Spoiler alert ahead for Each of Us a Desert!
About the Author: Mark Oshiro is the Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where they analyze books and TV series. Their debut novel, Anger Is a Gift, was a recipient of the Schneider Family Book Award for 2019. Their lifelong goal is to pet every dog in the world. (Bio and headshot provided by Saraciea Fennel and Anneliese Merz from TorTeen. Photo Credit: Zoraida Cordova)
I’d like to thank both Saraciea Fennel (@Sj_Fennell) and Anneliese Merz (@annakmerz) for their part in making this interview happen!
A huge thank you to Mark Oshiro for the following interview on their debut novel Anger is a Gift and their newest release Each of Us a Desert. They also have stories in several YA anthologies including: Out Now: Queer We Go Again! (which we reviewed here!), Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite (out now!), From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back (Del Rey, Releasing November 10, 2020), A Universe of Wishes: A We Need Diverse Books Anthology (Random House Children’s Books, Releasing December 8, 2020), This Is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories of Her, Him, Them, and Us (Knopf, Releasing in 2021), as well as multiple other anthologies which are slated to release between 2021 and 2022.
Jackie Balbastro: It is a huge honor to get to do this. I remember back in March, which feels like a completely different time, being so excited to finally get to see you in person at the Tucson Festival of Books and at the very least ask you a question on a panel you were on. Now it’s August and I’m getting to ask you about your new book and it’s amazing.
Mark Oshiro: OH NO, I am so distraught! I’ve been hearing about that festival for YEARS, and I was so, so excited to go, but everything started shutting down. How… how was that five months ago? That was actually fourteen hundred years in the past, right? Anyway, I am glad we get to chat through this interview. YOU are amazing!
JB: Congratulations on your new novel, I just finished it and it destroyed me, which we’ll get to later, but I wanted to ask how do you feel with the release so close and getting early reactions to Each of Us a Desert?
MO: Lmao, I love the vague threat here of like, “I HAVE STRONG WORDS FOR YOU BECAUSE OF WHAT YOU DID.” I cherish this energy.
Everything is very weird. Let’s put the coronavirus nonsense aside, since it’s affecting all of us. Because at the end of the day, I care about the book itself. I worked on it for three and a half years, it went through immense changes during that process, and it was the most difficult and ambitious project I’ve ever completed. So I’m nervous, naturally. This is my second novel and it is very different from Anger Is a Gift. Will my contemporary readers give it a chance? Will it fulfill and satisfy fantasy fans? Have I told a good story? I don’t know yet, but I will say that I’ve been immensely flattered by the response from Project LIT leaders, who received early ARCs, and all of the bookish people on Twitter, Instagram, and on their own blogs. It’s been so joyous to see people get it, so to speak. To see the intentions and parallels and the emotions I was trying to convey. I’m still nervous, but I think I did all right with this one!
JB: Can you talk a bit about crafting the story of Each of Us a Desert and where you began in terms of deciding settings and characters? I know you’ve said in the past that you never really write in the ‘right’ genre at first go so what did the novel look like in its early stages?
MO: Oh, it was fully a different novel. The draft I turned in to my editor (Miriam Weinberg at Tor Teen) was a horror/thriller novel about immigration, and it was much more dystopic than what you see here. (Though there are still elements of that present in the final draft.) I was writing from a place of longing, as the initial idea for Xochitl’s journey across the desert was inspired by the search for my (and my twin brother’s) biological father and how borders are an insidious and hellish part of our world. I turned the book in to Miriam in late 2017, about six months before Anger came out. And by the time we got to the first round of editing, the national conversation about immigration had changed because of what was happening down on the border of Mexico and California. Suddenly, it felt like my book was commenting on that in a way that was undeniable, despite that I was writing from a place concerning the cyclical nature of violence against migrant peoples all over the world.
Also, the book was just such a downer! There was no hope in it. So, that’s how the book began to take shape as something else. I still wanted to write a story about a girl trekking across a desert, but she needed a different motivation. That’s where the idea for the fantasy world began to take shape.
JB: This novel, and I mean this in the best way, is riddled with sorrow and bloodshed. You interrogate expectations, immigration, the price of freedom, corruption, guilt and childhood trauma. What led you to want to write about this through magical realism? Do you think you will always have stories that live in the realm of speculative fiction?
