Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher, SANCTUARY

Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher, SANCTUARY

Zibby Owens: Hi, everybody. Hope you’re having a good afternoon. I am really excited to be doing an Instagram Live with Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher. I’ve been carrying this around in my bag all day, as I often do with all my books. I hope people are going to join or I’ll feel really silly. Anyway, first, I am going to talk to Paola and then Abby because you can only have two people on at a time. I’m going to invite Paola to join in a second. I’ll just read you this description if you want. “It’s 2032, and in this near-future America, all citizens are chipped and everyone is tracked–from buses to grocery stores. It’s almost impossible to survive as an undocumented immigrant, but that’s exactly what sixteen-year-old Vali is doing. She and her family have carved out a stable, happy life in small-town Vermont, but when Vali’s mother’s counterfeit chip starts malfunctioning and the Deportation Forces raid their town, they are forced to flee. Now on the run, Vali and her family are desperately trying to make it to her tía Luna’s in California, a sanctuary state that is currently being walled off from the rest of the country. But when Vali’s mother is detained before their journey even really begins, Vali must carry on with her younger brother across the country to make it to safety before it’s too late. Gripping and urgent, co-authors Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher have crafted a narrative that is as haunting as it is hopeful in envisioning a future where everyone can find sanctuary.” That is your preview. Now I’ll get Paola into this discussion. She can tell us all about writing this book, writing it jointly with Abby, what inspired the book, and so much more. Hi, Paola.

Paola Mendoza: Hi.

Zibby: How are you?

Paola: I’m good. How are you?

Zibby: I’m good. Sorry it took so long for us to connect on this. Congratulations on your book.

Paola: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for reading it and having me here today.

Zibby: You’re welcome. It’s a chilling thought, what would happen if this was reality. How did you envision this alternate universe? How did you think about it? Then how did you make it into a novel? Which came first?

Paola: I’ve been working in the immigrant rights space as a storyteller for over fifteen years. I’ve heard and had the privilege to listen to the stories of immigrants, specifically undocumented immigrants in this country, for a very long time. In 2018, the Trump administration implemented a horrible policy called Family Separation. What that did for those that might not remember is that families across the southern border into this country were ripped apart from their children. Their kids were placed in foster cares. Their kids were placed with strangers in some instances. To this day almost three years later, not all families have been reunited. In that moment of despair and darkness, there was a group of us that started organizing against this policy. We organized marches across the country. The, I don’t want to ever say good news, but there was a positive outcome in that the zero-tolerance policy that allowed family separation as we knew it then, it stopped. It was ended within six weeks.

Then I started to imagine what would’ve happened if we hadn’t stopped that policy. What would that allow the Trump administration to — what would he have done next? What would’ve been the horrible thing that he would’ve done next? I started to imagine the beginnings of the world of Sanctuary. I started to see this really scary, dark, unfortunate place that I didn’t want to live in, a United States that seemed possible, but definitely not the future that we wanted. I then asked myself, what’s the answer to this horrible nightmare? The answer was Vali, our main character, sixteen-year-old in the book. She’s undocumented in the book. She does extraordinary things to protect herself and ultimately protect her community. That was the beginnings of Sanctuary. Then I started working with Abby Sher, who’s my cowriter. The two of us really dug deep into the bones of the book and wrote this together.

Zibby: What made you decide to have a cowriter?

Paola: It’s a great question. Three things, if I’m being really honest. One, I had written a book previously by myself, and I hated every moment of writing it by myself. I’m a collaborator. I love collaborating as an artist, as a writer, as a director. That process was so solitary and so lonely that I was like, I will never do that again. That’s one. Two, also, the Trump administration, working within immigration and telling stories of immigrants, what we’ve seen in the past three and a half years is that Trump really attacks and dislikes immigrants. His policies are really horrible towards immigrants, and so I knew that I didn’t have the luxury at this moment in time to post up in my house for two years and just write a book. I knew that I was going to be needed to do other things on top of writing this book. In order to write this book within the two-year time period that we had given ourselves, I had given us because I wanted it to come out before the election, I knew that I couldn’t do it alone. Those are the two real answers. The third answer I would say is that I’m a better artist when I collaborate. All of my previous work, whether it’s filmmaking, whether it’s visual art, photography, writing, I’m a better artist, I create better, I enjoy the process better when I am collaborating. I feel like my voice is actually much clearer when I’m collaborating. I was excited to experiment with collaborating on writing a novel, which is probably the artistic process that has the least amount of collaborations in it.

Zibby: How did you do it together? Did you each take a section? Were you on Zooms? What was the process like of your cowriting?

Paola: Everyone is very curious about our collaboration.

Zibby: I know. I’m always so intrigued by this. How do people do this? It’s like making magic together. It’s like a witches’ brew or something.

