YA author Samantha Mabry talks about the beauty of heartbreak in her new genre-bending magical Western, All the Wind in the World, and the importance of learning to love your own strange, lonely self.
Give us your elevator pitch for ‘All the Wind in the World’!
After a tragic accident, young couple Sarah Jacqueline Crow and James Holt find themselves at a possibly cursed ranch called The Real Marvelous, where they find work in the fields, harvesting maguey. Throughout the novel, Sarah Jac’s loyalties are tested; her rule-based life starts to break apart, and she’s left pondering the blurry line between superstition and reason.
Where did the initial spark of your story stem from?
I was inspired by a few different sources, which for me is usually the case. Several influences all start to merge together, and then I try to figure out how I want to add my twisty contribution. The main inspiration is an older film called Days of Heaven by Terrence Malick. Anyone who is familiar with that film should be able to see the parallels to All the Wind in the World fairly clearly, because I was really wanting to do a YA version of that story (which itself is a version of a story from the Bible), but I also wanted to move the setting to the desert and invert the characters a bit. Ultimately, I wanted to combine elements of that film (the fieldwork and the secret love) with near-future survival-type elements of more recent novels like The Road, Station Eleven, and Gold Fame Citrus.
How are you most like your main characters? How are you most different?
At the time I was writing All the Wind in the World, I was very unsettled, just in a general, hard-to-pinpoint sort of way. There were aspects of my life that felt very much out of my control, or for months it felt like things were just on the brink of happening but not quite happening, like a storm that would never break. The sense of being unsettled is a great place to start with a character because you know that the choices that character makes will be weighty. That said, Sarah Jac is much more action-oriented than I ever could be. Her decision-making in a high-stakes situation would revolve around action and movement, whereas I would just sit in a chair and think myself to death. As a writer, it’s neat to try and recall intense emotions you’ve felt, but also have characters that would respond those emotions in a completely different way as you.
‘All the Wind in the World’ is your second book. How did your approach in writing it differ from writing your first book, ‘A Fierce and Subtle Poison’? Did you learn something essential that you were able to apply to your approach the second time around?
They were very different books to write. A Fierce and Subtle Poison seemed like it took forever, and it went through several major structural changes, and felt like it just existed in my head, my notebooks, and in files on my computer for such a long time, years upon years. All the Wind in the World, however, came to be in what seems now like a snap. From the beginning, Sarah Jac was very clear in my mind, and I knew her motivations, what she would do, and how she would react to certain situations. Along with that, the setting was clear to me, so I had a good sense of what would/could happen in it. My goal was to write a story that I loved, something gritty and beautiful, and I honestly didn’t know if anyone else would care to read it. I just wanted the story to be good and true and different. I don’t know if I learned anything profound about the writing process between the two books because the book I’m working on now is coming along slowly again and making my brain hurt. I feel as if All the Wind in the World was a gift. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to churn out a story like that again.
How is your writing influenced by magical realism?
I was originally inspired to write because of novels like The House of the Spirits and Of Love and Other Demons, and ultimately, I hope that I’ve made my own small, good contributions to the genre. More than anything, I like to think about place and how the history of the place can form layers and how those layers can bubble up to give a place and the people of a place a sense of “magic.” Some people may disagree, but I believe magical realism is a specific thing, which is tied to history, religion, and culture, and certainly, whenever I construct a story, I think about how these aspects, from past to present, may affect the lives and decisions of the characters, even if the characters aren’t aware of that influence.
You recently wrote an essay about your grandfather’s love of Westerns, despite his own lack of representation in them as a Mexican-American man. How have Westerns influenced your own writing, particularly in regards to ‘All the Wind in the World’?
