklyn Brujas series, which is exciting because the series is still optioned by Paramount and I know they just got a writer for it. Then I have the sequel to my novel Incendiary, which will come out in 2021. Vampires Never Get Old comes out September 22. I’m also going to have a couple of other anthologies. I’m in the Star Wars Clone Wars anthology, coming out on August 25, and I’m in [a collection] called Come on In, edited by Adi Alsaid, which is 15 stories about the immigration experience. It’s my first contemporary young adult piece. I also have an unannounced adult magical realism project for 2022, but that’s way in the distance. So I keep busy.

The Way to Rio Luna by Zoraida Córdova. Scholastic, $17.99 June 2 ISBN 978-1-338-23954-6