Raquel Vazquez Gilliland wants to write about robots, but in the meantime, she’s written her second YA novel, How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe. The book tells the story of Moon, who is darker and bigger than her twin sister, and how she learns to value herself. Vazquez Gilliland spoke with PW from her home in Appalachia about colorism, the dangers and roots of purity culture, and why it’s so important that sex positivity prioritize female pleasure.

This novel has an interesting origin story: can you tell us about it?

I’d written a draft of a historical novel about a traveling robot circus in Mexico. But it wasn’t working, and I’d put it in the trunk. Then on a walk I saw two young women taking pictures of each other, and I had this random thought of how different it would have been if my sister and I had come of age with social media. For some reason, that was the key. I decided to rewrite the book as a contemporary and put in the social media aspect. Moon and Santiago were already there: Santiago was a cyborg, and Moon had been sold to the circus by her parents.

As you say, the book is about social media, but it’s also about a lot more. How would you describe its various strands?

I’d start with social media, because that’s kind of where the idea came from, but then it branches into how we define beauty and how we build our self-esteem with the help—or non-help—of social media. And from there I might say it’s about overcoming dysfunctional family relationships and realizing that your worth is not just how you look but how you create and how you treat people and make them feel. Moon makes art, and in the book, and in my beliefs, there’s something mysterious and intelligent in the wild world, of which we’re one part, and you honor it by making things that are beautiful. Making can be a prayer of gratitude.

The book also takes up sex and purity culture: Moon’s sister Star is an influencer, and her brand, as it were, is purity. What made you interested in that?

I was raised in a very religious environment that was entrenched in purity culture, which affected my sister and me more than our brother. A lot of things that Moon hears from her mother, who promotes purity culture, are things I heard growing up. I feel like I’ve spent all my adult years trying to separate that from my psyche, trying to remember that these are just beliefs and I don’t have to let them weigh me down. It’s just so sad to me that women are defined by this arbitrary ideal of their sexual history or lack thereof.

When I was writing, I imagined myself as a teenager reading this and the messages that would have had such an impact on me to read, like women aren’t sluts and both young men and women can be gentle and patient. I wasn’t consciously thinking “I want to write a sex positive book”—it just came out because I was trying to confront and heal that belief system I was raised on. I didn’t know that sex was supposed to be pleasurable until I was in my 20s. It’s important to me, to prioritize female pleasure when I show sex positivity.

Do you think we’re all affected by slut shaming, even if we didn’t grow up religious or in direct contact with purity culture?

Oh yes. It’s theorized that it comes before the written language. The idea is that in Europe, the culture shifted from having female gods to having male gods, and that’s connected, it is thought, to the realization that men contributed to making babies. In that shift, men wanted to have their lineage counted, and so the only way to ensure that the children were theirs was to make sure women didn’t have sex with anyone else. This, in a very distilled form, is thought to be the origin of purity culture. And since it’s a cultural construct, here in the West, we’re all affected by it. If you’re looking for it, you can see it everywhere.

When Moon’s really engaged in something, including sex, she has these visitations from bugs—dragonflies, moths, etc. Her mother calls it a curse, but it’s also kind of magical. How did you end up incorporating that in the story?

That experience is inspired by the folk magic that I grew up watching my family perform, which probably had its roots in pre-Columbian Meso-America. We have rituals that we don’t know the origins of, but they’re so important that my strict Catholic mother and grandmother still do them, even though the colonial culture discouraged these practices. I knew something would happen with Moon, but initially I didn’t know what. In the first draft, I left blanks saying “something weird happens” and then I figured it out. A lot of the traditions in my family have to do with the natural world, and colonial powers also discouraged that relationship, because they were trying to cut a connection with the wild and natural world in favor of what they saw as civilization.

One of the issues that comes up in the book is colorism. Moon is dark-skinned and Star is both light-skinned and the official beauty. And while Moon frequently experiences colorism, its major source is her mother, who is herself Mexican American. Can you talk about that?

And her mother looks like her, so it’s obviously internalized. When my sister and I were growing up, we were really close with our white-passing cousins who fit the ideal of Western beauty. It’s not their fault, but when we were teens and pre-teens, people would ignore us in favor of our cousins, as if we didn’t exist. And if a guy approached us when we were with them, we knew they didn’t want to talk to us. Within me and my sister, I’m the one with light skin. When it was just us, people would compliment me; they’d gush over the lighter-skinned child and ignore the darker-skinned one. So I experienced both sides: being the one who was ignored and the one who wasn’t.

And it’s still happening, even with my sister’s children. It’s everywhere, and it can be so subtle, so if you try to point it out, you look crazy; people just don’t want to see it. I wrote a book featuring a plus-sized Latina with dark skin, dark hair, brown eyes, who is desired and valued because of these things not in spite of them. It would have been so great for my sister and me to have had a book like this.

What’s next for you?

I was sad when the robot book didn’t work, because I really want to write a robot book. And I’m working on one again. It’s just a rough draft; I’m still trying to revise it. No one’s really seen it. And I have an adult book I’m working on. I’d trunked it, and now I’m rewriting it. It’s my first adult book, and I think I’m finally nailing it. I’m a little superstitious about talking about it, but I’ll say that it’s set near where I live now, in Eastern Tennessee. And it’s definitely magical realism, and I’m excited about that.

How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland. Simon & Schuster, $19.99 Aug. 10 ISBN 978-1-5344-4866-7