Episode 26: Kendare Blake

An hour-long conversation with Kendare Blake, New York Times-bestelling young-adult author of the Anna Dressed in Blood duology, The Goddess Wars trilogy, and the Three Dark Crowns quartet.

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The Introduction

Kendare Blake

Kendare Blake grew up in the small city of Cambridge, Minnesota. She’s a graduate of Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, and received a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Middlesex University in London, England. Her bio notes: “Adopted from South Korea at the age of seven months, she arrived with the following instruction: feed her chocolate. Though not medically advisable, she and her parents are eternally grateful for this advice.”



The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Now, we met at C2E2 in Chicago, I guess that’s Comic Con and Entertainment Expo in Chicago. When was that? Four or five years ago now?

Yeah. It was such a long time. You sent me that photo of us and I opened it and I was like, “Oh, yep, yep, that is where it was.” And my second thought was, “Wow, what a long time ago, like where does the time go? It seems like yesterday.”

Yeah, it was a few years and, of course, at the time you actually thought that we shared a last name because I was there in my capacity as E.C. Blake, which is a pseudonym of mine. So, we do kind of share a last name.

Yeah.

As E.C. Blake, I wrote a fantasy trilogy for DAW Books called the Masks of Aygrima. So, that was current at the time, and so that’s what I was…that’s who I was pretending to be, or however that works with pseudonyms, but we had a great panel there and I enjoyed getting to know everybody that was on it, so you came to mind but I was thinking of possible guests, and here you are.

Well, thank you. Thanks for reaching out.

We’re going to focus primarily on Three Dark Crowns, which started off a new series for you. I have read the first book, so I’m prepared. I literally finished reading it about 15 minutes before I called you up here. So, it’s fresh in my mind.

Nice!

But first I’d like to go back in…I always say this…into the mists of time (speaking of going back a long ways). How did you become, well, first of all, interested in, I presume, reading science fiction and fantasy, that’s where we all kind of start, it seems like, and then how did you get interested in writing it? What was the…your story that led you into this?

I think a love of reading, it oftentimes just progresses into a love of storytelling and then it naturally lends itself to wanting to live a life of stories and write your own stories. My mom largely was the one who got me into reading. She…when we were growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money, but the library was always free, so we were frequent visitors to the library, We had one of those big canvas sacks that we would frequently fill with probably about the same twenty unicorn picture books just on repeat, and the poor woman just read them to me over and over again without ever once expressing the boredom and annoyance that she must have been feeling about the same twenty unicorn picture books. So, I was reading voraciously…like, I could read before I went to kindergarten because of her, because she just really immersed me in words. And my Dad, too. We would sit around and read the Sunday paper together and I would, he would read me the Garfield comic strips, and then I would read him back the Garfield comic strips, just by memory, and eventually, that’s kind of how I learned to read. So, that kind of kept on. They always kept my nose in books. So, thanks, parents!

Now, the town of Cambridge, Minnesota…although I live in Saskatchewan, so it’s relatively close to Minnesota, I’m not familiar with Cambridge. How small a town is it?

It’s like…man. I mean, you know, you always pass the population sign, and you wonder, “Well, how often are they updating that?” But I believe the population sign, when I was there, was something like 7,000 people.

Very close to…I grew up in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, and the population signed for years said 10,000 but they were rounding up, and then…I think they have finally passed 10,000. But for most of the time it was more like 6,000 and something, I think, officially, but they rounded it up to 10,000.

Oh, wow, they really rounded. They went for it.

I spent a lot of time in the library there as well and I also learned to read before I went into Grade 1. So, kind of a similar story there. Well, once you started reading things other than unicorn picture books, did you gravitate to the fantastical at that time or were you reading other stuff?

It was a pretty fast switch, actually. I went straight from you know, unicorns and The Black Stallion right into Stephen King and Anne Rice. Just a hard turnabout, God, I must have been like ten or so, when my mom and I or somebody and I, probably my mom and I, were walking through Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club or something and adult novels caught my eye, and, yeah. That was the end of Black Beauty for me.

My other library story is similar, in that my mom got called in by the librarian, and she said, “You know that your son is reading stuff from the adult side of the library,” because it was split into the kids’ side and the adults’ side. And my mom said, “Oh, it’s okay. He only read science fiction and fantasy.” And I thought, “Mom, you don’t actually know what’s in science fiction and fantasy.” But I was glad for her for standing up for me anyway.

Yeah. I spent so long dragging my mom through bookstores and, you know, trying to pick out the one book that I was gonna get that day, that it didn’t matter what I’d pick up, and, like, “Hey, can I get this?” By the time I asked her, she was so just fed up with waiting, she’d say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, yeah. Let’s go.” So, I probably got away with a lot.

So, when did you get interested in trying to write your own stories?

Well, the earliest fledgling attempt I can remember to actually write anything of length, it was kind of a length challenge. I wanted to know if I could write something that was as long as a book, like a book-length something. So, I started writing this horse story when I was in seventh grade. And it took up, like, three spiral-bound notebooks by hand. I don’t know if…I don’t remember how serious I was about it. or if it was just an experiment. but that was. that’s the earliest thing I can remember. I’m sure it was terrible.

So, as you went on through high school, did you write more and more stuff. Did you share it with other people to read, at some point?

I didn’t share much. I’m pretty private…a private writer. But whenever, you know, there’s those word problems in math and they kind of let you go on and on? I was…whenever you gave me an option in homework to use words instead of numbers, or to have, like a more than just a simple answer, I always took it. So, my teachers would often say, like, “Hey, you know, you think you might be a writer or something?” I’m like, “Maybe.” But I…it was kind of a far-off dream at that point. Authors were like…that was like becoming an actor or something, you know, like, “Sure, I’ll run away to New York and become a writer. Right. That’ll happen.” So, I didn’t really think about it seriously. I wrote a couple of…well. quite a few. actually…short horror stories. I love writing short fiction. and when you’re in school. you know. that’s oftentimes what you have time to do. So, I wrote a collection of short fiction with my then-boyfriend, like, he wrote a bunch, and I wrote a bunch, and so I shared them with him. But that’s about it. And then I wrote another novel in high school that was also terrible. And I think that was when I first thought, “You know, maybe, maybe I could try to get something published, you know, someday.”

Well, just the act of writing something long, you know, just putting that many words on paper, is an important part of becoming a writer. I mean…

It is. Yeah. Learning to finish is important.

You mentioned Stephen King. I think he’s famously said that everybody writes half a million words of unpublishable stuff before they write anything publishable, and I think he may be on the low end of that.

I know! I agree.

So, when you did to university, though, you didn’t go into writing right away. You went to Ithaca College, but it was a business degree, wasn’t it?

It was, yeah. I always loved books, I always loved writing, but I also…I just wasn’t…I also wanted to be able to make my own way, you know, and um…I’m pretty practical. I’m a pretty practical person. So, I wanted to have something where if, you know, I couldn’t live my dream of being an author, then at least I wanted to be able to make some money. So, I went into finance and was going to be, you know, I’m not sure what at that point, like a stock analyst or an investment banker, I don’t know…I like foreign currencies, maybe foreign currency trader or something like that. But by the time I finished the degree, I hated it, so…I didn’t really figure out that I hated it until senior year. They actually brought in a speaker who I think was supposed to be inspiring to us as the senior class, but all I heard the whole time he was talking about how he had a Lambo and worked for Merrill Lynch and had this great office and…but all I heard was. “Yeah, my friends go skiing in Aspen and I stay and work, and I never get to drive the Lambo because I’m always at work, and I’m a little bit bald now because I’m always at work, and I haven’t…” It was really, really kind of upsetting, all the things he was saying in between the other things that were supposed to be inspiring, and those things were what I clung onto him, like, “So, you’re telling me I’m going to have no time, I’m going to be stressed out, I’m gonna be bald and miserable. OK. I’m not…I’m going to change. I’m not using his degree.”

Well, maybe it was…maybe he was the perfect speaker. then. from your point of view.

For me, yeah, I’m very grateful. And I’m pretty sure that my classmates already knew that going in and they were ready, but I was not.

So, did you then immediately…you went on and got a master’s in creative writing in England, so how did you make the leap from here to there and from that to that?

It was a year or two of working kind of horrible jobs. I sold garbage at one point. Literally. I sold people trash service, like, “Who do you want to pick up your garbage? Let’s just decide, you know, who has the best garbage truck that goes around your neighborhood?” And I just…I kind of knew I had to go back to school for something, and at the same time I just knew that I wasn’t…by then I’d figured out, like, I wasn’t going to be happy if I didn’t give this writing thing a try. So that was my chance. I said I’d give myself this degree and I’d take this time and I’d just put everything into it, and if it worked out it worked out and if it didn’t, well, at least I would know that I gave it a shot. So, I asked my parents if they were cool if I moved back in with them. They said, “Of course,” because they’re those kind of clingy parents that you want but don’t want but you’re lucky you have them. And, yeah, I took out just massive student loans and went to London–with a friend! So, I wasn’t by myself. That helped.

Why London?

I always wanted to live abroad. I’ve always loved, you know, British culture. One of the first classics I read was Jane Eyre, and I like…I’m kind of like an Austen head. So, I really wanted to go over there, I’ve always wanted to travel there, and really I’ve always wanted to live there, so I figured the language barrier was okay, I could discern the accents, and that was probably the safest bet if I wanted to go overseas.

So how long a program was that Master of Arts in Creative Writing?

It was only a year, which was another selling point, which I still…I still give that piece of advice to young writers who come up to me and ask about, “You know, should I get an MA, should I not get an MA.” Well, you know, in London it only takes a year instead of, you know, oftentimes it’s two years in the States. So, when you even it out, it’s about the same cost, despite the exchange rate, and it’s less time. So, yeah, it was only…it was a thirteen-month program, I think? That’s how long we were over there? And it was wonderful. Just really relaxed. Laid back.

So, I’ve talked to a number of authors at this point and many of them had no formal training at all and others have had formal creative-writing training. I think you’re the first Master’s I’ve encountered, though I have another one coming up, I know, in a future episode. So, I get varying degrees of was it worth it or not, depending on who you talk to. Some of the ones who took creative writing said that they ran into professors who, you know, said, “You can’t write that crap,” meaning science fiction or fantasy, and so they found it a very negative experience. What was your experience doing it formally?

