As an aspiring writer myself, I always look forward to interviewing literary figures. It’s always interesting to see if the person behind the text is what I’d expect. When I met Cassandra Clare and Holly Black, they certainly did not disappoint. They looked like characters straight out of a fantasy world—and I’m saying that in the best way possible. With their colorful hair, (Holly even admitted to having surgery to attain elf ears!) quirky personalities, and vibrant personalities, they look as wonderfully peculiar and alive as their novels. Holly Black is the author of bestselling contemporary fantasy novels such as The Spiderwick Chronicles, and The Cruel Prince. Meanwhile, Cassandra Clare is the woman behind The Mortal Instruments series, which was also adapted into film, and into the supernatural drama TV series The Shadowhunters.
Both of them were here for a book tour. Holly just released The Wicked King, the sequel to The Cruel Prince, while Cassandra’s The Queen of Air and Darkness is the third entry in The Dark Artifices series, the sequel to The Mortal Instruments.
Writing a successful novel is one thing, but giving birth to a series that has garnered a large following, is definitely a whole other thing. Both writers were happy enough to share with us how they came up with their bestsellers. Cassandra told me she usually starts with creating the characters. “I created the main characters of this series, Julian Blackthorn and Emma Carstairs, and once I knew them and kind of had familiarized myself with them, I started to create the relationships that they have with other people. And so usually I build outward from that.”
Holly, on the other hand, starts with the story. With The Cruel Prince specifically, she first constructed the origin story of what’s happened to Jude, a mortal. Basically, her parents are murdered by a man who has come looking for her older sister who is his biological child. In a kind of a reverse changeling story, he takes Jude and her two sister to Faerie and raises them there. “So I started with that and then spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I wanted it to sound like.” She added however that for The Wicked King, the process was slightly different. “This is the first one that’s set in Faerie so I had to really develop what I thought Faerie would be like and what would seem folklorically true, even though I didn’t have as much to go on as I had in the past.”
With that, she addressed one of the biggest misconceptions in writing fantasy—which is that there are no rules, and the writers can basically go rogue with their imagination however they like. Holly explained, “The limitations are the things you create to make the world feel real. You make up the rules, and then you have to live with the rules you make.” Cassandra added, “One of the things that’s important to remember when writing fantasy is that you need to make sure that your characters seem like realistic people, and that they’re grounded in realism.”
If you aren’t aware, apart from their own books, the two also co-wrote Magisterium, a five-book children’s fantasy series. Of course, there are differences when it comes to writing alone versus together. The one thing I’m always curious about when I hear two authors co-wrote a book, is how they deal with creative differences. In this interview, they made me realize those differences should in fact be seen as a strength. Holly put it this way: “Conflict is actually where the ideas come from, that we couldn’t get to on our own and so most of the time that kind of conflicts we had were actually part of the process of figuring out the story.” She said, “I don’t think we even notice them because they were just basically batting ideas back and forth and we only had two actual conflicts and they were over very minor minor parts of the story.” Cassandra agreed, saying, “We agued them out and we did the thing that that we had vowed to do, which is kind of strip back what the arguments were about and figure out a third way that would let us both have what we want.”
More than colleagues, the two writers really seem like best friends—they just seem to get each other. I don’t doubt they’re on the same wavelength. But of course, they have their own quirks. When asked on who they consider is the darker one between the two of them, Cassandra astutely pointed out at their outfit choices for the day (She’s wearing yellow while Holly is in black). It’s “how we’re usually dressed,” she said. Holly conceded, saying, “I am very good in characters who make bad decisions. And I suppose that shows in my writing.”
In line with this, I asked her how does she “tame” the darker themes of her novels to fit in the young adult genre. “I don’t know that I am particularly worried. I think you put it down and then later, you can figure out if something goes too far,” she admitted. She also stressed how the concept of what makes an adult book different from YA is really distorted. She shares, “I’ve been thinking about writing an adult book. And people have asked me, ‘Well, what does that mean? Does that mean like, more extreme horror, more extreme something?’ I think, god, what it really means to me is more extreme boredom. Like, it means really grappling with the dullness of being an adult in a way that I have never felt able to do.” She then talked about the grim realities of adulthood that’s honestly too relatable, we get it if you feel #attackedt (I did). “I think a central tragedy of adulthood is being stuck and the lack of change. It is a visceral fear of adulthood,” she said. Cassandra, who’s also working on adult books, added, “And I would just say the same thing is just not like, ‘Oh, I can do more graphic horror or sexual situations or something like that. It’s just that you’re addressing the concerns that adults have, instead of the concerns that teenagers have. And, you know, they’re just thinking about the world differently, and making very different choices.”
It’s easy to see why they both prefer the YA genre. But is it the same thing for readers? Cassandra says it could be more than that. “I think that people are always interested in stories about coming of age. Like that is really what a Bildungsroman is, you know. What a novel actually always was, was the story of somebody growing up. And so, young adult books focus on that time period that people either are in, or that they remember when they were deciding what kind of person they wanted to be in making these big decisions,” she said. “We can relate to that. Either because we’re in it, or because we remember it really well. And I think that’s what makes young adult books enduringly popular.”
And as for fantasy, Holly told us, “From the time that we sat around a fire and made up stories, we loved fantasy. And I think we’re always going to love it, because it gives us a different way of looking at our own lives. Because it suggests the possibility that maybe right around the corner, or maybe, out of the corner of our eye, the world could be bigger and weirder and more magical.”
And because it is still Women’s Month, we asked them what they think it means for the fantasy genre in this generation to be dominated by women like them, and the likes of JK Rowling. Cassandra answered, “I think it’s very important for us to see women in the stories that have been dominated by men for a long time. There was this saying that—I’m trying to do exactly how it was phrases—but it was basically that boys would only read books about boys, but girls would read books about boys. So you should write books about boys, because then everybody would read them, because boys would never read a book about a girl.” She said further, “I think one of the things that has changed over the past, 10, 15 years, is that we don’t just have Harry Potter, we also have the Hunger Games and boys did read that. We are coming to a place where we have The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and have lots of popular books that are about women, where men also read them.” Holly moreover talked about our roles as consumers of these literary works. “I think the work we have to do is to take those stories and those writers seriously because in the past, there have been hugely popular books written by women that had been forgotten because they were not taken seriously. There weren’t critical studies done of them because universities didn’t continue to put them in front of new readers and [so] we have to make sure that the work that is being done is not then put aside,” she said.
Cassandra further stressed the importance of publishing houses supporting these books and writers and believing in them. “It enables us to write more books about girls who are strong and interesting and complicated,” she said. “And I think it’s important for girls to see those characters because it teaches them that they can be ambitious, and that they don’t always have to be the side character in life, they can be the protagonist.” Truer words have never been spoken. Here’s to being the protagonists of our own story.
The Queen of Air and Darkness and The Wicked King are both available on National Bookstore.
Photo courtesy of Holly Black’s Instagram account
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