Exclusive Interview: “Candelaria” Author Melissa Lozada-Oliva


Whenever we think of a hero who can save the world or the universe from an apocalypse, one image always comes to mind: grandma. If I had a dollar for every action movie in which an older woman saves the day… But while there’s a grandmother and an apocalypse in Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s new novel Candelaria (hardcover, Kindle), there’s more to this story than just an old woman saving the day, as Lozada-Oliva discusses in the following email interview.

Melissa Lozada-Oliva Candelaria

Photo Credit: Chimera Singer


To start, what is Candelaria about, and when and where does it take place?

Candelaria is about a Guatemalan grandmother at the end of the world and how her three granddaughters started it. It takes place in and around Boston with glimpses of New York City and Guatemala. We follow Candelaria over the course of one day and the granddaughters over the course of one year.

Where did you get the idea for Candelaria?

Back in my slam poetry days I had a poem called “How To Survive The Zombie Apocalypse As An 83 Year Old Guatemalan Grandmother.” I went from there. I had a kind of similar experience writing Dreaming Of You, where I kept writing zombie-Selena poems. I eventually had to be like, well okay, how did she become a zombie? In a similar way, I had to be like, okay, well what exactly are the things that the Guatemalan Grandmother is fighting and where did they come from?

Now, in the book, there’s an earthquake. Is there a significance to the earthquake happening in Boston, Massachusetts as opposed to Los Angeles or somewhere else that they actually have earthquakes?

The earthquake that happens at the beginning of the novel is supposed to mirror the 1976 Guatemalan earthquake that absolutely ripped up the country. Earthquakes do not happen in Boston, so it’s supposed to feel really uncanny. Perhaps it isn’t an earthquake at all??? You’ll have to read it.

Okay, then why Boston and not Worcester, Massachusetts? Or Newton, Massachusetts where you grew up?

So, it’s very clear to me that the three daughters are from Newton, but I never say that specifically. It’s actually the only city that isn’t named in the book. I think that was something Freudian or psychological in some way initially, not mentioning by name the town I grew up in and had a big hand in the person I became, but I also think the daughters are avoiding their hometown as well. Bianca is so focused on Guatemala and her roots, Paola is so focused on love, and Candy is so focused on being left behind. There’s something funny about the Latinx-Diaspora experience that makes us focus on the places our parents came from or we came from as little children, or like, The us as a whole, or the places we end up moving to, that we forget to face our literal childhoods and adolescence, when all of those traumatizing formative memories take place.

From the way you describe it, I’m not sure how to classify Candelaria. How do you describe it, genre-wise, and why that way?

I think people who read it will know how to genre-fy it the most. I think it’s fiction, but I guess it’s also horror. I hate labels, let’s just be friends.

Candelaria is your second novel after Dreaming Of You, though you’ve also written three books of poetry. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Candelaria but not on anything else you’ve written?

Some writers I was influenced by were Aimee Bender, Stephen King, Chelsea Bieker, Stephen Graham Jones, Hillary Leichter, Julia Alvarez, and Kelly Link. I don’t read a lot of poetry but I really should. I’ve always preferred stories more. For Candelaria, I was thinking about people who write about women, about families, and unanswerable scary stuff that stays with you forever.

What about poetry? How do you think writing poetry — and the occasions when you do read it — influenced how you wrote Candelaria?

I think I was committed to making the book beautiful and readable. Ideally, every sentence would stand alone and be beautiful, but you can only do the best you can. I actually don’t read a lot of poetry and prefer reading stories, but what I like in stories are those beautiful sentences and paragraphs that you highlight and underline. And what is a beautiful sentence and paragraph but a poem?

Oh, that reminds me, is your poem “How To Survive The Zombie Apocalypse As An 83 Year Old Guatemalan Grandmother” included in any versions of Candelaria?

I’d say little seeds of it are but it’s been super expanded. I kept the second person part of it, and built a whole plot line out of there. I’d rather not say what else I included for spoiler purposes. Readers: don’t watch the poem until you finish the book.

And then what about non-literary influences? Was Candelaria influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?

I was really influenced by this disgusting movie called Wolf Girl. It was on TNT or something like that when I was a kid, and it was about a freakshow and a girl who is covered in hair. She meets this sweet boy who gives her injections his scientist mother has been working on for hair loss. But the more she injects herself, the more feral she gets. It’s very early 2000s messaging, but it stuck with me because I love thinking about a woman not wanting to admit that something horrible is happening to her, and consequently, what that means about the people around her.

I think I was also influenced by [director David] Cronenberg in a body-horror kind of way. I love when body parts fall off of people like fruit skin. There’s a scene where a character is eating a raw steak, and that’s absolutely inspired by that French movie Raw.

And then, to flip the script — as you kids probably don’t say anymore — do you think Candelaria could work as a movie, TV show, or game?

I think Candelaria would be really cool as a game, I never thought about that before, but actually, that would be really sick. I am not a gamer myself (in my life, I am merely nerd-adjacent, as in, friends with nerds but ultimately too into celebrities and dancing to have enough nerd cred), but I think a lot of cool stuff could happen with an old lady role-playing game. And if not a game, then the ol’ mini series; and I say that because I’d love to give the characters enough space to be themselves as possible and explore the world I built more.

So, if someone wanted to adapt Candelaria into a miniseries or a game, who would you want them to cast as Candelaria, Bianca, Paola, Candy, and the other main characters?

It’s so fun to cast.

Candelaria: I would love an unknown Guatemalan or Central American old lady who has never acted before and just wanted to try something out.

Bianca: Would love to see Melissa Barrera [Scream VI] portray an absolute nerd.

Paola: Dascha Polanco [Orange Is The New Black] because I think she’s really good at portraying a really sweet person who can turn very fast.

Candy: What can I say… [Wednesday‘s] Jenna Ortega.

Julian: Jose Angeles (he played Nito in Beast Beast) or Raul Castillo from Miguel Wants To Fight

Fernando Moreno: Oscar Isaac [Dune] of course.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Candelaria?

It’s disgusting and funny and beautiful, just like life (?)!Melissa Lozada-Oliva Candelaria

Finally, if someone enjoys Candelaria, what would you suggest they read next?

Look out for Mouth by Puloma Ghosh in spring of 2024. It’s a collection of short stories that largely have to do with hunger and desire, the supernatural, and sometimes cannibalism. Really brilliant, and they stick with you for a long, long time.




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