An Interview with 2021 Morris Award finalist Isabel Ibañez, author of Woven in Moonlight

The William C. Morris Award is awarded each year to a debut YA publication. After considering the wealth of excellence each year, the committee selects 5 finalists, announced in December. From these, the winner is chosen (2021: Kyrie McCauley’s If These Wings Could Fly) though all of the finalists demonstrate unique greatness in every page.

Finalist Isabel Ibañez has lots of talents, and in her debut Woven in Moonlight, she puts them all to excellent use. From art to storytelling, Ibañez delivers a complete package full of action, emotion, and history. As she builds this rich and beautiful world, she helps readers build empathy and understanding.

author Isabel Ibañez

We are grateful to Isabel for her book, her voice, and her art! We are also grateful for the time she granted for this thoughtful and fascinating interview!

The Hub: Woven in Moonlight is a celebration of the senses: smells, colors, sounds, food! What was your motivation behind including all those sensorial experiences?

II: I don’t want to assume, but I don’t know of any other YA author who is Bolivian, so when I was drafting this book, I felt this awareness that for a lot of people this would be an introduction to Bolivia. I wanted to do Bolivia justice because I grew up going there, and my whole family is from there. My brother and I were the only ones born in the United States. It’s where my grandparents are, and I have something like 27 first cousins. I love Bolivia. I know the way it smells, how it tastes, the food, I love the art, and I can see myself walking down these streets because it’s like another home for me. 

The decision to include all those details is because I wanted people to experience it the way I experience it. Woven in Moonlight is a profoundly personal story, so deeply tied to my lived experience, my culture, what you would see on our dinner table, the politics and the history – all of it was really influential in writing this book.

The Hub: It really works! Especially when you consider the ways you put those elements to use. I’m thinking of the neutral colors of the Illustrians versus the brilliant colors of the Llacsans or the ways certain characters are associated with smells — these are powerful ways to evoke more than just the place, though it certainly does the job that you’ve asked it to do. It made Bolivia come to life. 

II: So much of that didn’t even feel planned. For instance, I knew the Illustrians would gravitate toward neutrals, but it wasn’t until I was really into the woods of writing that I realized, oh they gravitate there because they came in and they erased so much of what was there. As I drafted, it was unraveling for me, and I could understand their mindset, the motives behind what they did. I couldn’t have told you why I picked white initially, but there’s this kind of chemistry that happens when you’re writing a book, and your subconscious does a lot of work, creating these connections. It was a really fun experience drafting this book and discovering those connections.

The Hub: Perhaps more than any of the other sense experiences, the food is such an important part of the book! In Woven in Moonlight, characters not only eat, they enjoy eating – the smells of the coffee and the joy at finding dulce de leche on the breakfast tray. There’s something really powerful about that joy. 

II: Oh it was super important to me because food is such a central thing where people gather. In Bolivia, the pace of meals is very slow — they take their time, and people go home for their siestas. Kids come home from school, so they can eat lunch with their parents. The entire centro – the downtown area – shuts down for 2-3 hours. People come home, and they sit down at the table. They eat, they take naps, they enjoy each other. 

Bolivia doesn’t do brunch. There’s no “breakfast place.” That’s such an American thing. But they do afternoon tea! So come over for tecito, for afternoon tea. There’s so much around food that’s important to me. My mom was a cook, and she’s taught me so much of Bolivian cuisine. Food is such a good way to introduce a culture and their traditions and what they favor or prioritize. You really get to know a place when you sit down at the table and see what’s served.

The Hub: And you show us through the people as well. I’m thinking about the scene where the Condesa is taken to the tavern, and you write

The rest of the group slides into the booth until we’re all pressed together like books on shelves. More drinks are ordered, along with bowls of sopa de mani topped with roasted carrots and chopped cilantro, and it’s in the commotion that the mood lightens, shoulders relax, the tight lines around their eyes disappear. Easy camaraderie returns and private jokes are shared.

You show the way the meal changes people – they can relax. Or when Ximena interrupts the King at breakfast, she says he looks relaxed.