Oh, well, they…my professors were wonderful. It was a really small class. Like I said. it was extremely laid back. I don’t know if it’s just they have a different view of that over there, or what, but small class sizes…I’m talking, my graduating, my actual graduating class, was probably about six of us. It was just a very small program. And so, it made the workshop aspect of it extremely effective because we all got to know each other’s work very well. And it was a supportive and collaborative kind of environment. But they were very open to whatever our natural voices and our natural inclinations were. Most of the writers on the course were of a more literary and sometimes even journalistic bent, but…and that’s what I tried to do. I mean, I love literary fiction, and I do write it occasionally, so I was trying to do that. But my love of fantasy and just the weirdness kept kind of creeping in and eventually I started writing stories about, you know, a girl who is suicidal and then accidentally, when she’s like cutting wrist, she finds that, you know, she unlocks, like, a portal to the Greek underworld and, you know, just weird stuff like that kept coming out in my stories and they never…they really embraced it. I was, I told them immediately, like, you know, I’d really like to give this a go, I really, I’m hoping for some kind of literary life, for life in Book World, just to carve that out for myself, and they were very quick to hook me up with every resource they had. They got me an internship with a literary agency in London, so I had some work experience and got to see things from the other side of the desk, and they just embraced my voice. They’re like, “You know, it’s…you’ve got a nice commercial voice.” So, I never ran into that kind of snobbishness, I guess. So, I’m lucky.

It’s nice to hear, because I’ve had more of the other than I’ve had that from the authors I’ve talked to. So, I’m glad it does work out sometimes. I’m actually…I have…my training was in journalism. I never had a…I took one creative writing course in university. But the funny thing is I’m currently mentoring an MFA student from the University of Saskatchewan. So, I’ve actually just sort of jumped straight up to teaching people who are getting a masters in a way.

How’s it going?

Good. But he’s writing young adult fantasy and so clearly, you know, the university up there did have a problem with that. They just found him a mentor who could, who could help him with that. So, obviously it just depends on the program. So, you went on from there. Your first book, Anna Dressed in Blood. That was the first published one, wasn’t it?

Well, actually, a literary novel called Sleepwalk Society was released by a small press the year before, and I had actually written that one before my Master’s course. And it was such a small press…I’m talking a micro press. Really wonderful people and I’m so glad that I got to work with them and met them, but I do consider Anna Dressed in Blood to be my first mainstream majorly published novel. So, yeah, that’s usually what I talk about.

Were you actually working on that while you were still doing your masters? Did that sort of start during that time or did it start afterwards?

No, it definitely started afterwards. Probably about six months afterwards was when I started writing? And I was…I worked on a different novel during my, for my dissertation, and I completed it. It was also literary, but it didn’t, you know, it just, it wasn’t there. But when I switched to write…when I switched gears and kind of really embraced the fantasy side and my horror-loving side, which maybe I had been fighting because I thought, you know, you’re supposed to write literary, that’s when everything kind of changed. Like, all the short stories I’d been selling prior to that, I’d sold maybe one or two literary ones but most of them had a horror or a fantasy bent.

Well, and we’re going to talk specifically now about Three Dark Crowns, which started a new…is it a series? A trilogy? What would you call it?

It’s a quartet. The final book comes out in September.

It’s a quartet. Okay. And we’ll talk about…use that as an example of your writing process on everything that you’ve written, but maybe the first thing to do is to get you to give a synopsis of it, so I don’t give something away that you don’t want me to give away.

Sure! So, the Three Dark Crowns series is set on an island. It’s a magical island, where a person can be born with a number of different gifts. So, you can be like an elemental, for example, so you can control one or more of the elements. You can be a naturalist, so you can make things grow, like crops and flowers, and you can also commune with nature and the animals, and you have a little animal companion, called a familiar, who kind of knows what you’re thinking and feeling and vice versa. You can also be a poisoner, so poisoners really like to ingest poison, because it has no effect and it kind of gives them a rush, actually, to ingest poison, and they really like poisoning other people. So, on this island, it’s always been ruled by a queen, and in every generation that queen gives birth to a set of triplets, triplet queens, who all have a particular magical gift, and they are raised, and when they turn sixteen they have a year, essentially, in which to just kill the crap out of each other, and whichever one survives gets to be the new queen, and then bear the next triplets, and so on and so forth. So, Three Dark Crowns is the story of one such generation of these sisters and how they deal with their battle to the death.

Now, you mentioned, that you, you know, your fantasy often also dips into the horror side. That certainly seems to be the case in Three Dark Crowns. Is that common in all of your fantasy? Do you…does it always have that kind of dark edge to it?

I would say so. And I don’t know why but it always tends to be a little bit violent. Someone pointed out to me about two years ago that every single one of my books has intestines, like, intestines somehow end up always on the outside of someone’s body. And I went through and, like, sure enough, yes, every single book that I’ve written has intestines on the outside, so now I make sure that I always put intestines on the outside at some point.

Well I certainly noticed them making their appearance in Three Dark Crowns. So, what are the…what is the seed for you for a book? I mean, this one, specifically, but also any of your books. How do the ideas come to you that you then develop into a book?

I’m not sure it’s the same for you, but for me it’s always different and random. Three Dark Crowns, with its triplet sisters who have to kill each other, actually came from a ball of bees, like a swarm of bees? Are you familiar with beekeeping at all?

Um…slightly.

Ok. So I was not, and I was at a book event in 2013 and they had like a hot-dog truck outside and it was a lovely day and people were going in and out through the bookstore, but there was a swarm of bees, a big ball of them about the size of a human head, stuck to the tree, like the fork of the tree, right next to the hot-dog truck and everybody was afraid to go and get the hotdogs and maybe we should cancel the event because there were kids there and we didn’t want anybody to die, but there happened to be a beekeeper there, and she said, “You know, when they form a ball like that, their only concern is protecting their queen, who is at the center of the ball. They’re on their way to a new hive. And if she dies, you know, that’s the end of them. So, really, they’re kind of docile when they’re in that state, as long as you don’t poke the ball or annoy it in any way, you can go right up to the hot-dog truck. And everybody was fine and that was true, but since there was a beekeeper there–I mean, what have I ever met a beekeeper? So, I just followed this poor woman around all day asking her bee questions, and I wanted to know, like, “Why does she have to travel in the middle of the ball? That seems very inconvenient. Does she do this a lot?”, and she told me a bunch of stuff about bees and keeping bees and how she gets her hive, but she also told me that a queen bee will leave her hive for a number of reasons, but before she does she’ll lay four or five baby queen eggs, before that she is only laying worker eggs, and she takes off with half the hive and then the baby queens hatch out and they just spite and sting each other to death, and whichever one lives is the strongest queen and she gets to take over the old hive. So, I just really liked that idea and I wanted to do it to people, so on the way home that’s what I started to do, I started to develop the idea of Three Dark Crowns. But that is the only time–the only time–that I can pinpoint exactly when an idea arrived. Do your ideas…can you can you distill them down and go back and find out, like, “Ah, that was the seed of the idea,” because Three Dark Crowns, that’s the only one for me, I have no idea where the rest of them came from.

It depends very much on the on the particular story. Some of them I can and some of them…I was doing an interview recently on an older book that I reissued, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember why I wrote it.

Exactly! Yeah, it’s by the time you…you know, it seems like it’s kind of a compilation of ideas? Like, you get a spark of something, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s kind of an interesting thought.” And then you push it away and if it comes back you know it’s a worthy idea. But it may be has gained something in the time that it was gone.

Well, so once you had this this initial idea of this case–this is good, because at least you remember this one–how do you go about fleshing it out and developing it into a story? Do you do a detailed outlined, do you do kind of just a sketch, what’s your process there?

I do not. You know, there was something going around on Twitter yesterday, like, one of those square, you know, tables, like a chart, and you could kind of..it had different definitions for, like, “Are you a lawful pantser?” And you know the pantser versus plotter…

Yes.

So, “Are you a lawful pantser? Are you a lawful plotter? Are you a chaotic pantser?”, and it had all these different levels of plotting versus panting, and different definitions for each. And I read through it and I was very surprised to find that…I thought I’d be a combination of a couple. like. you know. whenever those things come out most people are a combination of a couple. But I’m actually quite a lawful pantser. I don’t outline, unless I’m really deep in a series and kind of in over my head as far as the plot lines are going, I never outline. I had the idea in 2013, spring of 2013. I didn’t start writing it until…late 2014, I want to say?” So, it had been sitting there for at least a year, which I like to do because I want it to prove itself to me that I really want to write it. I don’t want it to be one of those ideas where you’re like, “Well, that’s neat,” and then two months later, like, “No, it isn’t.” I don’t, I don’t want to work on this for as long as it takes to finish it. So, if it’s a novel, I make it wait for at least a year and percolate, and it kind of just develops in my subconscious, I think?

So, initially I met the three queens, you know, the three sisters kind of introduced themselves to me and told me what their names were, which I love, because I hate naming characters. Please just introduce yourself to me! And I knew what their gifts were. And I kind of knew…over time, I grew to knew what their situation was, you know, what their culture was like in the different cities, because on the island different cities foster different gifts. So, the poisoners have a city, the naturalists have a city, the elementals have a city, and each one has a different culture because each gift values different things and are raising these girls differently. all of them trying to win. And so, by the time I started writing I had a pretty good sense of who these girls were and where they were coming from. But I had no idea what would happen once I threw them together. And that is the ultimate joy that I have as a writer, is I love my characters, and they are real people to me. That sounds weird, but they’re real, living in another dimension, and I just want to take them and shove them in a room together and see what happens. So that’s what I do.

So, you didn’t write down anything before you just started writing the actual narrative?

Right. I usually like to…as soon as I start, like, I’ll start hearing snippets of conversations and I’ll start hearing snippets of scenes, and as soon as that starts happening with enough frequency that I’ll actually write down a paragraph or two by hand, just to keep it, I’ll know that it’s almost time to start. And when I start I like to have a good idea of where I’m opening and maybe an idea of where the first three chapters might go. And then after that I just depend on it to fill itself in.

So, you don’t even have the ending in mind when you start?

Usually not. I like to be surprised.

You are a lawful pantser!

Yeah. I did have…with Three Dark Crowns, I did know the secret. So, I did know that that is what would be revealed at the end. But I didn’t know how she was gonna get there, I didn’t know how anybody was gonna get there, and I didn’t know…like, yeah, that’s all I knew. I knew these girls were gonna have to fight, I knew there was ceremony involved, and tradition, and…but I didn’t know anything. It was very going in blind, and it usually is, as far as my books are concerned.

So, you must write completely sequentially then, you don’t do scenes and then move them around later? Or do you?

I don’t. I write from start to finish. That’s just…I’m finding…I’m just throwing words out into the void and following them and hoping that there is, you know, like something to catch them on the other side.

So, what is your actual physical writing process? Do you write by hand, do you write in an office, do you go off to a coffee shop, do you sit under a tree, how do you like to work?

Oh, except for those very brief notes I never do anything by hand because my handwriting is just bad.

Exactly. That’s how I feel about it!

It’s just bad. I really envy people with pretty handwriting. And I have an office, I have a home office, so I write here pretty exclusively. There’s a writing group around where I live and sometimes a bunch of us will meet up at a coffeehouse and write for a day just so, you know, we’ll write, and then we’ll have lunch and chat about it and just kind of commiserate, but that’s only once every few months. It’s so…by and large, yeah, I’m that stereotypical writer by myself in an office in a room, sometimes in the dark…no, not usually in the dark, but yeah.

