Authors in Conversation: Mark Oshiro and Lauren Shippen

Today on the site I’m thrilled to have two authors with new YA releases out this month! You may already know Mark Oshiro from Anger is a Gift and Lauren Shippen from The Infinite Noise, and they’re both here to discuss their work, its themes, and what’s up next! (And make sure you check out the September New Releases post for info and buy links for Each of Us a Desert and A Neon Darkness!) The authors have jumped right into their conversation, and so shall we!

Lauren: Mark!! It is so wonderful to talk to you, virtually, as we’ve been doing for the past few months with online book events! We’ve both been making the social distancing rounds for Pride Month events to promote our upcoming books – my second novel,  A Neon Darkness, and your new book, Each of Us a Desert. Both of our stories center queer characters and have themes of self-discovery, love, and companionship. For me, the theme of self-discovery is the big one. The protagonist of A Neon Darkness, Robert Gorham, arrives in LA as a lost eighteen year old with a terrible supernatural power and discovers a group of people like him who help him learn more about himself. The whole novel is a discussion about how we define ourselves – is it our intentions or our actions that matter – and about how communities of people and found family help hone those definitions. Rob learns about himself through the eyes of the people he’s learning to love and they, in turn, learn about themselves and their limits. It’s a dark book to be sure, filled with difficult choices. Each of Us a Desert is also about difficult choices, and the consequences of those choices – how do those themes feature in your book?

Mark: HI, LAUREN! I wish this wasn’t digital I WANT TO YELL AT YOUR FACE ABOUT YOUR BOOK. This shall suffice, though!

There’s a lot in Each of Us a Desert that works as a reaction–conscious or not–to what I tried to deal with in Anger is A Gift, my debut. I definitely went into this new book wanting to talk about queerness in a different way. Moss already had his wonderful community in his friends, but that wasn’t my experience growing up. I was eager to explore the notion of queerness in rural communities, and how that intersects with feeling isolated. So many of us grew up in places where we saw out and happy queer people far away from where we lived. Desert doesn’t deal in homophobia–it doesn’t really exist in the world I created–but rather uses a fantastical narrative to speak in metaphor for this experience, which is still centered on two girls who are desperate for someone to see them for who they really are. To me, that’s what love is in all its forms: being seen. Like, TRULY seen!

I was very conscious of what sort of queer representation I was putting on the page, too. I wanted a dark, challenging struggle, but I also didn’t want to repeat what I’d done in Anger. This HAD to be a happy ending. So I’m curious, especially since A Neon Darkness is so much darker than The Infinite Noise: How do you address that balance between joy and tragedy in a queer narrative?

Lauren: Someday in the hopefully not too distant future we can stand in the same spot and yell at each other because I want to SCREAM ABOUT YOUR BOOK TOO.

I love that you brought up that homophobia doesn’t really exist in this world you’ve created and that you were insistent on a happy ending. There is such a place in my heart for those difficult coming out stories, those tragic star-crossed romances, but DAMN! Queer folx need HEAs too and we don’t get them in media nearly as much as we should. That was something I decided when I created the world of The Bright Sessions: homophobia is almost a completely distant memory in this alternate universe and coming out is never traumatic.

Now, that being said, plenty of difficult and traumatic things happen to my characters and I can’t claim a happy ending for everyone in A Neon Darkness. In writing a darker story, I made sure to focus on the fact that any of the tragedy the characters endure isn’t because they are queer. The central queer relationship in the story, between Neon and Indah, brings them joy and also sorrow–but that’s real life relationships! The sorrow they experience isn’t because they’re two women in a relationship, it’s because human relationships are hard. Which is something Robert discovers as well–the tragedies he experiences and the ones he inflicts aren’t a result of his or anyone’s sexuality. Robert goes on his own journey of trying to figure out what he wants in intimate relationships in this book and, even though he doesn’t land anywhere specific by the end, the tragedy is not his inability to define his sexuality, but his inability to connect at all.

Life is full of joy and pain, regardless of how you identify, so in our beautiful, homophobia-free worlds, queer characters are free to go through struggles unrelated to their sexuality. BUT that doesn’t mean the struggles they experience are easy: Xo and Emilia go on quite the journey in Each of Us a Desert and I’m curious how you went about building certain elements of that journey. Writing violence and its horrible consequences is not new for you, but I’m always so enraptured by how you’re able to write difficult, visceral things that are frightening and real, but that never leave me feeling unsafe as a reader. How do you do that??? How do you write violence in a YA setting without it going too far?

Mark: Look, I RELATE TO THIS SO MUCH. Because Anger is a much more dark and more traumatic novel for reasons that are obvious, and I love that you say that you’re trying to find that darkness outside of homophobia, too. I love fiction that is challenging and intense and scary, and we need more queer stories like that, too.

ANYWAY. I would love to tell you I planned everything out ahead of time and fully intended for Xochitl’s and Emilia’s respective journeys to end up as they did when I first began writing the book. But Emilia didn’t even exist until like… the second rewrite. The original draft of Desert was a very different story and a different genre, but it still contained a long journey across a frightening, mysterious desert.

The answer is editing. I was inspired by my editor, Miriam Weinberg, to pursue a much more fantastical story, and almost ALL of the worldbuilding and those frightening moments were created over two sessions at a Le Pain Quotidien in Manhattan. This might make fantasy purists furious, but I crafted all the worldbuilding for the characters, not the other way around. Everything happens and exists to support the journey I came up with, and so I believe there’s a much more intimate sense of stakes and drama because of that. So when I was coming up with the pesadillas–the nightmares that come to life–the character was fully formed and real at that point. So any violence happening… I knew it was happening to a person. I tried to construct the more horrific stuff with empathy in mind. Why is this person seeing this terrifying manifestation? And how can the reader understand it?

