An interview with J.C. Cervantes is like taking a deep breath of fresh air and pausing to smell the roses, which is fitting, considering her latest novel, The Enchanted Hacienda, deals with just that.
I first became aware of J.C. Cervantes after she was inducted as one of the inaugural authors for the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, which publishes books about folklore and mythology from around the world, written those who have grown up in those cultures and listened to those stories since childhood.
Once Dawn of the Jaguar hits store shelves on October 10, 2023, Cervantes will have written five books for the imprint. Intended for a middle-grade audience (but enjoyed by anyone and everyone), the Storm Runner series and its spinoff the Shadow Bruja series bring Mesoamerican mythology alive in a bright and fantastical way.
Whether you’ve already powered through both series or have stumbled upon Cervantes from one of her other books, you’ll be happy to know that her adult debut The Enchanted Hacienda is now available wherever books are sold.
The book follows Harlow as she walks away from her life in New York City to stay on her family’s magical flower farm in Mexico. Little does she know that this one small choice will lead her down an unknown path where she’ll discover passion in all its forms. With a touch of the mythology we enjoyed in the Storm Runner series, Cervantes writes for a new audience about love, loss, self-discovery, and what happens when you uncover the power you never knew you had.
If you read my Enchanted Hacienda book review, you’ll know that I fell in love with the Estrada family and that I’m ecstatic to witness their continued journey in future novels.
With that in mind, I was so happy to conduct this interview with J.C. Cervantes in order to pick her brain about the inspiration behind The Enchanted Hacienda, her writing process, what it’s like working with the Rick Riordan Presents team, and what other projects she has coming up in the near future.
If you are a fan of Rick Riordan, Percy Jackson, the RRP imprint, or mythology in general, be sure to subscribe to Prophecy Radio, which features all the latest Riordanverse news, in-depth discussions, chapter reviews, and interviews.
J.C. Cervantes interview
What was the initial inspiration behind The Enchanted Hacienda?
Oh, gosh. So, I did not set out to write an adult novel. It wasn’t like I had this mindset of, ‘Oh, I think I’ll try something new.’ My stories come to me in a very organic way. Usually, they come to me in a scene with characters, and it’s such a compelling scene, I have to know more. And so I find myself navigating those first few days of the story as it unfolds and determining if it’s something that I really want to spend the next eight months or a year in. This one was so different because all I saw was a place. And that’s the first time that’s ever happened to me. I saw these beautiful rolling hills, set with a sea of colorful flowers, and the sun was setting, and I knew it was enchanted. This place was somehow enchanted. And I wanted to know who tended these flowers, who lived on this farm? Why were they enchanted? What is the story? And so it really developed from a setting. And as I dove into the project, I realized that this was going to have to be an adult novel. And again, [the stories] happen organically, they unfold organically. And so that’s what I ended up writing.
This book has been described as Encanto for grownups. Did the movie inspire or impact any parts of the story?
No! And it’s so funny, because I hadn’t even seen the movie when I started writing the book. And it wasn’t until after—it’s funny because one of my other books was compared too, and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, but I was writing this book before Encanto ever even came out.’ And so it’s kind of a nod to the way energy works, and especially in storytelling, in artistic formats. There really are these vortexes of energy, I think, around creative people. And so often, you will see a lot of people get very similar ideas. But the beauty of it is that I can give the same story idea to ten people, and they’re all going to tell it completely differently.
You’ve written a variety of books across genres and age groups. Do you ever find it difficult to switch gears like that? Or does the change in pace help with your creativity?
You know, I don’t find it difficult. I think writing any book is challenging and comes with its own set of pitfalls, for sure, but I always think of myself as a storyteller first. I was raised in an oral storytelling tradition. And so I’ve always looked at the world through a storyteller lens. And I think when you think of yourself that way, you’re not thinking about age category and genre. For me, anyway, I’m not. And until the story unfolds, in a more natural sense, then I have an idea of, ‘Okay, this definitely is for this age category.’ So no, I just want to tell a story.
One of the questions I love to ask authors is what editing critiques or feedback do you most dread getting after you’ve turned in a first draft?
Well, here’s what’s interesting. I turn in a really polished first draft because that’s the way that I write. I edit as I write. What I mean by that is, I will work on a scene or a chapter or whatever it is, and the next day is going to be for editing. And I will go and spend the next segment of writing time combing through that, really polishing it. So by the time I get to the end, I really don’t have a significant—I mean, I definitely have editing to do to tie together threads—but I don’t have a significant amount. And so I don’t know that there is ever a dread. I really love working with editors. I feel like they’re the unsung heroes in literature. And they’re the ones who really make the story shine, if you find the right editor and they share the same vision of the book as you do. So for me, it feels like a partnership. It doesn’t feel like a scolding or, ‘Oh, I’m turning in an essay to my teacher. Now I gotta wait to see what they think about it.’ It’s more of, ‘Hey, we’re in partnership together. And let’s create the most beautiful book we can.’