Paola: It is a witches’ brew. It absolutely is. We didn’t set out with any specific rules in place. It just kind of fell into place. We don’t live in the same city. We live close enough, but not in the same city. A lot of the work was actually done remotely. Google Docs were our best friends. We wrote live on Google all the time. We would plan out the story more than just a detailed outline, specifically, all of the action plot points of what was happening when and how the character got here and what they encountered, and the conversation was about this. It was a very, very, very detailed outline, for lack of a better word. We each knew where the story was going. Then that took, obviously, a very long time because it was so detailed. Then we would go and we would individually write. Our strengths revealed themselves. Abby, her strength is in character and in detail. My strength is in plot and in story. We each knew that that’s where our mastery was. That’s what we gravitated to, though it doesn’t mean that we didn’t work on other aspects of it because we did. At certain points, the drafts were just going back and forth. We’re editing and writing, and editing and writing, and going back and forth with one another. It’s unclear exactly who did what because it just becomes this witches’ brew, as you said. We were just there stirring the pot.

Zibby: It’s great you found somebody you could work so well with. That’s so great you are great at collaborating. I just feel like it’s so easy to find the wrong person. You can like someone a lot as a person, but maybe you don’t work so well together. You don’t know until you know. Hard to get into that when you’re writing a book, I would think.

Paola: It’s true. It’s true. It’s a marriage, but it’s a marriage that will last a finite period of time. Hopefully, it doesn’t end in divorce. In our case, it did not end in divorce. We’re renewing our vows. That is a good thing.

Zibby: Are you writing another book together?

Paola: Yeah, that’s the plan. We want to. We want to write the second book to Sanctuary.

Zibby: Maybe if marriage actually was for a finite period of time, more people would be able to be successful at it if you knew. Just saying. Maybe it’s time for —

Paola: — You might be onto something.

Zibby: I don’t know. Not that I want my marriage to end. I’m very happy. Anyway, back to the book. Tell me a little more about your background in film and photography and how all these creative juices seem to flow in you. How did this all happen? How did you get started?

Paola: I started off as an actress, actually. I have my undergraduate and my graduate degree in the theater, in acting and directing. That was what I wanted to do, and then I realized as I started working professionally as an actress that the life of an actress was not for me because I didn’t want to tell the stories that were being told. I had other desires for stories. It was very unfulfilling. I had nominal success. I was a working actress, but it was just not a happy place for me. I decided that I wanted to make a documentary. I picked up a camera. I worked with one of my best friends. He had never made a documentary either. The two of us were like, let’s figure this out. We had a lot of filmmaking friends, so we called them. We were like, “We have this camera. How do we turn it on?” That’s where we started. We followed a family for about a year and half, really committed to their story, and learned how to make a movie while we were making a movie, both of us did. Then we edited the film, learned how to edit while we were editing, and finished this film.

I fell in love with the movie-making process. I fell in love with the ability to see a story, envision a story, and tell the story how I wanted to tell it. Then I was like, okay, that was a documentary. I want to write a script. Never had I written a script, but obviously had read so many plays. As an actress, I’d read so many scripts. I was like, I’m just going to try. I worked with a friend of mine who had been my editor on the documentary. I was like, “Let’s write this script together.” She had never written a feature script either. She was like, “Okay, let’s do it.” We figured it out. It was based on my mom’s story when we first came to this country. The film is called Entre nos. I was like, “I want to direct this. Let’s co-direct it together.” We co-directed Entre nos. That’s kind of just been the process. My first book, the opportunity landed in my lap. I was like, I’ve never written a book before, but let me try.

This idea of experimenting in different mediums comes from actually something that I, when I taught — I taught quite a lot before I had my son. It was something that I told my students. It’s really this mantra that I had lived by as an artist. I would tell my students, don’t be afraid to create bad art. We will all create bad art. If you just embrace the fact that what you try and do might be bad, but it doesn’t make you a bad artist, it’s more freeing. I look at my work and what I’m working on as the entire body of my work that I’m working on for my entire life. That will determine my value personally. I’m not talking about the value to the exterior world, but my value personally as an artist. There might be some work that is way better than other work. There definitely is some bad shit that I’ve created, but that doesn’t determine my value as an artist, nor does the “masterpiece” I might have created determine my value as an artist. It’s about the entirety of my body of work. Knowing that, it’s allowed me to go out and experiment and try things that I’ve never tried before and get an idea and be like, okay, let’s try it. Let’s figure it out. Let’s try it and see if I like it and see if it works. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Zibby: Your son is so lucky because that’s exactly what they tell you to do as a parent, is encourage your kids just to try and not to worry about if they’re doing it well or not doing it well. That’s how you end up creating all of this stuff. If you’re afraid to try and fail, then forget it. That’s amazing and very inspiring. You liked writing, so this is now something you want to keep doing and not just a one-time experiment. Do you prefer different — which is your favorite if you had to rank them? Just wondering, like film and…

