Tehlor Kay Mejia discusses ‘Paola Santiago and the Sanctuary of Shadows’ and deepening her connection to Mexican folklore

Our interview with Tehlor Kay Mejia explores the third and final book in the Paola Santiago series, Sanctuary of Shadows, how writing this trilogy deepened her connection to her culture’s legends, and what awesome projects she has coming up next.

Paola Santiago has been dear to my heart since I discovered her in River of Tears because she was a science-minded kid who came face-to-face with the supernatural and had to rewrite everything she knew about the world. Not many adults, never mind kids, can do that without cracking, and yet, Paola finds a way forward with her friends at her side.

We’ve come a long way since River of Tears—and so has Paola! With Paola Santiago and the Sanctuary of Shadows now out in the world, this series has come to a close. Pao has faced a lot of monsters and some of her greatest fears, but she and her friends still stand strong against the horrors of the night.

Prophecy Radio had the pleasure of chatting with Tehlor Kay Mejia about the third Paola Santiago book, and we found out all sorts of awesome information, including whether any of the characters are based on people from her life, if there are any legends she wishes she could’ve included in the series, and how excited she is about the Paola Santiago adaptation.

If you’d like to hear our Tehlor Kay Mejia interview in full, as well as listen to our discussion of River of Tears, tune into Prophecy Radio episode #44:

If you need to save that for later, that’s okay too! You can find the answers to our most pressing questions during the Tehlor Kay Mejia interview below.

Tehlor Kay Mejia interview

paola santiago and the sanctuary of shadows tehlor kay mejia

You’ve mentioned how writing this series has deepened your connection to your culture’s folktales. Can you talk a little bit more about that experience?

I like to say that I was motivated to write this story by the extreme terror of hearing a lot of these folktales in my childhood. But, of course, I feel like every family has their go-to stories that are like, “Oh, we always tell this scary story,” or, “This is one that someone in the family saw evidence of, so we repeat that one over and over.” But as I was getting into it, and trying to represent more stories than just the few I had heard growing up over and over, I found that every family has their few [that they repeated]. And the ones that overlap—it’s really fun, but there were so many that I didn’t know. So, it was fun talking to cousins and other friends that are Mexican-American, and being like, “Ooh, what are the ones that scared you?” And finding out that we all have a common core of hearing these stories, but everyone had a different version. And it really felt like it was bringing me closer to my community to figure out how everybody’s experience of hearing these stories had differed.

Did you have the idea for the Paola series long before Rick Riordan Presents came along, or was the RRP opportunity what bore the idea for Paola?

I had the idea for a series about Paola—she didn’t have a name yet, but about a girl who was dealing with a La Llorona sighting. It was just a little inkling I had. At the time, when we found out about the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, I had only written YA before, and I really was imagining this as a middle grade story. So when I found out—I heard the announcement about the Rick Riordan Presents imprint and Roshani Chokshi writing Aru Shah and the End of Time, and I was like, “Ooh, this might be such a good fit for the idea.” So I had a little skeleton of an idea, but definitely not anything fully fleshed. And then when I heard about the imprint, I was really inspired, and so it gave me a little bit of an inspiration framework to work from.

Are any of the characters in the series based on people from your life? Did you draw from personalities and individuals in reality for any of them?

I think a lot of my characters have bits of me in them or bits of people I know in them, and I always start out thinking, “Oh, this character is going to be just like this person,” or, “This character is going to be just like me.” And then as the engine of the story gets rolling, the character makes decisions and they interact in this world that I’ve never been in and the people that I know haven’t been in, and so they kind of start to take on a personality of their own. I’ll be like, “Oh, what would this person do in this situation?” But it’s not what the character would do. And so, yeah, I think they start out maybe being inspired by someone, but as they go, they really develop their own personalities, which is something I really love about writing.

A lot of the monsters and legendary figures in these books are pretty scary. What was your process for deciding what was spooky enough without causing your readers to have nightmares?

I’m probably more of a chicken than your typical 9-12-year-old reader, so I had a built-in gauge for that because I was like, “Okay, if I can think about it at night and still go to sleep, then it should be okay for a fourth grader.” [Laughs] So, I guess I’m lucky to be just an utter scaredy-cat in that regard. I have a kid at home who was six when I started writing these stories, and is now almost 10, and so sometimes I would ask them, “Oh, is this too scary?” Because I thought it was terrifying. And they would be like, “What? That’s not scary at all.” [Laughs] So, I both had a gauge for my story and learned that I am more of scaredy-cat than my elementary school-aged child.

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Do you have any scenes that hit the cutting room floor, or any monsters or legends you wished you could’ve included but didn’t have time for?

There are so many legends that it would have been super fun to include. I really encourage anyone who gets to the end of this series and is like, “More Mexican folklore monsters!” to do some research of their own and find out. Because there are really some incredible ones. And there are all kinds of cool monsters from across Latin American folklore that interact. If you think you know everything about La Llorona, look up how she shows up in different cultures and mythologies. There’s a wealth of stuff to look into. I’ve barely scratched the surface of some of the heavy hitters here, but there is so much more to learn. I would happily do 10 more book series about cultural mythology from Mexico and the boarder.

