YEM exclusive interview: Diana Rodriguez Wallach shares how she added Latinx representation to the horror and kidlit genres

Diana Rodriguez Wallach is the author of Small Town Monsters. Small Town Monsters follows the characters Maxwell Oliver and Vera Martinez who live in a New England town plagued by tragedy. The novel blends together American and Latin American folklore to create a scary and compelling story  about two teenagers, a dark angel, and the cult hellbent on taking over their small coastal town. YEM was able to speak with Diana about writing thrillers and the inspiration behind her characters. She also shares her favorite scene from Small Town Monsters.

Young Entertainment Mag: When did you first know that you wanted to become a writer?

Diana Rodriguez Wallach: It’s kind of a long story. My debut novel, AMOR AND SUMMER SECRETS, is a trilogy of contemporary Latinx YA novels and it came out way back in 2008 (before many of my current readers were even born). But it wasn’t the first novel I ever wrote. How I came to write my first book is rather unusual.

Back in 2004, I was fresh out of college and working for a nonprofit. Then one night, I had a dream I was a young adult author, and I dreamt the concept for an entire series of books. It was so vivid, I shared the story with my now husband, who reminded me of a vacation we had taken years earlier in New England.

We stopped in Salem, MA to see the witches’ houses. And while there, I decided to visit a psychic (when in Rome, right?). I sat down and the psychic immediately said, “You’re a writer.” And I was; at the time, I was a reporter. I told her this, and she asked what I wrote about. Intentionally trying to be cryptic (I mean, she is a psychic, shouldn’t she already know?), I told her that I wrote about “business.” She said, “No. I see you writing books, little books, like children’s books.”

I had never considered writing a novel before. But after the dream, and my recollection of that encounter, I figured it was “a sign.” So I sat down and started writing my first manuscript. That book landed me my first agent, but never found a publisher. Years later, I wrote and published the Amor and Summer Secrets series, then the Anastasia Phoenix trilogy, and now SMALL TOWN MONSTERS.

YEM: Can you tell us a bit about your latest book Small Town Monsters?

Diana: Small Town Monsters is being described as The Conjuring meets The Vow. The book features two multicultural main characters, Maxwell Oliver and Vera Martinez, living in a New England town plagued by tragedy. While Vera doesn’t want to be like her demonologist parents, it’s hard to say no when Maxwell comes to her claiming something’s very wrong with his mother. Soon, they realize the darkness in Roaring Creek extends far beyond his mother and a cult worshipping death spreads. Vera and Max must race to save not only his mom, but an entire town that hates the Martinez family.

YEM: Where did the idea of combining American and Latin American Folklore in your novels come from?

Diana: I intentionally wanted to add more Latinx representation to the horror and kidlit genres. Surprisingly, in 2019, only 5.3% of children’s books published in the U.S. featured Latinx main characters. That’s it. And it’s one of the things that makes SMALL TOWN MONSTERS different. Both of my POV characters, Vera and Max, are multicultural Latinx teenagers with very diverse home lives. And I think this matters. I want teens to see themselves as not the best friend, not the spicy side kick, and not the Latin lover, but as the center of the story.

Additionally, I conducted lots of research for this novel—from exorcisms to cults to Satan worship to demonology. One of the Satanic murderous groups I used as inspiration, The Chicago Ripper Crew, had one of its killers released from prison at the exact time I was writing the novel, March 2019. And he’s

only in his 50s. I watched documentaries on modern-day exorcisms, many of which look like a trip to the doctor. I also learned that in 2015, a Catholic Cardinal performed an exorcism on the entire country of Mexico. This archbishop thought the whole nation needed to be rid of demons. So I combined all of these American and Latin American influences into SMALL TOWN MONSTERS.

YEM: Small Town Monsters is a thriller, do you find yourself gravitating to those types of stores?

Diana: Absolutely! I LOVED YA horror and thrillers growing up. I was a child of the ‘90s, and I always cite Christopher Pike as being my biggest influence. His books, along with R.L. Stine, hooked me on the teen horror genre. SMALL TOWN MONSTERS is my seventh published novel, but I feel it’s my first attempt to truly write the type of book I would have read as a teen. It’s spooky, dark, and twisty but full of heart. I hope readers will agree.

YEM: What is some advice you have for those who want to become writers?

