WBBT: Laini Taylor – Characters, Creativity & Clementine Pie

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I am so, SO excited to be hosting Laini Taylor today for WBBT. *dancing elf* I am a giant, GIANT fan of Laini’s books, Blackbringer, Silksinger, and the National Book Award nominated, Lips Touch. Laini is one miraculously talented writer, and she’s an artist too. All of Laini’s novels have earned places on my “special shelf.” You know the shelf where you put the few books that you actually embraced once you finished reading them? Laini’s writing is that special. Laini blogs about her art and writing and other things besides at Grow Wings, and today she’s right here, chatting with me about creativity, her characters, and her pixie-faced baby daughter, Clementine Pie.

You might want to start off by reading my reviews of Laini’s books, just to get in the general spirit of celebration and excitement: my review of Blackbringer, my review of Silksinger, my review of Lips Touch. Good. Now we’re ready.

Welcome Laini!

In Silksinger, your latest novel in the Dreamdark collection, Whisper is a phenomenal character. She’s more than she seems. She’s a creative force. She’s bold when she needs to be. What do you most admire about her, and what was the first scene you imagined her in?

I dreamed up Whisper alongside Magpie and Poppy, before I even started writing Blackbringer. They were a trio, but I decided to save Whisper for another book—her own book. I knew that she would be a singer of flying carpets who [mild spoiler alert!] gets captured and held prisoner, and I knew she would be completely different than bold, brave Magpie. The first scene I imagined her in was in prison, though in the early conception, the power of her voice was even greater: she could whisper open passageways in solid rock. Which made it difficult to keep her prisoner, obviously. When writing magic, one must be careful not to give characters too much power, or there can be no tension! So, I scaled back Whisper’s power. (As for Magpie, she has to have a slow learning curve with her power, or else no villain would ever be a match for her.)

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(Here’s a picture of the paper dolls I made that were the earliest incarnation of the characters, before I even thought of writing the books. Left to right: Poppy, Magpie, Whisper; I drew and oil-painted them, with multiple outfits, and turned them into fully articulated dolls. I was obsessed with them for months!)

Something I admire about Whisper is her tenacity. From the first chapter of the book she’s thrust completely outside of her sphere of experience, into a nightmare, really. It’s so overwhelming and terrifying she really just wants to give up and join her loved ones in the Moonlit Gardens, but she doesn’t. She musters her courage and she tries. And tries. And tries.

It’s not a bad metaphor for writing a book! Here’s a great quote:

“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: my strength lies solely in my tenacity.” – Louis Pasteur

In your acknowledgements in Silksinger you reveal the rather serendipitous way you found the name for your spooky devil general Ethiag. How do you name your characters? Do you have different sources of inspiration of do the names just come? How is naming a character the same as / different from naming your own child?

Yes, the word verification function on blogs is kind of a pain when you’re commenting, but I have gleaned quite a few cool-sounding words from it. So far Ethiag is the only one to find its way into a story.

I love naming characters. When I was a kid this was my favorite part of writing, and often was as far as I got. Now, I have lists in various notebooks—weird names I hear in the news or see in film credits; made-up names; names from other cultures, including languages I’d never even heard of until I stumbled upon them doing research—like Tamazight, the Berber language spoken by a character in my current book). Dreamdark names mostly come from nature: birds, plants, etc. Some are nature words in other languages. Kipepeo is Swahili for butterfly, and briefly mentioned in Blackbringer, Bellatrix’s mother was the Ice Princess Fidrildi, which is Icelandic for butterfly. (Do they have butterflies in Iceland?)

As for baby names, that’s so much harder than character names! With characters, you know you can always do a search/replace and change their name at the slightest whim. With babies, it’s got to stick. Jim would probably tell you I wasn’t fun when it came to naming Clementine. He was always thinking up new names, and I was always shooting them down. By the time I went into labor we had two to choose between and it took us a couple of days in the hospital to finally settle on Clementine. It’s inspired by Kate Winslet’s character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is also what inspired me to dye my hair, so I guess that movie made quite an impact on us. As for her middle name Pie, it’s in honor of Magpie, of course. We didn’t come up with that one until after she was born, when the other options we had in mind seemed suddenly not cute enough.

