Magic, Motherhood, and More: A Talk with Tessa Barbosa

Today I am delighted to present a conversation with our very own Tessa Barbosa, whose riveting debut novel THE MOONLIGHT BLADE came out yesterday. Tessa is a regular contributor here at Writer Unboxed, as well as a dear friend. We “met” maybe a decade ago through blogging, and bonded over our hyphenate identities and how that impacts our lives and our work. We’ve gone through many milestones in parallel over the years — from writing (and scrapping) manuscripts, to becoming mothers, to querying and being on submission… She is a gem of a person and a heck of a writer, and I’m over the moon that so many readers are about to discover her!

Let’s find out more about Tessa’s book, and her journey to this point.

KH: First, can you give a quick pitch of THE MOONLIGHT BLADE? 

TB: Of course! It’s a story about a cursed girl who enters a deadly magical competition to save her condemned mother. She doesn’t know why her mother was arrested, but she soon discovers that she is the center of a conspiracy that spans past lives. If she doesn’t solve the mystery of who she is, and who she was, her curse could destroy the whole country – again.

KH: Phew, that’s a lot — in a good way! To me, THE MOONLIGHT BLADE felt like like a dash of Hunger Games (teens fighting to the death for a dubious distinction) + a spoonful of Laini Taylor (monsters, magic, past lives coming to bear) + a dozen heaping scoops of Tessa Barbosa (Filipino culture, family bonds, beautiful writing), which results in a story that’s incredibly fresh and vibrant, unlike anything I’ve read in a long long time.

What was the genesis of this story? How did THE MOONLIGHT BLADE start for you, and how did it come together?

TB: When I started writing it, I had a year old baby, and I’d taken a forced break from writing, because my pregnancy and newborn experience was so difficult. My daughter refused to sleep and cried constantly for 7 months straight. Every day I hoped it might get easier, but it didn’t for a long time. I was sleep deprived, and this story about complicated relationships between mothers and daughters, plus high stakes and a lot of pressure, somehow just poured out the moment I had a little free time again. It didn’t take long to draft the novel, but it took a substantial amount of time for me to revise it, because editing was a skill I didn’t have a lot of experience with yet.

KH: Oof, I’ve been there… With a tough baby, I mean. Never had a book pour out of me, sadly!

Your editing muscles must be incredible now, because Narra’s story is so powerful and layered. There is the mystery of her mother’s crime, the mystery of her connection to Teloh, the mystery of who is conspiring within the Fortress, and of course, the Sundo competition itself. How did you manage all these threads throughout the writing and editing processes?

TB: Staying VERY VERY organized. I have lists for everything, including a “story bible” which is an Excel spreadsheet with a description of every scene in the story, along with all the characters that appear, what day it is (because the timeline for the whole novel is a little over a week!), and columns for every subplot that gets addressed in each scene. It really saved me so many times, especially during edits.

KH: Wow! And in addition to juggling storylines, you also touch on a lot of important themes. Power, religion, class differences… Of course these concepts are relevant to every society, but I’m curious whether you feel THE MOONLIGHT BLADE approaches them with more of a “Western” or “Eastern” perspective?

TB: Both, I think? There’s a tension between how to exist within a collectivist culture, while still being fiercely independent, and not fitting an expected role, and I played with that when I wrote Narra. It’s something that I think a lot of children of immigrants living in the West can relate to. In addition to a generational struggle, there’s a cultural tug of war as well.

KH: For sure. Having an Asian immigrant mother myself, that certainly resonated with me when I was reading.

In fact, although this is a YA fantasy with a killer* commercial hook, I was surprised to find that the two elements that felt most central to Narra’s story were much… quieter. First, the complex relationships between Narra and her loved ones, and second, the ties to Filipino culture. What draws you to these themes, and have they always been part of your work?

TB: These two elements are actually closely related. I wanted to write a book that drew heavily on Filipino culture, because that wasn’t something I had done before. Family is one of the most important things in our culture, and it doesn’t just include blood relatives. I purposely wanted to examine family relationships with this story, and how sometimes those relationships are not easy. There was a lot to think about, including utang na loob, or the obligation we feel to the people who have raised us, and what can go wrong when you’re not allowed to question or disobey your elders — even when they are flawed or broken people. It’s no coincidence the supreme being in this world is a self-styled goddess, and there are parallels in her relationship to the country and the one Narra has with her mother.

KH: Okay, I am mind-blown emoji right now. Love that.

You know, it makes me wonder, who is your favorite character in THE MOONLIGHT BLADE, and why?

TB: For me? Reshar. I know he won’t be the favorite of teen readers, but I personally enjoy a grumpy brooding character, and I wrote him for me. If I get to write more books, you will see him again. Maybe one day he’ll finally have reason to smile?

KH: Unexpected! For me, it might be Virian, or Kuran, or Teloh, or… gah, so hard to choose.

What was your favorite scene in THE MOONLIGHT BLADE?

TB: Every scene with Narra and Teloh alone together, because there’s always so much tension. My favorite though, is when they sit together and talk in the in the greenhouse in the middle of the night and finally start to get to know one another.

KH: I loved the greenhouse scene too!

Okay, zooming out a bit, how are you feeling, now that your book is out? I suspect that for an author, there’s so much focus on the book, and promoting it, and answering questions like these, that your own humanity can feel sort of… besides the point? Or a bit swallowed up? But as your friend, I very much want to check in on you, Tessa Barbosa, the person! 

TB: I’m excited and happy, and exhausted all at once. This is a dream I’ve been working towards for the last 13 years, and it still doesn’t feel real. But finally being able to talk about my work feels like a gift, because I haven’t been able to until this point, since no one beyond my beta readers has read it. I was bracing for the worst reaction, but most people have been super kind and excited! However, I definitely need to step back from social media for a while, because I’ve been spending an unhealthy amount of time online. Writing is my happy place, and I’d really like to get back to that soon.

KH: How DO you make time for your writing? You have kids, and a day job, and all the other normal daily obligations and pressures…

TB: By not having a life? It’s very very difficult these days, and sometimes it feels like all I do is work outside of single parenting. Luckily I LOVE all stages of the writing process, but I definitely need more work life balance.

KH: Don’t we all.

With that, let’s give a big thanks and congratulations to Tessa! I hope you all enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. And please don’t miss out on her amazing book THE MOONLIGHT BLADE, available pretty much everywhere:

*pun retroactively intended


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