Diana: The road to publication is a long one. When I started out, things happened very quickly. I got my first agent after querying for only two weeks—highly unusual. But things didn’t go smoothly after that. It took me years to sell my first novel to a publisher. So if you want to be an author—I mean, really want it—then you need to be prepared to settle in for the long haul. Everyone gets rejected—some spend years trying to find an agent, others years trying to find an editor (raises hand!), others years trying to create a fan base (all of us). Love the acting of writing so much that you will do it for free, on weekends, in the evenings, or at five in the morning. Because you likely will have to. Do it because you love it, then stick with it. The difference between a published and unpublished author is perseverance.

YEM: What is something you want your readers to have felt or learned from your book after they have read it?

Diana: Well, I wrote SMALL TOWN MONSTERS during the run-up to the 2020 election, and I sold it during the pandemic. A lot of what was happening in the world around me seeped onto the pages. I’d say the real-life election madness affected how I depicted the people in Vera’s and Max’s town, Roaring Creek. Also, the isolation of the pandemic and the tragic losses surrounding us had me thinking about good and evil, and exactly what people on the brink of losing everything (or someone) would be willing to do for a chance to stop the pain. So while on the surface this is a horror novel with a possession story, I hope people really consider the layers that went into it and identify with some of the emotions behind them.

YEM: In Small Town Monsters, Vera Martinez and Maxwell Oliver are two important characters. What can you tell us about them?

Diana: As you mentioned, SMALL TOWN MONSTERS is a dual POV story, featuring a boy and a girl, Max and Vera. They are both multicultural Latinx teens from very different home lives. Vera is the creepy outcast whose parents are demonologists; she’s never had a playdate let alone a boyfriend. She also believes she didn’t inherit her parents’ gifts, so she’s lived 17 years feeling as though she fits in nowhere.

Max is the uber popular teen, whose father sadly died in a town tragedy when Max was 10 years old. He’s been helping his single mom raise his little sister ever since. Only now, something is seriously wrong with his mother.

YEM: What was your inspiration behind these characters?

Diana: The story for SMALL TOWN MONSTERS hit me when I watched The Conjuring film for the first time. The movie shows the real-life Warrens store the demonic artifacts from their work in their basement, and I was struck with that mystical writerly inspiration, “Ooo, what if….a hurricane hit the house?” Then I began to wonder what it was like for their daughter to grow up in a home where monsters are real and the proof is right downstairs. In that moment, Vera Martinez was born. I’d never considered writing a horror novel before, but her story just kept growing until I had to put it on paper.

YEM: Which book was the first to make you fall in love with literature?

Diana: The first book that really sticks out in my childhood memory is Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. It was a little forbidden, and it’s oddly still on Banned Books lists. But I was in elementary school, and I remember truly identifying with not only Margaret’s feelings about puberty but also her struggles with religion. I think that was the first time I saw myself on the page. The book is now over fifty years old, and I just recently read it with my 10-year-old daughter. It still holds up. Blume is a master.

YEM: Do you think you are going to stay within the genre of thrillers from now on, or are you going to try another genre?

Diana: I think I’m definitely going to stay in the thriller/horror YA space for a bit. I’m working on new YA horror now. It’s drawing inspiration from Lizzie Borden and the Bridgewater Triangle in Massachusetts. Hopefully it’ll be just as spooky at Small Town Monsters.

YEM: Which scene is your personal favorite from Small Town Monsters?

Diana: The very first scene, and the very first words, I wrote for SMALL TOWN MONSTERS are now in a chapter titled, The Storm. I call these “interlude” chapters—they’re the scary bits meant to showcase the evil spreading through Roaring Creek. The scene was originally the first chapter of the novel, but I later moved it to the end of the book, about 75% of the way in. It takes the reader back in time seven years, to when a hurricane hit their town and Vera and her aunt are in danger—for a variety of reasons.

These are some of the first lines I wrote for the book, and they are roughly the same now. The passage occurs just after the hurricane winds cause something to clatter downstairs:

“Their eyes turn in unison toward the basement door, an unseen force tugging their chests and swelling their pupils. The dust in the room grows hefty as the silence builds.

Then the crash sounds. A cascading clink of shattered glass rings in the girl’s ears, in her soul.

Something has broken. No, it’s broken loose.”

YEM: Do you have someone who is always the first to read your work before anyone else?

Diana: Yes, my husband is my first reader. This is interesting, because he doesn’t read for pleasure at all. But he reads all of my books as soon as I want him too, and he’s a surprisingly good developmental editor and a decent copyeditor. I just scrapped and rewrote the first chapter of my WIP based on his feedback!

I put his reaction to his first read of Small Town Monsters in the Acknowledgements. It’s pretty funny. I recommend everyone check it out.

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