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Lonely + Lonely = Friendship (In the great equation of mad scientist tropes)

Selene Lacayo interviews author Chantel Acevedo


The Curse on Spectacle Key (Balzer + Bray, 2022) is a spooky-sweet middle grade novel by the great storyteller, Chantel Acevedo, who most recently had gifted us with the Muse Squad novels.


Acevedo tells a perfect ghost story sprinkled with Cuban American and Southern culture for readers between grades 3-7. She introduces us to lonely Frank Fernandez –a fifth grader who has never stayed at a place long enough to make friends. His parents do home renovations of the extreme kind turning anything from silos to old churches into homes. Their passion for reinventing and salvaging abandoned buildings is what brings them to Spectacle Key, the place they promised Frank to make their home for good.


Except there is a minor problem awaiting them at the lighthouse that is to be turned into their new home. To Frank’s parents, it seems that their new investment is riddled with problems that no sooner they fix one, they encounter another. To Frank himself the problem is that a ghost of sorts lives there and has stubbornly decided to get his attention by causing all kinds of trouble for his parents (and him).


This charming novel is about loneliness and friendship found in unexpected times and places. It is about trusting children to explore the world with openness and wonder as much as it is about adults realizing that they don’t have answers to everything.


I chatted with Chantel Acevedo about her inspiration for this book in the summer of 2022.


Selene Lacayo:

Chantel thanks a million for meeting with me. I became a fan after reading Muse Squad with my daughter and couldn’t wait to get my hands on this mystery novel! What gave you the idea of making your main character, Frank, a lonely boy, and what burden does he have to carry through his childhood that gets him to this point where he feels the need to ask for stability from his parents?


Chantel Acevedo:

Frank was an interesting creation for me. The initial sort of seed of the story was my love of mad scientist stories –not the very creepy ones, but sort of lovable ones. I think one of the first inspirations was [the movie] Back to the Future. In the revision process, I got down a lot of Frank’s quirks and personality traits and things that he likes, but his loneliness was also always there.


Often when you see that kind of wacky scientist with more of a “normal” person who's guiding them in some way, the “normal” person is usually friendless too because, otherwise, why would they choose to hang out with the mad scientist? It is because they are both lonely and looking for connection, that they end up becoming friends.


In terms of a personal connection, we moved from Alabama to Miami when my oldest was entering fourth grade. In a sense, she was ripped away from everything she’d ever known and all her friends. It introduced a layer of instability in her life, so in the years that followed, she would ask from time to time if we were moving again. Because if it had happened once, it could happen again. Extrapolating that to the life of a child like Frank who for whatever reason, moves a lot, that child lives an ongoing grieving process. Leaving behind friends every time and going to scary new places.


SL:

Speaking about moving a lot, where did you get the idea of having these wacky places to renovate all over the country as a business?


CA:

There are a million reasons why a family moves around a lot. Most always is for jobs. I thought, what's fun, and what's weird, and what would get Frank to the Florida Keys, which is a very unique place.


I love renovation shows on TV –especially when amazingly talented designers and architects turn these unusual places into very comfortable, beautiful homes. Once I got that idea, Frank’s backstory became so vivid in my head as well as all the weird places in which he’s lived.


SL:

That’s terrific! I also love reno shows! Here I was thinking that because of the big role that Frankenstein plays in your story, the houses were a sort of monster that the parents were putting together. Especially the lighthouse, it had a very Frankenstein element to itself because it was falling apart in so many ways and they were patching it up. It became unusually hard to fix but, they didn’t know this was a ghost playing tricks on them.


Speaking about the ghost. I have a question about the parallel between the ghost companion and this idea of the imaginary friend that the mom and the grandpa had in their own childhoods because of their loneliness. And another layer to that question: Don't you feel like having a ghost companion who can’t come with you to school and other activities is just like a patch for your loneliness?


CA:

Absolutely! That is why it was important for me at the end of the story for Frank to make real life friends that are in the flesh and who will be able to grow up with him. Frank will always miss his old friend Connie slash Alice as a supportive part of his life, but she is moving on in her plane of existence, which is not his.


Of course, in the story, this imaginary friend that accompanied grandpa, mom and now Frank has been the same kid trying to call the attention of each of them. We assumed it was an imaginary friend because that's where your logical mind goes: “I'm not actually seeing a ghost; this is my imagination playing tricks on me”. This is what Frank feels for a while, and it is suggested that he comes from a line of lonely people. Frank’s mom was potentially lonely, and his grandfather was as well as a child. In his loneliness, Frank wasn’t alone, there are people around him who experienced it too.


SL:

This opens the door to my next question about the scientist grandpa with his logic and the supernatural elements and how you reconcile them to then play a role in the story because they're opposites. Science is one thing, the supernatural is another and they don't necessarily talk to each other, but in this story they do. Why did you do that?


