In Lizz Huerta’s sprawling and beautiful fantasy debut The Lost Dreamer, we meet two girls. Indir is a Dreamer, a powerful young woman who comes from a long line of Seers. Saya can also dream but her life and magic have been controlled from a young age by her mother. These two intertwined tales are at the heart of the ancient Mesoamerican inspired tale, which comes out on March 1. To celebrate the book’s release we chatted to Huerta about reimagining fantasy, found families, and her unique writing process that helped shape The Lost Dreamer.
Nerdist: Where did The Lost Dreamer begin and what was your journey to it being published?
Lizz Huerta: Since I was a teenager, I go to the same place every night when I dream. I’ve had this dream world that I visit. I have a lot of practice writing down my dreams every morning. I love that kind of little window into whatever’s going on in my subconscious. And there’s a place that I’ve been going to in my dream world, this beautiful cove that I go to and I float in the water there and hang out with sea creatures. It’s always night time. A little over 10 years ago, I thought I should write a short story in my dream world and that’s when the character of Saya was born.
I started and thought, “Let’s have fun, let’s go into the fantasy and see what happens.” I abandoned the books on and off for years, and it just wouldn’t let me go. The storylines kept coming up, the characters kept coming up. I have notes in a million notebooks and on pieces of paper everywhere about the book. Finally, when I signed with my agent in 2017, I was like, “You know what? I need to finish this book.” I did and I sold it, and then had to completely rewrite it during the pandemic. It’s a dual narrative, and those were originally two different books that I had to cut together. So it was quite the exercise in discipline and grief.
That must have been a significant challenge. What was that experience like as an author, to have to weave the two stories of Indir and Saya together?
They were both stories about young women who are facing a major identity shift at a pivotal point in their life. They’re teenagers and everything they know about their world shifts. That requires both a lot of bravery and presence with that grieving process. “Hey, I have to mourn who I was and what I thought the world was to me in order to inhabit this new sense of self and possibility.” I love both those characters. I wrote them letters. I wrote Indir a long letter of apology because I put her through more than anybody should go through. So I wrote her a long letter like, “Hey, babe, I’m sorry. I know it’s been rough but you got what you wanted. I’m sure you’ve had so many adventures on the way.” I felt really bad for her!
The Lost Dreamer submerges readers into such an immersive, engaging space. What was your process like when it came to crafting the landscape and world of The Lost Dreamer?
The worldbuilding came very intuitively to me. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico, my father’s from Mexico. In my early 20s, I lived down there for about a year in central Mexico. I’d visit these archaeological sites and just sit there and take them in. I’d try to imagine all the stories that had been lived in them. So the worldbuilding just came very organically. It just showed up. I love it.
It’s really funny because when I read the book, I can see where I was influenced very heavily by other worldbuilding. Specifically The Clan of the Cave Bear books, which is so strange. But I was like, “Oh, I use the same contraceptive flower.” There’s just a little moment of this anthropological worldbuilding. Those books were very formative for me when I was growing up. I can see how they’re kind of woven into my worldbuilding, which I’m really pleased with. It also cracks me up because I’m reading the book and I’m just like, “Clan of the Cave Bear!!”
How did you bring those two core aspects of the historical and the personal together?
I have a little bit of a unique approach to how I sit down to write. I read voraciously. I worked as an iron painter between the years, so I’d listen to audiobooks every day, all day. I think so much of that seeps into the subconscious. My writing practice is before I sit down to write I meditate. I have a long history of meditative practice. So I sit down and I kind of invite the characters in. I visualize myself in the world. I have this mantra that I just say to myself: “I trust the story choosing to emerge through me.” Then I let my subconscious do the work. All I do is sit at the keyboard! I still surprise myself! Sometimes I read the book and I’m like, “Who wrote that?”
One of the most unique and powerful things for me in The Lost Dreamer was your exploration of familial abuse and specifically abusive mothers. Could you talk a little about that?
When I was growing up, especially as a teenager, I had a couple of friends who had these very emotionally abusive mothers. We view motherhood as sacred in this society, which it is. But there can be a shadow side to it. There’s so much work right now around being unmothered, the mother wound, and the trauma that’s passed down through generations.
Saya’s mother, she’s not a good person. She’s very manipulative, vindictive, and cruel. She has her own backstory, so it’s the continuation of a cycle. So I just thought of the friends I had with really abusive mothers and was like, “There has to be a story for them too.” There wasn’t really any physical abuse. But still, that kind of withholding of emotion and cruelty and manipulation, it’s real. That happens in this world and it ended up in the book. I’ve had people in my life who say it’s really hard to read because she’s so cruel. And I’m like, “Yeah it’s hard to read. Imagine how hard it is to live.” I know so many people who have just completely cut off their mothers because of cruelty and abuse. But not me, I love my mom, my mom is amazing!
When it comes to Saya’s journey, she gets to explore her life outside of the family she was born into. That delves into one of my favorite tropes: found family. Why was that something that mattered to you and to this story?
There’s a liberation that comes through community. If you’re not going to find that love and liberation at home, you find it through a family you build on your own. Saya has that experience of not just building a community but also realizing there are people who will advocate for her.
We don’t really get a choice in the families we were born to. Not consciously, maybe in some other dimension. I think all of us have to build our own communities. In fiction and in real life, you have to find the people who you resonate with who see you and support you.
Within fantasy you have your little group of people and they all have their own different special skills, and I have that in my real life too! I get to be the storyteller. My other friend gets to be the group mom for everybody. There are these roles that people take on, almost like archetypal roles, to help us move through the world. I love journeys and fantasy and the little group that forms in order to move the story forward. Everybody bringing their own strengths and weaknesses. And I feel like my little inner circle of family. I wouldn’t be here right now without them.
Is there a moment, character beat, or page turn you’re most excited for readers to experience?
I don’t want to give anything away. But the Ceremony of the Nightbird, I’m so excited about that because I haven’t seen that in fantasy. I want it for my queer community, so deeply to give this very sacred act a name. Giving a name to something so beautiful and powerful is really, really important. I put it in the book specifically for friends of mine, who when I was writing the book were going through this process and were like, “It’s so heteronormative that we don’t see this process anywhere discussed or talked about.” And I was like, “I got you, I will fix this for you.” So I’m excited for readers to discover what that is.
I’m excited to see how people are gonna react to the reveal… I’m on TikTok a lot. I love BookTok and author TikTok. So I love when people react to what they’re reading. The biggest curiosity is how are people going to react to the book? I have no idea. I have no control over it. So I’m curious who my readers will be and what will resonate with them. This is a lifelong dream. It’s a circuitous path for me to get here. So I’m like, “Let’s see what happens!”
Is there anything you want young readers to take away from the book when they read it?
So much of what we read in fantasy, the focus is on the immediate. But we’re all living these—hopefully, if we’re lucky—really long stories. We have no idea what they’re going to turn out to be. There are going to be really, really hard moments, and there are going to be moments of exquisite beauty. So I want my readers to believe in the long game, to believe in the long story of their lives. You never know the twists and turns. Before this book sold I was ready to stop writing. I made a deal with myself. I had just turned 40, and I said, “If I don’t sell a book this year, I’m going to pick a different career. This is the year that I’m going to do it or change gears.” Here I am three years later and it all happened! I could never have imagined this.