How fast a writer are you?

Slow. I mean, I think I’m slow. I’m slow by young adult standards. Probably fast by adult standards. So…young adult. I mean. we all like to keep to a book a year, which, when you think about it, is tough. Some of us write three books a year, which just makes my brain hurt and wish for sleep. But I probably…left to my own devices, I would love to have eight…seven to nine months…to do a first draft. I love it. Love it! Haven’t had it in years, but that’s, like, my natural writing habitat.

Publishers tend to want you to keep producing books.

I know!

So, when you have a first draft, then what? What’s your revision process? Do you have beta readers? You mentioned a writing group, but that sounds like it’s a very infrequent thing. Do you show to other people or do you just go back to the beginning and…what’s your process?

Well, lately my process has been, “This has to go to my editor, so it goes.” And…

That also sounds familiar!

I don’t…I’ve never had critique partners. I’ve never had beta readers. I kind of wish that I did. I’ve just never…I have writing friends, but we don’t have that kind of environment. I think it takes a particular kind of trust, a particular kind of friendship to have…to be able to do that back-and-forth beta reading and I’ve just never come across that. Maybe it’s just not my nature. So, and when it hangs out with my editor, while it’s hanging out with my editor, I do like to cool drafts off for a number of months, because when I finish it I’m like, “Well, this isn’t so bad. That went pretty well.” And then two months later I’ll say, “Well, that was a garbage fire. Let me just take that back from you and do it all over again.” So, that’s, yeah. Good process.

Do you do revision before you send it to your editor, or does it…are you done when you get to the end of the first draft? Like, do you publish it as you go, or do you go back and start from the beginning and work your way through it again? How does that work for you?

Well, lately…it’s been different with every with every series,. With the Three Dark Crowns series, I’d say I rewrote Three Dark Crowns from top to tails about three times, and I wrote the first hundred pages maybe three times before that. So, yeah, it was hard, it was a lot. Each book has gotten a little bit better. The final book in the series I only had to rewrite, like, once, which was nice, but everything else has been like two times, a full rewrite, just full rewrite, because I just…it’s not that necessarily all of the beats in the plot were wrong but the way that I was telling them were wrong and the writing was not very good. And I just…I really need those few months of just letting it cool off so I can gain some perspective. so I can step back and look at it with. you know. actual eyes and say, “Yeah, this is really, really bad, and I’m sorry that I made my editor read it, but, you know, what’s done is done, now I get to fix it.”

What kind of feedback do you typically get from your editor? Have you had the same editor all along?

I haven’t. I had the same editor at Tor, Tor Teen, for the first five books, so Anna Dressed in Blood series and The Goddess War trilogy, I had the same editor, she’s wonderful, love her. I have a new editor for the Three Dark Crowns series because I moved from Tor to Harper teen and I also love my new editor. I’ve been really, really lucky with editors. And the kind of feedback that I get from her is I think fairly standard. I don’t know about, I mean, you know, you can tell me a little bit about your editors, too, if they give you, like, the shit sandwich? That’s what I call it. So, there’s like bread…it’s like a, about a sixteen-page, single-spaced, one page of bread where they tell you what’s great about it and then like, and then like fourteen pages just of shit, like everything that needs to be fixed and reworked. And then they’ll, you know, finish it off with another slice of bread that’s like, “Oh, yeah, but it’s still so wonderful and let’s have lunch when you’re in town,” and all that stuff. So, yeah, it’s…she’s very, very detail oriented. She really has a strong handle on worldbuilding. She has a really good sense of character. So there was a lot of that, a lot of tracking through the arcs, and the further you get, the further we get, into the series, the more the feedback has to do with, like, the arc of the character and making sure that all the beats are coming through with the proper dramatic hits and that I’m making motivations very clear for the readers. I can’t really the early feedback for Three Dark Crowns, because I would have been about four years ago now, but, yeah, that’s the long and short of it.

Well, my editor at DAW, which is my major publisher, is Sheila Gilbert, and she’s been doing this for a long time, and Sheila actually doesn’t send us, us being her authors, doesn’t send us a written editorial letter, we do it all by phone. So, it’s a two-hour phone call, and after the first fifteen minutes of talking about cats, then it’s talking about the book and…and she’s, yeah, it’s much the same thing. You know, I have gotten to the end of one of those conversations..and sometimes it’s done in person, if I happen to be at a convention or her see her in person, and you get to the end of it…I got to the end of one and I actually said to her, “But I am a good writer?” And basically, she said, “I’m by buying your book, aren’t I?” Yeah, so there can be some of that, but at the same time it’s, you know, it’s all necessary and it’s done from a knowledgeable place, from somebody who has seen an awful lot of this stuff and knows what works and what doesn’t.

Yeah. That’s why they’re there and that’s why, when you’re, you know, when we’re deciding on who to work with, you know, you definitely want to have an editor who shares your vision for the project. And I do the phone calls, too, so she’ll send me the letter and I’ll read it, and I’ll just, you know, weep, and then we’ll jump on the phone and we’ll have this, you know, like a really long two-hour conversation about it. And by the time I’m finished I know exactly what I need to do and I’m very energized. So, I guess that is our process, our process is kind of a combo, like, the letter just like land the blow, and then the phone call to really soften it out and get things moving.

Are there any specific writing tics that you have to watch out for? I mean aside from the entrails thing, which apparently you have fully embraced?

Things that I think…

You know, we all, or I do, anyway. I have these, you know, and it doesn’t necessarily come from the editor, I find it in my own rewriting. My characters, for example, I have a tendency to have people make animal noises when they’re speaking, they’ll growl dialogue or they’ll snarl something, and I have to watch out for that. Anything like that for you?

It differs by book. Like, if one book she’s like, “They’re frowning too much,” then I take out all the frowns and then the next book they’ll be, like, smirking too much. So, it’s…yeah, there’s definitely stuff like that. I will catch myself slipping into passive voice a lot more than I appreciate, but I’m pretty decent about going through and picking that up.

Yeah, that’s something I check on all the time, too. I find that more than I would like.

Yeah, and I don’t know…but, yeah, it’s always there and sometimes you just…even through, like, the line edits. So, you’ve been through major revisions probably a couple of times by that point, and then you go through the line edits and you realize, “Man, a lot of your paragraphs are just totally structured very poorly,” so you have to, you know, change the sentences around or, yeah, there’s definitely a lot of it. It seems like I was more naturally talented in the beginning and there’s a lot more heavy lifting to fix, you know, just the crap that comes out in the first draft. My first, Anna Dressed in Blood, had almost no revisions, like it just, there it was, like it felts like most of them were additions, story smoothing, but as far as sentence-level rewrites there were practically none. And that’s definitely not the case anymore.

One thing I did want to comment on in this book…and I don’t know if it’s your common choice…but it is written in present tense. Is that something you often choose for your stories?

It depends on the story. It felt right for this, third-person present, which I know really, really bugs some people, but third-person present felt right for this. I usually write…unless…if I’m working with a first-person narrator, unless I want them to be an unreliable narrator, I almost always go present tense because of the immediacy. I don’t want to give my narrator time to color things with their own recollection. I really want it just to stream right through, so it adds a little bit more authenticity to the voice, a little more believability. But if I do want, you know…because nobody…we never remember things how they really happened, you know, even things that just happened to us, it’s always colored by experience and the passage of time. So, if I’m writing in past tense that’s always, I’m always very aware of that, as far as if I’m working with a first-person narration. My Goddess War series was told in third past, so it’s…and I think my next fantasy series will be in third past as well, and my next stand-alone is going to be in in first past. So, I don’t know. Maybe I just need a break from present tense.

Well, I admit, I was…I don’t know, I was maybe four or five chapters in and it suddenly twigged on me that it was in present tense, which is interesting, that it didn’t immediately…I was reading it in past tense even though it was written in present tense. That’s something weird in my brain, I guess, but I didn’t immediately notice, which is interesting. Probably more to do with me than you, though. So, you mentioned going through all these stages of rewrites, and line edits, and it is something I like to point out to readers, sometimes, who, you know, say, “Well, you must be so excited your book is out,” and it’s like, “Yeah, but I’ve seen that thing so much at this point.” Do you feel that way a little bit when it comes out, that you’ve read it way too many times already and you don’t have to look at it again after it’s published?

Oh, exactly. Like, that’s…yeah, I remember, you know…more so in the early books. You know, people say, like, “Oh my God, your book is out and you can hold it in your hands and are you so excited to just bring it home and read it?” And it was very exciting to see an on a shelf and to hold it in my hands. And it is still very exciting to see my books on shelves and be able to hold them as physical books because books are so, you know, such a big, monumental part of my life. But I never want to crack my book open and actually read it because I have read it like ten times from cover to cover within the last six months or so. And, I mean, even my favorite books I haven’t reread ten times. So, yeah, I think I’ve had enough…and yet. I will sometimes now…it’s been about ten years since Anna Dressed in Blood…I will pick it up and if I need to reference something, like, “Oh, what did I say then?”, I’ll read it and then I’ll catch myself, like, reading a little more and going, “Well, that’s not bad, that’s OK,” but it’s taken ten years for me to do that, and as far as Three Dark Crowns goes, it’s still so fresh that the only reason I’ll crack one open is if I need to reference something that I said before, just to make sure, like, I’m in the right area of the castle or the right hair color or eye color, et cetera, et cetera.

I presume there are audiobooks of your work. Have you ever listened to those?

No, I can’t. I just…I think it’s too weird to listen to somebody else read my, you know…do you think that’s weird? Do you like…I mean, I’ve chose the audiobook narrator for the Three Dark Crowns series, which is my first time doing that, and she’s wonderful, she’s fantastic, and I do listen to enough of it so that I’m like, “Oh, yeah, Amy Landon, you knocked it out of the park again,” so I can, you know, really appreciate that. But then I stop. Do you do the same thing or can you…?

Well, I did one young adult fantasy series, I retained the audiobook rights, it’s from a smaller publisher here in Regina called Coteau Books, and it’s an Arthurian, modern-day Arthurian series called The Shards of Excalibur. So, I actually found the narrator,, but I was also the publisher because I was doing it through ACX–audio book exchange or whatever that stands for–Audiobook Creation Exchange or something like that. So, I had to listen to them all because I had to do the proof listening, And actually, I kind of enjoyed it. It’d had been a while. She did such a great job. It was…she did… there’s a teen girl and that was great but there’s a teen boy and she made him believable and Merlin’s like a computer guy like Bill Gates or something in my story and she gave him this obnoxious English accent. And, yeah, I actually quite enjoyed listening to my own stuff, but I’ve never listened to the ones that are done…like, my latest one, Worldshaper, has one out and I’ve listened to the opening of it and I can’t quite bring myself to listen to anymore because it’s just too soon since that came out and I just want to hear it again right now. Also, I read it out loud to my wife, so I feel like…

Yeah. That’s another thing I do. I do the same thing, I read them all out loud to my husband. So, yeah. He’s an audiobook guy. Is your wife an audiobook listener?

