(event photo via National Book Store)
I had only started reading the Grisha trilogy a few days before I was scheduled to interview YA author Leigh Bardugo. I always try to read at least one book before an author interview (more when I get hooked) and this was one of those times when I just couldn’t stop reading — I didn’t even notice the sun had risen until I turned the very last page!
Leigh Bardugo’s New York Times Bestselling Grisha trilogy, composed of the books “Shadow and Bone,” “Siege and Storm” and “Ruin and Rising” feature an orphan girl named Alina, who discovers she is the long-awaited Sun Summoner. This elevates her status as lowly mapmaker into a revered Grisha (magical elite) on whom the fate of the nation of Ravka rests. Alina struggles with her newfound power, fitting in with the Grisha and being separated from her best friend, Mal; as well as the different forces vying for control of the kingdom.
I’ll leave the rest of the story for you to find out when you go read the novels (go! go! go!) but let me just say that I have not enjoyed a young adult fantasy series this much in a very long time.
The trilogy is built on a world that is replete with detail: fearsome beasts, rugged terrain, extreme weather conditions, distinct architecture, a multi-tiered society made up of individuals of different talents, cultures and faiths. All this she lays out without any direct exposition, and what’s amazing is how clearly it all comes through.
Almost the entire story is told from Alina’s point of view, and the voice just sweeps you into the story, drawing out your emotions as you read further and further into the series and making you feel like you share her every triumph, her every defeat. And I rarely get emotionally involved in YA romance, but the romance in this series is off the charts: I had my ship (“You’re my flag. You’re my nation.” OMFG)… and then the other one I wanted for myself. LOL.
The rest of the cast are no less fascinating; there are a lot of memorable characters (and characters to fall in love with) in this series — even the minor ones (Oncat!!!) — and they just stay with you after you’ve read the books.
I thought it was well-plotted, too. I liked how the books were paced — the first book had that bang, the second more of a slow burn and the last one draws out the roiling turmoil into that final showdown. I had been bracing myself for that curse of the trilogy where the last book fizzles out, but this one rises majestically to the occasion, and has one of the most satisfying resolutions I’ve ever read in a series.
So, still reeling from the awesomeness of this series, I went to meet Leigh Bardugo and I was honestly so tongue-tied (not a usual occurrence — they usually have to cut me off for time!) I was amazed I was able to get some questions out!
Q. How did this trip to the Philippines materialize?
A. I’ve been in contact with Filipino fans for a while now, on Twitter and Tumblr, and they’ve asked me about coming, and then earlier this year National Book Store approached me and asked me if I wanted to come. We were debating the timing, because we know it was going to be really hot in June, and I have a ton of touring that’s going on, but we felt it was the one chance we can make it happen and so we did.
Q. How has your trip been so far?
A. It’s been amazing. I have just had an incredible time. There’s a really unique book culture here. Usually in the United States you have lots of book enthusiasts and they usually have very specific fandoms. In here it feels like it’s all books: that’s the fandom. Kind of a mass enthusiasm that’s really incredible to see in action. It’s been fantastic.
“There’s a really unique book culture here… Kind of a mass enthusiasm that’s really incredible to see in action. It’s been fantastic.”
Q. Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer? Did you study for it, or did you do it on the side?
A. Oh yeah. A little of both. I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid; I always made up stories. My dream was always to be a novelist, but I had a lot of jobs while I was trying to make that dream happen. I think, honestly, having all those jobs probably contributed — there’s a little bit of all of them in my books. So yeah, it was always a dream, and it was just a question of forcing myself to sit down and really finish a book and then get really lucky.
Q. So when did your big break come?
A. My big break came, really, when my agent Joanna offered me representation. I had written a book and I started inquiring [with] agents. Researching them — you’ve got to be really careful with who you pick. And I came across a blog post of hers where she was talking about Lord of the Rings.
At the time nobody was really looking for the kind of fantasy I write. They weren’t looking for secondary worlds, epic fantasy, or high fantasy, and she was. I pretty much knew from the first time we chatted that she was the right person for me and I was lucky because she actually wanted me too! So signing with her was the big break and we sold the trilogy almost a month to the day exactly from when I signed with her.
