Yzaura Vanegas is a director, producer and trainer of interactive live events for Nickelodeon and the host, producer and writer of the podcast How About A Story. It’s difficult to categorize the genre of the book she chose to talk to me about today. It teeters somewhere between self-help, motivational, fable, and love story. But it’s also a fictional tale about a journey, and I loved talking to her about how we have read “The Alchemist” over the years.
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Host: Julie Strauss
Guest: Ysaura Vanegas
Want to be a guest on the Best Book Ever Podcast? Go here!
Books discussed in this episode:
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe
The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe
The Ebony Frame by Edith Nesbit
The Institute by Stephen King
11/22/63 by Stephen King
It by Stephen King
Blood Memory: An Autobiography by Martha Graham
Discussed in our Patreon Conversation:
Soft Voice Podcast
I Found a Wormhole Podcast
My Favorite Murder Podcast
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Ysaura Vanegas on “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho
Hello, Bookworms, welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and on today’s episode, I’m talking to the brilliant Ysaura Venegas. Ysaura is a director, producer and trainer of interactive live events for Nickelodeon, and also the host producer and writer of the podcast How About a Story. This season on her podcast, she wrote her first audio drama, where she combined her love for fairytales and true crime together to create “Following the Big, Bad Wolf,” a true crime investigation in fairytale land. Ysaura got me to read one of those books that people tend to pick up when they’re at a crossroads in their lives. I haven’t read this one in years and it was so fascinating to think about it again. I love talking to Ysaura about why The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is the Best Book Ever.
Whether they read a book a day or a book a year. I love asking people to tell me about their favorite books. And that includes you dear listener. What’s your all-time favorite? Your desert island classic? What about the childhood favorite that you still know by heart? The mystery that took you by surprise, the biography that changed your way of thinking, or the book club favorite that you can’t stop thinking about? I’m looking for guests from all walks of life to talk to me about it all kinds of books here on the show. Go to my website, Juliewroteabook.com and click on the button that says “Be a Guest on the Best Book Ever.” I’m really looking forward to talking to you! Now, back to the show.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Ysaura. Welcome to the Best Book Bver podcast.
Ysaura Vanegas: I’m excited to be here.
JS: I want to start right away asking you about your podcast because I think you have possibly the most wonderful concept for a podcast. I would love it if you would tell my listeners what you do on How About a Story.
YV: Oh, great, thanks for that. It’ nice hearing those nice compliments. My podcast is “How About a Story” and I read fairytales and I create engaging soundscapes with it. But for this past season, Season 4, I decided to create my own version of what I believe I true crime story would be in fairytale land. I love true crime and I love fairytales. I combined them together and it’s called “Following the Big, Bad Wolf,” where I find fairytales and compare them to how I believe the Big, Bad Wolf is a serial killer in fairytale land. And I’m proving this throughout the story. So it’s like an audio drama, and I have friends that are voicing characters. We have the Big, Bad Wolf voice on there. And each episode is just highlighting how he is a serial killer, destroying people in fairytale land.
JS: Does he have a redemptive arc? At the end of your drama, is he redeemed at all or is he just a bad guy through and through? I have to listen and find that out I guess.
YV: Bad guy through and through actually. Yeah, it does have a surprise ending, so I can’t say how it ends. But we do follow him along and it’s interesting. We do have an arc for this character. We meet him as a pup and how he’s like a young wolf and how he engages in fairy land with people, and then how he reaches and goes through becoming the vicious being that he is. And I even compare him to a lot of our own serial killers here in our world. I compare the lines together. So that way you can kind of see where I’m coming from. It’s only seven episodes; they’re pretty short. They’re between 15 to 20 minutes long, just to get a little snippet of what’s going on. And then we have the surprise ending at the end.
JS: But the first three seasons, tell me about those. Because those were adifferent format.
YV: Yeah, definitely a different format. I started out with fairytales from Puerto Rico because there were fairytales that my mom had read to me when I was a kid. And I always thought that they were really interesting and I was like, you know, they’re not really represented in our society. So I was like, you know, I’m just going to talk about them. So I give a little history about them in the beginning, and then I say the fairytale. And I created all the soundscapes for it and all the sound design. It’s more like you’re actually walking through this experience with these stories. That was the first season. And then I went into the second season and I talked about different fairytales and read about Alice in Wonderland. I did another series season where we did all horror movie or horror tales for Halloween. I called it The Season of Fear. We talked about a whole bunch of the different stories like “The Raven,” “The Tell-tale Heart.”
