By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Mark Oshiro to the WNDB blog to discuss their YA novel Each of Us a Desert, out September 15, 2020!
Xochitl 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 enigmatic 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 conqueror. 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, Each of Us a Desert.
Your debut, Anger Is a Gift, was a contemporary, so what was it like writing Each of Us a Desert, which is fantasy and magical realism? Do you feel like you built out Xochital’s backstory as a character in a fantasy/magical realism any differently than you did Moss’s?
You know, I have no problem saying this over and over again: IT WAS REALLY DIFFICULT! I have a new appreciation for fantasy writers after having written this book. It went through a lot of changes in the last three years (including a genre change, as was the case with Anger is a Gift), and I had to utilize brand new skills in order to pull this off. Xochitl’s journey changed drastically between the first draft I turned in and the one that’s going out in the world, so it required me to re-think her entire journey. The truth is that I figured out most of the character arc and the plot before I figured out the world, and I crafted the universe around those elements rather than the other way around. So that in itself was very different from Moss’s story, which was grounded in Oakland from the very beginning.
You also have to be thoughtful in a very unique way when writing fantasy. I still believe contemporary writers world build, too; it’s just that in fantasy, I often found myself thinking of granular details for hours on end, all to try and craft a believable secondary world. If I wrote a part of the story where Xochitl went to a farm, I had to ask myself how farms worked in the universe, and that had to make sense within the book’s internal logic. So all of that stuff felt very new to me. It was a challenge!
What are the magic systems like in Each of Us a Desert? What can you tell us about how this fantasy world operates and where you drew from for Xo and Emilia’s journey across the desert?
I anticipate that some fantasy purists may not really like my book because truthfully? There are deliberately no systems at all. It was sort of the point: Xochitl is raised to believe that as a cuentista—a person with the magical ability to pull “stories” out of people’s bodies and consume them as part of a religious ritual—the rules of her magic are very rigid and defined. There is undeniably a magical presence in the world, but as Xochitl’s actions lead her closer to the truth of who she is and what she is capable of doing, she learns that what other people believe about magic is very different from what she was told. How do you rectify that? How do you deal with the world outside your insular community when you find out it is so very unlike your own?
So that’s where the magical realism part comes in. I wrote a fantasy world where magic more or less operates like magical realism if it was made literal. It’s all rooted in storytelling, honesty, and emotion. You’ve got these cuentistas who were apparently gifted this ability from a god, but you’ve also got the magic of poetry. You’ve got the power of words etched into parchment calling you across a desert. You’ve got a dead city that forces you to admit what you won’t admit to yourself. It’s all emotional and psychological magic.
Are you someone who loves deserts and if not, where are your favorite outdoor spaces? Gardens, beaches, woods, mountains?
I absolutely love the desert. I grew up in a desert-adjacent city. (Riverside, California.) So I’m used to the cutting, dry heat of that environment. Much like Xochitl, I was taught at a young age how to survive in that kind of climate! How to hydrate, how to recognize the early signs of heat exhaustion, how to stay safe if you have to be outside at the hottest part of the day. So I have not just a natural affinity for that, but the look of a desert. I feel very comfortable in those colors, with that kind of fauna and animal life.
That being said: Ever since I moved from my hometown, I’ve never been more than 45 minutes from the ocean. I find water very calming and naturally gravitate towards it.
Xochital begins this book believing her gift to be a curse. Why do you think that this storytelling element is so compelling, the idea that having power can be a heavy burden to carry for those who wield it?
The basis for Xochitl’s power isn’t actually supposed to draw on the concept of a sin-eater, though I understand why people often jump to that conclusion. It’s certainly in conversation with that archetype, but I was coming at it from a different angle. I used to be Catholic, and I had a lot of existential dread around the concept of the confession. The idea that you could confess all the horrible things you did to someone else, and then be washed clean of them? It seemed strange, sure. The larger issue I had was that I knew people who would confess sins, get them absolved through this sacrament, and then… just go do the same thing all over again. They weren’t trying to become a better person.
