Michelle Ruiz Keil's entry into the young adult literary world started with a dare.
The former playwright, who used to run Milk & Honey Community Studio in Southeast Portland, had been recruited to teach a class at her children's high school for National Novel Writing Month when she decided to put her creative fate in their hands. She presented her class with four different story plots and had them vote for one.
The result was All of Us With Wings, a coming-of-age novel set in San Francisco, sometime in those precious years before the city was transformed forever by the tech industry.
The book follows a young woman named Xochi, who, after running away from the pot farm where she spent part of her childhood, ends up living in one of the city's famed Victorian mansions in the employ of a family of rock stars. Xochi's job is to keep an eye on the 12-year-old daughter of the band's leaders, while at the same time trying to confront her past traumas and navigate a mysterious, magical and often dangerous world.
We spoke with Keil about magic, fairy tales and the stories behind her debut novel.
WW: Tell me about your journey writing this book.
Michelle Ruiz Keil: It started off as a dare to the kids—"My life is crazy right now, and if I can do it, you guys can do it. Let's just all do this." Then I realized, at that time in my life, the theater stuff I was trying to do was not really working for my life. I just found this little refuge in this project.
The book takes place in post-punk San Francisco. Why did that particular place and era appeal to you?
I really wanted to write a book about San Francisco because that's the city of my heart. I was born there, I grew up around the Bay Area and moved back there as a teenager on my own. It's the place where I came of age, and I really wanted to write a story where the city was a character.
Where did you draw the inspiration for the magical aspects of Xochi's world?
Magical realism is sort of a regular Tuesday for me. I really try to be in the world in a way where I'm experiencing everything around me as alive and luminous and full of purpose. I've been looking at Latinx futurism and Afrofuturism and seeing that there are all these stories that encompass this way of being in the world that is precolonial, decolonized. That's really what I wanted to express with the magic in that book—that there is this fluidity in reality that can be experienced and is experienced by a lot of people.
For a runaway, Xochi seems to have hit the jackpot after going through what she does and then ending up with a family of kindhearted, literal rock stars.
That's where the fairy-tale element comes in. In all of my stories, the bones are made of fairy tales, [and] you might not see it if you weren't looking for it. One of them is the Armless Maiden. That's a story where this girl is promised to the devil by her parents. When the devil comes, she protects herself, but the penalty she pays is her family removes her arms. She leaves her family and wanders the forest and she's found by a king and is brought to his castle. The mansion on the hill is the castle, and they're kinda royalty who have taken [Xochi] in.
Perhaps I'm just being a prude, but some of the themes you explore, like polyamory and body modification, seem a little advanced for young adults.
If you're a young adult that's living on your own early that has not been able to do those classic rites of passage like high school graduation and college, there's a lot of ritual and support in all of those societal structures that we can go through to get to our place of being independent adults. And if you don't have that, you have to create these rituals for yourself, and sometimes these rituals can look scary or dangerous—and be scary and dangerous. I really wanted to tell a story like that, and I'm really glad it's coming out for young adults. For me, as a young adult, that's the book I could have really used.
SEE IT: Michelle Ruiz Keil converses with Tehlor Kay Meija at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, on Tuesday, June 17. 7 pm.