In October 2016, we sent Jenny Duffy, bookseller and longstanding CBI reviewer, to meet with Rainbow Rowell and Leigh Bardugo before the Dublin stop of their Worlds Collide tour to chat about their books and writing YA. Read Jenny’s report below…
Hosted by Eason’s brilliant YA section, Department 51, the Worlds Collide event was an entertaining evening of discussion, dramatic readings and a great Q&A session. Rainbow Rowell is best known for her contemporary YA novels Eleanor & Park and Fangirl, recently moving into fantasy with Carry On. Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy and her new duology (Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom) have been very popular with fantasy fans. While they work in different genres, both create characters that resonate with readers, and they are close friends. When asked which of their characters they thought should meet, Rowell said ‘I would like for Eleanor to meet Nina’ to which Bardugo excitedly replied ‘I was just thinking that! I feel like they’d be really good for each other!’
Both authors have used multiple points of view in their recent works. Bardugo said this was quite organic in Six of Crows, but that in Crooked Kingdom everything became more complex. ‘I knew what the beats were really before I knew who was going to be talking and I knew what piece of information they needed to have that nobody else could have.’ Her Grisha trilogy uses a single first-person perspective, but for the complex heist plot of Six of Crows third person and multiple points of view were needed. In Six of Crows Bardugo found Matthias’ voice was the easiest to write in. ‘He’s literally a fanatic and that comes with a sort of built-in powerful voice. In Crooked Kingdom I really enjoyed writing Wylan because he’s so different from all the other characters and he has a sweetness and a naiveté […] that the other kids have lost.’ Rowell said that for Carry On, it was ‘a very natural shift of who should probably be next’ although there were more narrators than in Eleanor & Park. In Carry On, Baz was her favourite point of view to write, while Agatha was the most challenging. In Eleanor & Park, she had to add more Eleanor scenes when she was editing. ‘I preferred Park. I wouldn’t say he was more happy, but he was less unhappy’.
There are some very moving and emotional scenes in Rowell and Bardugo’s books, often more powerful for their understatement. Rowell said that restraint comes naturally to her, ‘in some of the loudest, most awful, sad or powerful or even happy scenes I tend to have the volume so low on those emotions that in my editing I usually have to turn it up and make it a little more expressive. My gut feeling is to dial that way, way back because the emotions should powerful enough to be heard in that quiet.’ Bardugo praised the command Rowell has in emotional scenes, saying her work has a ‘cleanness’ to it, ‘there’s no bombast’. We discussed my favourite scene in Crooked Kingdom (Chapter 26, no spoilers!) Bardugo said she rewrote the scene many times. The result is an incredibly poignant and sensitive chapter. ‘I think that was the hardest in terms of craft because it required so much restraint.’ She said, however, that the most difficult scene for her to write was Inej’s flashbacks to her time at the Menagerie. She cried writing these passages; ‘I was deeply shaken by writing those…I felt physically ill while writing some of it. In my mind, they were the darkest scenes I’ve ever written.’ For Rowell, the most difficult scene she’s ever written was Eleanor’s escape from her stepdad. ‘I had to stay in a miserable mindset for days.’ They agreed that shaking off the emotions of their work was difficult, and both use songs as emotional touchstones for their work, to help them get into the mood of a scene. However, this does have the unfortunate side effect of making some songs un-listenable after writing. ‘Unbelievers’ by Vampire Weekend always transports Leigh Bardugo back to the battle scene she used it as a touchstone for.
Carry On was Rowell’s first foray into writing fantasy, whereas Bardugo is an experienced crafter of magical realms. On the most difficult part of world building, Bardugo said this was sticking to the rules you have established. ‘You find different ways to transgress and you find different ways to push that envelope and that’s interesting but you cannot violate those rules.’ She spoke about wanting to have a sky fortress in the Grisha trilogy then realising ‘it was impossible to make that make sense in terms of the expenditure of magic it would require’. For Rowell, ‘the best part was when I realised dragons weren’t real and I could kind of do whatever I wanted. I was like, oh! this is really freeing.’ In Carry On, she named little magical creatures just for fun. They would have no plot relevance, she just enjoyed fleshing out the world of Watford School of Magicks.
For Leigh Bardugo, writing in ‘our’ world for her short story ‘Head, Scales, Tongue, Tail’ in Summer Days and Summer Nights (edited by Stephanie Perkins) was a new experience. ‘I really enjoyed being able to use normal swears and have pop culture references and I got to finally write an actual Stevie Nicks reference into one of my books, like she plays a major role.’ Rowell laughed at ‘normal swears’, but agreed that she knew what Bardugo meant. There will be more ‘real world’ Leigh Bardugo with the forthcoming release of Wonder Woman and Ninth House. Rowell has also written a short story (‘Midnights’) for an anthology edited by Perkins, My True Love Gave to Me. They both found writing a short story very difficult, but enjoyed the experience. Both the US and UK/Irish editions of these anthologies are beautiful books. As Rowell said, ‘You can’t even choose your favourite.’
