Q&A: Vanessa Montalban, Author of ‘A Tall Dark Trouble’

We chat with debut author Vanessa Montalban about her YA novel A Tall Dark Trouble, which follows a Cuban American family of brujas who get entangled in love, magic, and murder, alternating between 1980s Cuba and present-day Miami.

Hi, Vanessa! Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself?

Hi! So excited for this interview! Thanks so much for having me. For a rundown, I’m a Miami girl who now lives in Central Florida with my husband, kids, and beagle baby. I write young adult stories with love and magic. Teen stories are my favorite because it’s one of the most influential stages of life, and it almost feels like a second chance to rewrite those moments. My favorite things to do are read, rewatch shows like Buffy, Schitt’s Creek, New Girl, burst into random song, visit the beach, and go on vacation anywhere that’s woodsy.

When did you first discover your love for writing and stories?

One thing about me is that I have a pretty bad memory, but I do know my love for stories started when I was really young. We moved around a lot, so I was always the new, awkward kid alone in the corner with a book. Picture Rory Gilmore if Rory mostly read horror, romance, and thrillers rather than books like The Fountainhead. I remember convincing my cousin to stay up late one night so we could pen our epic novel, and it turned out to be my first, fully-fleshed out short story when I was around the age of nine: evil grandfather clock and tragically dead parents—the start of any good young book. I would also write poetry all the time, and I still do. Connecting words in a way that makes me feel achy and intrigued has always appealed.

Quick lightning round! Tell us the first book you ever remember reading, the one that made you want to become an author, and one that you can’t stop thinking about!

Oh! This is a good one. Other than my aunt’s too-graphic-for-my-kid-eyes thriller that I read while she slept, I always remember Lois Duncan books. The Third Eye specifically stands out in my memory about a psychic teen that knows where kidnapped children are being kept and is a detective’s only hope to finding them. Funny since my book now is about psychics also solving a murder! That book made more of an impact than I thought.

Your debut novel, A Tall Dark Trouble, is out August 29th! If you could only describe it in five words, what would they be?

Love, curses, magic, revolution, sisterhood.

What can readers expect?

Expect young girls grappling with identity, inherent power, and loss. This is very much a fantasy that explores and plays with different tropes of romance, magic, and mystery. It’s a genre masher, because it has a little bit of everything, including historical since a big portion of the story takes place in 1980s Cuba during an important event in Cuban history. But besides the fantasy, there are many facets of truth about oppressive governments, complicated family dynamics, and persecuted beliefs.

For the quicker pitch: A Tall Dark Trouble is a YA contemporary fantasy about three Cuban-American brujas navigating love, magic, and murder. In current day Miami, twins Delfi and Ofelia are not only dealing with a generational love curse, but their newfound premonitions are leading them to a series of murders, and a killer that may be targeting their kind. In 1980s Cuba, teenaged Anita has her own curses and power to contend with under the strict and oppressive eye of her mother, and a controlling government.

Where did the inspiration for A Tall Dark Trouble come from?

Apparently it came from Lois Duncan! No, but really, I think the inspiration for ATDT was a long time coming. The magic woven into the worldbuilding is mystical and spiritual, closely mirroring my family’s beliefs. The historical elements are very much inspired by my father’s own arrival in Miami from Cuba in the 1980s during the Mariel Boatlift, which brought an estimated 125,000 Cubans to US shores. But I believe the moment that struck the match for this idea was in 2016 when it was announced that the infamous boogeyman of Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro, had died and the streets of Miami turned to utter chaos. I just knew in that moment that I needed to write a story, and it needed to be whittled out from my Cuban identity.

Were there any moments or characters you really enjoyed writing or exploring?

I really enjoyed writing the ending. Not just because of the relief that I’d finally finished this monster whopper of a book but because it came together so beautifully and I felt like I was giving my characters a gift. I can’t go too much into it, but it was pretty different from the rest of the story and it made me happy. As for characters, I loved writing the sassy Delfi who can taste emotions and doesn’t have pelo en la lengua (translates to hair on her tongue, but it basically means no shame telling it how it is).

This is your debut novel! What was the road to getting A Tall Dark Trouble published?

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It was, as is popularly described, a rollercoaster! I finished and shelved two books in the span of around seven years. Had a small publishing deal that fell through in 2017. During that time, I also got my first literary agent, although we eventually parted ways. During those years, A Tall Dark Trouble was very much my comfort story—the one I worked on just for me. The one that got me through the days when I seriously wanted to quit writing all together. In 2020, I joined this amazing mentorship program for Latinx creators called Las Musas and was paired with Nina Moreno who was goddess sent. She really helped me whip all those multiple points-of-view into shape and end the story the way it needed to. As soon as I revised with Nina, I joined Twitter pitch contests like #DVpit and #Latinxpitch where I got great responses from agents. When I met with Danielle Burby, her enthusiasm and passion just radiated since our first conversation and I knew she was the right fit. We were on submission for about five months before offers started coming in and Tiffany Liao from Zando came in with a pre-empt! I screamed. Not only is Tiff an absolute wizard of an editor but the entire Zando teams has been a dream to work with.

You also contributed to the YA horror anthology Night of the Living Queers, which releases on the 29th too! Can you tell us a bit about your story?

Yes! It’s such an exciting project to be a part of, and with that line-up! My story in the anthology is called “Welcome to Hotel Paranoia”, and if it rings a bell, it’s because the story is loosely inspired by the Hotel California song. Like every other story in NOTLQ, it takes place on Halloween under an unusual blue moon. My character, Anabel, is invited to a secretive annual Halloween party for her school’s elite at an abandoned hotel. Anabel is only going so she can make things right with her ex-best-friend after she fumbled their first kiss. But when Anabel arrives at the party, it’s not only her friend who’s acting strange, but the entire hotel seems to be flickering between the party and a decaying house of horrors. Probably wasn’t the best idea to build the hotel on consecrated grounds for a vengeful Central American deity.

What’s next for you?

Next on the publishing coaster is another YA contemporary fantasy coming out with Zando next year. I am so stoked to be working on this project, and I can’t wait to talk more about it. This one also plays with Central American fables, like the cautionary tale of La Cegua—a beautiful ghost who lures cheating men into the woods then petrifies them with her skeletal horse face. I never liked that her story was boiled down to teaching men a lesson, so I was excited for the chance to expand her character. Things you can expect in my upcoming project are haunted manors, small town weirdos and heroes, mom-and-daughter issues, and a vengeful ghost.

Lastly, do you have any book recommendations for our readers?

So many incredible books coming out this year! I’m reading Sinner’s Isle by Angela Montoya and Damned if You Do by Alex Brown now and thoroughly enjoying them both. Pirates, demons, and witches are always my jam. One of my favorite reads this year has been Isabel Cañas’ The Hacienda.  I’m also dying to dive into two books: Kiss the Girl by Zoraida Córdova and Silver Nitrate by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

You can find Vanessa on Twitter, Instagram, and Tiktok at @vvmontalban and be sure to check out her upcoming events and pre-order campaign!

Will you be picking up A Tall Dark Trouble? Tell us in the comments below!

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