Hello friends and welcome to Color the Shelves!
I am so incredibly excited today to be bringing you an interview with one of my favorite people on the internet, Mark Oshiro, author of Anger is a Gift and the soon to be releases EACH OF US A DESERT, the book we’re here to chat about! If you somehow don’t know Mark and don’t follow them on social media, please do yourself a favor and go fix that. They are a gem and will brighten your timeline with each other their tweets. In the same vein, add their upcoming book to your TBRs. If you love quiet atmospheric fantasy, desert settings, beautiful writing and character journeys, you might have just found your new favorite! Now enough gushing and let’s get to the interview
Hi Mark, I’m so happy to have you joining me today on Color the Shelves to chat about your upcoming fantasy release EACH OF US A DESERT! Can you tell us more about what it is about?
Oh, it is I who is happy to get to chat with SUCH AN ICON. The pleasure is most definitely mine! I’m excited to finally get to talk more about the book I’ve been working on for three and a half years. Each of Us a Desert is a book about magic and the cost of being burdened with it. It’s the story of a sixteen-year-old cuentista, Xochitl. Her magic ability allows her to take “stories” from people bodies as part of a cleansing ritual that her community abides by for their god, Solís. It’s part sin-eating, part confessional. She is told that she must remain in her village, keeping the people “clean,” until she dies and passes on the power to someone else. That is, until she takes a story from a friend and learns that maybe she wasn’t told the truth about herself or her powers. It’s about a single domino being knocked over and the magical, terrifying journey one girl goes on to learn the truth.
Are there any specific elements you drew inspiration from to write it? if not, what was the catalist of this story for you?
Yes! When I was building out the world of Empalme (Xochitl’s village) and Solís, I drew from my time as a Catholic. Confession is an important sacrament within the religion, but I often felt confused by it in practice. As I came up with Xochitl’s magical power, I wanted to make the act of confession very literal and very physical, as a way of exploring how a community can unburden themselves at the expense of someone else. No one considers what this experience is like for Xochitl, especially since she is so young when her Tía Inez grants her the powers of a cuentista.
Interesting fact, though: That all has nothing to do with the initial inspiration for the book. The idea sprang forth when my twin brother and I were doing research on our biological father (we are transracial adoptees) and came across concrete information on him. Specifically, his full name! Yet what little we know of him is that he left for Mexico before we were born, and thus, our journey hit a dead end because of a border. This invisible line, this violent demarcation in the Earth, separated us from our history. I think you can still see elements of this in some of the themes and motifs within the book, but that day got me thinking about borders, about the massive journeys people will take just to find a new life, and that’s how I began planning out this novel!
EACH OF US A DESERT explores themes of the importance of stories, community and the responsibility we can have towards our communities. Were those themes you knew you wanted to explore in the book from the start? Why was it such an important thing for you to include?
Well, if it wasn’t obvious from the last question, the first draft of Desert was… not the book you read, ha! It was very, very different. It was a horror/thriller novel set in the distant future. Much more brutal, and to be completely honest? There was no hope in it. I wrote it from a dark place, and it came out dark. (Funny how that works!) Both my editor (Miriam Weinberg at Tor Teen) and I were not satisfied with the end result. I thought it was too much of a bummer; she thought it wasn’t a strong enough follow-up to Anger is A Gift. So, over the course of 2018, I re-wrote the book twice, and it changed to a fantasy book by the third version. Most of what you see in the book came from a brainstorming session in the summer of 2018, and that’s where all the themes of storytelling and community responsibility came from.
Basically, in the first draft, Xochitl had also never traveled far outside her village, so you still had that sense of wonder and fear. Her obsession was with names and people’s personal histories. I loved that part of the first draft, so that’s what turned into the cuentistas and storytelling as both magic and ritual. And if I was gonna do that as part of a system of faith, it needed to feel complete, like a fully lived and practiced religion, you know?
