By Olivia Mules
Could you tell the readers of We Need Diverse Books what they can expect from The Insiders?
The Insiders is a huge departure from my YA books, first of all. It’s deliberately funnier, lighter in tone, and way more chaotic. I didn’t want to start writing middle grade until I had to craft skills and ideas for stories that felt very, very different from my young adult voice. So you can expect a lot more jokes and the beautiful chaos magic of The Room. However, it’s still a Mark Oshiro book, so I’m definitely going to punch you in your heart a few times.
Where did you find inspiration to write this story in particular?
True story: it’s actually taken from the very first book I ever wrote when I was 19-20 years old. It was rejected by everyone I ever sent it to, but I held on to it all these years. One thing all that time granted me was the wisdom to read the manuscript with a new perspective, and I realized that the story needed to be tweaked and the main character had to be much younger! The initial inspiration for it was pretty simple: I wanted to write a story featuring a gay Latinx character that dealt with the idea of a magical “closet.”
This story mostly takes place in California. However, the characters also travel to South Carolina and Arizona. Why did you choose these places in particular?
I lived in the Bay Area for five years and have traveled out to the central valley multiple times, and there’s a mistaken idea that all of California is identical to every other part, and that’s definitely not the case. This book allowed me to explore some cultural differences (and similarities!) between Orangevale and San Francisco. I’ve got family in Arizona, and Charleston is one of my favorite cities to visit.
Each of the characters in The Insiders face different real-world problems. We know it is so important that there is representation and visibility in the texts teens are reading. What do you hope teens take away from this book?
I hope readers appreciate the balance between levity and intensity. While this book really feels different from my previous work, I still wanted to dig in on a few difficult topics. My main intent was to give kids hope, to show that even in the darkness, there is a way out. It’s a cliché, sure, but I was absolutely thinking of some very challenging things I went through in middle school. I was bullied by a counselor because she perceived me to be gay and blamed how I was being treated by other students on my “behavior.” So, having an adult figure in the novel disbelieve Héctor was always intentional. I wanted readers to understand that no matter how young you are, you should feel empowered to stand up to people mistreating you, even if they are adults.
In The Insiders, there are multiple queer characters. What advice would you give to students trying to navigate middle school while also trying to navigate their identities?
It’s hard to answer this because my middle school environment was even more harsh than Héctor’s. I didn’t have other queer people to look up to or ask for guidance. But I also know that there are currently places around the world much like Héctor’s school, and I hope that my book can provide some support in that sense. So: look for the people in your life who will be that support for you. It can be friends, teachers, counselors, librarians, parents, cousins… there is someone in your life who loves you for who you are. Also, Sal’s narrative is constructed for people who don’t know how they want to identify! You should never feel pressure to “figure out” everything. You have your whole life to do that.
The Insiders has many instances of Spanish words and conversations inserted into the narrative and dialog. How did you decide where and how to use Spanish?
Wherever it felt natural! I thought about which phrases would make more sense in Spanish based on who was saying them, and I also like to leave context clues so a non-Spanish-speaker can figure out what is being said.
Did you have to do any research for this book? If so, what was the most interesting thing you found out about?
I did research on only two things: the city of Orangevale and horchata recipes! While I’d been to Orangevale a few times in my life (mainly when I was in a band), I still wanted to give a vague sense of realism, so I consulted a map when talking about any directional stuff. There are real places in the book. And the horchata thing… see, I was used to the kind of horchata that ISN’T made with milk, and I got into an argument with a friend who insisted it is ALWAYS made with milk. That’s how I found out that there are way more types than I knew. I stuck with the non-milk kind for the book, but that was a fun thing to discover.
When you write, what is your favorite part of the writing process? Why?
Editing. Easily. I’m a fast but very messy drafter, and I feel like editing is where I truly “write” the book. Editing is much more difficult and usually takes me longer, but I get a thrill from making the story what it was in my head. Or, in some cases, I’m pushed by my editor to consider taking the story in a direction I hadn’t even considered! There is an early version of The Insiders that is very different from the final draft, and I’m happy my editor (Stephanie Stein) pushed me as she did.
What advice would you give to other young adult authors who want to write about characters with diverse lives and identities?
If you are writing about yourself and your experience: be honest. Even if your experience is out of the norm or different, that honesty is what’s going to keep you going through some of the more difficult parts of writing. I’ve learned that there is no way to represent every person within a community; do your best to represent what you know!
For those writing about those outside their community and experience: research, talk to others, and do all of this with humility. I find that this is the quickest way folks (and I’m including myself in this!) trip themselves up when trying to represent the world in good faith: they assume they know everything or they assume they can’t make mistakes. In one sense, it helps to treat this like you do the rest of the writing process. Do what you can with the wisdom and knowledge you have, and then seek out experts and trusted people to help guide you to a better place.
Do you have any recommendations for published/forthcoming books or voices we should be reading?
I am ridiculously behind on my reading because I’ve written three books in 2021 and have a fourth one due in November. (Please help me, lmao.) However, this year I’ve enjoyed:
Beasts of Prey by Ayana Gray
The Ivory Key by Akshaya Raman
Torment: A Novella by H.D. Hunter
Between Perfect and Real by Ray Stoeve
Nothing Burns as Bright as You by Ashley Woodfolk
White Smoke by Tiffany Jackson
What question do you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
What were you listening to while writing The Insiders? I’m a HUGE music geek, and I have to write/edit to music, so I’m always eager to talk about music. That being said, I’m already making this hard to answer because I listen to SO MUCH music. However, I wrote the first draft of The Insiders in early 2020, and I remember listening to a lot of Poppy, Propagandhi, Bastille, Florence + The Machine, Robyn (especially that EP with Röyksopp!), and SiR.
Mark Oshiro is the Schneider Award-winning author of the YA books Anger Is a Gift and Each of Us a Desert. When they are not writing, they are busy trying to fulfill their lifelong goal: to pet every dog in the world. The Insiders is their middle grade debut. Visit them online at markoshiro.com
Olivia Mules is currently pursuing her master’s degree in library and information science. Olivia’s goal is to work in academic librarianship and reference services with a focus on information literacy. Before starting her degree program, she was a special education teacher and taught math and science. Her favorite literary heroines are Elizabeth Bennet, Gemma Doyle, and Arya Dröttning. When Olivia is not doing schoolwork, she enjoys cooking, music, hikes with her wife and daughter, and drinking an inordinate amount of iced coffee.