As both a YA writer and a teacher of Latino literature, Samantha Mabry is drawn to stories that blend the real and the fantastic. Her debut novel, A Fierce and Subtle Poison (2016), is a magic-infused mystery with a Puerto Rican setting. Mabry’s second novel, All the Wind in the World, has recently been longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Set in a dried out, near-future Texas, the book stars Sarah Jac and James, a pair of secret lovers who make a living as maguey harvesters. When an accident forces them on the lam and onto an allegedly cursed ranch, their carefully constructed lives are thrown into peril. Mabry spoke with PW about her personal connection to magical realism, sharing favorite stories with students, and the imaginative possibilities found in the Texas landscape.
The blurring of the real and the fantastic is a recurring theme in All the Wind in the World, down to the name of the Real Marvelous ranch. What draws you to explore magical realism in your writing?
I’ve always liked magical realism as a genre, growing up. I read The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. And I was a reader long before I was a writer. While I was teaching a class on Latino literature at a community college, I was reading another book by Isabel Allende, Paula. I was taking notes on it to teach, and that was the moment it clicked. I understood how to write that kind of story.
I also come from a family where that blend is present in day-to-day life. My grandmother, a Mexican-American woman, used to keep coins in a dish on the top shelf in her kitchen. The thought was if money was in a high place, it would bring you wealth. She was a big believer in dreams. She would tell me the messages and instructions she got from my other grandmother in her dream. To have that kind of lived experience of a bit of magic in everyday life makes a lot of sense to me.
Both A Fierce and Subtle Poison and All the Wind in the World are infused with superstition and local lore. Where do you pull the many stories-within-stories from?
In All the Wind in the World, one of the characters gives another one a trinket, a button wrapped in wire, as an object of security. I made that up. There are some places in A Fierce and Subtle Poison where I was drawing on actual preexisting legends. So there is the Ciguapa, a Dominican figure with feet that point backward. She walks in the forest by the water. There’s also a goddess that makes storms, sort of a Taíno figure. So I pull from some folklore—not too much—and then make up other parts.
In your new book, why did you choose to bring the Western genre, with all its history, into a near-future setting?
I wanted it to be kind of like a Western, with wide open spaces. I wanted there to be horses and trains, and no technology to speak of. I wanted it to reflect a future that I thought was realistically apocalyptic, but that is like the present as well. I didn’t want it to be outside of time or timeless, I just wanted it to be reflective of the past, the present, and the future—to exist in any of those places.
It’s set in Valentine, a real town in West Texas, where I spent many summers. I also spent time in Marfa, a part of the country that looks very untouched. There’s not a lot out there. Even now, there are almost permanent burn bans because of the threat of fires. I wanted it to look like that.
As a native Texan, what is your own relationship to the Southwestern landscape?
I was born and raised in Dallas and lived in Austin for a year. My husband is from Houston, so I’m there quite a bit. I spend lots of time in the summer in far west Texas, and I lived in the panhandle for a while. You could set any kind of novel in Texas. Topographically, it has mountains, swampy forests, cedar forests, and it has beaches. And parts of Texas are changing very rapidly. In Dallas, there are tons of buildings going up all the time. [Other] parts feel so wild and look like how it’s probably looked for thousands of years.
There’s a lot of potential in Texas. Texas history, which I’m interested in, is also very complicated. Parts of it were Indian territory, then Spanish, then American. There’s so much overlapping of identity and cultures, in addition to the variations of setting.
Dying girls are central figures in your books. Why are you inspired to take on the subject of death in writing for young readers?
I think a lot about the ways in which girls are constricted. In A Fierce and Subtle Poison it’s physically: Isabella is sick. But she also has a father that is possibly responsible for her sickness. She’s constricted by her illness and literally stuck in her house. She also feels like the weight of the island is on her, the weight of colonialism and history pressing on her.
In All the Wind in the World it’s different. Sarah Jac has the death of her little sister that weighs on her. She has this feeling that she’s going to mess everything up regarding her relationship with her boyfriend James. She also has this very real need to make money to do what she wants to do. That kind of hems her in also. I like to explore all these layers that are constricting girls. Sometimes they can break through, and sometimes they’re thwarted. Sometimes they can subvert things, and sometimes they need help from other people.
Was it difficult to reconcile the moments of violence in the book with your lyrical style?
I don’t necessarily mind that my writing is described as lyrical, but I try to be as un-purple as I can be. I try to be very specific with—almost obsessive about—word choice and diction and sentence structure. So a violent scene can be very crisply clear, as far as what’s happening. That almost made the descriptions easier. I didn’t want to make it sound lovely; I just wanted to make it sound correct.
You mentioned that you teach writing and Latino literature. What are some of your favorite books to share with students?
I teach composition I and II, not necessarily a lot of creative writing. For Latino lit, I teach out of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. There has to be a balance between the things I like and the things that strike students. I love teaching sections of The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea. It’s set in a part of Arizona where migrants make the dangerous crossing from Mexico into the United States. I also teach sections of Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya and the first chapter of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. And I teach another early chapter from When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago.
Are there any books that particularly resonated with your class?
Sometimes I don’t know what they will love. They really liked a section of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents [by Julia Alvarez]. I teach community college, and the demographic is mostly Hispanic students, about 85–90%. They related to the idea of their parents wanting them to be “American” but also wanting them to retain parts of their culture. These expectations may seem contradictory, and the students related to that.
What advice do you give beginning writers?
For this composition class, I tell them I’m a writer. Sometimes I show them the notes that I get from my editor in a Word doc—which is a lot! Just to prove to them the process that goes into this. I try to let them know I’m dishing it out but also taking it. Even when I get revisions, I get butterflies in my stomach. I try to show them that writing can be both joyous and frustrating. I don’t know if it works; sometimes they just want to turn in their paper.
What is your relationship like with your editor at Algonquin?
It’s been great. The first book went through a lot more editing than the second. There were some major revisions structurally, but it’s always really helpful. I would be so lost without editorial help. Sometimes my students think they can get it right on their own, but that’s so rare.
I’m always thrilled to get any kind of feedback from Krestyna [Lypen]. She’s good at being a cheerleader for my work, but also a critic of it. I’ve learned from her how to adapt that style into teaching. It’s not just finger wagging and red pen scraping.
How did you get into writing?
I started writing creatively when I was in graduate school [at Boston College], after taking a course in nonfiction. Basically, I wanted to be Annie Dillard. There’s an essay of hers called “The Deer at Providencia,” which is basically all about a deer tied to a tree, and I think about it a lot—how it balances beauty and brutality, which is something I strive to do.
What was your path to publication for your first book?
For a while, I tried to get an essay of mine about this guy I knew who robbed banks placed in a literary journal, but that never panned out. Then, partially fueled by my love of television shows about paranormal investigations, I started writing ghost stories. A novel about a haunted hotel landed me my first agent—she’s since left the business. Like the bank robber essay, the ghost story novel also never panned out, and just when I was feeling particularly low about the prospect of ever becoming a published writer, I came up with the first lines of what would eventually become A Fierce and Subtle Poison.
I revised that novel for what felt like a long time, over two years, first with my agent and then with my editor. All the Wind in the World took a much shorter time to churn from start to finish. Now I’m back to taking a long time with the novel I’m currently working on. Typically I’m sloth-slow and overly meticulous.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on now?
It’s very much in progress. It’s a ghost story and there are sisters. It takes place in San Antonio. But it’s such a nebulous thing right now.
All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry. Algonquin Young Readers, $17.95 Oct. 10 ISBN 978-1-61620-666-6