CA:

Going back to the mad scientist trope we touched on, there is this tradition in sci-fi of mad scientists making magical things happen (it happens in superhero comics too). It is not possible to time travel in a 1985 DeLorean, for example, but a mad scientist makes it happen in the movie Back to the Future.


Also, plot wise, it creates a tension in the story because Frank sees himself as a junior scientist. He has a scientific mind however, everything he is learning on Spectacle Key challenges it. I think of other childhood influences, like Scooby Doo, where some characters were always dubious, looking for a real logical explanation. And then you had Shaggy and Scooby always certain they were dealing with ghosts. That’s always a really fun tension to explore.


SL:

Oh, that's interesting. I thought about how in Latin America we just commune with the supernatural and it is the most normal thing, but then when you try to explain that to someone who's not from the culture, they think you're crazy. I think we know how to bring both worlds together and how to live in an existence that is not just one thing. It's not very black and white. We're very open to the supernatural as part of our daily lives.


CA:

Absolutely! maybe this is an adjacent conversation to The Curse on Spectacle Key, which is fantasy centered in the paranormal (not magical realism). But oftentimes, when people talk about magical realism, particularly as it relates to Latin America, they misunderstand it. There is this feeling that magical things are reality. It's not just some fanciful thing the artist makes up. It's rooted in the stories your grandmother told you and how they manifest in many ways in your life. And that's the realism part of it that people forget. They'll call anything-goes-magic, magical realism but they forget about the realism part of that equation. I think that's an interesting conversation.


SL:

I believe your character Mama Z is almost a representation of this marriage between magic and logic that happens in your book because she's the mayor of the town; however, she also reads your fortune. It seems like the most opposite type of a characteristics to have in one person, but it totally makes sense in your story. I believe that, right there, is very Latin American!


I want to change the course of our conversation to Frank’s dad, who's Cuban American and his mom who is from Southern USA. How does this bi-cultural relationship shape Frank?


CA:

There’s a lot of dualities in the book. Frank is my first bicultural character. Part of the influence there was from our time in Alabama. Although my husband and I are both Cuban American, I could see while we were living there, how my daughter absorbed a lot of southern culture. Even though technically she wasn't bicultural, it was a bit like growing up almost in a third culture. That was interesting to me.


At the same time, I have never written a southern character. I wanted to give Frank's mom a little bit of the Alabama that I remembered and really loved while I lived there.


Duality is a big part of the story. Frank’s mother is the daughter of a scientist and thus, scientifically minded. His dad is very practical. Curiously in the way I imagined it, the father who is from Cuba is not liking the imaginary friend thing. Bringing a bit of that macho mentality where fathers tell their sons to be tough, and tough guys don’t have imaginary friends. But then the mom chimes in saying that maybe they do have imaginary friends. There’s this constant pull in different directions for Frank, but at the same time they are very amicably and lovingly together and form a family culture. I wanted Frank to feel that he could draw from both elements of his culture equally.


SL:

This has been so wonderful. I have one last question for you, Chantel. Do you have any suggestions for someone who's feeling lonely and is thinking well, imaginary friends and ghosts are great in books, but what can I do in real life? What advice do you have for your readers?


CA:

If you're young, and you're feeling lonely, I think there are a couple of avenues to find friends. Find places that you love because likely, there will be other people there who love the same thing you do. You'll find kinship and affinity. Finding common ground is usually the first step in becoming a friend with someone. So going into places where you might find others with common interests it’s important.


The other thing I think with Frank, is that he learns a lesson here, which is not to make quick judgments, because he dismisses Lucas right away. He distrusts him because past experiences have told him new kids get teased. I think sometimes you have to simply trust that perhaps this person has good intentions and be friendly in return.


 

Called "a master storyteller" by Kirkus Reviews, Chantel Acevedo is the author of the novels Love and Ghost Letters, A Falling Star, The Distant Marvels, which was a finalist for the 2016 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and , The Living Infinite, hailed by Booklist as a "vivid and enthralling tale of love and redemption." Muse Squad: The Cassandra Curse and Muse Squad: The Mystery of the Tenth, Acevedo's new middle grade duology (called "Riveting and suspenseful" by School Library Journal) was published by Balzer + Bray. Her latest middle grade novel, THE CURSE ON SPECTACLE KEY, is a lightly spooky story set in the Florida Keys, coming September 6th, 2022. She is Professor of English at the University of Miami, where she directs the MFA program


Originally from Mexico, Selene Lacayo is a writer and translator living with her husband and three children in The Greater Philadelphia Area. She holds a master's degree in English from West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where she focused in creative writing. She was the 2018 Judge's Choice Runner-Up for the Write Michigan Short Story Contest. Her essays have been published by InCulture Magazine, Americans Resisting Overseas, the COVID-19 Community Stories of the Grand Rapids Public Museum and Alebrijes Review. Her short story Amalgam forms part of The Best Short Stories of Philadelphia of 2021. She is currently working on a memoir centered around the themes of belonging, identity and motherhood.

Image by Daniel Gregoire via Unsplash

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