MO: Whoa, that’s such a cool way to put that. Yeah, I do think this book is violent in a way I haven’t explored, and it’s the horror side of me that’s responsible for some of the imagery here. The magical realism element actually came from a very pointed conversation with my editor about Xochitl’s magic. I had come up with the idea of a cuentista, but needed to make sure that the magic was consistent and had its own internal logic. Yet it was in that process that I wondered what a fantasy book would look like if a character thought the “rules” of magic worked one way, but slowly discovered that no one knew how it worked. Magic in this universe is often an analogue to faith; it’s there, and people know it exists, but how does it work? It varies based on region, culture, history, need, desire… it’s an ever shifting thing. And so I thought, SCREW IT, what if the magic is more like magical realism instead of a rigid magical system? It made for a compelling journey for Xochitl because she has to constantly shift her understanding of what it means to be a cuentista.
My middle grade debut (The Insiders, out next year) has a light dusting of magic, so to speak, but the next YA book I’m working on is firmly in the contemporary world. I hope to write in as many genres as I can!
JB: The idea of the cuentista and an 8 year-old Xochitl being forced to absolve adults of their guilt and burdens was so interesting to me. Xo’s struggles with Solis reminds me of my own conflict with religion, was this a goal of yours, to confront people’s beliefs?
MO: Maybe not to confront any specific beliefs in other people, but perhaps you and I have some shared experiences, then. It’s more that I wanted to give Xochitl space to do something I was not allowed as a teenager: to doubt and question. I was raised in a very strict, practically cult-ish form of Christianity, and then I was a teenage convert to Catholicism. Which is wild to me in hindsight, given that I fled to Catholicism to escape a strict religious environment. Neither group ever encouraged me to seek out wisdom or knowledge; I was simply told the truth. So, Xochitl’s journey is less about belief in and of itself and more about the chance to let a teenager free into the world, to make mistakes and hurt and desire and long, so that they can find a better version of themselves and their faith in the end.
JB: In Anger is a Gift you tackle themes such as police brutality, social activism, transracial adoption, the idea of the white savior and queer love. My absolute favorite thing in both your novels is that they aren’t at all about coming out and more about the communities we keep. Anger is a Gift’s main character, Moss Jeffries has a wonderful group of supportive and bold friends who all help him in so many ways. The book itself is filled with characters who have a variety of sexual and gender identities, are there any people in your life who inspired this friend group?
MO: Yes!!! I based a great deal of them on the queer friends I made upon getting to college. None of them look like the characters I created, but instead, it was bits and pieces of their personalities that made their way into the story. I just remember how free I felt my freshman year of college. It was the first time I got to define myself on my own terms. Funny thing is that out of the friends I made that first year, more than half of them ended up being queer. Even if we don’t initially know, it seems we do know where our family is.
JB: With Moss’ experiences with anxiety, your descriptors are spot on. The feelings debilitate Moss throughout the novel and he grapples with so much and with Xochitl she literally ingests other people’s trauma and mistakes to the point that they literally become a part of her. The explanation of the titles of Anger is a Gift and Each of Us a Desert brought me to tears. When did you decide upon these titles and what other iterations did you go through? What inspires these stories of tragedy and hope?
MO: Oh, it makes me so happy to be able to tell you that you’re the first person to pick up on that specific thing in regards to Xochitl. My attempt to talk about mental illness in Anger was very direct and literal, and it’s all autobiographical. Aside from some contextual differences, I deal with the same PTSD and trauma, all on top of depression and severe anxiety. When it came to writing a second book, I wanted very much not to repeat anything I’d done before. So, I took a very real thing I have dealt with in my life—using extreme empathy as a coping/survival mechanism—and I made it a part of Xochitl’s magic. She is duty-bound to ingest the mistakes of others. What does that look like over time? What sort of burden is placed on her when she is asked to perpetually prioritize other people? That’s what I did to survive a difficult childhood, and now, as an adult in weekly therapy, I’m trying to undo those maladaptive behaviors. So that’s where that came from!
Anyway, on to titles. I was lucky that I came up with Anger Is a Gift on a flight home after my agent (DongWon Song) offered to represent me. DongWon said my original title was too vague, and thanks to shuffle on my iPhone, I figured out the perfect title for that project due to a line in “Freedom” by Rage Against the Machine. (One of the greatest/heaviest songs of all time.) I loved flipping the script on anger, making it a positive thing, as it was something I learned not just from that band but activism as a teenager.
Each of Us a Desert came about much differently. It was actually title number four of five titles that the book had from conception to publication. I wrote all the poems in the book in Spanish first, and one of the lines jumped out at me as such a poetic, haunting way of talking about isolation: cada una de nosotras es una desierta. It’s a bit stylized in English, but it just works. We associate deserts with heat, with vast expanses of land that is mostly empty… except by those who can survive in it. It really fit Xochitl’s journey so perfectly, so I’m thrilled that it stuck.
