The Spotlight Series: Holly Black

Holly Black is an award-winning author of The Spiderwick Chronicles and the Modern Faerie Tales trilogy, among others. Her most recent YA novel, The Cruel Prince, is the first in the Folk of the Air trilogy and is a gripping tale of intrigue, love, betrayal and desire set in the court of Faerie. I spoke with Holly when she was in Dublin recently; she is thoughtful and articulate in person with, not unexpectedly, a fascination for the uncanny.

HB: I grew up in a house that my mom told me was haunted and very much believed was haunted; she would talk to the ghosts. I find it interesting that – whether it’s about fairies, or aliens, or ghosts – every family has a story. When Tony [DiTerlizzi] and I travelled around America for the Spiderwick Chronicles, we brought this red book with us and we asked people to write down their fairy encounters. So many people had seen something – it’s always some little thing.

KC: Ireland has a big fairy tradition. People don’t believe in fairies but at the same time you don’t want to upset them…

HB: Yes, I heard about some rerouting of roads. How true could it be? I’d like it to be true – I would like the world to be big and weird and full of the supernatural even if it’s dangerous.

KC: There is a progression from your first book, Tithe, to your latest, The Cruel Prince, where the changeling is no longer a fairy child in the human world but the opposite, a human child in the fairy one. Jude, the protagonist, is such a complex, rounded character who uses her ‘weakness’ – the human ability to lie – as her strength.

HB: With Jude, I think the thing I was most interested in is that she is someone who has been raised by the murderer of her parents, Madoc. He is not the worst parent and in many ways he’s supportive. But Jude is afraid at a low level most of the time she’s in Faerie and so she is a person who feels more comfortable being in high-stakes situations than she does in situations that are much healthier for her, which is not good for her overall but is really good for her as a protagonist making some big moves.

KC: Was there something that sparked that approach for you? The idea that lying is a thing that Jude can use as a weapon?

HB: To write my series of magical mobster books, The Curse Workers, which have con artists and heists, I read a lot of noir and books on how cons worked and I think that that has had a huge influence on me in ways that I didn’t realise. So I brought that back to The Cruel Prince and Jude is a little bit of a con artist, a little bit of a political strategist like Madoc, this is his business. She’s very much the daughter that Madoc raised, for better or worse.

KC: It’s amazing to see a YA book that was very concerned with manipulation and political machination and intrigue and betrayal, and the romance element took a back seat. It was more concerned with power – not for its own ends, but so that Jude can’t be overpowered herself. It feels like both she and Prince Cardan are suffering from PTSD from their abusive childhoods.

HB: They are both used to feeling unsafe – this puts them in a position where they understand each other but also puts them in a pretty traditional antagonist relationship, where often the villain and the hero are pretty close. It’s the subtle differences that are important. For Jude, Prince Cardan is the catalyst to her becoming the sort of person she thinks she needs to be in order to stand up to him. But when she’s in the position to discover she may have taken it too far, what’s interesting is that she is fighting the person she thinks he is instead of the person he actually is.

KC: As a bookseller who recommends books to teen girls, I found it refreshing that in The Cruel Prince it wasn’t automatically treated as a romance between Jude and Cardan.

HB: I have complicated feelings about female fantasy. We all want to have really great role models for women and their relationships but at the same time I’m very sensitive to not policing women’s fantasies. I think we don’t police men’s sexuality the same way we police young women’s sexuality – we don’t say ‘Where are the healthy role models for men in relationships?’ They can have whatever kind of fantasy they want but we’re very concerned about women’s sexuality being healthy, and I keep coming back to that question.

KC: Can I ask a little bit about your writing process?

HB: I’m lucky enough to live in a town where there’s a bunch of other writers, so what I do is go to my friend Cassie Clare‘s house and meet a short story writer, Kelly Link, who lives in our town – we all just get together and write. Kelly and I each have a child so we try to get out of the house for a little bit. We’ll work and then I’ll go home and hang out with my family, and then at night I’ll go back to writing again.

Books are vital to Holly – a touchstone text is Faeries, the beautiful and strange illustrated book by Brian Froud and Alan Lee. She attributes the awakening of her fascination with fairies to this book – she would pore over it for hours at a time. She also reads contemporary writers – she reeled off a list that included luminaries like Charles de Lint and Elizabeth Maria Pope and relative newcomers like Melissa Alpert and S Jae-Jones; as well as namechecking her writing companions Cassandra Clare and Kelly Link.

The second book in the Folk of the Air series, The Wicked King, is out in January 2019.