I feel like empathy is a HUGE theme across your work, both on your podcast and in your two novels. Like… your work is about stepping into someone else’s shoes and understanding them. How do you see the intersection of empathy and queerness within your fiction? Do you think that fiction can provide empathy for other people?

Lauren: I love what you said about the violence happening to a real person. It isn’t devoid of context. I think if any fantasy purists take issues with how you’ve built your world, they’ve missed the point completely. World building that comes from character first is so powerful, and it’s why your world feels so real and high-stakes. The consequences feel grounded because your characters are grounded.

That’s how I try to approach everything too–I always start with character and build outwards. And you’re absolutely right that empathy is a huge theme. It’s really the only way I know how to write characters at all. I try to understand everyone I create, even the villains, and feel empathy for them and their choices, even when I intellectually understand that they might be bad ones.

For me, queerness is just another element of a character’s being and because I’m queer too, I never think much about how I feel empathy for that aspect of their experience–it’s baked right in. But I do focus on how the other characters approach it within the world and, similarly to the “no homophobia” rule, I always have their queerness met with empathy.

I really do think that fiction can be a force for good and for changing the way people see the world, and the thing I’m always trying to do is just show that queer people are human. It feels so silly to say that to another queer author, for an interview we’re doing for a queer publication, but we both know that there’s still a lot of people out there who have a hard time processing that concept! I want to help those people feel empathy for a person they were taught not to feel empathy for and that means feeling empathy for the WHOLE person. I want my queer characters to be flawed and messy and kind and challenging; I want them to be human, and all the pros and cons that come with that.

I ADORE that all of that scary and fantastical stuff was ideated in a Le Pain Quotidien–not only is the juxtaposition of the incredible world you created and a perfectly normal restaurant a wonderful image, but it really does speak to the power of fiction and how our imaginations can transport us. This is your first fantasy novel – how do queerness and fantasy intersect in your work? And more broadly, what do you think about the way queerness fits into the fantasy genre overall?

Mark: Wow, I’m seriously so mad we don’t get to do this in person. I feel like we could just go back and forth on this stuff forever.

Like you, it’s a default when I’m writing. I center queer people of color in my fiction because we have historically been left out of this world, and I want younger queer kids to see themselves in ways I do not. I came into fantasy more as an adult, so I’ve also had the luxury of getting to see so many rich depictions of queerness in fantasy, but I know it’s been a struggle. What’s so frustrating about it is how much push back there’s been against this sort of realism. (And that’s what it is: realism. The world has queer people in it, the end? It’s not a point to be debated.) I grew up seeing this in multiple genres, but its application to the fantasy world is infuriating because… we can literally do what we want in secondary fantasy. Why are we holding to gender binary? Or to a monotony in sexual identity? How can you imagine a world of dragons and magic and wizards and witches and a million different things we don’t have in our world, but the imagination doesn’t extend to queerness?

So with Each of Us a Desert, I wanted that queerness to be upfront: you meet queer people along the journey. You see Xochitl’s own growing desire for another woman and the conflict that comes from not knowing whether she’s right for her or if this is even the right time to be having feelings of that sort. But there’s a metaphorical element to it all, too: This is a book about being a rural queer person and feeling left out of the world. Granted, where I grew up was geographically large (Riverside, CA), but it felt like a small town. I lived next to a wildlife preserve, I had lots of friends who grew up on farms, and all the cool shit in the world was happening so, so far away. What happens when you feel isolated? When you haven’t found your community where you live and you ache so fully to escape?

If you can’t tell, I love writing about gay angst IT IS MY ENTIRE CHILDHOOD.

What’s up next for you?

Mark: First: Lauren, this was such a delight, LET’S DO THIS AGAIN. Each of Us a Desert is out on September 15, 2020; next year is my middle grade debut, the gloriously queer adventure that is The Insiders. I’m currently at work on a dark contemporary YA that’s–I promise it’ll make sense in the end!!!–Hereditary meets Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

Lauren: Yes!! I cannot WAIT to speak with you in person someday soon and talk about all the ways in which fantasy and scifi are the perfect genres in which to break all the binaries and have queerness thrive. I can’t wait to read how everything we’ve discussed will manifest in your upcoming work–that YA contemporary especially sounds terrifying and wonderful! I’m exploring more fantastical elements myself at the moment as I finish up my third and final novel in The Bright Sessions universe, about a girl named Rose who can walk inside people’s dreams. The protagonist of A Neon Darkness appears in that final book as well, so I hope people grab it when it comes out on September 29th, 2020. Thank you so much for talking with me virtually, Mark, and happy happy Pride!!

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Mark Oshiro is the young adult author of Anger is a Gift (Tor Teen), winner of the 2019 Schneider Family Book Award and nominated for a 2019 Lammy Award, as well as Each of Us a Desert and their middle grade debut, The Insiders. 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.

Lauren Shippen is a writer most known for her work in fiction podcasts. She was the creator and sole writer of the popular audio drama The Bright Sessions.  She went on to executive produce The AM Archives and co-produce Passenger List before founding Atypical Artists, a company dedicated to audio storytelling. She wrote MARVELS, an audio adaptation of the popular comic, set for release in 2019 by Marvel and Stitcher. She was named one of Forbes 2018 30 Under 30 in Media and one of MovieMaker Magazine and Austin Film Festival’s 25 Screenwriters to Watch. Shippen grew up in New York, where she spent most of her youth reading and going to Panic! at the Disco shows. She now lives in Los Angeles, where she does the same thing. Visit her at www.LaurenShippen.com and on social @laurenshippen.