No, but we have this thing where…our kitchen’s not big enough for both of us to work side by side, it’s an old house, so she…I pour wine and she cooks and I read to her. That’s kind of our suppertime ritual.

Oh, that’s nice.

We’re currently reading Life of Johnson by Boswell. So, it says it takes fifty hours, so apparently it’s a long book…I’m reading it on e-book. Anyway, that’s what we do. So, you’ve got the last book coming out…and it’s called Three Dark Crowns, is the name for the overall quartet, is it, as well as the first book?

Yes. So, yeah, the series doesn’t have a special name, it’s just the Three Dark Crowns series and it will be comprised of four main novels, and then I also released a short bind-up of novellas. They’re prequel novellas, so they take place before the start of the series, when the queens were children, and then one of a queen from 500 years before. And that one’s called Queens of Fennbirn. But the last book will be called Five Dark Fates. So, completely out of numerical order, which is really bugging people.

What are the two middle books called?

So, the order of the series is Three Dark Crowns, One Dark Throne, Two Dark Reigns, and Five Dark Fates.

They don’t even add up!

They don’t even add up. They totally skip…I totally skipped number four. Originally, the series was designed to be a two-book series. It was just a duo. So, the story…it completes an arc at the end of One Dark Throne, and then, the next two books…I like to think of them almost as separate duologies, because the first is, like, the story of the Ascension and then the second is like the story of the reign. Yeah, so, when it was just going to be Three Dark Crowns and One Dark Throne, well that wouldn’t have been too confusing, that would have been OK. And then I started adding more numbers and it just got out of control.

Well, now we’re at the point where I’m going to ask you the big philosophical questions. Why do you write and why do you think any of us write? In particular, why do you write this kind of stuff, and why do you think any of us write this kind of stuff? What do you think is the impetus?

I think escapism has so much to do with it as far as why we write fantasy, and even horror, in particular. I don’t know about you, but I find there’s something soothing about being extremely frightened of something that can’t actually hurt me. There’s enough to be afraid of for real when you’re just walking around living your life. So, if I can be afraid of, like, a guy with Butterfinger knives on his hands, that’s wonderful to me. I love, I have Freddy nightmares every now and again and they’re my favorites, just waking up just terrified and knowing, “Well, he’s not real,” and hoping someday he will be. So, there’s a lot of…at least, for me I think that’s where it is. I always used to try to find, you know, magic when I was a kid, in the real world. I always thought, like, “Man, our world is so dull, it’s so boring, like, my horse doesn’t have a horn, not a single horn on that horse whatsoever. Not even an invisible one. She never grew one. I waited… And so, yeah, escapism. And…what was the other question? Kind of starting to ramble here.

Well, that’s sort of one reason we read it and maybe why you write it, but, like, do you enjoy it? I mean, is it fun?

Oh, yeah. I don’t know what it is about…I don’t know, for me, since I’m a hard-core pantser, when I’m drafting, it’s very much living the story. Like, I’m very Bastian Balthazar Bux about that. I don’t insert myself, you know–that might be fun at some point, but–I’m just living, I’m finding things out along with my characters, and I’m really along for the ride, and I start to get inklings about what might happen, and it’s not always what happens, and that’s exciting. So, for me the act of writing has always been a little bit magical. It’s…I mean, there’s no reason why it should work out. There’s no reason why I should be able to just sit down with these threads of story and just plop down and write, and they’ll, like, twine themselves into some kind of a sensible arc and reach a, you know, a conclusion that makes sense, like, without planning it out. But it does. Every time it does, and that is just magic. So, for me, yeah, the act of writing is…just, writing anything, it doesn’t even have to be fantasy. Just the fact that you…there’s a story out there and it’s waiting to be discovered is very, very magical.

Have you found that the writing process, where you are drawing all these plot threads together and bringing the story out, has that gotten easier the more you do it or does it…has it changed for you? You’ve done many books now.

I have, and I’ve done standalones, and I’ve done series, duos…I actually realized the other day…well, I realized this about a year and a half ago…that Sleepwalk Society was a standalone, then Anna was a duo, then The Goddess War was a trilogy, and now Three Dark Crowns is a quartet, so I would either forge ahead and go for five or I should reset and go back to one, and I did. I reset and I went back to one. Probably the best, for the best, because…it’s really hard sometimes to get real deep into a series and you’re coming up on the conclusion and you’ve got a whole bunch of things just stretched out there waiting to be resolved and at the outset of that final book you’re looking at them flapping in the wind wondering, “How am I going to catch you?” Like how are you going to braid together to, you know, work yourselves out. And they do, I suppose, but it’s a little bit nerve racking. It hasn’t really changed, though, over the course of…the writing process, over the course of these books. The revision process has changed a lot, but the actual drafting has remained the same. It’s just very much getting to know the characters, letting the characters make their choices, and following the story wherever it wants to go.

Since you mentioned series, something I often ask series writers…the last interview that just went live was Kevin Hearne, who has like a ten-book series, the Iron Druid series…do you find any issues with continuity and remembering what you put in the previous books so you don’t contradict yourself in the current book?

Well, it’s always…I always think about that when I’m starting out, because I’m a pantser, and whenever I put something to paper, every once in a while I’ll think, “Man, I hope I’m not just writing myself into a corner,” you know, just making it so that there’s no way that I can get out of here, and then the last book just has to have a meteor strike and just take out everybody because that’s the only way. Which I suppose is always an option. But, no, I haven’t yet. It’s been OK, despite not having all of the rules in place and not knowing…like, I don’t know, often I don’t know the ins and outs of a locale until I bring a character there and walk around with them. I don’t know the ins and outs of a culture before I have a character’s excuse to go and learn about it, or a character’s…yeah, so, but it’s  worked out OK so far. I will have just plain old flubs. A reader pointed out that in Two Dark Reigns, one of the characters…so there’s a line of queens, right, in these books, and the last three queens have been poisoner queens, which is unprecedented. Usually there’s not the same type. Nobody, like, three in a row just don’t win. So, the poisoners are kind of experiencing this dynasty of sorts and they’re kind of going mad with power and the three poisoner queens directly before this are Camille,, Nicola and Sylvia…or Camille, Sylvia, and Nicola, in that order…and in Two Dark Reigns they’re referred to as Camille, Sandrine, and Nicola, because in the very early timeline, which apparently I mistakenly worked off of, the second poisoner Queen’s name was Sandrine,. and then we changed it to Sylvia. I don’t even know why. So, that’s actually in print in Two Dark Reigns, and I’m thinking that we’re gonna have it fixed, but that was embarrassing. So, stuff like that does happen, yeah.

And it doesn’t seem to matter how many eyes look at it in the publishing side, ultimately it’s a reader that always seems to find these.

Isn’t it? Those readers. They’re good!

And speaking of readers, what do you hope readers get from your work? You mentioned escapism, are you looking for any other impact on their way of thinking or their life. I guess it sounds a bit grand, but this is called The Worldshapers, so, are you trying to shape the world with your fiction?

I’m not. I really want readers to enjoy it. I hope they care about the characters and I hope they care about the story and I hope they enjoy it. I’m…if. you know. Three Dark Crowns is set in a matriarchy, where women are in power, and they’re the heads of households, and that’s the way it’s always been, and nobody seems to bat an eye about that, I mean, if that leads some people to go, like, “Oh, yeah, why should we bat an eye about that,” well, that’s great. But I didn’t set out to do that.

I don’t think I’d recommend the system of government that has built up…

Oh, no, no. By no means do I mean to say that a matriarchy would be without flaw, because women are still humans and we just mess things up no matter what, no matter what gender we are we will mess it up, guaranteed, but…

That’s where stories come from!

Exactly. But, no, I often…sometimes folks ask me to, like, do keynote speeches, and I always caution them, because I love keynote speeches–I’ve listened to quite a few, just going to conventions and things, and they’re always so inspiring and just uplifting and, you know, all these great personal stories of things they’ve overcome or mentors that have affected them, and I just make it very clear that I’m …I don’t have those kind of stories and I’m not that kind of change-the-world, you know, writer. It’ll be mostly dick jokes and, yeah, just a lot of court-jestering for however long you want to have me up there. So, no. Like, I…I don’t want to say that I don’t take my work seriously, because I really, really do, but…and I hope that it has, for that rare reader I think, you know, maybe it does…you know, a really good book can change your world. It doesn’t really matter what it’s about. So, I hope that does happen for some people but I…I don’t think…you know, I’m not like a, I’m not like a Jason Reynolds or an Andy Thomas or a, just…yeah. I’m not that.

Well, when I think of the books that really had an impact on me, I don’t think, in most cases, they had any sort of impact that the author thought they might have. It just happened to be the right book and the right character hitting me at the right time to really make an impression on me.

Exactly. Yeah. And that’s true for me, too, as a reader. So, I don’t know, maybe that’s why I don’t have that hope, is you know…I hope that it will happen, but I don’t I don’t set out for that for sure. When I’m writing, it’s really just…honestly, I don’t think about audience much at all, I just want to serve the characters and tell the story as best I can.

Well, it seems like the readers are coming along for the ride, so that’s good. And speaking of that, what are you working on now? I mean, we know the fourth book is coming out in September, I think you said?

Yes. September 3rd. And I just finished it. We got a little behind. They…well, they asked me to do the novellas shortly after, I think, One Dark Throne was published. And at the time I was like, “Sure, yeah, what are they, like 25,000 words apiece? No problem, I can knock them out,” and no, that took a while. So, ever since then we’ve kind of been working from behind and so, we’re very late. Normally, I would be…they would all be wrapped up by now. We’d be through pass pages, everything would be set. And I just turned in another edit, like another decent-sized edit, and we tried to combine the line edits and the copy edits into that edit and I only had four days to turn it around.

Ooh.

So, it was tight. I’m still pretty happy with where it’s ending up. And…but, yeah. So that immediately was what I was working on. I’m going to be starting my next standalone, which hasn’t really been announced yet, but it’s kind of like a, kind of like a YA In Cold Blood mixed with Natural Born Killers. Are you familiar with the serial killer…he’s not a serial killer, he’s a spree killer…Charlie Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate?

The names vaguely ring a bell but that’s all I could say.

There’ve been a couple movies, like, based off of them, Badlands, and they were…they were teenagers and they just went on a killing spree that lasted several days, possibly a couple weeks, into…they just shot up the heartland and it was just very, very shocking, you know, just like In Cold Blood, the Clutter murders were shocking, things like that just didn’t happen in the heartland at that point in time. And Caril Ann Fugate was only thirteen when this happened, and she was tried as an accomplice, and she went to prison, and Charlie Starkweather, I think, was only fifteen or sixteen. I mean, these were kids. So, that story has always really interested me, and…it’s not going to be exactly like a retelling or based on them really at all, that’s just the inspiration. So, it’s gonna be kind of a twisty crime thriller. In a sense, that’s what I’m going to be working on next, and then I’ll go back to fantasy after that, but it will, I mean true to form, it will have kind of a horrifying fantasy-like spin because of the nature of the murders and the possibility of some supernatural involvement.

