“Indelible” is the story of Magdalena, a kid with an unusual power. She sees scribbles on skin. As she ages, Magdalena realizes these markings are words that link to the identity or future of the person she is staring at, and no one else can see them. Thank the saints, Magdalena’s own skin is blank.
As Magdalena struggles to make sense of the loss of a friend, she comes across Neil, who is studying in Paris for the summer. Oddly, her name is writ across his cheek. Neil’s father, Richard, is near at hand, searching for information on the mother who abandoned him. Told from these three points of view, “Indelible” is a mysterious, lovely, and melancholy novel by debut author Adelia Saunders, who was born and raised in Durango.
On her journey from being a kid living in Durango to author extraordinaire thriving in New York City, Saunders received a master’s degree in international affairs from Georgetown University, wrote for an indie newswire at the United Nations, and assisted an agricultural economist in Uganda. She’s taught English in Paris, traveled to faraway lands, and brought all of that experience into her first novel.
Hitting the road and heading to Latvia as a high school exchange student was a defining moment for Saunders’ writing life. “It was one of the single best things I’ve ever done. In a lot of ways, it really gave me some settings, characters, and ideas that found their way into this book,” said Saunders. “It made me into a writer. I was at an impressionable age, left everything that was familiar, and plunked down in a place where I couldn’t speak the language. Where everything felt foreign and new to me ... I was alone a lot with my own thoughts. I wouldn’t have realized it at the time, but looking back, I recognize how much that helped me learn to do something as solitary as writing.”
You can take the woman outta Colorado, but you can’t snag the mountains from her soul. Snippets of Saunders’ background made it into “Indelible.” Saunders said, “My grandfather had a small cattle farm south of town. My dad runs it now, though he just grows hay. The Richard and Neil characters and their agricultural environment are very much borrowed from my own childhood” (though those Richard and Neil characters are set in Walsenburg, not Durango).
Magdalena may have a magic ability, but Saunders did not set out to write a fantasy book. “I like the idea of having a story rooted in our world, the real world, that has a single element of the impossible dropped in. I wanted to see what that one fantasy element would do to the real people in this story,” she said. It was important for the normalizing of the narrative that Magdalena was effected by her magical ability, but that none of the other characters noticed it. Saunders wanted both a magical and standard view of life on the page. This rooted-in-reality choice may have come from influences like Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children.” “It is a fantastic book. He uses a magical realism construct to talk about very real historic events.”
Part of establishing reality in “Indelible” meant exploring what characters meant to each other. “I really wanted Magdalana to be a female-centered character,” Saunders said. “In Magdalena’s world, it is the women that anchor her.” Female characters work as a grounding force not only for Magdalena, but for Neil and Richard, the other two main characters. Originally, Saunders titled her book ‘She’s Long Gone’ because “one of the things that ties the sort of disparate stories of Richard, Neil, and Magdalena together is that they’re all looking for a woman who is gone.”
“Indelible” is a quiet, slow-burning book that is as much a family love story as an adventure story about sifting through archives. “It is about these isolated people ultimately finding love from the people that are around them,” said Saunders. It is a haunting, lush word-river you’ll want to leisurely wade through. If you enjoyed, David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” Rachel Joyce’s “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” or Téa Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife,” you’ll dig Saunder’s “Indelible.”
Bonus Question to Saunders: If Magdalena looked at President Trump, what would she see etched on his skin? “I hope that she would see ‘1-term president’ or ‘Leaves office in 2020.’ I think she would probably be able to give us a good heads up on what’s coming, but honestly, if Magdalena came face to face with Donald Trump, I think she would close her eyes.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.