Lilliam Rivera completed the Emerging Voices program of Los Angeles’ PEN Center USA in 2013. It’s designed to give aspiring writers who haven’t gone to graduate school that education and then some: Fellows are mentored by professional writers, take workshops in writing and the world of publishing and are even trained in public speaking. There are no guarantees for those who go through the program, but one of its alumni, Natashia Deon, had big success last year with her debut novel “Grace.”
This year, Rivera will be the next of the fellows to publish her first book, YA novel “The Education of Margot Sanchez,” with Simon & Schuster in February.
Described as “‘Pretty in Pink’ comes to the South Bronx,” the pitch-perfect coming-of-age plot takes a cue from John Hughes, while Margot herself has the charm and angst of a Judy Blume character. (If you’re there God, her name is Margot, after all.)
All the elements of a classic teenage drama are in effect — infuriating parents, the party that could make or break a tenuous high school social life, romantic prospects. Yet Rivera’s book also explores further terrain: race, class and identity.
An entertainment journalist who has contributed to The Times and formerly worked at Latina magazine, Rivera is driven to amplify other writers’ voices, particularly writers of color. She has been host of Literary Soundtrack on the Internet station Radio Sombra, featuring authors such as Chris Abani, Mat Johnson and Ana Castillo.
Rivera won a 2016 Pushcart Prize for her story “Death Defiant Bomba, or What to Wear When Your Boo Gets Cancer,” which was published in the Bellevue Literary Review. Her story “Between Staying and Going” was published in the November-December issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine.
In addition to all that, she is the mother of two. Yet she makes time to write. “I live by the rule of dedicating two hours a day to writing, every day,” she told La Bloga in 2015. “Those two hours can include writing something new or rewriting. It can be a short story or a novel. I don’t care. Sit down and write for two hours.”
If you’re a fan of literature, you’ve probably seen Kristen Radtke’s work, even if you’re not familiar with her name. The Brooklyn-based writer and illustrator is a prolific book cover designer, responsible for eye-catching designs on books by bestselling authors Tomas Tranströmer and Ruth Ozeki.
This year, Radtke, who works as the managing editor at Sarabande Books and is the video editor for the literary journal Triquarterly, looks likely to become a familiar name in her own right. In April, Pantheon will publish Radtke’s debut, a graphic memoir called “Imagine Wanting Only This.”
The book chronicles Radtke’s journey to ruined cities after the death of her uncle, an unusual pairing that has drawn strong advance reviews. The memoir doesn’t just reflect on her own life story but on the notion of becoming an artist, and what it means when people and places are left behind.
In an interview with the journal Blackbird, Radtke explained her fascination with ruined cities, saying, “I’m really curious about the way that things come apart … I think we all have to be ready to throw things away and start again. That goes for the way we write essays and stories and books, and maybe even the way we leave buildings and towns to rot.”
Like many innovative artists, Radtke often works across boundaries; in her case, it’s about form. And she doesn’t limit herself to a single medium: She creates video essays that are distinctly literary, uses comics for serious nonfiction, and turns to illustration when words won’t do.
"I find writing pretty exhausting. Drawing started as a way to clear my head when I couldn't write anymore,” she told Creative Nonfiction in 2013, when she contributed art to the magazine’s spring issue. “I loved the relationship between text and image in really masterful graphic and multimedia essays, and the ways in which they complicated one another."
Catherine Lacey is a novelist who has been racking up commendations: In 2016, she received a Whiting Award (given to promising writers early in their careers) and was the Kittredge Visiting Writer at the University of Montana. In 2015, she was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award for her first novel, “Nobody Is Ever Missing.” Her second novel, “The Answers,” will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this June.
Her work is keyed into a particularly current sense of fracture and isolation. “Nobody Is Ever Missing” subverted the trope of the disappearing woman by placing it in a conceptual narrative about a woman who had disappeared herself.
“One thing that disappearance or isolation or solitude can be about is trying to discover who you are without the context of other people,” she told Tin House magazine in 2015. “Artists and writers either have this sense of estrangement built-in or they have to find a way to get it. The paradox is that the product of your isolation — your art or stories — are a form of connection with other people on some level, or a way for people to connect with each other. So, the tension between isolation and connection is something that kept coming up while I was writing — how much can I do alone, how much do I need other people, how much do other people need me to be around and for what purpose?”
“The Answers” also deals with a woman taking unusual risks. Crippled by mysterious pain, Mary needs money to pay for a new and New-Agey treatment, so she applies for a job on Craigslist called the Girlfriend Experiment, in which she will serve as the Emotional Girlfriend to a famous actor who has divided and delegated the roles of intimacy to different women in an attempt to construct, by committee, the perfect mate.
Lacey earned her MFA at Columbia University, not in fiction but in nonfiction. Among other places, her essays have been published in Buzzfeed, the New York Times and Guernica.
She wrote the text for a book coming in January from Bloomsbury: “The Art of the Affair: An Illustrated History of Love, Sex, and Artistic Influence.” The illustrated narrative connects dozens of love affairs, intimate relationships and chance encounters of writers and artists like a galaxy of accomplishment, influence, betrayal and art.
Born in Mississippi and having lived in Chicago and New York, Lacey is not shy about sharing her opinions. “I’m a liberal from the Bible Belt,” she told Electric Literature in 2014. “I don’t have a problem being controversial.”