Does it have a title yet?

It doesn’t have…it has a working title, but it doesn’t have a title that I think is going to stick. Right now I’m just calling it…like the full title in my brain was, like, All These Bodies Without Blood, but I think…then we shortened it to All These Bodies, and I don’t know if All These Bodies will stay or if it’ll be something else by the time it comes out. I’m taking a year off, though. I need time to shift gears, and I really…I’m afraid of this book. I know what it needs to be and it’s one that I’ve had in my head long enough that I kind of know most of the beats. So, you could almost say that I’m plotting this one. And I haven’t felt up to it as a writer so far. I think I’m ready to try it now. But I need a lot of time.

Well, it certainly sounds intriguing. Well, we’re just about out of time here. So, where can people who want to keep up with your writing exploits, where can they find you online?

Well, my website is a good place to start, just KendareBlake.com. I try to keep the events updated. I’m not as good about keeping the blog updated. Maybe I’ll blog like once a year. I’m on Twitter, and if you @ me I will definitely do my best to reply. I’m on Instagram, ditto, if you tag me or something I’ll do my best to reply. And I’m also on Facebook. And those are all just my name. I’m not very creative with the handles, it’s just Kendare Blake. I don’t do Snapchat because I don’t get it and the filters scare me. But uh, yeah, you can definitely find me there.

All right, well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshup…Worldshapers, I can’t even pronounce the name of my own podcast…and I think I mispronounced your name in the introduction. You said…how do you pronounce it?

I say Kendar-ah but I don’t care. Whatever you say is fine.

I think I said Ken-dare off the top.

That’s fine. I get…if it starts with a K and you’re looking at me, I’ll answer to it.

Well, thanks so much for being on the podcast. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.

Well thanks for having me. It was it was great to talk to you again after all these years.

Episode 22: Victoria/V. E. Schwab

A 45-minute conversation with Victoria/V.E. Schwab, the number-one New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books, including the acclaimed Shades of Magicseries, The Savage SongOur Dark Duet, ViciousVengeful, The Near Witch, and City of Ghosts.

Website:
www.veschwab.com

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@VESchwab

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@VESchwab

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Victoria/V.E. Schwab’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Victoria/V.E. Schwab

Victoria/V.E. Schwab is the number-one New York Times best-selling author of more than a dozen books, including the acclaimed Shades of Magicseries, The Savage SongOur Dark Duet, ViciousVengeful, The Near Witch, and City of Ghosts. . Her work has received critical acclaim, been featured in the New York TimesEntertainment Weekly, the Washington Post, and more, has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and has been optioned for television and film. When she’s not haunting Paris streets or trudging up English hillsides, she’s usually tucked in the corner of a coffee shop, dreaming up monsters. She currently lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome, Victoria.

Thank you for having me.

Before we started recording this, I was just telling you that my daughter is a fan, and the way I came to your books, was my niece, she’s a lawyer, actually, in her 30s, had recommended the Shades of Magic to my daughter, who then read them and then recommended them to me. So, it’s what, you know, they say, “Word of mouth is the best possible publicity.”

I think, especially, weirdly word of mouth is more powerful these days when there’s so much buzz in so many different directions that I think there’s an authenticity that comes with word of mouth that really makes it very special. So, I’m incredibly flattered that that’s how you came to my work.

I always like to see if I can find any connections with the authors, your about the twenty-third I’ve interviewed here, and it’s a stretch with you, but you grew up in Nashville, and I went to university at Harding University, in Searcy, AR, which is in the neighborhood, church of Christ, you’ll be familiar with that if you grew up in Nashville.

Uh-huh.

And I spent a month with a family in Edinburgh, before you were born, so there you go, there’s a connection.

That’s a good connection, that’s like, what, five degrees of separation, not six.

Yeah, not bad at all. So how did you, first of all, become interested in reading—I presume you started as a reader of the fantastic—and then moved on from there to start writing it. Did that all start when you were a kid or what was your story?

I definitely wasn’t one of those children who grew up in a library. I think those are really beautiful narratives to hear. I was a jock. I was a really serious athlete all growing up. I wanted to go to the World Cup for soccer long before I ever thought about telling stories for a living. But I had a lot of health problems as well and so I wasn’t able to compete in sports at that level, but really I was a proficient reader, in that I was a very capable reader, but I had not had the experience that many children have growing up where they read something that makes them forget that they’re reading, that transportative  experience. And the first time that ever really happened with me was with Harry Potter. And that can seem like a very trite answer these days, when almost everyone, it seems, has read those books, but you have to remember I’m 31, and so I read the first Harry Potterbook when it came out and I was 11 and Harry Potter was 11. So, I had the, based purely on the year in which I was born, the immense (privilege) of ageing with a protagonist in that way, and of becoming part of something that was such a phenomenon, such a worldwide phenomenon. And so, Harry Potterwould come to dominate and inform my entire teen years, my entire youth, in that way.

And that was a really special thing, because if I hadn’t had that series, I’m not sure how long it would have taken for me to find a series that transported me in that sense, that made me realize the power of narrative, because I grew up in love with poetry. And poetry is incredible, poetry, everything from William Blake to Shel Silverstein, is wonderful but it’s not transportative in the same way. It gives you an intense appreciation for language, but it doesn’t make you forget at any point that you’re reading.

And so, that’s really the power that Harry Potterhad for me, and being a true World-Domination-seeking Slytherin, my first reaction was, oh wow, this is cool, and my second reaction as an eleven, twelve-year-old was, “Wow, words are very powerful.” You know, the idea of words on a page being something which could psychologically impact you in that way, which could emotionally transport you, was to me a very intoxicating premise. And so it wasn’t very long before I started trying to write as well, though it would be, I would be 18 or 19 before I tried to write a book.

Did you write stuff before that, short stories or pieces?

I was particularly into fragments, yeah, really into poems, very dark, apocalyptic poems. All teenagers should write bad poetry. I was really into short stories. I was really into narrative non-fiction. Basically. I was really into anything that wasn’t novel-length because I was so convinced, to be honest, sixteen books I’m still convinced, that I don’t have the attention span for a novel. I was very afraid of the idea of having to keep a novel in my head while putting it down on paper. And so, I really…one of the only reasons that it even took me until college to try and write a novel was because I tried every other form first and then I realized that, as a sophomore in college I realized that the reason I hadn’t tried to write a novel was because I was afraid of failing. And I have a very antagonistic relationship to fear. The moment somebody points out that I’m afraid of something, or the moment I realize I’m afraid of something, I have a kind of combative reaction to that. So I realized I had a fear of heights and I jumped out of an airplane when I turned 18, and I realized I had a fear of change and I chopped off all my hair, and I realized I had a fear of being away from my comforts and so I traveled around Europe, like backpacking, and so, when I realized that I was afraid of failing to do this thing I immediately sat down and was determined to start and finish a novel.

Well, when you were writing fragments and bad teenage poetry—and I’ve edited magazines of teenaged writing, and I can assure that teenagers still write bad teenage  poetry—were people encouraging you that, you know, you’ve got something here, maybe you should be writing it. Did you have encouragement along the way?

I did have some reinforcement in that, I struggled a lot as a teenager, and I felt very displaced at the time. I was so in the closet that I had no concept that I was gay, but I just felt continuously othered. I had been dropped into an all-girls Southern preparatory school at age thirteen in a completely different state, and I felt so out of place and so out of my element that writing became something that was just a tether. It was just an outlet for me. And then I had a couple of teachers who began to encourage me. And you know, God knows if they saw something or if they were just trying to say, “Here’s an anchor, here’s a life raft, but it really helped. And I, because I grew up with poetry I had a really, really good ear for cadence. And so, I actually…I mean, I was 15 or 16 when I started submitting poetry and winning contests with it. And by the time I graduated high school I was my high school’s Poet Laureate, and I had a sense from there on that I really wanted to do something with words, that words gave me a sense of power that I didn’t feel in the rest of my environment.

So, when you got to university, did you study writing, or did you study something else and write on the side?

When I first went to university I started out in astrophysics, and so needless to say I was a great departure. I would end up changing my major six times…and I stand by this. though. I wasn’t changing it because I wasn’t capable in any one discipline. I was changing it because the idea of choosing only one was terrifying to me. And that was really one of the first indicators I should have had that I wanted a creative profession because one of the beauties of writing fiction is that you get to become somebody else for a limited period of time. You get to become an astrophysicist, you get to become an explorer, you get to become an archaeologist, a scholar, a write,r you get to become all of these things and kind of dive into different lives. And that was something which really, really appealed to me. I do have a minor in creative writing.

I’m of very many minds when it comes to pursuing creative writing from an academic perspective instead of from a exploratory perspective. I still believe that the best education that I’ve gotten towards my own writing has been reading. I still believe that the vast majority of what I took away from those programs was, if anything, simply a…not a comfort, I don’t think I ever became comfortable with sharing my work, but the necessity of getting over that fear of critique, that was something that I took away from the programs. But the writing was something which happened in the background. It was something that I protected throughout university as a creative outlet.

It’s interesting, because several authors I’ve talked, some of whom did have formal creative writing classes, are also of two minds. I went into journalism myself, when I made my decision I wanted to work with words, because I was very, very practical and thought, “I can get a job,” as opposed to just trying to make a living just writing stories or something. So, how did the first novel come about? How did you break in, I guess is the question.

So, my…weirdly, because of my background in poetry, because I had an interesting or unusual cadence, I was able to get a literary agent with that first, first novel that I ever wrote, the one that I wrote when I was a sophomore in college. Now, that book never got published. It got very far up the acquisitions ladder at multiple houses and got rightfully rejected because it had no plot, because I didn’t actually know how to write a book. It was the first time I’d ever even tried. And what I was good at was writing very pretty sentences and what I had not yet figured out how to do was write a story. And so, I was so busy, that happened when I was a sophomore, I got an agent, from my sophomore year through my junior year that book was on submission to publishers and being summarily rejected from them. I hit my senior year, it was my second semester senior, and at that point I was doing an arts program. I had moved from astrophysics into set design into art history into English into…oh, God, one other one…and then—Japanese cultures and mythologies—and then into graphic design and marketing and design, and because I had come into the program so late, I was really behind. So I had this intense course load that I was having to take because most of the design majors had been in their program for like, four years, and I had been in it for a year and a half. So I had no time. It would have been very, very easy to put writing aside, and I would have followed that classic narrative arc of going off and doing something else for ten, fifteen, twenty years and then saying, “Oh I always wanted to write a book, I always wanted to be an author,” and find my way back to it. And I had this crystal-clear, almost out-of-body experience, on a February night as a second-semester senior, thinking, like, “This is where I make this choice. I either sit down right now and try again and try to write another book. or it is going to be something that I come back to after I have had another life,” and I didn’t want it to be that.