II: Yes, he seems normal, human. That’s it exactly. You go over to someone’s house, you sit down at the table, and dinner lasts forever. There is no getting up. Children don’t have early bedtimes, so they are up until 10, 10:30, 11 and enjoying that family time. They’re learning how to eat well, and it’s very relaxed. I can’t tell you how many hours of my life have been spent sitting down at a table with my family! 

The Hub: Though Woven in Moonlight is not at all lacking in creativity, you pull from some familiar tropes. You’ve got enemies-to-lovers, and there are multiple layers of deception throughout! While they may be common, these elements are doing uncommon work. Why was it important to use these familiar concepts in a new way?

II: It’s so interesting you should ask this because I am a voracious YA reader, and I have read and enjoyed, bought and supported so many books that have these tropes, but I wasn’t fully able to relate to them. I wanted to write these tropes because they’re some of my favorites, and I wanted to do it in such a way where I saw myself on the page. I was hoping that other people would see themselves as the hero, the love interest, the main character. It was deeply important to me. 

Particularly with the disguises! Rumi is like The Scarlet Pimpernel because he disguises his smell to keep people from associating him with the dashing El Lobo, the vigilante. Ximena is his mirror, also wearing a mask. It was a lot of fun interacting with these tropes in this world and to see how these characters interacted with each other within the confines of the trope. Very slowly, the book puts them in the position of lowering their guard by having exposure to someone with a different worldview, a different perspective. These differences force the question: where exactly do you start forging a connection? How do you start meeting people in the middle? So I really leaned into that trope because of the politics and history of Bolivia. I thought it would be the best trope to explore how two people who are very different start to see each other’s point of view.

The Hub: Yes! In fact, you make use of these dualities throughout. The colors are one example, but there’s also the moon of the Illustrians standing against the sun of the Llacsans. It connects to the current climate in the United States and how so much depends on those dualities — you’re either this or you’re that, and you can’t be both. But you insist on the both.

II: The history of Bolivia is very nuanced, so to view the historical events, its heritage, its ancestry leading up to the current political climate as wrong/right, them/us would be irresponsible. There is a history of colonization, oppression, and you can see the effects of that today. The whole goal of Woven in Moonlight was to explore people who are thinking in that kind of duality and then learning how to live in the grey.

Living in the grey means you have empathy, and you can have grace. There can be forgiveness; there can be redemption. For me, it was really important that these characters stop seeing us versus them, right versus wrong. There has been horror and loss and war, and everyone has been affected. Yes, the Spanish conquistadors came and they oppressed the indigenous peoples, and it was horrifying, but before that, different Andean peoples were conquered by the Incas, and they committed their own acts of conquering and forcing people to assimilate to their ways. So there’s this long history of pain, and to focus on one and ignore the other would mean causing harm to the people who are descendants of the Aymara who were conquered by the Incas. There are people who carry those stories. 

I wanted to explore how people could get comfortable in holding both. I wanted there to be space for Ximena and Rumi to have conversations, to learn, to broaden their worldview because Ximena’s perspective was super narrow – she’s only been told one thing. And Rumi has been carrying around so much hurt and pain without knowing that Ximena’s life hasn’t been easy either. I hope Woven in Moonlight encourages people to reach out to those who are different than you because it will only deepen you. 

The Hub: In addition to your writing, you’re a designer, even creating your own book covers! So, do you consider yourself an artist who writes, or a writer who also creates art?

II: I’m a writer who also creates art! I went to college for creative writing, and then I immediately tried to get published, and it didn’t go well, so I had to do something. I’ve always loved to doodle and draw, so I decided to go back to school for graphic design and then fell into the stationery world. For 7 years, I was a greeting card designer. I was still writing, but it was along the lines of how many ways can I say Happy Birthday, Mom! But I learned so much about design, and I really pushed myself as an illustrator and as a designer. By the time I went back to writing, I had this knowledge of marketing and illustration and promoting, and all of that has served me well. It was a long detour, but I’m so thankful because it prepared me for the business side of publishing, for creating a brand. 

With Woven in Moonlight, my editor emailed me and said, “we’d love to contract a Bolivian artist for this cover,” and I had to say, “Well, I am Bolivian, and I am an artist!” So I sent her my portfolio, and she immediately loved it. The cover that you see for Woven in Moonlight, that was the very first version that I did. I just saw it in my head.