So as I was designed what Xochitl’s path was in the book, I initially came up with her role as a cuentista, but then added that one little twist: After she consumed a story, then returned it to her god, she would forget it. So she would only know the truth of the people around her in the time it took to complete the ritual. But what would happen if she chose not to give back a story? What would it feel like to have all these ugly truths clamoring for space inside a body? Some of that has a very physical, visceral representation here, but it’s also so I could explore the notion of community harm. What happens when everyone in Xochitl’s life depends on her for salvation, but no one cares about her as a person? How can that dehumanize someone, leave them isolated and wanting more? It’s a little bit of a different take on the idea of a magic-wielding character in fantasy, but once I came up with it, I just kept pulling the thread to see where it would take me.
You have also written short stories for a few anthologies, including the upcoming Star Wars anthology. What is different from a craft perspective about writing a short story than writing a novel?
Fundamentally, I find that short stories allow a sort of hyper-focus on a specific issue or question. My best friend Dhonielle Clayton once told me a brilliant thing about how she approaches short stories, allowing me to put into words how I thought of them. A short story really only answers a single question. A novel, on the other hand, addresses so many more. So when I am approaching an anthology story, if I haven’t already pitched something, I look through my Notes app of all the ideas I’ve had but not used. Which one might be able to fit? Which one would allow me to address a single idea or theme? How can I take that and give it a distinctive opening and closing?
I also feel like I can be more experimental and vicious with a short story ending. I love a good twist at the end or to drive the knife in just a little further than I might do in a novel.
Are you a plotter or a panster or does it depend on the book? How was your process different for each of your books?
I am and shall always be a dedicated plotter. I will not begin a story—and I literally mean I write zero words in a draft—until I know the ending. I need to know that last image, that last line, that last emotion. What am I working towards? What is the story about? I use freewriting and outlining to compose a detailed, scene-by-scene, or chapter-by-chapter synopsis that I use as an outline. Now, things still change as I write it out, and that’s where the element of pantsing comes in. I love discovering hidden character twists or better routes in the story along the way.
I will say that Each of Us a Desert required the most elaborate outline because of the framing device. The novel is written in the first and second person, all told as a single, poetic prayer from Xochitl to her god, Solís, explaining why she did what she did and why she isn’t sorry. So, I had to plot out all her little interstitial moments, where she breaks the fourth wall, where she speaks to her god directly, where she takes a story as a cuentista. It’s a very elaborate structure, and so it required more attention than I’d ever attempted before.
What other books you do think EOUAD is in conversation with? And do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming kidlit books?
There are two books that I’m deliberately in conversation with, as both of them influenced me heavily over the years. I actually pitch the book as Bless Me, Ultima meets Parable of the Sower. This is a novel about magic and the earth, about legacy and tradition. It’s also set in a world destroyed by fire, rendering everything a desert, where a young girl takes a long, hellish journey in order to find the truth about herself and her god. So… very much in convo with those two books!
I’m gonna hype up these books:
Grown, Tiffany Jackson
Beyond the Ruby Veil, Mara Fitzgerald
Burn Our Bodies Down, Rory Power
You Should See Me In A Crown, Leah Johnson
Clap When You Land, Elizabeth Acevedo
What is one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
It is so deeply rare that I get to talk about craft issues, so thank you so much for asking about that. Generally, I’m only asked about diversity and representation, and while that’s an important conversation, it gets burdensome to only be thought of in those terms as an author. And with this book, in particular, I tried so many craft things that were completely new to me! So I’m so happy that you gave me the opportunity to talk as a writer about writing.
Mark Oshiro is the queer Latinx, Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and TV series. He was the nonfiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and the co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2015, and is the President of the Con or Bust Board of Directors. When not writing/recording reviews or editing, Oshiro engages in social activism online and offline. Anger is a Gift is his debut YA contemporary fiction novel.
Alaina (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.