That’s a fantastic attitude to have, and will definitely make any critiques sting a little bit less. And like we were talking about, The Enchanted Hacienda is your adult debut. Were there any unexpected challenges writing for an older audience?
Oh my gosh, yes. I was really uncomfortable writing sex scenes. I was uncomfortable with that because I had never written more than an innocent kissing scene. And I felt like I needed to go hide in the closet to do it because I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, my mother’s gonna read this. My aunt’s gonna read this.’ So I think that that felt really challenging for me. Just because I needed to become more comfortable with doing that. And I didn’t want the story to suffer. I mean, if the story needed that element, then I was gonna write it, and I hadn’t planned on there being quite so much heat. But again, it’s just what transpired organically.
And on the flip side of that, was there anything about this book that came easily to you? Anything that was particularly refreshing to explore after having written so many books for a younger audience?
That’s such a good question. It was really easy for me to explore the feminine dynamics between the women in this family. I come from a very matriarchal family, a Mexican family, and there is a lot of overlap in how I illustrated this family. And so even though they’re not the same characters, nor do they have the same temperaments or characteristics at all, the way they communicate with each other and support each other and hold each other up and love each other very much feels like it mirrors my own family. And so that part just came really easily. And then I have three daughters. And so watching the way that they interact, and whether it’s they’re arguing, or they’re coming up with an answer or plotting revenge on someone—you know how sisters can be—watching them made it all easier.
That’s a great segue into my next question. There is a lot of heart to this story. And a huge part of that comes in the form of family. And for Harlow, her family is her rock. Are any of those relationships based in real life with your own friends or family? Anything that’s a little bit closer to the home than maybe not?
Yeah, I think so. I think that all of us—I often say that the human experience is not for the faint of heart. I don’t care who you are, what your level of fame is, how much money you have, how tall you are, how beautiful you are, we’re all going through our own demanding days at different levels. And I think having that level of support and having that person who is that steady boat in the middle of the storm is so important and so critical. And because I spend a lot of time really reflecting on who I am as a human being and who the people around me are, that study of human behavior and human nature makes it all the easier to explore it through a story form.
One of my favorite aspects of this book was learning what all of the flowers symbolized and how there could be multiple interpretations of their meanings. Did you know a lot of that information already, or is this something that you had to research?
I definitely researched it. I grew up in a very middle class home, and sometimes we had things and sometimes we didn’t. But it didn’t matter where we were at, my mom always had fresh flowers. Even if that meant that it was, you know, two small buds in a vase or a couple of daisies. So I grew up around flowers. I grew up around a very deep connection to the land and to place. And it’s funny, because I carried that through my whole life. Even when I was in college and rubbing two nickels together, I would make sure that I had one sprig, even if it was just a piece of lavender, wherever I was living. And so I did not know the Latin names or the roots of that, but I was very familiar with how flowers have made me feel, and saw the historical value in my own life, in my family, now in my daughter’s lives. If you were to come to my home this afternoon, you would find about five bouquets, because there’s a sense of peace for me when I’m working with flowers, whether I’m clipping them from the garden, or I pick them up at the store, and I put them together. So it’s not just the final product, but it’s the doing, the working with the flowers, that is so incredibly meaningful. So that’s my long way of saying yes, I definitely had to do some research. And then, you know, I definitely took artistic license. The canto is a fictional flower. So, I did a little bit of that sprinkling throughout the book.
Several of the books you’ve written are based in Mesoamerican mythology. How important are these tales to you? How do you think that they’ve affected your life?
Oh, gosh. They’re so incredibly important because, for me, they represent a reclamation of my Mexican heritage and culture, which is fraught with such a grueling history, really, when you look at colonialism, and where borders were drawn, whether it was during the Spanish reign or after the Mexican American War. And so I think that a lot of Mexican Americans who perhaps have never stepped foot in what is known as Mexico today, or maybe they don’t speak Spanish, or maybe they haven’t had a connection to that culture, you do feel this need to kind of reclaim it as your own. And so for me, Mesoamerican mythology is important for that reason. But also because these are some of the stories I grew up with, and again, in an oral storytelling tradition, they just really ignite my memories and my own imagination in such a powerful way.
You’ve written about quite a few gods, myths and monsters at this point, but is there one that really sticks out to you as your favorite story or a person, a character, that you keep coming back to?