Lips Touch is a collection full of strong and complex female characters: Kizzy, Estella, Anamique, Esme, Mab and the Druj Queen. Who was the trickiest of these to create? Who would you especially like to write more stories about?

Each character presented their own challenges. Anamique was difficult because she doesn’t talk. It’s hard to give a character “voice” when they literally don’t speak! And the Druj Queen was tricky because she’s incredibly unsympathetic, but I still wanted the reader to care what happens to her. Kizzy was the character who came the most naturally, because I was sort of channeling (and exaggerating—slightly) my own long-ago teen angst and longing.

I could see continuing Kizzy’s story, because of the way it ends. I’m curious to know how readers take the ending: does it seem ambiguous, or do you have a pretty solid feeling of authorly intent there? What I was shooting for was ambiguity that leans in one particular direction, that is, where the reader comes away feeling, “This is probably what happens to Kizzy.” Still, I think there’s room to play there, and maybe some day I will pick it up and make Goblin Fruit the beginning of a novel. I’d like to see more of Kizzy, Cactus, and Evie, and certainly more of the goblins.

Anamique’s story feels complete to me so I don’t think I would revisit it, but I do hope some day to write a whole [unrelated] novel set in Raj-era India. I’m fascinated by that period, but I need to do a lot more reading and I need to travel in India before undertaking such a thing. Historical fiction is daunting; this was my first stab at it. What I’d really love is if someone could please invent a time machine just for writers of historical fiction. Wouldn’t that be fabulous?

As for Hatchling, I will certainly be writing more stories about the Druj. I have lots of ideas!

One of the themes in Silksinger that caught me the most is the idea that you create the world you want. At one point, Hirik says, “New ages don’t just dawn all by themselves. They’re not sunrises. If you want a new age, you don’t wait for it – you make it.” The dedication echoes this sentiment as well. To me, this notion also relates to an artist or writer’s creative process, especially for a writer of fantasy, for whom world-building is key. Describe how you envisioned and created your faerie world in Blackbringer and Silksinger.

I hadn’t really thought about it, but you’re right—this does relate well to creativity! You might as well say, “Novels don’t just happen all by themselves. If you want a novel, you don’t just daydream about it, you write it.” I wasted a lot of years daydreaming about the novels I would write. That’s just sooo much easier than writing!

I heard Karen Cushman speak a few years ago, and I love the story of how she came to write her first novel, Catherine, Called Birdy. When she had ideas for stories or books, she would tell her husband about them, but she never actually wrote them. Then one day he said: no more! (I’m paraphrasing.) He said he didn’t want to hear about it, but if she wrote the book, he’d read it. Tough love! All writers need to be that to themselves, the voice that says: quit imagining it and make it real. Be the one to do the work.

As for world-building, it is a joy. Although Dreamdark is fantasy, its world is this world, just from a different perspective: that of the faeries who in a way represent nature. From the perspective of *nature*, how do humans come across? Not well! The fun part of the world-building is the challenge of turning our real Earth into a fantasy world—imagining castles in ancient yew trees and an entire city tucked into a fissure of rock in the Himalayas, not to mention researching what kind of snake might give chase in a murky bat cave in Uganda, etc. To children it seems so possible that there are other worlds tucked into our own. I want my fictional world to be that glittering place where something magical is just out of view.

There’s a local artist here in Portland (Rachel’s Fairy Houses) who builds incredible faerie dollhouses that look straight out of Dreamdark, and I’m so planning to commission one for Clementine one of these days. When I was little girl I’d have had a heart attack if I saw them. Even now, I want it just as much for myself as for Clementine!

Tell us more about your creative partnership with your husband, Jim Di Bartolo, who has completed cover art and illustrations for all of your books so far.

I like to tell writers they should marry illustrators if they possibly can! Jim and I met on the first day of art school—he was literally the first person I set eyes on my first day of art school. It turned out we were in the same class (Illustration I), where we were randomly assigned to draw each other. I really, truly don’t believe in destiny or any guiding force in life. I think this was just plain luck (or, to quote Spicy Little Curses: “that mad choreographer, Chance.”)

