YA Wednesday Exclusive: Kristin Cashore and Richelle Mead Talk Books
Richelle Mead and Kristin Cashore are two YA authors at the top of their game. Bitterblue, Cashore's compaion to Gracling and Fire has just released, and The Golden Lily, the second book in Mead's new Vampire Academy spin-off series, Bloodlines, lands on June 12.
The two of them got together and answered some questions in this exclusive dual Q&A about their books, their fans, what inspires them, and a whole lot more. You'll find the rest after the jump.
Q: You have both written strong, independent female characters: what or who were the inspiration for Sydney and Bitterblue?
MEAD: I’ve written a few female characters who were obviously very strong, so much so that they could just walk right up and punch you. What I wanted to show in Sydney is that there are different types of strength, including a kind that’s quieter and more internal. Sydney shows that strength can come from will, character, and intelligence, and I think that’s important for readers—especially young women—to see. In fact, it’s probably a strength more people can relate to than the ass-kicking kind—not that that isn’t important sometimes!
CASHORE: Yes --similarly, Bitterblue’s strength is of a quieter, more internal kind. I’ve written about women with incredible fighting powers, women with mind reading powers, but Bitterblue is my first “regular girl” protagonist, so to speak. She’s not truly regular, of course, because she’s a queen, with all the power and privilege that come with her position. But she doesn’t have any special powers to help her figure things out. She’s surrounded by people who do have special powers, and is overwhelmed sometimes, I think, by how incapable she feels, compared to them. I really enjoyed writing from the perspective of someone with no special powers. I could definitely relate to Bitterblue’s abilities more than I could relate to those of my previous protagonists, Katsa and Fire.
Q: Both of your main female characters have power in their worlds, though Bitterblue is not a Graceling and Sydney is not a vampire. What is the source of power for each?
MEAD: Sydney has a few different types of power. Part of it is just in how smart she is. She possesses a lot of knowledge about a lot of things and is able to think her way out of tough situations. The people she works for, the Alchemists, have some power from the substances and chemicals they use—including vampire blood. As the series progresses, Sydney begins experimenting with human magic, which is different from the kind vampires use. Vampire magic is internally drawn. Human magic must be wrested from the world and involves spells with complex incantations and tangible components. Managing them requires intense concentration and attention to detail, which Sydney excels at.
CASHORE: Bitterblue is the Queen of Monsea, an enormous external source of power bestowed upon her by law when her father was killed. Her internal strengths, though, sound like they might be similar to Sydney’s. Bitterblue is smart. She’s also a little bit smart-mouthed, and uses the privilege of her position to ask nosy questions and push people to say more than they might want to. She’s an information-gatherer and a list-maker; she’s a reader and a thinker. She excels at mental math and ciphers. She’s also a fighter--Bitterblue doesn’t give up.
Q: Both Bitterblue and Sydney are characters from earlier books who emerge with their own full stories to tell. Did you both always know that you would tell their stories, or did it come about through the writing process? What surprised you about these characters as you began to dive into their stories?
MEAD: I knew half-way through the first Vampire Academy series that there would be a spin-off, though I’d originally expected a different character to narrate it. I chose Sydney at the last minute and am glad I did. Having a human observe and report on the vampire world opens it up to us in a whole new way. I think what’s surprised me the most about Sydney is just how fun she is to write. I initially worried that writing an intellect like her would be boring, but she’s not! She has so much complexity and emotional depth, as well as a dry and wonderful sense of humor. Her social awkwardness and romantic obliviousness make for some very funny (and occasionally heartbreaking) scenes.
CASHORE: That makes me smile, because I’ve also written from the perspective of a romantically oblivious character (Katsa in Graceling), and it was totally fun! Returning to the question – in the beginning, I never expected to write more than one fantasy. I was partway through Graceling when the character of Fire began to knock on my heart, asking to be written. I began writing Fire, thinking it would be my last fantasy – and then Bitterblue began to clamor for my attention. I honestly can’t think of any aspect of Bitterblue’s character that didn’t surprise me as I was writing her. When I begin a book, there’s always this sense that I need to tread cautiously, avoid being too pushy, and allow my characters to show me who they are. Certainly, there are ways in which I’m in charge of who they are, and I will mould aspects of my characters. But my biggest job, when it comes to my characters, is to listen, and allow them to tell me who they are. What this means on a practical level is that I write draft after draft after draft of a scene, and don’t stop until I feel like I’ve gotten to the heart of the character. Getting to know my characters is work-intensive! Thankfully, some of them are more forthcoming than others. In Bitterblue, I was stunned by how easy it was to write Giddon, for example, whereas a lot of the other characters – Saf and Thiel, for example – would not show themselves to me! I’ve found that the easiest characters to write are the ones whose personalities are the most forthcoming.
MEAD: I try to write down the details and rules of my world, so that I have them all in one easily referenced place. Unfortunately, I sometimes get lazy and think, “I’ll just keep track of those things in my head.” Whenever I do that, I always end up regretting it.