That’s the fun of writing. You can intend a book to be one thing, but that’s not what it turns out to be in the end.
This book is your first foray into fantasy, what was your experience like writing EACH OF US A DESERT? Any memorable moments or fun facts you’d like to share about the process?
Oh, it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever written. No contest! I think one day I’d like to teach a workshop on how contemporary authors can move to the fantasy space, mostly so that they don’t have to make the same mistakes I did. Like not thinking about pants. I’m serious! Everyone had on “pants” in that first rewrite I did, and you just… can’t do that? Secondary fantasy requires an attention to detail in the construction of worlds that I found immensely difficult. It was a rewarding challenge, but I’m not gonna pretend like this was a breeze to get through.
This was also my first novel written in first person. I’d always stuck with close third person, but I knew from the start that I wanted to do something different. One of my favorite things about following an artist—a filmmaker, a writer, a musician, a band, etc.—is seeing how they change and grow as a creator. I wanted to showcase that growth here. I learned so much about writing a novel from Anger, so that was a guiding force throughout this process.
One thing that made this different from contemporary is going to sound very obvious, but it’s true. Y’all, you can do whatever you want? Like… literally? Once I came up with the magic of the cuentistas, it wasn’t long before I came up with the framing device. When I told my editor, “WHAT IF THE ENTIRE BOOK IS A PRAYER CONFRONTATION BETWEEN XOCHITL AND HER GOD,” she didn’t discourage me. Fantasy allows a creative freedom that a reader of that genre is ready to accept, too! I can have a gutted desert city show you the literal manifestation of the things you refuse to admit out loud, and no one is probably going to cry foul. Fantasy let me do so many weird, gross, and touching things that I don’t think I could have accomplished in a contemporary novel.
To end this interview on a high note and my favorite thing to ask authors, what is something you’d like your readers to take away from the book or something you’d like to tell them?
I want to be the kind of writer that writes in whatever genre I want, as long as I’m telling a good story. That’s especially the case for those of us who are queer. Who are nonbinary. Who are people of color. We should be allowed to express our creative sides as we want. We should be able to tell stories about our cultures without centering the gaze and the ideals of the majority. I remain humbled and amazed by the growth of Anger is A Gift over the last two years; I also know that I faced a lot of prejudice in the reaction to that book. I don’t know how people will respond to this one. I just hope that people begin to get a sense for what a Mark Oshiro novel is: deeply emotional, uncomfortable, and unpredictable. At least, that’s what I’m aiming for!
About the author
Mark Oshiro is the author of Anger is a Gift (Tor Teen), winner of the 2019 Schneider Family Book Award and nominated for a 2019 Lammy Award (in the LGBTQ Children’s/Young Adult category). Upcoming novels include Each of Us a Desert (Tor Teen), a YA Fantasy novel out September 15, 2020, and The Insiders (Harper Collins), a MG Contemporary with magical elements out Fall 2021. When they are not writing, crying on camera about fictional characters for their online Mark Does Stuff universe, or traveling, Mark is busy trying to fulfill their lifelong goal: to pet every dog in the world.
About the book
Publication date : September 15th, 2020
Publisher : Tor Teen
Genre : Young Adult | Fantasy
Page Count: 432
Synopsis : Xochital is destined to wander the desert alone, speaking her troubled village’s stories into its arid winds. Her only companions are the blessed stars above and enimagic lines of poetry magically strewn across dusty dunes
Her one desire: to share her heart with a kindred spirit.
One night, Xo’s wish is granted—in the form of Emilia, the cold and beautiful daughter of the town’s murderous mayor. But when the two set out on a magical journey across the desert, they find their hearts could be a match… if only they can survive the nightmare-like terrors that arise when the sun goes down.
Fresh off of Anger Is a Gift’s smashing success, Oshiro branches out into a fantastical direction with their new YA novel, The Stars Around Us.
That’s it until next time.
Hope you enjoyed, write to you soon.