The Hub: And of course the companion book to Woven In Moonlight just came out — Written in Starlight — and it brings another perspective, that of Catalina. What can you tell us about this new book?

II: I knew at the very end of Woven In Moonlight how people would perceive Catalina, and she is a tough character. But Catalina, she isn’t this warrior. In all her life, she has been told that she is one thing. I think that if you tell someone that they are something over and over again, they start to believe it. You tell a child they are a liar or manipulative, and they grow up and inherit a lot of that. Catalina was told, you’re a Condesa, this is your birthright, these are your enemies. I wanted to explore what it would take to start unlearning so much of what you soaked up as a child. 

In some ways, Written in Starlight was an indulgence for me. At the close of Woven in Moonlight, Catalina is banished to the jungle, and my father was born and raised in this tiny village in the Amazon. It wasn’t accessible by road. To go anywhere, he had to go by river in a canoe that he built himself! He has so many stories. And my grandfather speaks fluent Quechua, so he helped with the language. There’s so much family history in these books! A friend recently told me it takes about three generations for family stories to get lost. So Written in Starlight is kind of a love story not only to my father and his side of the family but also to the legends he grew up hearing. It felt like the perfect setting for Catalina to start unlearning – a place that would not only test her physically but also emotionally. It’s an adventure story, it’s a story of discovering a lost city, but it’s also the story of Catalina’s internal journey.

The Hub: So exciting! And the cover for Written in Starlight has a very similar structure to Woven in Moonlight, but it has its own flavor, right?

II: Yes, that was so hard! I really felt the pressure then! Because people loved the original cover, and it really resonated with them. So when I sat down to create the second one, I worried it wouldn’t be as good as the first one, and I had to remind myself, “It’s not a sequel! It’s a companion, Isabel, so it can’t be exactly the same, but it still has to fit in that world.” It was its own kind of process. 

The Hub: Speaking of process, several times in Woven in Moonlight, I was struck by how much choreography must go into writing a fight scene. Were those easy or difficult for you?

II: Oh, so difficult! Much like any other part of the book, I had to use my senses, and having never been in a fight or wielded a sword (or a bow or a slingshot!), so much about it felt unknown to me. I needed to watch a lot of fight scenes, so plenty of Zorro with Antonio Banderas for inspiration! But the challenge was so fun. The first image I had of this story was of two masked strangers back to back, fighting together and having to rely on each other, which became the fight scene with Ximena and El Lobo in the office. The choreography was complicated, but some of those sequences came clearly to mind.

I would ask myself, what senses would she be feeling? And it would be the weight of the sword, the muscles of his back against hers. It would feel like the sweat, the effort, the will to carry out and survive that kind of fighting. I just had to sink into that scene and think, on a sensory level, what would happen? Would you hear fabric ripping? Or would you be too distracted by the fight? I tried to be as specific as possible without slowing down the pacing, which is critical when writing a fight scene. You’re describing all these things, but it’s moving really quickly, so you can’t just stop and observe closely. It needs to feel fast.

The Hub: Magic is quietly woven (pun intended!) into every moment in the book. Why was magic such a critical element for you?

II: I wanted the magic in Woven in Moonlight to mirror my love for Bolivia. For me, Bolivia is this very green, lush, whimsical place filled with artisans and creators and folk art. Paintings, weavers, you see it everywhere! There is such a wonderful emphasis on artistic tradition. So I knew the main character would have some kind of artistic angle, and once I saw her, I knew — yes, she’s this revolutionary, this rebel, but that’s who she had to become because of her situation. Who would she have become without the war? Who would she have been without having to fight to survive? 

Ximena has the soul of an artist. I wanted the magic to tie into her art because it felt very natural to me. I think there is a beautiful magic that happens when you are creating something from nothing. I wanted it to feel true to Ximena and for it to be a respectful nod to Pachamama, which still feels very mystical to me. There was so much about Bolivia and its history that translates well into a fantasy world that was inspired by its reverence for art.

YALSA will celebrate Woven in Moonlight and the other William C. Morris Award finalists in a Virtual Celebration on February 25th at 6p Central/ 7p Eastern. To register, click here.