JB: What I appreciate about Each of Us a Desert is that no one is a straight up villain (except Julio, we hate him) you make sure to humanize everyone. I know once I read “Let me tell you a story Solis” that I was going to cry. This story is written in first and second person and is, as you’ve stated, a single prayer. Was this a format you always knew you wanted to have or what informed this decision?
MO: LMAO, YES, WE DO NOT STAN JULIO. There were a couple things I did not want to be all that understanding of in the book: abuse and colonization. So yes, writing a straight-up villain was so fun! LET’S HATE HIM FOREVER. (But also explore why he is the way he is.)
The narrative device and structure of the book didn’t come about until draft three. In the first draft, Xochitl was obsessed with names, so each chapter was named after a person she met on her journey, but it didn’t really work. Draft two featured her being obsessed with the stories people told her on her journey, but that still didn’t land the way I wanted to. The entire fantasy world, the cuentistas, the purpose of the sabuesos, Emilia—all of that came about during a feverish, absurd brainstorming session I had with Miriam when we were still trying to crack this book. True story: I came up with the idea for the framing device—the entire book being a confrontational prayer between Xochitl and her god, Solís—and literally interrupted Miriam, reached out, held her hands, and evilly whispered, “WHAT IF THE WHOLE BOOK WAS A PRAYER?”
Let me tell you: From that moment on, I thought of the first line, the “Let me tell you a story” motif, the short “stories” in the book, and the final line in like… ten minutes. It just flew out of my brain. The entire book’s plot was assembled within a couple days, and I wrote that draft in a record-setting eighteen days. It was what I was missing the whole time: Xochitl’s voice was wrong. She needed to be angry. She needed to be in control of her own story. Once I cracked that, I knew I had found what I’d spent the previous two drafts looking for.
JB: The character Emilia wasn’t always a part of the original story but I think her character reveal and draw to Xochitl was so raw. Everyone’s backstory is tragic and beautiful. Which characters were your favorite to explore in Each of Us a Desert?
MO:Two in particular were my favorite. First, Emilia. Absolutely. I loved seeing her so entirely through Xochitl’s eyes and having this parallel growth unfold. As Xochitl realizes that the cuentistas are not what they seemed to be, neither is Emilia. And getting to explore how she became the cold, disaffected person that Xochitl meets was so fulfilling! You don’t meet this character until the end, but I loved writing Eduardo. He was originally along for Xochitl’s journey in the first two drafts, but it never worked like I wanted it to. I figured out how to use him late in the process, and I realized his story was about complicity. What systems do we support unknowingly? What happens when we discover that the things we’ve done have unknowingly harmed others?
JB: You include poetry in this novel, do you think you want to write more poetry down the road or even write a novel in verse?
MO: Absolutely! Oh, I hadn’t written poetry in so, so long. It was a relief to know I could still do it? But the extra challenge here was that, as I mentioned earlier, all the poems were written in Spanish first. It was important for me to construct them that way for them to be more natural, rather than write them in English and translate them to Spanish. I would love to write a novel in verse one day. We’ll see!
JB: Anger is a Gift came out two years ago and continues to resonate with readers; what have been the best memories connected to your novel and how do you anticipate your second release will differ?
MO: It’s very surreal to think about my debut book’s journey. I had a nice debut month, and then came the grind. I didn’t make any bestseller lists, I sold a decent amount of books in 2018, and I kept doing what I could to promote. Sometimes, I paid for myself to be at festivals or conferences, trying to put in the work to build an audience. I did a lot of events where I only sold three or four books all day, and I’d be sitting next to someone with a signing line an hour long. It’s part of paying your dues in that sense, and I knew you had to put yourself out there and take risks to build this sort of thing.
And then 2019 hit, and I got hit with the back-to-back Schneider Family Book Award, the Lammys nomination, and the Project LIT reading list, and my book just… exploded. It’s still unreal to me, you know? I never thought my queer book would make it this far. I miss the school visits, Jackie! I miss getting to meet readers. I think all my favorite memories are attached to meeting kids who felt seen by the book. There’s nothing in the world like that.
The hard part of writing not just a book in a different genre but one that’s wildly different from my debut is that I have no idea what this experience is going to be like. My hope at the very least is that I establish myself as the kind of writer who genre hops, and that people come along for the ride—regardless of genre—because I tell a good story.
JB: I am a pretty big pop culture addict and coming across the Mark Does Stuff Universe was like a dream because I think commentary is such a huge part of the community and the success of certain works. (I’m personally reading through your Avatar the Last Airbender and Russian Doll reviews because 1. Natasha Lyonne and 2. I am both a Mark Oshiro and an ATLA stan). What has been your favorite property that you’ve covered and does being a professional Television and Book Blogger cause you to be more critical of your own work?