You’re just filled with good questions! You know what, I have an answer for you. I don’t know why… You’re a writer, so maybe you have experienced this. But when Ah Puch came onto the stage, the god of death, darkness and destruction, in The Storm Runner, and he was the villain, I knew I wanted him to have a compelling backstory, because I don’t like to write villains just for the sake of, ‘Oh, they’re just evil because they’re evil.’ I think it’s so much more interesting when their narrative kind of mirrors [the hero’s]. Like, how how did that happen? And I fell in love with him. So I wrote about him through the trilogy of the Storm Runner, and he just continued to expand and grow. And his character arc is probably the greatest character arc I’ve ever written. And when I say great, I mean, in its breadth and depth. I don’t mean great as in, ‘Oh, it’s so fantastic.’ [Laughs] And his relationship with Renata Santiago, who is another god-born that comes onto the stage in The Fire Keeper, the second book in the Storm Runner trilogy, really, really demanded that he continue to be a part of the story. So, he is by far one of my favorite gods. And when I wrapped up the second book of the Lords of Night and knew I wasn’t going to write about him, at least for a long while, I really mourned that because I’d grown so close to him. I don’t think there’s any other character [that compares]. I mean, I wrote him across five books. Maybe it’s because one of the first stories I remember my grandmother telling me was about the god of death, darkness and destruction. But yeah, I would definitely put him in that category.
And are there any myths, creatures, or deities that you haven’t gotten to write about yet that you would love to include in future books?
There are probably so many. I mean, even Mayahuel, when I knew that she had to be a part of this book, I could feel the spark. And that’s when I know that I have to write a book. I mean, I get lots of ideas. You probably do, too. I’ll jot down stuff in a binder. But at the end of the day, if I get that spark, and I can feel things churning, and that’s all I could think about, I know I’ve got something. And she really invaded my mind and heart in a very powerful way. I think it was because she represented such incredible feminine power and what she had gone through in the way that she was able to rise, obviously in a different form. So I would like to spend more time with her, actually. And you know, you’re going to get another sister story. And so maybe I’ll be able to—I haven’t started writing it yet—but maybe I’ll be able to expand a little bit more on that myth. But oh, yeah, there are probably a lot more, I’d have to go back to my notes. But it’s a very rich pantheon.
Yes, definitely. This next question is going to seem a little out of left field at first, but I wanted to say that Rainbow Rowell has seen success turning the fanfiction from her book Fangirl into a real series that began with Carry On. Have you ever thought about actually writing Harlow’s book? Do you think that would be an interesting challenge?
I love that you asked this because when I was writing, we actually cut a lot of segments. There was more in the book. And I found myself veering, I could feel a part of myself being pulled in the direction of that story. So I could absolutely see myself doing something with it, because I do think that there’s something there.
I can only speak for myself, but I would 100% read that because I think the parallels between the stories were so interesting. And I found myself really wanting to know what happened in Harlow’s book.
I know! And I wanted to know who the man was. I felt the exact same way. Thank you.
You’re welcome. And speaking of, I love the way Harlow views writing and the way in which she gets words down on the page, I think any writer would be able to relate to her feelings about her craft. How much of yourself and your views on writing have you infused into Harlow’s character?
It’s interesting, because I’ve been asked so many times, ‘Have you ever written about yourself?’ Or, ‘Do you write about people you know?’ And I really believe we contain multitudes, and we probably inject certain parts or components of our personalities into all of our characters, right? But Harlow, for me, felt very personal. And even though we are wildly different in who we are as humans, the way that she was afraid to begin, the way that she felt she didn’t have a story to tell, the way that she distracted herself in every single area before she would answer the calling was absolutely my history. And I think a lot of writers feel that. They feel that fear and that judgment before it even takes place, because it’s a really daunting task to sit down before a blank page or a blank computer screen and begin. And without sounding too hyperbolic about it, I really do believe that writers are such incredible heroes, because it is no small task. It really is such an incredible leap of faith. And so I was able to draw on—I don’t feel that so much anymore—but the way that she approached it and what she was going through with her own doubts and insecurities is 100% how I have felt.
I’m glad you mentioned a potential sequel because there are a couple of threads left hanging by the end of this book that made me believe there was a possibility for a sequel. Can you give us any information about that?
Well, I have outlined some of it. I will just say that it is going to be about one of her sisters. And it is going to have a very different—at least right now, as I said, I have not written the book, and so many things can change when we sit down to the page, as you know—but it is going to be very different in tone. It will have some lightness to it, but there’s going to be a little bit more shadow to it. And I think it’s going to definitely come with a level of grief and sadness that Harlow’s did not.
I will look forward to that, even though it might be a little bit more full of sadness, but that’s okay. I’m there for the ride. Like I said earlier, I first discovered your books when you wrote the Storm Runner for Rick Riordan Presents. Can you talk a little bit about your experience writing for the imprint?
