To create his extraordinary debut YA novel, Pedro & Daniel (Levine Querido, June 6), Federico Erebia revisited his years growing up with younger brother Daniel in their big and complicated Mexican American family. By knitting together vivid scenes from their lives in small-town Ohio, Erebia explores the contours of homosexuality, religion, racism, colorism, domestic violence, abuse, neurodivergence, HIV/AIDS, and the infinite intersections these threads knot themselves into. The result is a rich and captivating story, with illustrations by Julie Kwon, that Kirkus, in a starred review, calls “stunning.” We recently met with Erebia at a coffee shop in Boston; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Pedro & Daniel is a work of fiction. But it is rooted in your own lived experience from 1968 to 1992—the character Pedro is, in essence, you. What made you decide to write fiction and not a straightforward memoir?

I think it’s important to understand that this is a four-arc book. It has a full arc of Pedro’s life from age 5 until age 30 (covering the years 1968 to 1992). A full arc [is] Daniel’s life during the same period. There’s an arc in Part 1 told from a variety of third-person perspectives, and a later arc, told in the alternating first-person perspectives of Pedro and Daniel, as Daniel faces HIV infection and AIDS. To write this, I had to put myself in Daniel’s position and in his head. Memoir wouldn’t have allowed for that.

Creating a fictionalized world from real-life memory is a complicated dance. You’re aiming for truth, but to get there you have to grant yourself some license with fact.

I built all of these scenes partly from memory but also from scratch. I had to borrow from different memories and visions from 50 years ago, with enough specifics to really put readers in those moments as much as possible. The important thing for readers is to understand what’s going on in the boys’ minds.

Pedro and Daniel are incredibly close. And they are both gay. But Pedro doesn’t discuss his sexuality with Daniel until he’s in his 20s. Why?

Keeping it to myself was a survival tactic. If it came out in any way that I was a maricon, nothing would prevent my mother from killing me because that would be the greatest shame. It wasn’t any kind of internalized homophobia or dishonesty or not loving who I was. But you never knew. I learned to dissociate in order to mask everything. If I confirmed the facts, there would be no taking it back. As bad as it was, it would have been worse.

Throughout the book, you use dichos, or proverbs, to open windows into the boys’ minds. Daniel especially loves them. One—“Recordar es volver a vivir” (“To remember is to live again”)—also shows up on the dedication page and feels like a grounding concept throughout the book. But there is an emotional price to remembering.

Some of these stories are difficult to read, and they were difficult to write. I can’t tell you how much I cried writing this. There are some scenes that still get me. But I had to relive so much of it to be able to write it. But there are also scenes where I laugh because these things were so funny.

It feels incomplete to write about the gay experience without humor. It’s so central to who we are.

Even in the face of so many adversities that these boys face, they found joy through laughter. I wanted the reader to experience that just as the boys did. But also, I understood that I was putting the reader in very difficult positions and situations, and I didn’t want to keep them there. I wanted to give them something to laugh about—a break. You need to have the full spectrum of emotions, because they’re human. As gay people, our humor is real, and I wouldn’t even say that it’s learned, necessarily. It’s just there, and we nurture it, develop it, use it. It saves us.

There are moments of searing violence in the book, but you sometimes temper them with diversions into, for example, science and psychology and the way our minds and bodies work. In one instance, during an intense, abusive attack, you explain in a relatively dispassionate voice exactly why nerve endings in the scalp are so sensitive and why broken vessels in the scalp produce so much blood. These detours offer a generous breather and a semblance of safe remove.

I want to help the reader as they’re reading those scenes, because I know it’s a tough read. For me, I can’t even watch a movie when there’s violence. I turn it off. I don’t want readers to experience that. I hope that I’m being careful as I’m taking the reader along, helping the reader, nurturing the reader, so that they can move forward and experience the lives of these two boys.

Pedro is the older brother, but for much of the book Daniel is the one offering support and guidance. But Daniel hardly has everything figured out. Far from it. Especially in the spiritual realm.

I spent a lot of time with Pedro looking to Daniel for all the answers, but I also want to show Daniel as not really in control of all of his urges, including with his sexuality. He was human. He had his own demons. I really wanted to show his struggle with the Catholic Church, with his own spirituality. He couldn’t really explain so many of the incongruities between what he was taught and what actually makes sense. I thought it was important for Daniel to wonder about his unending love for this institution that did nothing for him. He was a throwaway for them. I do want readers to wonder about the church and its relationship with racism, colonialism, slavery, sexual abuse, genocide—these are things that are rarely talked about all together.

Your book seems, in a very contemporary way, to upend its assigned category of Young Adult. In the acknowledgements, you write: “This novel has elements of picture book, chapter book, verse novel, middle grade, young adult, new adult, adult fiction, short story, nonfiction, and memoir.…Rules were meant to be broken, conventions were meant to be challenged.”

It was hard for me to reconcile the idea that this is a young adult novel, because it crosses so many themes, and it follows the characters into adulthood. It’s unlike any book I’ve ever read in terms of the format and style and the change in point of view. Some parts are fictionalized more than others, but so much of this is exactly the way it happened.

Tucker Shaw is the author of When You Call My Name.