Julian Randall Bids Farewell to Pilar Ramirez in Epic Series Conclusion

SLJ catches up with author Julian Randall to discuss growing a protagonist over a series, the importance of writing in community, and his next exciting middle grade adventure.

In the thrilling conclusion to the epic "Pilar Ramirez" duology, Pilar has escaped from the magical world of Zafa only to find a whole host of trouble (unleashed demon included) waiting for her in the Dominican Republic. SLJ catches up with author Julian Randall to discuss growing a protagonist over a series, the importance of writing in community, and his next exciting middle grade adventure.

Photo by Johnny Lee Chapman III

In the conclusion to this duology, how do you feel Pilar has changed and grown since the first installment? Did any part of her journey come as a surprise to you?

It was such a joy to get back on the track with my hermanita Pilar! It’s been a year since her last adventure and I think what struck me first is how Pilar’s resolve has become so much more instinctual; turns out hero life really suits her! Pilar’s always had tons of resolve, but her focus in this manuscript I think is much stronger than when she was in a bit of a fish-out-of-water situation in Escape From Zafa. Where I think she’s grown the most is how she navigates conflict, which is not solely about her becoming a stronger and more capable fighter than in book one (though she is also that) but also how she navigates the final conflict. No spoilers, but as I was writing the crescendo of the book, I was seeing how Pilar made choices I knew that she wouldn’t have a year ago. I feel very proud of who she’s grown to be. It coincided with me realizing how much this is a book about repair, about return, about healing and how Pilar challenged my first instincts on what that can look like, what messages I wanted the series to end on. I’m just so grateful that I’ve gotten to be her author.

Your writing is so vivid, from capturing Pilar's grisly recurring dreams to her elation at seeing the Dominican Republic for the first time. How have you honed your craft?

With community honestly! I feel like the stronger your admiration of the people you’re in conversation with in your writing, the stronger the writing becomes. I mean, who could ask for a better slate of KidLit creators to write alongside than right now? That pushes me, that makes me want to strive to outdo myself every sentence. Then on top of that I’ve got Brian Geffen in my corner, and he’s just an incredibly talented editor who we’ve developed such a rhythm with each other so quickly that I feel comfortable to make exactly what’s in my head. A community like that? You have an opportunity and almost a duty to rise, to hone, to improve!

"There are different magics to these lands, and maybe there’s nothing worse than being separated from the magic you love best" is such a striking line with so many meanings. How did you build out this world that entwines Dominican history with middle grade fantasy elements?

This book allowed me to live out a lifelong dream and move to the Dominican Republic for a little while on a research trip. Seeing and feeling the way the music of the island’s day-to-day knit itself together, I knew that diaspora is a kind of magic with many threads and different practices and I wanted to try and make sentences in this book that captured Pilar coming to the same feeling in real time. She’s really learning more this book about what it means to her to be from more than one place, after spending the previous 12 years of her life pretty much only in Chicago. Pilar’s learning in her own life through Zafa, but also by watching her mami and abuela returning to the Dominican Republic—an island that is both home and a site of enormous pain and trauma (that neither realize Pilar actually has more answers about than they can dream). Now Pilar is learning that alongside Zafa and Chicago, this place she has only ever been able to imagine before is home too—just in time for her old nemesis El Baca to escape with a mysterious new enemy who can control silence itself, a cursed storm, and a master plan to ruin all three homes at the same time.

Which secondary characters or storylines do you wish you could've spent more time with?

Fina and Cielo, respectively but also together! Fina shows up very briefly in the first book as the youngest member of Pilar’s squad (fun fact: Fina’s name is a play on my mother’s!) and I just adore her energy. I feel like she and Pilar eventually would grow to become extremely close! I can’t say much about Cielo, because of book two spoilers, but I would absolutely be down for a short story that bridges the two if the right opportunity for it came along!

What projects are up next for you?

The genuine minute that the first draft of Pilar 2 was turned in, I had a vision of a Black girl at the prow of a great ship. I had no idea what it meant at the time and I was sleep-deprived in a way I hadn’t been in years, so I jotted it down and wondered if I’d ever see her again. Turns out, we’d be seeing a lot of each other. She’s Violet Moon, 12-year-old grim reaper and protagonist of my next middle grade novel, The Chainbreakers! The story follows Violet as she inherits command of her father’s ship with a crew of reapers who helps the souls of folks lost during the middle passage! It drops Fall 2024 and I can’t wait to share this story with young readers everywhere!

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