Jim and I have been together for eleven years now, and for pretty much all of that time we’ve wanted to do illustrated novels together. Of course, there aren’t a lot of illustrated novels out there, which perplexes me. The prevailing belief seems to be that art is just for little kids, and that teens and grown-ups don’t want it in their books. I don’t understand! Doesn’t everyone love art?

We were so pleased that Arthur Levine and Scholastic were willing to give it a try for this book, and I hope that we may be able to collaborate much more in the future. We have a few things “in development” now.

In your Author’s Note at the end of Lips Touch (yes… I read every single word in your books!) you write, “Like a magpie, I am a scavenger of shiny things: fairy tales, dead languages, weird folk beliefs, fascinating religions, and more.” If you had to choose 5 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people) that have most inspired your art and writing, what would you choose?

1. Bizarre science and nature—Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. Did you know that there is a kind of parasite that lives only in the left ear of one species of moth??? How crazy is that? I get all kinds of ideas (especially for devils and villains) from nature.
2. Folklore—I have several shelves of books on folktales, superstition, witchcraft, and all manner of supernatural weirdness. I think of folklore, basically, as the human imagination throughout history, and it is a treasure trove of the weird and wonderful. I’m always writing down tidbits in my notebooks; some I’ve used in stories, others not yet.

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3. Travel—I was lucky, as a Navy brat, to grow up traveling. For school field trips in middle school I got to go places like Pompeii and the isle of Capri. As an adult I’ve gone to some exciting places like Halong Bay in Vietnam (Silksinger’s Bay of Drowned Dragons), Cappadoccia in Turkey, the Mayan ruins in Chiapas, Mexico. Jim and I rented an apartment in Old Town Prague for a week and a half and that’s where much of my current novel is set. The more you see and experience, the more spice is added to the imagination curry. You never know how it will emerge in your creative expression.
4. Harry Potter—At a time when I wasn’t writing much because the *literary* writing I did in college wasn’t lighting my mind on fire, Harry Potter came along and reminded me of the kind of books I loved. Here I am in the lobby of the Scholastic building, with the boy wizard himself:

I’ll give the last one to the “art” side of the question:
5. Collage and scrapbooking magazines like Somerset Studio and Cloth, Paper, Scissors—These got me playing with new media, which led to Laini’s Ladies and a lot of fun artistic exploration. There’s a world of art-making out there beyond what they taught us in art school.

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(One of Laini’s Ladies!)

What books are you most excited to share with your daughter, Clementine Pie?

We’ve been reading to her since she was in my belly; it’s one of our favorite things. I absolutely love this photo:

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As sweet as it is now, I can’t wait to read with her when she’s older. I wonder what her favorite books will be, which ones we’ll read over and over. Jim and I have both found that our favorites to read her now are Holly Hobby’s Toot and Puddle books; we’re collecting them all. One of my favorite picture books is Max Makes a Million by Maira Kalman. It’s a great sing-songy read-aloud with colorful artwork and a great message about following your creative dreams.

And one day, we will be reading Harry Potter together, and perhaps by then the Dreamdark series will be complete, and we’ll be reading that too!

If Clementine lived in the faerie land of your books, which clan do you think she’d belong to?

Early in the writing of Dreamdark I imagined a clan responsible for painting the patterns on butterfly wings. They haven’t made it into a book yet, but surely they will one day, and I think that would be a lovely clan to belong to. Still, I think I’d have to go with the Windwitch clan, because I have such a wanderlust. I want to travel the world by airborne gypsy caravan, performing plays and rescuing the waning magic of the faerie race. I love writing the campfire scenes for Magpie and the crows—the camaraderie and adventure. I don’t know what Clementine’s personality will be like or which clan will fit her best, but I like the image of her as a wild-haired, bright-eyed world traveler with a real sense of purpose and a loyalty to the world, doing what she can to keep it safe.

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(There she is – in all of her adorable fairy glory)

You’ve dedicated Silksinger to “those who will grow up to build the new age.” Describe the world you want for Clementine.