On the day of their Dublin Worlds Collide event it was announced that Leigh Bardugo is writing a new series, this time for adult readers. The first title, Ninth House, is about secret societies and the occult at Yale. Rainbow Rowell’s debut Attachments and her 2014 book Landline are for an adult audience. Rowell said that the writing process was much the same for her YA and adult books, ‘the difference is just the perspective of the person I’m writing from. It’s like whose head I’m in and are they 16 or are they 32?’ The real divergence, she says, is in the world of sales, marketing and bookselling, rather than for the writer themselves. Both authors mentioned that the audiences for their YA books are a mixture of teenagers and adults, as was reflected at the Dublin event (the Grown-Ups-Read-YA bookclub, of which I am a member, was out in force). Bardugo was a bit concerned about the perceptions of her new ‘adult’ book: ‘a woman came up to me last night and she said “I’m so glad you’re writing adult, I hope there’s gonna be lots of smut!”’ Bardugo laughed and said ‘I was a little taken aback by that and now I’m worried that that’s what people think that transition means.’ Rowell interjected with ‘I think it does mean that for some authors.’ Bardugo quipped ‘Note to self: add more booty.’ Rowell laughed, but said that really her teen characters ‘get more action than my adults, but nobody gets very much.’ On stage she spoke about this, and the emphasis she places on small moments and the ‘slow burn.’
On current calls for more diverse YA books (and debates on how to ‘do’ diversity ‘right’) Leigh Bardugo said ‘My hope is that it’s not a moment and that it is an actual cultural shift.’ Both authors said their books are diverse because this is the way the world actually is. They are reflecting the reality around them, and trying to tell different stories. Rowell said that writing diversity wasn’t a conscious choice for her. ‘It came about very organically to have people of different colour and different religion and different socio economic background and body shape because that’s the world we live in. We don’t live in a world where everyone is the same. So that was my feeling in writing the books, that I was just writing what was a true world.’ Leigh Bardugo spoke about the importance of creating an industry wide shift towards diversity, and of the need for readers to support diverse books as readers to show there is a demand for more varied voices. ‘What’s really going to drive change in publishing is what people buy, books that include representation and when people support marginalised voices […] they no longer become marginalised. The onus for that belongs to all of us. It’s on publishers to actively seek out those voices and to support those voices, it’s on authors to use their platforms to promote those voices and it’s on readers to seek those voices out.’ During the Q&A part of their event, Bardugo recommended a number of authors, including N.K. Jemisen, Lori Lee, Alex London and Cindy Pon.
Speaking about how fantasy can be issue-driven and push boundaries, Bardugo said ‘Some of the most interesting and progressive work has always happened primarily in science fiction but also in fantasy.’ We talked about dealing with disability and illness in a sensitive way in young adult fiction, and how to avoid creating ‘issue books.’ Bardugo said it’s particularly important to be careful in how you use magic in such cases. ‘Magic is great for some things but I think we do a tremendous disservice to readers who are experiencing those things themselves if we treat those things lightly or as if they can be solved by a single moment or a single relationship or worst of all a magical spell. As a disabled person the idea of healing disabilities through magic…it can be done well, but it rarely is.
So it feels quite personal to me.’ Neither author gives their characters unrealistic ‘happily ever after’ endings. Kaz from Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom has a disability, and Bardugo shows how this can be a challenge for him but also how hard he works against it to show his strength and power. Rowell added ‘I think I have written about characters with mental illness probably because I have had mental illness and because I’ve had people very close to me with mental illnesses.’ Her character Cath in Fangirl struggles with social anxiety, which making it very difficult for her to navigate the new world of college. Rowell spoke about the importance of reflecting the real world, and the varied experiences real people have. ‘I think for most people it’s either they experience something or a family member experiences something or a friend experiences something. We don’t walk through the world untouched by mental illness or disability.’
Both authors write very honestly about their characters’ struggles, but in a way that is sensitive and appropriate to the story. They deal with such topics as PTSD, social anxiety, human trafficking, addiction and domestic abuse but in the context of characters and narratives that are more than this. Rowell explains that she was confused to hear Eleanor & Park described as a book about domestic abuse. It is much better described in Bardugo’s pitch – ‘two kids falling in love over comic and music in the 80s.’ During the event, Rowell spoke about the importance of writing a personal story, and getting the feeling of the situation you are writing about. ‘It will resonate.’ As Bardugo said ‘I tend to believe that you can tell the difference between somebody who has experienced those things or who cares about those things or is just using trauma as essentially plot fodder.’
The Worlds Collide event was a fantastic evening for YA fans. The dramatic readings were very funny, the two authors (and their friendship) really shone on the stage at Liberty Hall.
Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo is due to be published in August 2017.
Jenny Duffy is a bookseller, book clubber and book blogger who is mad about YA