Mark Does YA: The Prolific Critic and Creator Talks About “Anger Is a Gift”

The debut author and creator of the "Mark Does Stuff" universe chats about his road to publication, teen activism, and what he’s working on next.

The Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and TV series, has written a timely young adult contemporary novel set in West Oakland, about teen activism, “found families,” and loss. Anger Is a Gift (Tor Teen; May 22, 2018; Gr 8 Up) centers on Moss Jeffries, the son of a victim of police violence, who pushes through his anxiety, with the help of his friends and family, to fight for students’ rights.

In its starred review, SLJ called it: “A strong addition to the current wave of excellent social justice–themed contemporary realistic titles. Give this to fans of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give.” The debut author chats about getting published, teen activism, and what he’s working on next.

What was your journey to publication like?

Anger Is a Gift was completed in spurts over the last five and a half years in between time spent on the Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads/Mark Watches). A great deal of the book was written on airplanes, trains in Europe, in libraries, and in cafes around the world. Before I started the book, I had been querying agents since 2012, but I didn’t send out a complete manuscript to anyone until early 2015. Even then, I got rejected by everyone I queried. It wasn’t until I linked up with DongWon Song that I got the feedback I needed to help transform Anger into what it is now. Everything happened real fast after that—I went from having no agent to signing with DongWon, and landing a book deal in less than a month in February 2017.

Can you tell us about the genesis of Anger Is a Gift? Wasn’t it originally a fantasy novel?

Anger Is a Gift used to be a science fiction/dystopian hybrid—there were murder robots hiding under the city. It was wild, and it also had a different title—An Insidious Thing, which is a line that’s still in the novel. One day I might get back there! But I understand why I started with that sort of story. The book was inspired by an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I was much more comfortable writing genre fiction than contemporary. The bones of the same story in those early drafts—Moss resisting the poor treatment he and his friends received at his high school— are still there, but the story went in a much different direction in the last 200 pages or so. I’m glad I got pushed in the direction I did by my agent. I can’t imagine Anger being anything but what it is now.

Teen activism in this country is an integral part of our history, and the protagonists in this book embody that. Why do you think it’s so important to celebrate and shine a light on that in this novel?

It’s our reality! I was involved in activism in high school myself. I attended protests and marches, and as an editor for my high school paper, we had to fight the administration and the school district on a number of issues. We actually got in a lot of trouble for running an ad in our paper that advertised a health clinic that provided emergency contraception, and our paper was nearly shut down because of it. There’s a mistaken belief that teens need adults to understand the world and to fight injustice. And while having adults as allies and supporters is vital, I wanted to validate kids all over the world who feel like they need to take it upon themselves to make this a better place.

Moss Jeffries has an amazing group of friends, a sweet romance with Javier, and a really strong relationship with his mom. How did you craft these complex, nuanced connections?

Like many writers, I borrowed from my own life in constructing Moss’s friend group. I found friends much like Kaisha, Reg, Njemile, Bits, and Rawiya—who were largely queer, who were from different cultures and backgrounds, who loved and accepted me—once I got to college. But a lot of this book is wish fulfillment on my part. What if my parents had been accepting of my sexuality? What if I had discovered my found family in high school? What if I’d been able to date a boy while all my straight peers were experiencing love and romance for the first time? So, despite that this is a contemporary novel, a lot of imagination went into the construction of these character arcs.

Which character was the most difficult to write? Which protagonist did you identify with the most?

I most identify with Moss, which isn’t all that surprising. I have dealt with depression, anxiety, and PTSD/trauma surrounding my experience with police violence, and you can see a great deal of that in his characterization and behavior. And I tried to be as honest as possible about what that feels like as a teenager. But it was Esperanza, Moss’s best friend, who was the most difficult to write. Her arc changed so many times, and it was my editor, Miriam Weinberg, who really urged me to lean into the importance of her role as an ally to Moss who struggles with what realistic support actually means. It’s hard to write someone as being good-intentioned but still failing someone!

Did you have to do any research for the book? Perhaps on the history of police brutality in the Bay Area?

I focused most of my research on the city of Oakland (even though I lived there for five years) and the ramifications of police violence. Despite having various experience with the phenomenon and the setting, I still wanted to ground this book in our reality. It was always intentional that Anger was set in Oakland, specifically so much in West Oakland, because it has such a rich history of protest, resistance, and activism. It’s still one of the most politically active cities in the world, so I tried to incorporate that sense of history into the book.

There’s such a nuanced exploration of privilege in this, especially in connection with Esperanza, Moss’s best friend who is Latinx with white adoptive parents. Why did you think it was necessary to include?

That’s partially selfish on my part; I’m a Latinx transracial adoptee (My parents are Japanese/Hawaiian and white). So, despite that I have many experiences that are similar to other brown people raised in the United States, there are some elements of my life that vastly differ because I’m adopted. What I really wanted to do was talk about how Esperanza, who has grown up experiencing racism and microaggressions her whole life, still had trouble understanding someone else’s struggle because of her upbringing. Even if she didn’t want to admit it, her white parents and their relative wealth shielded her from the kind of life that Moss and his friends had while going to school just a few miles away from Esperanza.

The novel has a realistic, unresolved ending. But can you imagine what Moss and his friends are doing five years from now?

I have some ideas, and the slightly unresolved ending doesn’t give much of a clue. I do want to preserve headcanons or theories that people have, but I mostly wanted to imply that even if the events of this novel will always haunt these people, they can move on. They can live their own lives. That being said, if I were ever to return to this world to write another story or book in it, I’d want to write from Rawiya’s perspective.

What are you working on next?

I am currently in edits and rewrites for my second novel for Tor Teen! I completed it last fall, and I’m super excited for the day when I can tell folks about it in detail. For now, I’ll say that it’s a YA book of magical realism, storytelling, and migration.

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