And so I began checking out of my art studio space for two hours every night from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., walking off-campus to a coffee shop across the street, and sitting down and writing for two hours a night. It was time I really didn’t have, but I made this decision that I did not want to…I didn’t want the first book I had ever written to be a fluke and I didn’t want to give up on this path. And so, some nights I would write 500 words and some nights I would write 2,000 words, but essentially by the time I graduated that spring I had a draft of another novel and that novel was called The Near Witch, which is about a village where a stranger appears one night, and the following night all of the children begin to disappear one by one, and that would go on to be my debut novel

And there’s been several since then.

Yeah, several.

How many are you up to now, after about ten years?

Well, sixteen in about eight years, because it sold ten years ago, but I had several gaps. I had an eighteen-month gap between when it came out and when my next book came out. So for a while there, it was a two-year gap between when it sold and when it was published and…so, but yeah, it will come out to about seventeen books in ten years.

Now, you write both young adult and adult. Was the first book young adult or adult?

The first book was young adult, and I’ve actually written a few middle grade in ther,e as well, so for the age bracket below young adult. The Near Witchwas young adult. My first three books, The Near WitchThe Archived, and The Unbound, were all young adult, and then my fourth novel, Vicious, was my first adult novel.

When I started, my first unpublished novels were all basically young adult because that’s how old I was.

Yeah.

Is that one reason why you started in the young adult market? Because you were quite young when you wrote that first book.

Interestingly…and this is something that I had to do a lot of, like, soul-searching with afterwards, I have never written very comfortably into YA. Even my books that we were talking about earlier, The Savage Songand Our Dark Duet, they’re very, very much upper YA. And it has nothing to do with any of the arbitrary boundaries. I find that I tend to write very dark and very adult and less…I write almost no romance and I write very little coming-of-age, and so, it’s not that I ever fell cleanly in one category or another, it’s simply that my agent said, this will work in this category or this will work in this. I have always tried very hard to do what’s right for the story, and and try to worry about where it fits on a shelf later, because, you know, YA is a category of which more than half the readers are adults, and adult is a category of which more than half the readers teenagers. And so, I think it could be really unnecessarily divisive when we think creatively about these boundaries and about these thresholds. My primary interest is writing stories for a version of myself. So, when I write middle-grade novels, I am writing the book that I would have wanted to read at ten or eleven. Now I was a very morbid, strange ten- and eleven-year-old reading Jason Bourne and Stephen King. I was a very morbid and strange and outsider seventeen-year-old, which is who I wrote The Savage Songand Our Dark Duetand the Archivebooks for, and I’m a very morbid and strange thirty-one-year-old, which is who I wrote Vengefulfor earlier this year, and so, I think that’s really the only way that I fathom the boundaries between my books.

And I think you’ve pointed out, I’ve seen in interviews, that there are different categories in different countries.

Exactly. Yeah, my threshold for young adult in France is like twenty-three, and the threshold in, what is it, let’s see, in Brazil it’s quite high…or it’s quite low…oh, but in like the UK, which is where I live, you’ll see the young adult spaces on the shelves really skew younger. So, what we would consider a lower YA in the US, in terms of that kind of, like, fourteen and fifteen and much more contemporary, that’s the bulk of the young adult shelf in the UK. So, even books of mine which are published as YA in the US then are published as adult in the UK

I want to talk specifically about the Shades of Magic trilogy, and…so, I’m going to ask you the classic question. I won’t say where do you get your ideas, but I will say, what was the spark for that particular trilogy? And there’s more books coming in the series.

There are, there are. So, I’m a bit of a magpie writer. I have a slow process in which I collect many shiny bits and pieces of an idea before it coalesces into something, before I have a nester or whatever. I…so, it’s never like, one thing. I’m not a person who dreams entire stories. I’m not a person who sits down and has an entire character spill out. It’s usually a collection of fragments that simply…something comes along to become the codifying ingredient. And so, for Shades of MagicA Darker Shade of Magic is the first book, and for those who don’t know, it’s about a magician with the ability to move between alternate versions of the world, officially as a messenger and unofficially as a smuggler, and he comes into possession of something he should not have. It all came about from several, several sources, gathered together slowly, but essentially, I wanted to write a love letter to Harry Potterbut not to any of the specifics of Harry Potter. I wanted to write a love letter to the nostalgia of wanting to visit a place, because at the time I was thinking about Shades of Magic, the market was inundated with dystopia and with narratives in which…the narratives themselves were incredibly compelling, but you as the reader would never want to go back and visit just to spend time in those worlds. Whereas, with Harry Potter, like, you wanted to go back to Hogwarts and you could kind of visually, mentally extrapolate what house you would be in and what you would study and do all these things, and it kind of gave you a world of nostalgia that existed outside of the actual plots of the characters. And I missed that, I missed having a world that I wanted to simply spend time in. So, I wanted to design that.

I also wanted to…I really like designing magical structures because I think that magical structures work best when they are at their most intuitive. And so, I wanted to design an intuitive magical structure. I wanted to do a nod to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I was very much in love with at the time and still am, and I just…I had a visual in my head, along with all of those other elements. I had this still-frame picture, which I get sometimes, I get still-frame pictures in my head, and it was a man in a red coat walking through a wall and colliding with a girl dressed as a boy. And I had no story to go with it. And so, that was that was actually the first piece of the puzzle that I had. And then I was piecing through a snowfield garden, talking to a friend of mine, trying to figure out what I was going to write next, and I mentioned that picture, and I thought about how I write about a lot of different kinds of doors in my books, metaphorical and physical, but I had never written, at that point, alternate worlds, alternate realities. And when I mentioned that, I immediately thought back to that visual in my head and thought, “Oh, what if he wasn’t walking through a wall between rooms, like, what if he was walking through a wall between worlds?” And all of a sudden all of the other little shiny magpie pieces that I had just kind of started clicking, cascading into place.

One of the, I would almost call it a character in the book, is the city of London, and it’s three different iterations. Why London?

You know, it’s twofold. My cheeky answer is that London is the most overused setting in fantasy, and I wanted to play with that, because while all three to four of the Londoners in the series are called London, only one of them is actually London as we know it? And the rest is kind of a semantic anomaly. And so, you can go in assuming you know what the setting of this book is going to be and be proven very wrong because we spend very little time in our London, and the other answer is that the way that my magic systems are designed is, essentially, I wanted to build different bodies on the same bones. So I wanted to strip the geography down to its base elements and then build new cities on top of that. So, one step in our London is one step in Red London, is one step in Grey London. They have the exact same geographic footprint. And then I build the cities on top of them based on their relationships to magic. So, in Red London magic has thrived and so have the people and so the way that their environment works is a very magic-driven system, whereas in White London magic is being controlled and dominated and constrained by the people and it’s starving out all of the nutrients of their city, et cetera, et cetera. And so, I needed a geographic foundation that was easily recognizable, and London is one of those that is…it’s easy division. I mean, it has two banks and it has a river in the middle. And that’s essentially what I needed to do. I needed them all to be on the same footing pretty quickly.

Now once you had your actual idea, and all these elements that you had together, what did…and does…your planning process look like? Are you a detailed outliner or are you more of an on-the-fly kind of writer?

No, no. I plan. So, but I don’t plan everything. I think people hear the word outliner and they think like I’ve, you’ve stripped all of the magic from the process, like that you’ve somehow left no room for discovery and I disagree pretty strongly with that idea of an outliner. I have to know certain things when I go into a book. I have to know how it ends because I work backwards. So, I need to know how the story ends and where all of the characters are at the end so I can know who they should be and where they should be at the beginning. And so, I have a little bit of a rewind process when I’m writing. 

Normally, I will then figure out five to ten of the most important kind of beats, the pins in the map, and then I will give myself enough space to explore and find my way between those pins. For A Darker Shade of Magic, it was a little unique because I was selling it to Tor, my US publisher, on a proposal, and so, essentially, because it was quite an ambitious project, I sat down and I wrote a five- to six-thousand word synopsis that was essentially a beat sheet for the story that I wanted to tell. And that’s more detailed than I had ever done before, but I knew that I…I am somebody who feels more comfortable with a map. I don’t hold myself to that map I don’t but it gives me a sense of where the world ends. It gives me a sense of, “Oh, if I go this way I’m gonna fall off a cliff and I don’t want to do that.” So, I use the map as giving me a safe environment to explore without getting derailed too far.

It’s interesting, again, talking to so many different authors, how different that process is for everyone. I think Peter V. Brett, who wrote the Demon Cycle books, writes like a 150-page outline, so he’s just very, very, very precise. Then there are people who say, “Well, I do a page, and then I go for it.”

I think it’s really interesting it’s so important to remember that there’s no right way to write. I think the what what works for you is whatever allows you to get out of your own way. So, for me, I get scared by not having a plan, and so that eliminates any of the joy that would come from discovery. Whereas there are other writers who—ninety percent of their joy comes from just wandering in the dark. I am somebody who gets a huge amount of joy from executing a strategy.

What does your actual writing process look like? Do you, you know, sit down at a desk for eight hours a day? Do you write in a coffee shop? Do you write in longhand? How do you do it?

A little bit of everything. I probably max out about two to three hours a day, because my job also requires me to…I mean, it’s an embarrassment of riches but I am really, really lucky to be at a point in my career where there are a lot of other demands on my job that are not actually word making. So, whether it’s, I’m about to set out on tour for almost three months straight, and so that obviously will change, and I will need to adapt and write in airports and write in hotel bars and in my room and things like that. I am somebody, though, who writes in twenty- to twenty-five-minute sprints because I have very short focus and it’s going many directions usually, and I try to do two to three hours of those twenty-minute sprints a day. And obviously, some days I exceed that and some days I don’t.

But I think it’s also really important to remember that there’s a difference between time spent creating and time spent typing. So, while I only sit down at my computer for two to three hours a day to write, I am creatively cogs turning all day, when I am at the gym, when I am walking my dog, when I am on a train or a plane, I am constantly turning over pieces of the story, so that when I sit down I can work. And sometimes I write by hand when I’m stuck. I don’t draft by hand, but I plot and I strategize and I create myself beat sheets for a scene by hand. I will do whatever I need to do to keep creative momentum. And some days when I’m travelling I don’t actually write any words but I spend time with the story so that I keep the creative door propped open in my head.

It sounds like you probably are a little different on every book in the way that it all comes together.

Absolutely. I will say that my process differs based on whether I’m writing a 45,000- word middle grade installment for my City of Ghostsseries or the adult novel that I’m working on right now, which is a book that has been in the process for almost a decade.

Once you have that draft, what does your revision process look like?

