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Young-adult titles saw strong sales during the pandemic as young readers sought adventure outside the confines of their bedrooms. Many of them found it in the intricate worlds created by Leigh Bardugo – whose Shadow and Bone books have been adapted into a Netflix series premiering April 23 – and Marie Lu, the mind behind the Young Elites and Skyhunter series. The authors talked with Judith Pereira about how they build characters, tell female stories and why YA is taking over.
Let’s begin by talking about how you build your worlds. Where do you start? Is it the characters first or the plot?
Leigh Bardugo: I’m really curious to have this conversation with Marie, because we’ve known each other a long time, but this isn’t the kind of conversation we have over tea.
Marie Lu: I tend to start with characters first. Usually somebody walks into my head, and they’re not always fully formed. With my Legend series, I was watching Les Misérables, and I wanted to write the teen version of a criminal versus a detective, but I had no idea where to put them. A while later, I saw a map of the world in the future, and it was awful and flooded. So I combined that with my characters and started building. With Skyhunter, I had an idea for a girl named Talin who had been displaced from her home and had settled in a new society, where they didn’t accept her even though she was giving her life for the country. That was inspired by Dr. [Khizr] Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, when he talked about his son being killed in Iraq. But the world comes to me in bits and pieces as I grow my characters out.
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LB: I begin with the bare bones of a plot and a character, but I really need to know where I’m going. For me, a world breaks down into a sense of power and a sense of place. And power comes first, because that’s so integral to the plot – and that can be magical power, political power, interpersonal power within a family, a town and then within a city, a country and a world.
The sense of place is sort of secondary to me and tends to change the plot quite a bit. For the Shadow and Bone trilogy, I was focused on Imperial Russia in the mid-1800s. And for Six of Crows, I knew I wanted there to be an influence from the Dutch Republic of the 1700s. So the research shifted the plot because I got a better sense of how these economies worked, how these worlds worked, and they all influenced each other.
Let’s talk about war, since both of your novels deal with that from a female perspective.
LB: I think young women are at war every day. We see that play out again and again. So for me, sending a young girl out to war resonates with so many readers because they feel that way, even if culture is telling them everything should be fine.
ML: It’s the untold story that interests me – so much of our written history has been told from the point of view of the straight white man. And that’s something I love about Shadow and Bone – you tell it from the point of view of somebody who isn’t usually featured in stories of war.
LB: Adelina in Young Elites is so much a testament to what war does, and what it means for a woman to occupy a space that isn’t the norm of what we consider acceptable or beautiful. And it’s a dark story. But as someone who loves an anti-hero, I find her incredibly gratifying.
Marie, talk to me about writing a protagonist so filled with rage and sadness, and who isn’t very likeable.
ML: What’s funny is I didn’t start off writing her as the main character. I wrote 100 pages where the main character was this very nice guy just going through life having powers, and Adelina was the villain. From the moment I wrote her, she just kind of took over. I didn’t think much of it until I gave it to my agent, who doesn’t sugar-coat anything. She said, “Marie, when you gave this to me, did you think it was good?” I asked if she liked anything or if I should throw everything away and go cry. And she said Adelina was the only interesting character, and maybe she should be the main character. At that moment, my entire idea changed.
LB: Ouch, my author heart felt that from miles away. Zoya [from Shadow and Bone] has been a very polarizing character for a lot of readers who say she’s rude, mean, dangerous and so angry all the time. There’s a certain double standard that gets applied to female characters, and, for me, Zoya’s journey has been allowing her to feel that rage and draw power from it, while also trying to let her negotiate the difference between fear and vulnerability.
Both of you talk about characters speaking to you. Is it dialogue you hear from them, or is it feelings?
ML: There are some characters that are loud in my head and take up a lot of space. Adelina was loud, and I knew immediately what kind of personality she had. Talin, however, was very reserved. She keeps a lot of things close to her chest. I do these exercises called white-room scenes before I start a draft. I put characters into a white room, and they just talk to each other – I want to see how they react to each other. With Talin, I was looking for a character that would make her come out of her shell. When I put her with Red, the other main character, they went at each other immediately, and that’s how I knew they were the angle.
LB: There’s nothing more pleasurable to me than writing dialogue, so a lot of my books are very dialogue-heavy in their initial drafts. That’s also the way I work through plot problems. I’ll go for a walk and have a conversation with myself and do the voices. I am fully committed to being the neighborhood eccentric. I also get ideas when I’m falling asleep, and I absolutely have to record them immediately or they are completely lost the next day.
Are there ever characters you start out with but just don’t fit?
LB: I had every intention of killing Nikolai off in Siege and Storm – he was going to be murdered by his brother, and Alina was going to be framed and would have to go on the run. Then I started writing him, and I enjoyed him so much. Most of my characters spend a lot of time brooding, doubting, wondering if they’re doing the right thing. Nikolai does not waste time like that; his confidence is infinite. It was such a joy, and he really buoyed me through the trauma of writing my first sequel. And by the end of Ruin and Rising, I knew I wanted to give him his own book. But he had to wait in the wings while I did other projects.
Leigh, you’ve got a Netflix series coming out, and we’re definitely seeing more young female protagonists who are not white taking off in books and television.
LB: Why do you think everyone is so afraid of YA? Since YA as a market category started really moving books, what did we start seeing? Hot take after hot take: “Why do grown women want to read YA? This surely means the death of society and literature as we know it.” So why the panic? The tropes in YA are not any more absurd or repetitive than those we see in other genres. Is the problem the young women and marginalized people leading revolutions, demanding to be put at the centre of the story? I used to get really angry when I saw those pieces that had such contempt for YA authors and readers. Now I just think, “We really must be getting to you.” It fills me with delight.
ML: If YA is not literature, then I don’t want to be literature.
What writers inspired you?
LB: That’s a tough one, because Dune was pivotal to me, but I also recognize it has a lot of problems I definitely was not keyed into as a kid. But you can see its influence in my writing. I loved Stephen King, George R. R. Martin, Diana Wynne Jones, Octavia Butler. When I started junior high, I was really struggling. I did not fit in. And I walked into the school library, and there was a table of sci-fi and fantasy books that said: “Explore new worlds.” And I thought, that’s what I need – I need to get away from this world.
ML: I remember being 11, and I saw this book cover in the library of a mouse holding a sword – so the Redwall series by Brian Jacques was my gateway into fantasy and science fiction. But I remember the very first time I read a fantasy series by a woman starring a young woman – Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart series – and that was a turning point. Same with N.K. Jemisin.
Kids for the past year have not been in schools or at their libraries.
ML: I feel really sad for the young generation. At the same time, I think young people are more resilient than we give them credit for. Young people have gone through many tumultuous things in history and come out stronger.
LB: I think for me, my favourite books growing up, regardless of how full of danger or trauma they might be, were places I returned to again and again as a respite from the ordinary world. We really don’t know how this is going to shake out. This has impacted the way my creativity functions, and it broke it in some ways. But my hope is that our stories will still provide that haven for people.
This interview has been condensed and edited.