YV: You know, it was fun. Fun to just kind of bring those up. “The Ebony Frame” by Edith Nesbitt.
JS: What is that one?
YV: It is so great. It’s this story about this man who finds a portrait of himself in this house and next to a portrait of a lady. And he’s like, how has it happened? And this lady comes out of the picture. They’re like long lost, loves, and it’s like this whole, engaging story about that. I like creepy stuff. So it was really fun to do it.
JS: I never heard of that one. That sounds good.
YV: It’s a good one. It’s a really good. Edith Nesbitt does the amazing horror stories. So if you get a chance there, they’re quick read too, and they’re fun.
JS: It sounds like exactly the kind of horror story I’m always looking for and can never find, which is, I always want spooky, but not gory. And those, are so hard to find.
YV: Yeah. So you’re not in the true crime world?
JS: No! Very little true crime in my life. But that leads me to my next question: Who’s the audience? Who are you trying to reach with your podcast? Because it seems like you might accidentally get very young listeners and they might not want to listen to this season?
YV: That’s the thing. I think what I’m going for is the older crowd, but I think it’s more like young adult that I’m mostly hitting. And I think that has to do with what I do for my real life work, as I do a lot of stuff with younger kids. I work for Nickelodeon and I deal a lot with engaging families and stuff like that. So I think when I start writing my own stuff, or picking out my books, I don’t go into something that’s super heavy, but heavy enough that you can kind of fill in the gaps to what else is going on there, depending on where your mind is at, at that moment. And it does seem like a lot of my stuff is younger for younger audiences.
JS: Also, everybody loves to hear fairytales and origin stories of fairytales. That was the most popular class when I was in college, was the history of the fairy tale. We all read those stories and went, Oh, Cinderella’s a very different story than what I grew up on.
YV: Yeah, I love researching stuff like that too, getting into the nitty gritty and realizing, Oh, Disney did it this way and they put a little bit of dark to it, but not enough to like haunt you for it when you go to sleep, but then you get into the real stuff and you’re just like, ah, this is how it really is.
JS: What led you to these? Were you a big fairytale reader when you were a kid?
YV: Well, I love performing. I’m a performer through and through. But one thing about fairytales and stories was that I love the fact that when you read a story or it’s being told to you, you get to paint in everything else they’re not showing. When you go to a movie, I love movies, but everything is being shown to you. Exactly how it’s supposed to look, how the characters look. But when you actually do a story, you get to fill all that in and paint it the way you think it is in your mind. And when I decided to do the podcast, I wanted to do something that I love doing and painting the story or bringing someone else’s story to life and to paint it as much as I could with the words, with how I say the words, how I put the music over it and the sound effects, so I’m still kind of putting into my own interpretation of what it is, but still leaving it open to the audience to layer their own effects and what they think the characters look like. Because that’s, what’s so great about storytelling. You have the opportunity to let everyone else put their own sauce in it, even though things are written down.
JS: So when you’re reading, just in your leisure time, do you have this audio experience every time you read? Are you always hearing that the soundscape of the story?
YV: I’m always engaged in it. Whenever I read a book, that’s what I’m doing. I’m imagining that I’m that character walking through whatever it is they’re going through. It’s just my imagination – it’s just crazy.
JS: Can you tell me how you found this book that we’re talking about today? The Alchemist.
