Earlier this year, I featured Joy, to the World, a book that Lisa Bunker co-wrote with Kai Shappley, and when I heard the premise of ALMOND, QUARTZ AND FINCH I couldn’t wait to feature it as well. The book is out today, November 7, 2023.
The Nezel are refugee servants, toiling in a desert land where their culture is barely tolerated. Two friends, prowling through secret tunnels, uncover a villainous plot that places the Nezel in jeopardy. Almond and Quartz hatch a desperate plan to aid Finch, rightful heir to the throne. Even with the help of unexpected allies, their heroic efforts may not be enough—and the Time of Naming cannot be delayed. All adolescents must choose a gender and a new name for adulthood but Almond, intensely private, struggles to make this choice.
Almond, Quartz, and Finch strive to claim their true selves and protect their people in perilous times.
In our last interview, you said, “ALMOND, QUARTZ, AND FINCH…it’s the high fantasy novel I wish 12-year-old closeted me could have discovered in the stacks of my school library.” What other high fantasy novels do you wish you’d had access to at the time?
It’s interesting I chose the term “high fantasy” before to describe AQ&F, because upon reflection that’s not the right category. This new book contains no magic, no dragons, no non-human characters of any kind, no epic battles. There is a power struggle, but it takes place on a small scale, among regular people, for regular human reasons. The only typically fantastical element is the setting – a long ago far away land that I enjoyed inventing. These days, with so many stories in the world, building an original or even low-cliché imaginary world is an intriguing, non-trivial challenge.
There is one other act of imagination that’s central to the book, and sadly it could also still be called a fantasy element: the premise of a culture in which children are raised without gender and get to choose. This concept was the original “what if” of the novel. But that’s more of a social thought experiment than a conventional “high fantasy” trope.
With regard to specific titles, I confess that while I’m writing I tend not to read – I am so susceptible to other peoples’ prose styles. In order to produce my best, most original work, I feel the need to isolate. But even when I’m keeping my distance, I am heartened by the sheer volume of stories in all genres these days that contain significant LGBTQ+ content. A 12-year-old closeted trans/enby kid today does not have to search very far to find a tale in which they can see themselves represented. It was not always so, and it really matters.
It really does. I love how ALMOND, QUARTZ AND FINCH explores the importance of friendship. How did you know this needed to be a part of the story?
I like this question, because I hadn’t thought about the story in this precise way while writing it. I enjoy when readers reflect my work back to me in ways I hadn’t considered.
I’m going to answer indirectly, with some thoughts about introversion, because that turns out to be something else that the book is about. Almond, the main protagonist, finds other people, even the ones vo loves, to be a lot to deal with. Vo prefers to be alone. Still, there are a number of other characters that could be said to be Almond’s friends.
Vo feels more comfortable with older humans, especially an enby elder named Sarvi, so that’s a friendship…but also a mentor scenario. Quartz is Almond’s closest friend, almost a sibling, but that relationship is complicated by the fact that Quartz wants it to be something more. And there are a couple of servants among the Irzemi race (Almond and the other Nezel people are refugees in a foreign land) that Almond forges connections with, though often vo finds it challenging to interact with them. A couple of these characters end up helping the Nezel when the big power-struggle happens.
So while you’re right that personal connections are central to the character and story, and they are all friendships, in each case I would also use another word or phrase: mentor, sibling of choice, ally. I’m not sure what that means, but it’s interesting. In any case, it definitely matters that when interacting with other characters, especially those near veir own age, Almond finds them to be a fair amount of work.
It’s definitely intersting! After writing a fantasy, would you do so again? Why or why not?
It was fun inventing imaginary lands, cultures, and languages, but I’m not sure I want to do it again. I had trouble finding a publisher, because, I gather, my approach to fantasy is not what’s fashionable right now. I was even accused of cultural appropriation once, because someone on a marketing team thought some of the words in one of my conlangs sounded Arabic. (They weren’t.) Also, I have no interest in adding to the world’s stockpile of stories of Good vs. Evil. I don’t care to write about war.
What still remains an essential part of my process, it appears, is the “what if” trigger. So there’s a reasonable chance that I will produce another book someday based on a form of fantastical imagining. Once the single “what if” question is asked, though, my imagination tends to want to know what would really happen with real people, given that this one odd magical thing is true in the story’s world.
In short, no dragons anytime soon.
Gotcha. If you could tell your younger writer self one thing, what would it be and why?
Kiddo, the best reason to write is because you love doing it. I know you’ve had this dream of being a Famous Author since you were five, and I know that dream is helping you hold yourself together while you labor at projecting masculinity in the world – since that seems like the only choice – but it will not, in the end, save you.
For one thing, fame is elusive. It’s a matter of luck more than merit. Certainly, failing to achieve fame does not mean that you are a bad writer. Fame is also not important. Writing is an intensely personal act, an attempt to create an artefact constructed of language that will go out into the world and possibly connect with and convey something to another human.
If, knowing that, you still want to make stories, go to it, and have fun! But if you want to take a break or even stop altogether – maybe take up composing music instead – then you are free to let the dream go. It helped keep you alive when the going was hard, but, having claimed wholeness in the world, you no longer need it. Write for the love of writing! Otherwise, leave it alone unless and until it grabs you and demands to be done.
OK, that’s more than one thing, and some of it is for the me who is one second younger. Felt like it all needed to be said, though.