I saw that having a character quiz was on your bucket list as an author, and that you ended up with Naomi! What aspects of your personality do you share most with her? In what ways are you different?

Yeah, having a character quiz was definitely on my bucket list, and I was really thrilled to end up with Naomi. I think Naomi is maybe a little more like me now than she is like I was as a kid. She’s sort of a no-nonsense, tough-talking, get-to-the-heart-of-the-matter type of person, which I hope I am. But she also sort of uses this aura of being cool and intimidating to mask what’s really some squishy big feelings on the inside. So definitely as a teenager, that is more what I was like—trying to seem cool and putting off this veneer of untouchability and like, “Oh, I’m mean and intimidating, and so you can’t get close enough to notice that I am definitely all full of feelings on the inside.”

If you came face-to-face with El Cucuy, what are some of the nightmares he would show you?

I think this is probably too personal a question! I think our fears are probably some of our most protected secrets. I don’t know if I want to put out there what I’m most afraid of. What if people just jump out and scare with a giant spi—oh no, now I’ve admitted it!

Now that the series has concluded, is there one moment across all three books that you come back to as the sort of epitome of Paola Santiago, either as the character or the trilogy?

I feel like there’s a few moments in the first book that are just like, “Oh yeah, that’s so Pao, that’s so this story.” I guess maybe one of the moments I come back to is Pao and Dante in the liminal space cactus field for the first time, and they keep ending up at the same spot over and over, no matter which direction they go. And Pao’s little science brain is just breaking because she can’t understand how this is possible. And then she turns on the flashlight, and the light beam bends, and she’s laughing, just cracking up, like hysterical laughing, going, “Even physics isn’t real!” And I feel like that was such a moment that really showed Pao. And then here’s Dante being like, “It’s fine. Who cares about physics? Let’s try to move on.” She’s just so desperate to save her best friend, and she has so relied on these rules that shape her world, and just that moment of everything crumbling, and her just laughing, is one of my favorite moments. I like to think she grows and changes a whole lot over the course of the books. So some of the moments with the most realized, mature Pao towards the end of the books—even towards the end, she’s not super mature, she’s still Pao—but I think those early moments where she’s still coming to terms with what this new world is, are some of my favorite quintessential Pao [moments].

We saw that Paola Santiago is getting an adaptation. How does that feel?

It’s honestly the most surreal possible thing. There are times when I get a script sent to me to read, or people start talking about which actors we might like to see—and we’re still very, very far off from casting or anything like that yet—but just being able to watch the series develop… I’m not writing for it, so I’m a little on the periphery, so I feel almost like being a fan of my own thing from the outside is really very fun because the writers who are involved are all super, super talented. And so the story is growing so much above and beyond and past and in different directions and back over the things that I wrote in the books. TV is such a different format, so you really get a chance to explore other characters as deeply as the main character. You’re not fixed to this one point of view. So yeah, I’ve really been having an interesting time giving over the reins to a group of incredibly talented people, but also they’re not me. [Laughs] I feel like normally, writing is such a solitary thing for me. It’s just me and the blank page in the room alone making all the decisions and having all the control, so it has been a really interesting experience to step back and let go and see what these other brilliant writers come up with and let them explore the world without feeling too proprietary about every single thing that happens. It’s been a personal growth exercise. [Laughs] I’m very, very lucky to be able to really trust the people who are working on it, and to be getting regular updates and all that stuff. But yeah, it is definitely an interesting experience, much more collaborative and less controlled than most of my experiments in writing so far. So yeah, it’s been very interesting. I am really excited to one day get to turn on my TV and see this story play out.

What are some of your other projects coming up that you’d like to let people know about?

So many! I have so many. For older readers, I have a new YA fantasy series coming out in March. The first book is called Lucha of the Night Forest, and it’s definitely for older teens. It’s definitely got some pretty intense themes, so I would stay away from it if you are very young. Maybe wait until—I think the publisher’s recommendation is 14 and up, so I would say, yeah, 13-14 is probably the earliest I would say. But yeah, there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s really important to me. There’s some mother-daughter drama. There’s some sisters. It’s a book that takes place at the edge of an ancient and mysterious forest. Ancient forests are definitely one of my favorite things in this world, so you’ll see a lot of that. Then for my middle grade readers, in 2024, I have my next middle grade, which is called It Happened to Anna. It’s a very different story than the Paola stories in a lot of ways. It’s a little bit quieter. It’s not so much big, action-y monster fights and stuff. It’s a little more personal, but it’s definitely still very scary. It’s about a girl named Sadie whose best friend died. She’s starting at a new school, and she’s being haunted by a very vengeful ghost, who she can’t see, who does not want her to ever make a friend. Until she does make a friend, and it starts to loosen the ghost’s hold on her and make her wonder what really did happen to her best friend. Little bit spooky. And then I do, of course, because this is book publishing, I have a few projects in the works right now that I’m very excited to talk about soon that I have not been cleared to announce. [Laughs]

‘Paola Santiago and the Sanctuary of Shadows’ published on August 2, 2022

Buy Paola Santiago and the Sanctuary of Shadows by Tehlor Kay Mejia from Disney Books, Bookshop.org, Book Depository, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

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