YV: I first came across this book when I was working at Barnes and Noble in New York City. I had a friend who was working there and he was a really well read. He was like, you have you read this book? And I was like, no, of course I never read that book. And, he was just like, you have to read this. And I was like, okay. And I read it and I fell in love with it immediately. Especially the way the book opens. It’s called “The Alchemist” and I think the first line is, “The alchemists grabbed the book,” or whatever. And I was like, Oh my gosh, we’re ready. We’re in it. And that first story just was so compelling to me, you know, talking about Narcissus and the Lake looking into his eyes. I was just thrown into that. And I felt that when I was reading the book, it was kind of like I was the shepherd that was going around looking for my purpose in life. He was kind of on this journey because of this dream that he had twice, that was pulling him to go someplace else. And I felt, at that time, that it was kind of guiding me, like I needed some kind of direction. It kind of felt that way. I learned a lot about myself, like trying to like listen to myself and like learning how to look at the world, but also try to find your place in it. And it had such a huge impact on me that I started reading that book at least once a year, or if not, every other year. Because I feel each time I read it, I learn something else about my own personal journey that kind of reflects on what he’s going through, which is really interesting to me.
JS: Can you just describe the plot of this? I feel like this is a book that is frequently given to people when they graduate college. It seems like this is one of those books that everybody has on their shelf, but perhaps hasn’t read. Could you describe it for people who haven’t actually read it?
YV: It’s about this shepherd boy who has this fantastic dream in this building two nights in a row about going to the pyramids, which he’s never been to. And he decides to get the courage basically by talking to people and to actually go and try to find these pyramids and see them. And the whole story is that his journey about going out of his comfort zone into the world and experiencing life and following omens, which can be just your own intuition and life. But then at the end, even though he goes through these fantastical things where he helps a person in his shop selling glassware, and then he meets a beautiful woman in an oasis, and then he meets the alchemist and actually learns from him. And then he gains like all these magnificent things by transforming himself into the wind. And the end of which is the most ultimate thing, almost like fulfilling one of your greatest things that you’ve ever wanted to accomplish in life, but then still looking for this treasure that he had in a dream, but then realizing that the treasure was always where he was in the beginning. It’s like, you, you know, he has to go back to where he was when he had that dream to find this treasure. And it’s like this big circle. You always come back to yourself in the end and trying to find that comfort in who you are.
JS: What genre would you say this is, when people ask you about this book? What do you tell them?
YV: It feels like a self-help book to me, but, that’s a really great question. I have never even considered… it’s a fiction book, but, it feels so much more to me. Literally every time I read it, I learned something. Even this time, when I re-read it – I listen more to books these days, so I listened to it again – and I learned something new about it this time around. So I feel self-help, but it’s fiction.
JS: Oh, I bet it’s good to listen to on audio. I hadn’t thought of that. I picked up a a paper copy of it this time. And, it didn’t occur to me to look for it on audio. That is a good idea.
YV: Yeah, it was really interesting because the end of the book, when the shepherd is up on the mountain and he’s trying to transform himself into the wind, he’s there and all this stuff is happening. He’s talking to the wind, he’s talking to the sun, he’s talking to the sand. I started laughing at myself when I was listening to that part, because my very first story on my podcast is called La Hormiguita. She breaks her leg and she’s very like distraught, and she ends up talking to all the elements of the world. She ends up talking to the ground that broke her leg. She ends up talking to the wind, the sun, to God at the end. Which is what the alchemist and the shepherd does as well. And I was just like, what is this craziness that these two stories have so much in common? I don’t know, which is really silly of me. I was just like, that’s really crazy, but I’m finding another connection with the story that I read every couple of years with something in my life. It’s just weird.
JS: It does have a very grown-up fairytale feeling to it. And that was why I was asking you what genre you think it is? Because as I was thinking through, before we spoke, I don’t know what to call this because you could call it self-help or motivational. And then I thought, I bet some people think this is a big religious allegory. There’s also a romance to it. And it’s, it’s very hard to classify.
YV: Yeah. It really just takes you in like all these different places about yourself too. It’s kind of like, showing yourself in different ways. Like the romance part when he falls in love with the Fatima and his journey. When he’s working with the guy in the shop and they’re selling the crystals and that experience in life. And like we’ve all gone through life where we kind of, we feel like we’re successful in one thing and all of a sudden something happens and we have nothing and we have to start all over again and re regroup and see where we can grow in that moment. And I feel like I, in my journey, I’ve experienced that. Especially this year with COVID, how it just demolished everything. And then like we have to regroup and try to figure out where we can stand on our own two feet in this, in this situation is just… There’s a parallel all the time.
JS: Have you made big decisions based on this book?