Q. Where were you and what were you doing when you found out you made the NYT Bestseller List?
A. I was in Houston; I was at a mall. I had just gotten my hair done, and my hair was huge. Texas hair is very big hair. I was wearing no makeup and yoga pants, but my hair was this huge sculpted helmet. And I was walking through the mall and my editor called me, and she said, ‘Are you sitting down?’
I thought, this was either going to be really good or it’s going to be real bad. Then she told me we hit the list, and I burst out crying, and there were all these people in the mall walking past me. And it was so hot there, too! It was over a hundred degrees, and all these people were walking past me in this outdoor mall thinking, why is this crazy girl with this giant hair weeping on a bench? But it was amazing. Jo called, then I called my mom — I’ll never forget it.
Q. What inspired the Grisha trilogy?
A. There’s a lot of inspirations that went into it. Part of it is that in fantasy, darkness is always metaphorical. We use it as kind of a catch-all term for evil, or for bad things that are happening, and I thought, what if you gave darkness a physical form? What if darkness was a place and the monsters were real, and you had to fight them in their own territory? And that initial idea for the Shadow Fold is really where a lot of the books sprang from.
But there was a lot of different inspiration for it. There’s this notion that you get an idea for a book and it arrives fully formed, but that’s really not the case. A book is not one moment of inspiration; it’s daily inspiration, and seeking inspiration when that moment runs out.
“A book is not one moment of inspiration; it’s daily inspiration, and seeking inspiration when that moment runs out.”
Q. Did you know how the series would end when you started writing it?
A. Not when I started it. When I first started my only intention was to finish the book, but when I first thought of revising it after I had that first draft, I realized that the ending I had originally envisioned felt false. The story had somehow gotten bigger than I’d initially intended, and I started taking notes for the second and third books. But I didn’t know if anyone would buy one [book], let alone three. Luckily my publisher wanted all of them. But yes, I always knew how the trilogy would end, down to the dialogue.
Q. The series has a distinct Russian flavor to it — do you have Russian ethnicity, or did you have to do a lot of research for the books?
A. Both. I’m Jewish, and I’m Russian and Lithuanian on one side. But yes, I did quite a bit of research for it… I think as readers, history is just stories, and I really enjoyed it. There’s also a huge Russian expatriate population in Los Angeles, and I live right by Little Russia, so there’s a lot of Russian markets and restaurants (although the best Russian food is in San Diego).
Q. So are the Ravkan words in this book actual Russian words?
Some of the words are real Russian words and I always intended them to be breadcrumbs for readers, like if they wanted to look them up they would get a layer of meaning. For instance, the word otkazat’sya is the word for people who don’t have grisha power, but if you look it up, it is actually the verb ‘to refuse,’ which I hope will resonate with readers in terms of what Alina’s choices are in the story.
Q. What about the social structure in the series, how did you come up with specific roles and the different levels?
A. These really evolved with the writing of the first draft. I had always had this idea of the Grisha, inspired by how the Jews became a brain trust for the United States in the second World War. They were driven out of Eastern Europe and they ended up being essential to US military defense. I always had this idea of this elite that is at once in this position of privilege but also greeted with a great deal of prejudice. That is the Grisha’s position — Ravka is the only country that has offered them sanctuary in a world where they are hunted for a variety of reasons and so they’ve become a military elite there.
Q. How did you come up with the Grisha powers?
A. I really wanted a constrained magical system, because I wanted the advent of the modern military system to play a role in the course of the story. And if you don’t have a constrained magical system that is not an interesting question because there is always more magic than there is military. I knew I wanted there to be some pretty strict rules, and I ended up creating something that was essentially a magical version of molecular chemistry, which is what governs small science, the manipulation of matter at its most fundamental levels.
The divisions between the Grisha were what I thought would grow, given the fact that this is a garrison state; it’s basically a military operation and how they would choose to divide the power. Consequently the corporalki are the highest ranked because they’re the most valuable soldiers. In peacetime, that might not be the case.
Q. If you were a Grisha, what type would you be?
A. I would probably be a heartrender, if I could choose any ability. Because I can slow someone’s heart and drop them into a nice deep nap if I wasn’t enjoying the conversation. But in my heart I think I would probably be a fabrikator, in a shop far away from the fighting.