CASHORE: Oh, yikes, me too. One of my most painful jobs when I’m writing a new book is to go back and reread the previous books. It’s torture. It’s so hard to read sentences that I’m no longer allowed to change! I wince my way through. But I find it’s absolutely necessary, because there are too many details for me to remember, plus, as the writer, I have the added disadvantage of having the memory of five or six versions of each book in my head. By the time the final draft is finished, sometimes it’s hard for me to remember what landscape, or backstory, or conversational reaction, etc. etc., I settled on in the end. One consequence of this aspect of the revision process, actually, is that I think some of my readers have a clearer sense of my own books than I do.
Q: You both have incredibly loyal fans—what themes in your writing do you think draws fans to your series?
MEAD: I think readers are drawn most to characters they can connect to and care about. I try to create characters with emotional depth and personalities that feel real. I also try to make characters who aren’t perfect but who have the potential for greatness. As a reader myself, that’s what really hooks me. I love reading about characters who struggle and grow. I cheer for their highs, I cry for their lows. When readers really and truly care about characters, they will follow those characters to Hell and back. I just hope my readers continue to enjoy the journey!
CASHORE: Can I piggyback on Richelle’s answer? Because she hit the nail on the head. Character is the most important aspect of any book for me as a reader – if I can believe in the characters, if they elicit an emotional reaction from me, then I want to keep reading. So I try to do the same thing in my books. I also have a particular interest in writing about young women who are trying to find a self-respecting place in the world.
Q: Where do you draw inspiration from?
MEAD: I draw inspiration from life and experiences. People often think you have to travel the world or take a forensics class to write something really incredible. In truth, some of the most wonderful books out there are built from everyday life. I’ve written funny scenes based on something small and quirky observed in a coffee shop. I’ve written huge, emotional scenes based on my own experiences with love. The things in our hearts, the things we live through and observe…those are the places where the richest writing comes from, in my opinion.
CASHORE: I draw inspiration from everything. Any experience, whether mundane or unusual, might get me thinking, and lead me away from itself, onward to a new character or situation in my imagination. That being said, I have noticed that I do keep a certain line of separation between my own life and the lives of my characters. I have never based a character on someone I actually know, and have a feeling it would be confusing and distracting if I did. If one of my characters starts feeling too much like a person in my life, I deliberately take out the chisel and make changes to that character so that they can become their own person, in their own world – not one of my people in my world.
Q: What books are you reading right now? What books have inspired or influenced you?
MEAD: Right now I’m reading A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin. I’ve actually been reading it for about seven months. When I was younger, I could’ve eaten up that book in less than a week. Now, with a baby, my reading rate is much slower! But his books and anything else that’s strongly character driven are what affect me the most as a reader and a writer. I grew up reading all sorts of genres, historicals like the Anne of Green Gables series and fantasy like the Dragonlance series. No matter the genre, all were filled with strong, believable characters, and those are what I’ve always aspired to write.
CASHORE: This is such a straightforward question, and yet, I always have such a hard time with it. Every good book I’ve ever read has inspired and influenced me, so the true answer would be a list thousands of books long, except that since I have the memory of a fly, I can’t remember what I was reading last week, let alone everything I’ve ever read. Just now, I’m reading We the Animals by Justin Torres. Next on my list is one of the Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters. You wouldn’t believe how many murders can take place in one medieval monastery over the span of a few years. After that, I’m thinking of rereading Megan Whalen Turner’s wonderful Attolia books. I also have some Karen Joy Fowler I’m looking forward to, Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett, and Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire! by Mrs. Bunny (translated from the Rabbit by Polly Horvath). Have you ever read any Polly Horvath? She’s FABULOUS.
Q: Do you read much in your own genre? If so, what? And what have you learned about your own writing from reading these books?
MEAD: I actually avoid reading my own genre. It’s a little too much like taking my work home with me. I still think it’s important for authors to always be reading something, however. None of us are perfect writers, and there’s always something we can learn. Whenever I read someone else’s book, I’ll always see something—a clever wording, a vivid description—that I’ve never encountered before. I hope I can always grow as a writer and continue to improve my writing.
CASHORE: Yes, I’m with Richelle on that one. I do read some stuff in my own genre, but not usually while I’m writing fantasy, and not nearly as much as people expect me to. It interferes; it takes away my ability to bring a fresh mind to my own work. And like Richelle said, the reading becomes work. I’m already doing so much reading to facilitate my work, I don’t need more! What I need is writing that’s different, that opens doors I never knew existed. So when I want to read for pleasure, I reach for a mystery, or something else removed from my own genre, or maybe a book recommended by a friend who admires its prose. Honestly, though, I never really get away from the work aspect of pleasure reading, because I’m always trying to learn how to write. It’s just easier to turn my work brain off with some books than with others.