YV: I don’t think I’ve necessarily changed, like pivoting to these changes in my life, but it definitely has helped with focusing on moments in my life that were pretty intense. Like when I was going through a big divorce a couple of years back, and I read this book right around that same time, it was just really comforting to know that even though I was going through this crazy time in my life, that I felt that I was strong enough to overcome it, because I can step aside and look at it objectively instead of being overcome by it. And I think, I think that’s what the book mostly teaches me. Just to not be overcome by it. You can actually step aside and view it from the outside and see how it’s flowing within nature around you, how it’s flowing within your life, around you. I think that’s what it does for me.
JS: This was my third time reading this book and it has been different for me on the three different occasions. And I’m curious, has it ever been the case for you that you picked it up and disliked it, or it hit you wrong, or you thought this isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do for me? Or does it always offer you something?
YV: I can say that there was one time that I picked up and I didn’t read it all the way I stopped I think halfway through and I felt like that’s all I needed at that point. I didn’t need to go any further. and, and it’s interesting because I didn’t go in with the intent, like, Oh, I need this. Whenever I pick up the book to read it, I don’t think that I’m reading it to help with a situation that’s happening in my life at the time. I just think every time I think of the book, it’s almost like I get like this feeling like, Oh, that was such a good story. It would be really great to read it right now. And that’s how it comes up to me to like read again. It’s not like I have a schedule. It’s like, this is the time I have to read the book, but it’s just like what it just comes to me and is all of a sudden I’ll see it pop up somewhere. And I’m like, that will be really good story to read again. It’s always makes me learn something about myself.
JS: The second time I read it, which was, I don’t know, maybe 10 years ago, it pissed me off. And I thought this is a ridiculous book. It’s so funny to look back on it now because it makes me realize, Oh, I wasn’t doing the right thing for me at the time. And I think that’s why the book pissed me off.
YV: That listening to your own intuition and following through, and maybe not realizing you that you didn’t want to go with your intuition at that time maybe. And you’re just like, this is the way I have to go. I mean, and that’s not bad. That’s how we grow. Right? That’s how we learn what is the right path for us, by going counter to what we think is the right way for us. You learn things from those moments.
JS: I think that’s why I get nervous about the self-help designation because there is so much more than that going on inside this book than just, you can have everything you want and that’s not really the point, right?
YV: Yeah. And the character does go through some misgivings, like when he loses all of his money, because he trusted in a stranger that he had no idea, he didn’t know anything about the language either. And he just lost everything. I mean, we all stumble through those situations too, and have to learn through that. It’s just the perspective and how we view it, I guess.
JS: Ysaura, what is your reading life like? Do you tend to go toward these books that have sort of a fairy tale or allegorical themes to them in general?
YV: Not normally. Lately, the last couple of years, I’ve just been listening to a lot of books. I don’t read a lot, but I love listening to stories. I do like listening to mysteries and I love true crime and I think that’s what gets me. During this whole pandemic, I really haven’t been listening to a lot of true crime only because it’s been such a downtime that I tried not to. It just brought me down even more. But I do listen to a lot of mystery stuff. I think I like that the fact of trying to figure something out, even if it’s just to learn the different sides of things in life, because everything is a mystery and it just trying to figure it out.I can tell you most recently I did listen to The Institute by Stephen King and it’s not a mystery. It’s about kids with super powers who get treated badly. But it is a really great story because you don’t realize in the beginning where these kids are being kept and they’re going to be kept in a secret area. And they’re trying to use their powers to help with a bigger plots of stopping evil in the world. I thought it was just a really interesting format. The way it was kind of unraveling before us, because we’re not following the kids. We’re actually following a police officer who who’s trying to get out of that work. He’s not even trying to be a police officer. And he gets thrown into this and I thought that book was really well done. And Stephen King is always such a great writer about those things.
JS: You listened to that one on audio?
YV: Yeah, I did. I listened to it on a long drive and it was great.
JS: I bet his books are so good on audio. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a Stephen King.
YV: Oh, you have to. I’ve listened to two. And it’s especially spooky when the sun’s setting and you’re driving. They’re really nice.
JS: What’s the other on that’s good on audio?
YV: It’s a number. It’s a year.
JS: Oh yeah, yeah, the, the Kennedy one where he goes back?