Paola: I think that I am more naturally a director. That is definitely my initial voice. In the past three and a half years since Donald Trump was elected to the presidency, I realized making movies takes years to make, writing a script and getting a movie produced. I tend to work in independent film. It takes a very long time. I knew that I was not going to be able to do that in the Trump administration. I was, again, going to have to be working on a much faster pace. All that to say is that I haven’t made a feature film in a very long time, but my heart is pulling me back to that. I feel that that’s kind of my natural zone as an artist. To have the ability to experiment in other things is really exciting too.

Zibby: Is Sanctuary going to become a movie?

Paola: That’s what we hope, yeah. That’s what we’re in the process of. Cross your fingers. Lots of things can happen, but that’s what we’re trying to make happen right now.

Zibby: Amazing. Do you have any advice for people just starting out, writers, creators, anybody who could use your encouragement? You tried, and look how successful you’ve been.

Paola: I would say, A, most importantly, don’t be afraid to create bad shit, bad art. That’s really important. Two, tell the story that is keeping you up at night. Tell the story that you can’t ignore. Tell the story that, maybe it’s lived inside of you for decades. Maybe it just got planted into your heart or just started whispering in your ear. Tell that story because the road to creating art is a very difficult road. It is not easy. Everything in the world will conspire to make you stop. If you have this story inside of you that you can’t let go, that you can’t ignore, you will be able to push away all the things that are telling you not to do it and get to the finish line and tell the story how you want to tell it. Be very protective and specific with the stories that you invest in.

Zibby: Will you continue to be an activist/creator? Would you see yourself as an activist?

Paola: Yeah, absolutely. All of my artwork is social in its storytelling.

Zibby: I didn’t want to label you an activist if you didn’t self-identify that way.

Paola: I definitely self-identify as an activist, but I absolutely identify first and foremost as an artist. I’m an artist first and an activist after my art.

Zibby: Awesome. This is great. Thank you. Now we’re going to talk to Abby. Thank you so much for coming on and discussing. I’m sorry we can’t all do this all three of us. I’m a moron for not remembering that Instagram couldn’t be three ways, but this is great too.

Paola: No worries. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you. I just want to say that the book is available at all bookstores. You just can click on my link or my name up there. The link is in my bio. Please support women writers, Latinx writers. Please support immigration stories. Go out and vote right now if you can because early voting is happening now.

Zibby: I voted.

Paola: Oh, good. Where do you live? What state do you live in?

Zibby: I live in New York, but I got an absentee ballot because I wasn’t sure if I would be in the city. I voted, so everyone can leave me alone.

Paola: Wonderful. I’m so glad. Didn’t it feel good to vote?

Zibby: It did. I felt a huge relief. I felt like I was happy to spend a month telling everybody that I already did it.

Paola: Good. Thank you so much. Take care.

Zibby: Bye.

Paola: Bye.

Zibby: Now we’re going to talk to her coauthor, Abby Sher. Let me get her to join. Abby was also on my podcast for Love You Miss You Hate You Bye, which was a fantastic book. Hi. How are you?

Abby Sher: I’m good. How are you?

Zibby: I’m good. Where are you?

Abby: I’m doing something scary just for you, Zibby. I’m doing this from soccer practice for my son. I’m sitting on a public bench, which freaks me out. I thought walking around would be a little bit more disturbing.

Zibby: Did you put something down like newspapers?

Abby: No, it’s just me. That’s me.

Zibby: It’s going to be okay.

Abby: It’s going to be okay. I’m just going to wash my butt really well tonight.

Zibby: Get your clothes, put it in the laundry. This is so typical. “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” you’re at soccer practice for your Instagram Live.

Abby: Let’s hope no one gets hurt. I’m just going to keep one ear over there.

Zibby: I just talked to Paola. She’s amazing. That was so fun. I didn’t know her at all, so that was great, or I hadn’t talked to her at all. Tell me your side of collaborating with her and how it went on this book. I know you’ve written all by yourself and now together. What was it like?

Abby: I have to say, now that I’ve tasted the juice, it’s really fun to collaborate. It really is. Writing is a very solitary sport. I’ve whined for the past ten years, I just want to do this with someone. It was really dreamy because, as Paola said, I think we just gravitate towards different things. I gravitate towards the character side of writing. She gravitates toward the plot. It’s not like we set that out for each other, but it really helped us because she had a vision of where these characters needed to go. Then I would need to get in their brains and be like, why would they — I was staying up at night going, why would they want to go into a desert? She was staying up at night plotting out how physically they would get out of a desert. Spoiler alert, they get out of the desert, but you know that.