Oh, gosh. Where do I start? If you’re writing a Western, you’re interested in a couple of things: the setting and the clashes between people that exist in that setting. First off, the setting. There has to be an expansive quality to it. There’s a lot of space, and that space is very awe-inspiring, but there’s also a sense of danger lurking above the surface (snakes!) and below the surface, in the sense that there’s that low-level anxiety that comes with being “alone” in an empty place. So, that’s the kind of beautiful/dangerous setting I hoped to capture with the ranch called The Real Marvelous. Also, there are clashes. In traditional Westerns, the clash is between cowboys and Indians, or between settlers themselves as they try to stake their claim on land. In my novel, I was trying to get at that unease that comes from being in a closed system (the ranch), so when things start going wrong there in small and large ways, there’s both in-fighting between the workers but also a shift of blame to the wealthy ranch owner and his family. So, instead of a culture clash, I wanted to play with class divisions.
You teach writing and Latinx literature at the college level. As a professor, what is one piece of writing advice you always give your students?
This is, like Writing 101, but I want them to know, more than anything, that writing is a process. They sort of hate the concept of “process,” which I understand. When I was a student, there were more than a couple of times when I’d write a paper the night (or morning!) before it was due, but those papers weren’t very good and could have been much better if I’d put even just a little bit more time and care into them. Also, a lot of my students dislike criticism or don’t read my comments (which is frustrating, but again understandable because I hated reading over my instructor’s comments), so early in the term, I show them what it looks like when I myself get editorial notes on works-in-progress from my agent and/or my editor. Sometimes my notes are very long and very in-depth, and that can feel very overwhelming especially when here I was thinking the work was “done.” I guess, with that, I’m trying to show them that I get it, that writing can often be a frustrating, multi-step process. Ultimately, I’m trying to be helpful, and if I were to just draw smiley faces or put check marks all over their work, I’d be doing them a disservice. Oh, I guess should say that writing should be fun, too –but the kind of fun that takes a lot of work.
What are some of your favorite YA reads and/or authors that you’d like to share with us?
Probably my favorite recent YA novel is When I Am Through With You by Stephanie Kuehn. It’s about this camping/orienteering trip that goes terribly wrong. All of these really excellent, flawed characters make really bad decisions, and, as someone who does her fair share of camping, there were several places during the story in which I was practically screaming at the pages. Also, there’s this older (well, older, like from around 2003) YA novel by Rachel Klein called The Moth Diaries, which was recommended to me by the excellent Sarah McCarry, who wrote All Our Pretty Songs. The Moth Diaries is about a girl at a boarding school who starts to think that her classmates are vampires. It’s really great!
As a writer, what do you hope young readers get out of your book?
I was a very solitary young person – an only child who was always in her head. I took great comfort in books with characters who also sort of were loners. That said, I always sort of wished that something or someone would come along and jar me into action because I wasn’t the type of person to take action myself – even still, at the beginning of each term, I sort of hope some cool detective will barge into my office and tell me that he or she has this high-stakes, internationally-significant mystery only Samantha Mabry, writer and English professor can solve! I guess I would like to write books for lonely girls who like to be in their head but also fall into grand adventures and also perhaps fall in love or find great friends, but then they are still be able to be their strange, lonely themselves at the end of the day and have that be okay, too.
Finally: what makes you passionate about Sarah Jac and James’s story?
I love their relationship because I love stories about heartbreak. I also love stories about not-heartbreak, but I really, really love stories about heartbreak. I don’t know if there are many stories in YA that center on a relationship that is so battered on a variety of fronts, so full of strain and pain, and for me, it was great to write these really emotionally hard scenes between two people who truly love each other but don’t really know if that love is enough. This may sound sort of grim or cruel, but I like exploring how much force can be put on a heart before it breaks.
About ‘All the Wind in the World’
Sarah Jacqueline Crow and James Holt work in the vast maguey fields that span the bone-dry Southwest, a thirsty, infinite land that is both seductive and fearsome. In this rough, transient landscape, Sarah Jac and James have fallen in love. They’re tough and brave, and they have big dreams. Soon they will save up enough money to go east. But until then, they keep their heads down, their muscles tensed, and above all, their love secret.
When a horrible accident forces Sarah Jac and James to start over on a new, possibly cursed ranch called the Real Marvelous, the delicate balance they’ve found begins to give way. And James and Sarah Jac will have to pay a frighteningly high price for their love.
All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry debuts on bookstore shelves next Tuesday, October 10th, 2017! You can pre-order the book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your local independent bookstore.