JS: 11/22/63. The date that Kennedy was shot.
YV: Yes. That one. It’s really a love story. And it’s him trying to change that outcome and all the different outcomes that happen. It’s so good. It’s a really good story.
JS: I’m always so scared to read his books.
YV: Yeah, me too. I try to read, Oh, what was the clown one? It? I try to read that book so many times. I just couldn’t. I had to put it down. There’s no way, but I think I could listen to it.
JS: That sounds even more terrifying! Then there would be a clown in your ear.
YV: Yeah, that probably would be scary.
JS: When I was talking to you about talking on this podcast, you came back with The Alchemist really quickly. You knew right away which one you were going to choose. It seemed to me, is this something that you pass on to a lot of people?
YV: Actually I have recommended it a few times. But when you asked me I had a backup book, the other book was going to be Blood Memory by Martha Graham.
JS: What’s that?
YV: Are you familiar with the dancer Martha Graham?
JS: Just vaguely. I know very little. I know that she is a dancer.
YV: Yeah. So she’s this famous modern dancer. She created her own type of dance style. She wrote an autobiography called Blood Memory, and she talks about her journey as a dancer. And she she’s very poetic in the way she writes. It is called Blood Memory because she feels like, through our body we can communicate. And that’s why, when she dances, she has all this, she uses her body to communicate. She just talks about how brave she was and performing in these different locations. Of course, that was when there was all this separation – when Blacks couldn’t go into the theaters. She would say she was not going to perform unless they could open up the floor for everybody. And those are big things to, to say. To do at that time, she was just such a strong woman and the way she wrote her book was amazing. I love the language that she used and she’s just so poetic the way she writes.
JS: Are you a dancer?
YV: Yep. I used to dance a lot back in the day.
JS: Would it be as good of a read for someone who doesn’t have a dance background?
YV: Yes, definitely. It’s just the way that she wrote is just so fluid and she understands how language, can affect people and the issue. I feel like she’s very choosy in the way she describes things. And, she really uses the – it feels like she’s painting. I remember reading her book and I was just like, Oh, it feels like she’s just painting this on the paper. It’s just so well-written. I wish I could express the visuals that I have going on in my head about it, because I don’t have the quotes directly in front of me. But there’s some words that she says that it makes it like our ancestry comes through our bodies. And we carry the language of our ancestors in our bodies and we pass it along to next to the future generations. Unless we understand what these stories are, we can’t learn those lessons.
JS: What are you reading right now? Do you have anything on your nightstand?
YV: Actually, right now, I’m in research mode, looking for lullabies. Cause I’m thinking my next season I want to be about lullabies. So I’m trying to find some lullabies out there in the world.
JS: Wow. So what would you do with them?
YV: I’m not completely sure. I found his Russian lullaby that it’s talking about wolves, that it will grab your kids at night, which is really interesting. Cause all these lullabies are really creepy. And I think that’s why I to do them because I want to know how is it the people using these spookiest things for their children, while they’re trying to go to sleep.
JS: It’s bizarre.
YV: Well, a couple of them in my folders and I’m still looking online trying to find some more and it’s going to click eventually, but, I have a couple ideas running in my head, how I want to execute it, but I think I want to do another storyline thing. Like I did with my last season with lullabies.
JS: I can’t wait to hear what you do with the lullabies on your podcast and see what you do next. I think your work is fantastic and I’m just delighted that you joined me today. Will you share with my listeners where they can find you online?
YV: Oh, sure. you can find me on Instagram, or drop me a line if you have a cool lullaby out there, you want to share, let me know.
JS: Are you looking worldwide?
YV: Yeah. I want it to be international. It’s going to be so good.
JS: I can’t wait to hear well. Ysaura, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a delight talking with you.
YV: Thank you so much for having me, Julie.
Thanks for listening, Bookworms. For more information on this episode and links to all the books we discussed, go to our website. You can also follow us on Instagram. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me on Instagram. Remember, whenever you are book shopping, help support indie bookstores and this podcast by using my affiliate link at Bookshop. Their mission is to support local, independent bookstores, nd if you shop using my link, I’ll get a small percentage of your purchase at no extra expense to you.
Thanks for joining me today. And I will see you at the library.