Zibby: That’s okay. I feel like you have this great skill of getting into the minds of, I guess, high schoolers. I feel like your last book was all about helping a friend through a really difficult time and getting through that period of life. Now we have Vali who’s getting through this and dealing with her brother and eagerly sitting there while her mother — what’s going on with her aunt? All that anxiety you feel as a pseudo-adult, tell me about that. Tori O’Connell just wrote, “You’re a YA savant.”

Abby: Tori, that’s because I’m stuck at that age. I think I’ve been told by many a therapist, are you sure that you’re in your forties? You act like a fifteen-year-old. I do think that I, in many ways, am emotionally stuck as a teenager. I also think that they wear it all. They have it all happening to them. They don’t know how to hide it very well. They put on a good show, but they don’t know how to hide their feelings very well. They don’t know how to process them very well. It gives me, as a writer, a real treat to try to process it with them. We’ve been talking to some middle schools and high schools now, which has been really, really fun. We’re talking to students who are this age. It’s fascinating to see. Vali doesn’t want to be an activist. Vali doesn’t want to be a revolutionary. She doesn’t want to be in the limelight. She’s not someone who’s even going to go try out for the spring play. She’s a thoughtful teenager. She’s concerned about friends and lip gloss and things that we all are concerned about. There’s no part of her that’s like, “I’m going to change the world,” when we start the book. She’s forced into this role. I think that’s how a lot of us learn our skills, is that we’re forced into it. I didn’t want the circumstances I was raised in. She certainly does not want the circumstances she’s raised in. It was fun seeing a class the other day be like, how do you learn how to fend for yourself like that? They didn’t know exactly what it meant to be undocumented. Paola’s really, really great at explaining it to any age. It was really fun to see how a sixteen-year-old processes that literally right in front of you.

Zibby: Wow. Paola was saying she identifies first as an artist and then as an activist. Where are you on the activism scale?

Abby: I think she’s changed me. I didn’t start this book thinking I need to be an activist. I thought, moms don’t have time to read, moms don’t have to time to get out and — I’ll march. I have my pussy hat. I will do all those things that I can, but at the end of the day, I also have soccer practice. I don’t know how to do that without somebody really falling through the cracks. Paola’s definitely inspired me to take more action. I’ve brought my kids to a lot of marches. They did family separation marches. Now I just don’t even offer it as an option. I just say, “Mom has to go canvasing.” If there is an argument, I guess it happens when I close the door. That’s really great parenting. Don’t take this advice.

Zibby: I was sitting there thinking, wow, this is impressive. If I say I’m going to this doctor’s appointment or something, they’re like, “Why? Why can’t you take us here? Why can’t you do this?” I’m like, I don’t know, I just can’t.

Abby: Exactly. There’s definitely that. Then the more that they learn, the scared-er they get right now. “Why are you going to a protest? Can people shoot you at protests?” It’s a crazy time to be alive. It’s a crazy time to be raising children and trying to explain what’s going on.

Zibby: Wow. Are you one of these people who’s asking everyone if they’ve voted?

Abby: I will be honest, I have not voted yet. I have my ballot. I don’t know exactly what I’ve been waiting for. I think I’m going to be so sad when I let it go. I feel like it’s my conch. I have to do it. I’ve been phone-banking. That’s not fun. I hate phone-banking.

Zibby: I know that Paola said she wanted to work on another book with you. That’s really awesome. Are you also doing stuff on the side just yourself for your own writing, or are you waiting to do another with her?

Abby: I’m always noodling on something. I’ve been playing with these characters for a long time. It’s an adult book, I hope. Although, I always say that, and then it winds up being a YA book. I’m trying to take it from the perspective of the mom for a change. I have been working with Rebel Girls, which is a really fun company that started Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. I love the spirit of that whole team. They just had a virtual rally this weekend, which was really fun. People from all over the world joined in. It was led by girls who are young activists. I’m dipping into things. My goal is definitely to write the next book with Paola and see what happens of these movie talks and things like that.

Zibby: Excellent. That’s exciting. It’s really good to see you again.

Abby: You too. We talked right before this all happened, right before the lockdown.

Zibby: You were one of my last in-person interviews.

Abby: It was another lifetime.

Zibby: Another lifetime. Now through the screens, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people. Anyway, congrats on this book. Stay in touch. Have fun at soccer.

Abby: Take care. Have a nice day.

Zibby: Bye.

Abby: Bye.

Zibby: Everybody, I know that many people aren’t watching right now, but hopefully later, please buy Sanctuary. This is a really interesting book about — it’s basically a what-if for our country. Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher. You can get yours now. Bye.

Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher, SANCTUARY