My revision process is really interestingly consistent considering I have three different editors at three different publishing houses. I think the more books I write the more I hate first drafts, because you become more and more aware of the things you’re doing wrong but you still have to do them wrong before you can do them right so that you have something to work with. I really do, it goes straight to my editor, first of all, like, I have a beta reader, she’s wonderful, and her job is essentially to keep me from quitting. And then I have very close relationships with all three of my editors. And so, I go…I turn in the first draft. Well, but also, I should sidebar or footnote and say that I do revise as I go. I don’t zero draft. So, when I say I turn in my first draft to my editor, I have been told, at least, that my quote-unquote first draft looks a lot more like perhaps a third draft because. By the time I’m turning it in I have outlined and strategized and plotted and kind of polished what I have as I’m going.

So, I turn that to my editors and then I usually do three to five rounds of revision, in kind of concentric circles. So, the first round of revision is very broad. It’s big picture. It’s plot and arc and pacing and worldbuilding. And then from there we move in kind of Russian-doll style to character and, again, pacing because by then I will have made some structural changes that need to be shored up and tightening of internal motivations. And of, you know, a lot of the emotional cogs. And then the third round, we start looking at the actual wording, tightening up any of the line edits, perhaps cutting one last scene in order to just to make sure that it’s functioning in its absolute strongest form. And from there it’s just last polish.

Are there any things that you find that you consistently end up doing getting in revision that for some reason you just didn’t notice in the first draft. We all have weaknesses that are caught by our editors.

Yeah, I do try. I do think that the more books I write the more I’m aware of those weaknesses. It doesn’t always stop me from making them, but I usually…I really have gotten better listening to the voice in my head that throws up a little warning light that something’s not working. And so even if I don’t know how to fix it I’ve gotten better at flagging it for my editor, as saying like, hey I know this moment isn’t achieving the right emotional piece or the right number of beats or whatever it is. That is probably the only thing that I feel like I’ve gained over the course of drafting. But the middle of the book and I always fight. The tension in the middle. I am quite confident in my last notes and in my first notes but there’s usually always something in the middle that I struggle with.

Using characters…and this question kind of goes back to the first draft…but how do you decide what characters you need and who are going to be your characters that carry the story forward. And do you do a lot of character planning?

No, I don’t, like do a sheet, I don’t, like, put them through their, like, psychological profiles and Meyers Briggs. My rule with characters is that they need to be fully realized enough that I could give them their own book, even if this is not their book, and they would be able to hold it up as the protagonist. And that is the rule that I hold for characters who are on-page for one scene. If you meet them in the course of my book, they should have enough depth, even if you never see it all, that they could have been the protagonist of a different story. And so, in the early stages of a book I don’t necessarily always know which characters are going to take up more space as the story goes on. A classic example of that is, there’s a character in the Shades of Magicseries who becomes kind of our, like, doorway to grey London, to our London, named Ned, Ned Tuttle, and Ned Tuttle is a human character with no magical powers who was only supposed to show up in one page of the first book. And…but because I try very hard to give characters enough potential, enough depth, he became somebody that my editor and my readers wanted to see more of as the books went on, and so he started to show up more and more.

And so that is the luxury of treating each of your characters as though they are a main character, simply not of this book. I make sure that for every one of my characters I can answer the questions, “What are they afraid of, what do they want, and what are they willing to do to get it?” Because I think understanding those core psychological tenants, those core kind of ethical and motivational tenants, are some of the most important for grasping a character, even if they aren’t going to be the central one of the narrative.

You had mentioned that briefly you had studied set design. Have you done any other…like, been an actress?

No. God, no.

The only reason I ask is because I am an actor.

Yeah.

The process that you talked about with characters, sounds very much like what actors do to try to bring characters to life, even if you have a walk on, you try to make them in some way memorable.

Well, that doesn’t surprise me. I mean, I do think that authors…I think one of the… I don’t want to call it a failing One of the frustrations I’ve had with some of the novels that I’ve read lately is, I think, in the interests of plot and pacing, sometimes authors are forsaking character a little bit and they have to remember that, if we don’t care about the people that the plot is happening to, we will not care about the plot when it is over. Like, you have to, if you think about it, if you’re writing a series, we come to the first book in a series for the plot because we don’t know the characters yet. Right? So, we have to be drawn to the first book in a series solely based on the concept and the plot. But we don’t come back to a series for the plot. We come back to the subsequent books for the characters.

Now this is going to be a little shorter than some of these, because I know that you’re very, very busy, so I’m going to come to the final couple of questions…

I have a nine-month-old puppy who keeps coming into the kitchen and looking at me like, “Hey!”

So, a couple of big philosophical questions here. You’ve talked a little bit about why you started, but why do you think anybody writes. Why do we tell stories, and particularly stories of the fantastic?

Oh, God, that’s such a big question. I’m not sure I have an answer to it. I mean, I can’t…this is the thing, I can’t speak to it a general…writing is such a personal process. I think many of us probably have slightly different motivations. I have friends who write because they’re good at it and they make money and I have friends who write because it is an exorcism of internal chaos and I probably fall somewhere in the middle. Like, I love my job. I see it as a job. But even if I weren’t being published, I would write, because it is the only way to make straight lines out of all of the tangles in my head.

Another way to ask is, why do you think readers read stories and are interested in what we right. And also, because this is the others the other question I would ask is, What do you hope your books give to readers. What do you hope they take it away from them?

I think sometimes it’s escapism and sometimes it’s mirror. Like, sometimes we want to be somebody else and sometimes we want to see ourselves. And so, I think that can depend, really, on the story. I think a goal for me when I write is to give them both, is just, show somebody who isn’t usually centered in the narrative, to give them space in the middle, to let them see themselves in that way, but also sometimes to let them escape their reality. I mean, I write fantasy because…and this is the dedication at the beginning A Darker Shade of Magic…but I grew up wanting the world to be stranger than it was. I grew up looking for cracks in stone walls that might be doorways and I may I still believe in magic and I still believe that there’s so much more to this world than we understand and it’s that potential for magic that makes me want my readers to doubt their reality. That’s my goal. I want you to pick up one of my books and ask yourself by the end, like, I mean, “Is that possible?”, because, for instance, I have a series called The Villainsseries. The first book is Viciousand the second book is Vengeful. And these books are built on a sci-fi concept, on the concept that superpowers can evolve from a specific kind of near-death experience, right? And, like, it’s an extrapolation of science, of the kind of the phenomenon that happen s when adrenal responses overload under immense stress. But I tried to write it with an eye toward utmost realism. And it’s funny to say I tried to write a supervillain novel with an eye towards realism, but every few months I will get an email from somebody, usually a guy, a like, grown man, who will say, “Hey, like, I read these books and, like, I just want you to, like, confirm this isn’t real, is it? Like, this phenomenon isn’t real.” And that entire interaction right there is my goal. That entire interaction, whether I’m writing fantasy or science fiction. I want readers to doubt, because when we’re when we’re young we doubt. When we’re young we believe so easily, and that’s something that we seem so loathe to hold onto or so unable to hold on to. And that’s what I love about fantasy, both as a reader and as a writer, is that it reintroduces doubt and possibility.

You talked about the crack in reality. I think it’s a great metaphor. That was Doctor Whowhen the crack opens up in the wall in Amy Pond’s room.

Absolutely.

And we’re thinking, “That could happen. That could totally happen.”

We read to believe something can happen, if we are not sure about it, in our own world, or if we don’t think it’s possible in our own world, whether that’s a person, whether that’s magic, whether that’s simply a better, stronger, stranger, darker, freer version of ourselves

So, you are going on book tour. Perhaps we should at least mention that book.

What’s really interesting is I’m going on book tour in part for The Near Witch, which is the book that I mentioned at the very beginning, the very first novel. It went out of print…I mean, this is the thing. Writing is an art and publishing is a business. And when The Near Witchcame out in 2011 it was strange and quiet at a time when the things which were successful were very loud. And I had no readership yet, it was my debut novel, and it wasn’t particularly given the time that it needed to find its strange little morbid audience. And I have the immense fortune now, almost a decade later, that my readership has grown and is full of readers who like my strange, morbid, peculiar stories. And so, The Near Witchis finally being rereleased after five, six years not on shelves, and so I’m going on tour for that and for the graphic-novel release of my comic book series, which is set in the Shades of Magicworld, called The Steel Prince.

It’s interesting, because The Near Witch is going to seem like a brand-new book, then, to most people.

Some people have been, like, “Why did somebody put on the blurb that this is her debut novel, like, this is obviously her sixteenth or seventeenth book,” and I’m like, “Well, this is the weird paradox of it, isn’t it?” Like, it is a brand-new book and it has a novella with it that was never published. And it’s gonna be really interesting to see what the readers’ reception is to this book, for those who assume it is a new book

Now, for those who want to follow along and try and find out where you are and what you do doing, and all that stuff, how do they find you online?

Oh, I live inside the Internet, so it’s very, very simple. Probably the best places to find me are on Twitter and Instagram. On Instagram I post my tour schedules when they’re finalized, so it’s a good way to figure out where I’m going to be, a little bit more static than Twitter. But I’m @VESchwab on both of those platforms

When this airs, you’ll actually be well into the tour, this will probably be on in April sometime, I think. So, have a great tour.

Thank you.

Thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers. It’s been a great pleasure talking to you.

Thank you so much for having me.

Episode 5: Arthur Slade

An hour-long conversation with Arthur Slade, bestselling author of twenty-two novels for young readers, including Dust (which won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for children’s literature), and The Hunchback Assignments (winner of the TD Canada Canadian Children’s Literature Award), focusing on his new young adult fantasy novel Crimson.

The Introduction:

Arthur Slade was raised on a ranch in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan. In addition to the award-winning novels mentioned above, he co-created the graphic novel Modo: Ember’s End. An interesting fact that the Art likes to point out is that he does all of his writing on a treadmill desk while listening to heavy metal, and the strangest thing of all is he does it in a place called Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which, I can assure you is not as fictional as it sounds.

Website: arthurslade.com

Twitter: @arthurslade

Instagram: @arthurslade

Arthur Slade’s Amazon page

The Show:

Art says he was inspired to write fantasy by The Hobbit. His Grade 4 teacher read it out loud to his class, and he says it was the first book read to them that he really “fell into.” In fact, he was so “agog” at it that when his parents took him away from school for a week to go on a family trip to Disneyland he actually felt kind of sad he was going to miss a whole week of the The Hobbit.

He was a creative kid who always wrote “bits and pieces,” but it wasn’t until Grade 11 that writing really took hold: “I love to blame my English teacher for my career,” he says. She had the class write a short story, and Art wrote, “Under Heaven, Over Hell” (“If you want to get your teacher’s attention, make sure you put a swear word in there!”). He got a grade of 100, which he found “kind of astounding.” That was his “first big reward” as a writer, and he carried on from there.