MO: Ah! Thank you! I’ve been doing that for so, so long that it’s just a natural part of my life. For Mark Reads, I am particularly proud of my reviews for His Dark Materials and my recent reviews for The Fifth Season. On Mark Watches…. Oooh, definitely Russian Doll, and also, I cannot get enough of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. That show really, really blew me away.
I tell people that I have little formal training as a writer. I consider the decade of Mark Does Stuff as my education. Doing literary criticism or media criticism teaches you about structure, characterization, plotting, voice… all of it! You’re studying someone else’s craft on a weekly basis for months at a time. I don’t think I would be the writer I am now without that.
JB: You’ve been doing Mark Does Stuff for about 11 years, what has this experience been like for you and do you ever think you’ll expand the Mark Oshiro Universe to include commentary on music and film?
MO: I feel lucky everyday that I still get to review books and television shows for a living. Honestly. And I’m glad that, with a few bumps along the road, I’ve been able to keep the sites going while being published. I do keep things to more of a minimum these days so as not to overwork myself, but look. If I had the time to do Mark Listens, I would do that in a heartbreak. Music is my actual true love, and I would ADORE the opportunity to sit and listen to music and analyze it.
JB:What have been your comfort reads/ binges during this quarantine and what do you want to recommend people dive into themselves?
MO: I’ve read close to fifty books in quarantine (and yet my TBR pile is still massive), and it’s been nice to read during pleasure. My top five so far have been:
Burn Our Bodies Down – Rory Powe
Let Me Hear a Rhyme – Tiffany Jackson
The Year of the Witching – Alexis Henderson
You Should See Me In A Crown – Leah Johnson
Clap When You Land – Elizabeth Acevedo
JB: I saw in an interview you did that you write to music, and there is a desert playlist you listened to while writing Each of Us a Desert. Can you share a few songs that you feel would be soundtracks for your two novels or that your character Moss and Xochitl would listen to during their personal journeys?
MO: I obsessively write to music. I actually don’t write all that great in silence! I currently have 47 playlists on my phone. There are ones for each book project I’m working on, as well as a bunch of thematic ones that I use to get in the mood. The soundtrack for Anger Is a Gift was almost exclusively hip-hop and punk rock. I needed a lot of anger, a lot of aggression, and so I devised playlists with Refused, Rage Against the Machine, Wu Tang, Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, and Bikini Kill.
I had a drastically different process for Each of Us a Desert. I still had thematic playlists, but I also found I relied on specific songs—often on repeat—to help me get into some of the more complicated moods. The vast majority of the book was written to three artists: Murder By Death (who write haunting indie folk songs about the desert), Florence + The Machine (because there’s nothing quite like the anger and ethereal energy of literally their entire body of music), and Fire From the Gods, this metal/hardcore band who manage to combine hip-hop, metal, R&B, reggae, and like ten thousand genres together. Between the three of them… that’s the whole book. With some appearances from Solange, Laura Marling, and Mitski.
JB: From your dedication page to your acknowledgements section I was in tears. I cannot express my gratitude for you gifting the world Each of Us a Desert and of course Anger is a Gift too. It is truly a masterpiece and I am so so sorry for your loss. As someone who has wanted to write for so long I had a specific idea of what an children’s author had to be which was a kind of cookie-cutter type of person and just here you are killing it with your unapologetic self and you’ve inspired me so I want to take this moment to thank you for that. Thank you for making me feel seen.
MO: Oh, Jackie, thank you so much! Is it weird that the Acknowledgments are the thing I’m most nervous about? I’m generally a very publicly vulnerable person, but I struggled with how much of the inspiration for Emilia / Xo I was going to talk about if people asked. I see the Acknowledgments as my way of letting the truth be free. It is what it is, and part of my healing is naming it, is telling the world that the love of my life died. That’s hard to type, even though it’s been over eight months since he passed. But his influence on the book is immense, and it wouldn’t be right not to name that. So thank you, because your response makes me feel it was all worth it.
JB: Finally, now that your two novels are complete, what projects are you working on now that you can discuss?
MO: Ahem, three novels!!! I finished my middle grade book earlier this year and am deep in edits for it now. I have a good portion of my second MG book done, but that will have to remain a secret for now. I’m hard at work on YA #3, and the only thing I can tell the world right now is that it’s contemporary, and the best pitch for it is Heredity (minus the supernatural stuff) meets Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. It’s an emotional horror novel and it’s perhaps the most personal thing I’ve ever written. If you can believe that!
PRR Writer, Jackie Balbastro