Santa Fe-based tale of grief and discovery reaches out to young readers

Book of the week

Alex Richards feels right at home writing fiction for young adult readers.

“Even before I was a teenager, I always liked to read (the YA genre) and I have felt it’s the most comfortable voice for me (as a writer) and on which I would have the most impact,” Richards said in a phone interview.

In her 20s, she started writing young adult stories. “It felt right for me. It still does,” she said. Richards’ new young adult novel, which officially launches Tuesday, July 27 is “When We Were Strangers.”

In it, Richards explores how 17-year-old Evie Parker, who lives in Santa Fe, deals with the grief over the loss of her father who dies of a sudden heart attack.

On the same day of his death, Evie finds more upsetting news: Her father had packed his bags and was planning to leave home.

Evie must also wrap her head around the shock that her dad was fleeing to take up with Bree, the 22-year-old receptionist in his accounting office. Evie wants to hide that secret from her already distraught mom. As if that isn’t enough emotional disruption for Evie, she soon learns that Bree is pregnant. The novel builds to an unexpected conclusion and reconfigures what family is.

Alex Richards will discuss “When We Were Strangers” in a Zoom conversation with Courtney Knudsen, a bookseller at Collected Works Bookstore, Santa Fe, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 27.To register for the Zoom event go to collectedworksbookstore.com/events-1/alex-richards-when-we-were-strangers

Richards’ writing sparkles. The liveliness shows in her smooth blend of vocabulary and imagery in the narrative. In one scene the reader observes Evie’s good friend Juana whose “hair is windswept and stormy when she pulls back in through the window …”

Here’s another descriptive passage. It’s the first day of Evie’s summer-long photography workshop. She’s looking at her teacher, Georgina “Georgy” Denton, who “reminds me of a long-tailed widowbird I used to see in Dad’s bird-watching books as a kid.” Just like that widowbird, “she seems to soar toward me, with arms full of dragon tattoos and a firm, yet delicate, handshake.”

Richards effectively uses metaphors. Here’s a notable, inventive one. Evie is chatting with her mom, just home after a bad day at work.

“As soon as she’s in the other room, Billy Joel starts up. Like an obedient dog, he’s been waiting for her on the stereo all day.” And in another scene, Juana gives Evie a buddy’s candid opinion of her abilities at the same time consoling her.

Juana says Evie is sort of sweet, plus smart, talented and brave. And don’t forget these are tough times for you so, “it’s OK to wallow and be selfish,” Juana notes, hinting that she’d “make an awesome photographer.”

“You’re all kind of angsty to begin with – imagine how good you’d be, working through your grief and suffering like some kind of two-eyebrowed Frida Kahlo.”

Sensing the value of Juana’s friendly advice, Evie furthers the light mood. “I do have great eyebrows,” she says.

Richards, born in New York, moved with her family to Santa Fe when she was 4. She attended Rio Grande Elementary, Santa Fe Prep and in 1997 graduated from Santa Fe High.

In high school, she developed a love of photography, studying at Santa Fe Workshops and with photographer Steve Northup. Richards also took a strong interest in creative writing, thanks to the storytelling advice she received from Natalie Goldberg, a renowned Santa Fe writing teacher. Goldberg was actually Richards’ sister’s teacher. Richards received a Bachelor of Arts in photography from Bard College. She worked in film and television for a few years before pursuing writing full-time. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Richards’ previous YA novel was the 2020 “Accidental,” which is about family secrets and rolls in such social issues as gun violence and bullying.

“I do plan to continue writing about Santa Fe …” she said. “I feel New Mexico is such a beautiful and unique place and is underrepresented in fiction, and especially young adult fiction.”

Richards also enjoys enfolding New Mexico in her fiction to present “a different setting in a different landscape – the altitude, the food and the colors.” And because she grew up in the state, she’s pleased to represent it in her fiction.

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