Art wrote six novels that were never published. His sixth, a novel for adults, he sent to the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, which offers a manuscript evaluation service. The reader wrote that Art had written an amazing novel for young adults, which incensed him: he felt insulted that he’d been accused of writing for young adults. And yet, that was a moment that changed the direction of his career.

Art notes that he has a kind of “sparse style,” perfect for writing for young adults and for children, so once he got over the “insult,” he decided to try it, and the next book he wrote, the seventh, was accepted right away. “So I’m really glad that that reader insulted me so deeply, because it really opened up all these doors for me that I might not have thought about.”

One reason he likes to write for young readers is that he loved books the most between the ages of eight to thirteen. “Back then, I could just disappear into a book. It was really an amazing immersive experience.” So now, when he’s writing, he’s often thinking about that younger version of himself, and it’s natural to make the characters that age.

The other reason he likes writing for young readers is that “everything is fresh to them, they’re learning everything for the first time, even if they’re sixteen or seventeen and they believe they know everything—and believe me, the real teenagers do—it’s all new. They seem to have this new energy.”

As part of his ongoing experimentation with self-publishing, Art has written a novel called Amber Fang with characters a little bit older, twenty or twenty-one, still young, but a bit more knowledgeable about the world, so they can make jokes about Shakespeare and other references that wouldn’t work for a thirteen-year-old.

Art says he had the original idea for Crimson (and even wrote a novel based on it) when he was seventeen. He threw out all of that original book except for one character, Mansren, who, although bound at the beginning of the story, was “almost a God,” a being of pure magic, completely malevolent and yet capable of being charming. What would happen, he wondered, when someone like that was suddenly unleashed?

Crimsonis about Fen, who is thirteen when the book starts, and fifteen a couple of chapters in. In the very first scene, she loses her hand because she has stolen something, leaving her able to perform only odd jobs around her village.

Fen lives in a world that has been controlled by a Queen for a thousand years. The Queen uses magic that she mines from the ground, in the form of red dust, to control everyone. She can make people into whatever shape she wants, so she has soldiers who look just like her, and she can also control what people think.

Every once in a while, there are people who go “crimson”: their hair suddenly turns red and they acquire magical ability. This happens to Fen: her hair suddenly goes red, which means she has an immediate death sentence. She has to flee the village before the Queen’s guards come after her. What she gradually learns is that there is something new growing where her hand was, and that’s the magic that she has. Eventually she runs into Mansren.

Art notes that he’s never really tackled a full-fledged fantasy novel until now: he’d mostly moved into dark fantasy, real-life stories where fantasy squeezes itself in. He found writing a full-blown fantasy challenging. “It was so hard to think about the magic and think about how you make everything feel real. I can write a book set in 1930s and do all this research and really make that feel real, but when I’m making this other world, how do I make people believe that they are someplace entirely different? That was kind of a major step for me.”

Art says if he’s going to spend a year on a story, there has to be something in it he really cares about. “Part of that the idea behind Crimson is this queen, because she’s so powerful, has basically destroyed all the cultures and is trying to reshape everything to her. She has even made it so that people only have first names, because it’s too complicated to have last name.”

The Queen wants the world to be perfect and simple. As a result, all the world’s cultures are being lost. It’s against the law for people to speak any languages than the language the Queen has decreed.

“When I was thinking about character Fen,” Art notes, “I was also thinking about my own daughter. My wife and I adopted from China in 2010, so it’s a while ago now, and I realized I’d never written anything where she could go, ‘You know, that’s me in the story. That’s someone just like me.’”

So Fen is a character who comes from a Chinese-like culture. (Although he made sure to say to his daughter that Fen was not her, “because some horrible things happen to the character.”) That feeling of doing something that his daughter would read and that would reflect her culture was really important to Art, and helped energize him while he was doing the research.

Some of that research, he says with a laugh, “is in my house all the time, walking around.” He’d also read about China for a long time because of adopting from that country, and in fact, the place where the book begins is based on the part of China where his daughter comes from, and where he spent a week. “I really wanted to re-create what it felt like there….to be a reflection of my daughter’s character.”

Art says he writes very much by the seat of the pants, rather than plotting things out in detail. He knows the basic story, but a lot of his process begins with the first chapter. “I sit down and start writing it.” He says it takes forever because he’s thinking about what the world will look like, and he’s trying to put everything together in that first chapter. “It’s like my brain is unlocking all these little kind of mysteries about what could happen next. I follow the breadcrumbs, in a way, that that I’ve left or that I’ve discovered just by the process of going through that the first chapter.”

After that, he tends to write a few little scenes that he know will appear somewhere further along. Getting to a scene he’d first thought about three months earlier is like a reward, although the reward is, “Now you have to make it to the next place that you dreamed about sixmonths ago!”

Eventually, he says, after many words and often many mistakes, he gets to the ending, which usually comes to him about the halfway point, once he has a lot of the characters and events in play. He says he’s learned it’s okay to have a wrong ending: you can fix it later.

The only time he tried to do a really details synopsis was for his novel Flickers, and he says he found that book the hardest to write: working like that seemed to mess up his process, so he’s kind of scared of it now, even though, “I’d love to do it. That seems to make more sense to me. Everything is all laid out and you just write this much every day, but that’s not how my brain works so far.”

Everyone works differently, Art agrees, and when he teaches writing, he always starts by saying, “This is what works for me, take whatever is helpful for you, but it’s not necessarily going to work for you.”

The magic system in Crimson unfolded as he wrote, and solved problems—like the magical armour of the Queen’s guards, a kind of second skin that they never take off. He had to figure out how that worked. In the process, he wrote some 30,000 or 40,000 words that ended up cut from the novel, from the point of view of one of the Queen’s guards. While writing that helped him understand how the process worked and its effect on the men involved, in the end, he didn’t need all that detail. “It was really kind of exploring.”

Another problem: Fen has lost her hand, and something new is growing there—what is it? It’s magical, but what kind of magic. “It’s that whole process of finding the words that make it sound real, finding a way to make himself and the reader believe that the magic is real, and indicate what the limits are, and how uncontrollable it can be. “It’s someone who is learning, not sure if the magic is even part of her or if it’s something else working through her, partly because it just doesn’t work when she wants it to.”

Waking up one morning and find you’re a completely different person is a terrifying idea for young people, Ed suggests, and Art agrees: “In some ways it’s like puberty, except overnight, and people are going to kill you.”

One reason so many words were cut was that originally the book was going to be a back-and-forth between Fen and Marcus, but when his editor read it, she said, “Oh, this is amazing, this is great…and by the way, we should cut out that character, you know, the one that takes up half the novel.”

Art likes stories that “just don’t slow down,” and realized the editor was right. The actual rewriting didn’t take that long: he likened it to a woodcarver cutting a sculpture out of wood. He says he could quickly see, “This is how the book was meant to be.”

“I’m just really thankful, because that’s what editors can do. A good editor will look at it and go, ‘You know, this is actually what you meant to do,’ and you go, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right, I am that smart.’”

Art notes that when you’re self-publishing, you have to pay for an editor, and they’ll typically only take one pass through the book. He notes that working with an editor from a traditional publisher can be extremely frustrating if they don’t “get” your work, but a lot of the time, they’ll actually find out what’s missing, something to do with a character, maybe, or the overall tone. “That’s what a really good editor does.”

He adds sometimes editors will say something mysterious (he thinks maybe they take a course in how to say mysterious things to authors to motivate them). For his novel Dust, the editor said, “You know, there just seems to be something missing from that second last chapter.”  He looked at it, trying to figure out what she was talking about, and suddenly a new aspect of the chapter came clear to him, a whole scene that wouldn’t have appeared if she hadn’t made that comment.

Art says he tries to make his submitted manuscript “as clean as possible” so his editor doesn’t have to do a lot of work, but he doesn’t do the really fine line-by-line polishing until after the editor has seen a draft. He says he’s sometimes amazed by the themes editors find in his work, though afterwards he says, “Oh, yeah, that is what it’s about, that’s exactlywhat I was thinking.”

Writing is a collaborative art, a conversation with readers, in a way, Art says. Rather like editors, “They’re bringing all their own experiences to the book, so they will see things in a different way.”

He likes the term used for his podcast, worldshaping, rather than the more commonly used term worldbuilding.”It’s a process of taking what you already have, the clay of this world we live in, and shaping it into something else.” He notes that in Crimson, the Queen’s realm is based on the Roman Empire, and his main character has a Chinese-like background. “I’m not building something new, I’m taking something that already was there and shaping it so that it can fit into this other world that I’m imagining.”

Art says the reason for writing these kinds of stories ultimately boils down to “Because it’s there…because I can, or you can.” He says when the first image of a story comes to him, like that of Fen knowing she’s about to have her hand cut off, “there’s a kind of rush to it…It’s not a real event in terms of a memory, but it feels almost as real as a memory, and so I want to create it and make it as real as a memory of something that has really happened.

Creating a novel, and feeling like it worked out, “that you made this new thing,” he says, is the real pay-off for him. (Although he’s not averse to “cold, hard cash,” either.)

“I like that whole experience, and I get a high from it,” he says. “I can’t imagine not doing it. I can’t imagine just watching movies, I have to create my own movies. I can’t imagine just reading books, I have to create my own books.”

He thinks one reason people like his books is because they often include characters who are fighting against something larger than themselves, while coping with a disability or something else that holds them back. “People respond to that.”

They also respond to his style of writing: it moves ahead quickly, but still has emotion in it.

Art says is first and main goal is to entertain, but, he adds, “I guess I like making people think of different things, or perhaps getting to them to look at the story or the characters in a different way.”

He gives as an example the hunchbacked main character from The Hunchback Assignments. “I really loved the idea of him not being this beautiful handsome prince who conquers all the dragons. I love that idea because it kind of twists the normal Disney version on its head, and says, ‘You can be unattractive and you can be a powerful, thoughtful, intelligent character, too. To make it more interesting, he does have this ability to change his shape and look like other people, so he can become beautiful, and is always trying to, not only just battle the outside forces, but the forces that are inside him, saying, ‘You kow you’re not good enough, you’re not attractive.’”

Art says it’s important for him to crate characters that are different in some way. “Anybody who’s a geek or a nerd like me, you always felt a little different growing up, and you felt like you were in a different place, and so that’s why I enjoy that process. And if that makes somebody who feels like they’re on the outside a little bit better, then that’s great.”

Ed notes that it’s quite common for people interested in science fiction and fantasy to feel like that, and Art wonders if that will continue to be true in, say, twenty years, since it seems like nerd culture is so much stronger now, and so much more normal, than wen he was a kid. “You can find your tribe a lot faster.”

Art is playing with an idea for a sequel for Crimson, which he hadn’t expected. He’s also continuing on with his Amber Fang series, and just finished writing a shorter piece of fantasy, currently called Dragon Assassin.

Those interested in his ongoing experiments with self-publishing can follow along on his blog at arthurslade.com.