The Big Idea: Mark Oshiro
Sometimes, it takes a try or two, or a rewrite here and there, to really nail down a story. Author Mark Oshiro tells us about just that as he takes us through his Big Idea, Each of Us a Desert, and shows us that we shouldn’t be afraid of reframing our narratives. It might turn out better than the original could’ve ever been.
After three and a half years of work, my second novel, Each of Us a Desert, is finally released today. It is a sprawling, ambitious story about a teenage girl whose magical power as a cuentista—someone who can pull “stories” out of people’s bodies in order to cleanse them of their wrongdoings—is called into question when she discovers she may have been lied to about who and what she is. It’s my first attempt at secondary world fantasy and virtually nothing like my debut novel.
But my Big Idea? The thing I wanted to accomplish and that took four attempts to nail down?
I wanted to write an absurd narrative framing device.
I love epistolary stories. I love wacky, irreverent, or unreliable narrators. I love books with ridiculous concepts and premises that just utterly commit to telling a story how they need to be told. Books like Railsea (China Mieville), Parable of the Sower (Octavia Butler), House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski), and Room (Emma Donoghue) all left their mark on me not just for the content of the stories, but how they were written. Each has their own narrative devices or quirky premise at work to tell the story, and they’re not the same book if you remove them. They are entirely integral to the novel!
I did not get the idea for the framing device of Each of Us a Desert until draft three, which was the second rewrite. (Some day, I’ll write a novel in the correct genre the first time around!!!) While the first round of edits brought to life much of the world of Xochitl, her god Solís, and the world of las cuentistas, I still hadn’t found the heart of the story. Specifically, Xochitl’s voice was still too dry, too dark, and too detached. In hindsight, I get why! My revisions had helped craft this detailed, intimate, and frightening world, but what was the emotional core of this story? Why did it even matter that it was being told?
I was sitting across from my editor (the brilliant Miriam Weinberg at Tor) over lunch when the idea arrived in my brain and flew out of my mouth. I nearly lunged over the table as I blurted it out: What if the entire story was Xochitl’s prayer to their god, explaining why she had done what she had done? What if the way I found out the importance of this story was to have her literally tell us?
The book’s new outline for that revision took shape in a few days, and I re-wrote the entire thing—quite honestly every word of it—in less than a month. That’s not a humble brag as much as it is a sign of how infectious this idea was to me. It helped me frame this character’s arc; it helped me ground her emotions as she told this story; it helped bring Each of Us a Desert to life! It allowed me to play with language in a fascinating way, too, and there are portions of the manuscript that trick the reader into a bizarre form of second-person. Xochitl is addressing her god, Solís, so there are times when it feels as if the novel is breaking the wall between storyteller and reader.
This framing also made it easier for me to lean into other components of the story. I wanted Spanish to be a fantasy language, and suddenly, I had a very natural means for this character’s native tongue to constantly appear in the text. Cuentistas are necessary in this world because if a person avoids sharing their story in ritual, their secrets can manifest as harmful beings called pesadillas. Suddenly, I had a wonderful way to anchor horror to the narrative, as Xochitl spends much of the story caught between her religious duty and the visceral terror of it.
But perhaps my favorite part of this Big Idea is that I got to use Xochitl’s magical ritual to tell multiple short stories within the novel itself. I needed the reader to understand what this ritual was like for the protagonist. Thus, as Xochitl experiences a ritual in real-time, so does the reader. My goal was to add physicality to the story, but also to further complicate the many people Xochitl makes on her strange, frightening journey.
But I also don’t want this to make it seem like this task was easy. That’s the thing about Big Ideas: the execution of them is usually harder than you can possibly imagine when you first think of them. There were absolutely times when I believed that I had bit off more than I could chew. One such struggle was with something that is a requirement in secondary fantasy: exposition. How could I convey this world to the reader while sticking to the format? I think the final version accomplishes that in some interesting ways, but this Big Idea challenged my own understanding of how stories can be told.
As Each of Us a Desert goes out in the world, I’m thankful that I got to experiment. There is the chance that fans of my contemporary debut will be bewildered by this experience. What I hope is that readers are willing to give me a chance while I take them on this ridiculous, fantastical, and magical ride.