Q. What is your writing process like?
A. I’m an outliner; I like to work from an outline. And I always create something I call a ‘zero draft.’ You wouldn’t call it a first draft because it’s something that will never be seen by anybody, but it’s essentially a big, messy version of the outline. And I always think about it as having the whole book in front of me. That book might only be a page long, but it has a beginning, middle, and end, and I start to fill in all of the things I know in that moment. So it becomes a ten-page book, a hundred-page book. It’s not the first one hundred pages of the book, but it’s a whole story that has these gaps to be filled it.
Q. In the back matter of ‘Ruin and Rising’ you talk about a new book — what is it about and how is it coming along?
A. ‘Six of Crows’ is coming out in September. It’s set in the same world as the Grisha trilogy, but different country, different cast of characters. You do not have to have read the trilogy to read the new book. But if you’ve read the trilogy and you want more of that world, and more of the Grisha, then you could get it from ‘Six of Crows.’
It’s basically a heist story; a ragtag band of misfits has to pull off what is basically a suicide mission. Those are my favorite kinds of stories — I really love stories about friends who create their own families and learn to fight together even if they may not get along so well. So it’s about six outcasts who are brought together by a criminal prodigy, and the heist they have to pull off.
Q. Contemporary fiction seems to be the current trend in YA? What do you think about the way the trend is going, and do you have any plans of exploring other genres?
A. It’s hard for me to imagine writing anything that doesn’t have fantastical element to it. I just wrote a horror story set in our world so it’s contemporary, but with a fantastical element; it’s going to appear in an anthology called “Slasher Girls and Monster Boys” that’s coming out in August. I wrote a love story for “Summer Days and Summer Nights” which is Stephanie Perkins’ new anthology for next year, which again has a very strong magical element in it.
But it’s an interesting question because we’ve just seen “Red Queen” [by Victoria Aveyard] and “An Ember in the Ashes” [by Sabaa Tahir]. Both of them are new books and are bringing new fantasy to life, so that’s really exciting to see.
Q. Who are your literary inspirations?
A. George R. R. Martin, Holly Black, Diana Wynne-Jones, Neil Gaiman, Madeleine L’Engle, Louise Erdrich, Annie Proulx, Stephen King — the list goes on and on.
Q. What are you reading now?
A. I just finished Illuminae [by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff], which is a book that’s coming out in October and I absolutely loved it. It had incredible twists and turns and I can’t wait for other people to read it so I can talk about it with them.
Q. What do you think about the shaming that’s being given to adults who read and enjoy YA?
A. I think anytime somebody tries to make you ashamed of what you read or what you like, you should ask yourself why. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these articles [that shame readers] are primarily written towards YA and romance genres. I think the reason is obvious — those genres are primarily consumed by and created by women. I honestly believe that one day, the people who write these articles will have died off and the world will be ruled by girls who grew up reading YA.
“I think anytime somebody tries to make you ashamed of what you read or what you like, you should ask yourself why.”
Q. What is your advice to aspiring authors?
A. Write a messy first draft. Don’t try to outthink it; don’t try to outsmart it. It doesn’t matter how much you plan; you cannot escape the misery of writing the first draft and then trying to get it into shape. Write it, finish it, and get the beginning, middle and end onto the page.
Read outside of your comfort zone. If you like young adult, read also literary fiction, non-fiction, poetry — it teaches you to use language and approach narrative in different ways.
There’s no expiration date on talent, and it doesn’t matter how old you are or what you look like as long as you have a story to tell.
“Write a messy first draft. Don’t try to out-think it; don’t try to outsmart it. It doesn’t matter how much you plan; you cannot escape the misery of writing the first draft and then trying to get it into shape. Write it, finish it, and get the beginning, middle and end onto the page.”
And I got my entire set signed!
And *this* OMG squeeeeeeeeeee….
Saving it for a day when I’m in dire need of escape (which I foresee coming up real soon, the way things are going).
AND, FINALLY (pardon the delay — life happened!), to get you started on the Grisha trilogy, here’s this month’s giveaway: a signed copy of “Shadow and Bone!”
Shadow and Bone (trade paperback), 4.5/5 stars; Siege and Storm (trade paperback), 4/5 stars; Ruin and Rising (hardcover), 4.5/5 stars
Series rating 4.5/5 stars
The Grisha trilogy is available in National Book Store.
Many thanks to National Book Store for arranging my interview!