Oh, gosh. You know, it has been the most incredible wild ride. And getting to work with Rick, and especially our editor [Stephanie Lurie], who works on the imprint and edits Rick’s books herself, her mind is a wonderland. It truly is. And every time I tell her that, she’s like, ‘No, no, no.’ And she’s very humble. But I truly became a better writer because of her. And so I’ll be forever grateful for that. And just in the confidence that they had in my ability to tell a story, because they purchased The Storm Runner on proposal. They had three chapters, that was it. And that was a pretty big leap of faith for Disney. And so I will forever be grateful for that. And there’s such a dynamic, energetic, innovative team that I still pinch myself, Karen. I can’t believe that I got to write five books with them. And I’ve written other projects for Disney, and might be doing something coming up that I’m not allowed to talk about yet. I mean, I think the one word that runs through all of it is just such gratitude.
Is there anything you can tease fans about the forthcoming Dawn of the Jaguar?
Hmm, Dawn of the Jaguar. I had so much fun writing Lords of Night. And when I tell you probably my favorite scene I’ve ever written—and I don’t even know how many books I’ve written now—is that last scene of the book. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read it, but I feel like it was an out-of-body experience. And I still will go back and read it because it’s just so palpable. And so I carried that through. I think a lot of people were like—if you look at some of the reviews—people say, ‘What is up with that ending? How could she do that to us?’ And I’ve never really ended a book like that. That’s the first time I’ve ever not given a happy ending. And I have ended on a hook that was pretty tragic. So what I will tease you with on the sequel is you can expect a lot more darkness and a lot more adventure. And hopefully, hopefully a somewhat happy ending.
Those are always good to have! If you could live inside any other Rick Riordan Presents world, which one would you choose?
I love Gracie Kim’s world, but I also love Carlos’ world. They’re just all so good. I love Rosh’s world. Rebecca Roanhorse is so good. Gosh, I’m gonna go with probably Carlos’. I like the idea of the multiverse concept. So I think I’m gonna go with that. But I would live with all of them. Yes. I mean, I truly don’t have a favorite.
Well, if you live in the multiverse, maybe you could live in all of them.
That’s true. Yeah, kind of visit. Absolutely.
Are there any dream projects that you’d love to tackle in the future, or anything you think is outside your comfort zone that you’d love to challenge yourself with one day?
I’d love to write a thriller, actually. A mystery thriller. I can feel it niggling. And I already have this first scene in my head. I have three more books I’m on deadline for that I have to write first, so I’ve taken copious notes. And we’ll see. I’m a little nervous about it. And I’ll have to have a chat—my agent doesn’t even know yet. So, I’ll have to have a chat. But yeah, I think I really would love to write some kind of political thriller, but with a mystery component. I think that could be really fun. And I love that you asked that question, because I like to push myself as an artist. And sometimes it works out. And sometimes it doesn’t. But I think that we grow when we do that. And I never want to feel formulaic with my writing.
Are there any other upcoming projects that you’d like to tell our readers about?
Let’s see. So, I wish that I could give you more details. And I promise, I’m not being coy intentionally. The publishing world forces us to keep secrets, but look for an announcement for a very cool new series, hopefully in the next thirty days. And I have another project that I feel—when you asked me the question, ‘Is there something that you would like to tackle that you haven’t?’ this project fell into my lap in that way. And I can’t wait to talk about it. Sadly, I cannot, but it is thrilling, exciting, and a really big project. And then look for one of the sisters [from Enchanted Hacienda], I’ll be writing that. And I think that’s going to come out after the paperback. So it’ll be a couple years, but that’ll come out. So yeah, I’ve got quite a few projects up my sleeve. And sadly, I just can’t tell anybody about any of them. But I will also very quickly pitch Always Isn’t Forever, which comes out a week or two after The Enchanted Hacienda. I think it’s June 6 or 7. And it is the book of my heart and was just nothing but pure joy to write, even though it is very painful and deals with a lot of grief. And I was actually pulling a quote out of it this morning because my publicist needed something, and I got teary-eyed, Karen! I never reread my books once they’ve been edited and done. I don’t listen to them. I don’t let them live in my head anymore. And so it’s been probably eight, nine months since that book was turned in, and just getting to sit down with the book form and read it for pleasure. I can see why—because people are saying, ‘Oh my God, this book is killing me. It’s ripping my heart out.’ And I thought, ‘Really? Is it, really?’ And then I got teary-eyed. And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I wrote this book, I should not be crying.’ So if you’re in the mood for a very, very deep soulmate love affair kind of book, I would encourage people to take a look.
‘The Enchanted Hacienda’ hit store shelves on May 16, 2023
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