What I want for Clementine must be what all parents want for their children: a peaceful world in which to pursue her happiness; a world of beauty and opportunity. I want there to still be tigers and polar bears at large in the jungles and on the Arctic ice (but sadly, I don’t believe there will be). I want the economy to be strong so she can get a good job doing something she loves. I want a hopeful future. I could get all political here, but I’d better not. The thing is that I find myself really pessimistic about the chances of humanity curbing its destructive spree and pulling together to save the planet. I’m so pessimistic about it that it seems a little crazy to have children. Really, in my heart I don’t believe humanity will save itself from itself but … I still chose to have a child. I can’t rationalize it.

I’m so in love with Clementine, I want the world to be saved for her. But not just for her. I wonder if other parents feel this way: in a way, becoming a parent has made me feel like a *universal parent*. I have empathy for all families in a way I didn’t before. I didn’t know I didn’t. I thought I had empathy, but it was nothing compared to now. Now, when I think about a child being hungry, about being a parent who can’t feed his/her child, I’m totally flooded with misery. It’s visceral, not philosophical. The idea of pain or hardship endured by a child is too much. When I’m holding Clementine, the thought of not being able to be there the moment she needs comforting, it kills me. I can’t handle sad news stories at all.

It makes it that much harder to understand the rich, evil men who, for personal gain, are willfully destroying the planet that their own grandchildren will inherit. What dialogue happens in their heads to enable them to do what they do? Are they missing a piece?

Going forward, if a Djinn offered to grant you three wishes, what would you wish the future would bring you:

For years Jim and I have been so bent on developing our careers that we’ve got in that insidious mindset that so many people do, where we keep thinking real life starts some time in the future. Part of what excites me about being a parent is the huge incentive it gives us to live every day, not just for work but for the joy of building a life for our child, making as many wonderful memories as possible, in addition to as many works of art or fiction, etc. I want to balance a rich “real life” with a full creative life, in a way we haven’t always done.

a) as a mother?
Happy, creative children with rich, interesting lives. Travel. Books. Game nights. Beach holidays. Awesome Halloween costumes. All the good stuff.

b) as a writer?
Mental progress! I want to become increasingly efficient. There are so many books in my skull waiting to get themselves written—sometimes I imagine them as a dole queue! I hope I can give employment to as many of them as possible, as well as the new ones who are sure to jump in line as the months and years go by.

c) as an artist?
I’m not really sure. I’ve found it hard to devote equal time to art and writing, and there are a lot of art opportunities I’ve let pass me by. I want to find a way to keep art in my life. That is an ongoing effort.

Laini, thanks bunches for being here today, and for sharing so much about your creative process, your books and your family. It’s been a treat!

Visit all of the other stops for WBBT today:

Sy Montgomery Pt 2 at Chasing Ray
Jim DiBartolo at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast (Laini’s fella! Check it out!)
Amanda Marrone at Writing & Ruminating
Thomas Randall at Bildungsroman
Michael Hague at Fuse Number 8

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11 thoughts on “WBBT: Laini Taylor – Characters, Creativity & Clementine Pie

  1. tanita

    Love that bookshelf. Writers’ bookshelves are such unique and creative things.

    It’s always heartening to “talk” to people like Laini; if her creative and thoughtful spirit is something that shapes the world, we will indeed have a hopeful future.

  2. Pingback: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast » Blog Archive » Seven Questions Over Breakfast(the Winter Blog Blast Edition) with Jim Di Bartolo

  3. Jules

    “Of course, there aren’t a lot of illustrated novels out there, which perplexes me. The prevailing belief seems to be that art is just for little kids, and that teens and grown-ups don’t want it in their books. I don’t understand! Doesn’t everyone love art?”

    AMEN!

    What a great interview with great questions! WOOT!

    You know how people get exicited about that One Big Thing when they have kids? Like, “my kid will play football,” or “my kid will do ballet.” For me it was: Reading to them. Reading all the great books. Like Laini is expressing. Oh and MAX MAKES A MILLION? Love that one. So perfect.

    Thanks for this!

  4. Sarah

    Laini says “Of course, there aren’t a lot of illustrated novels out there, which perplexes me. The prevailing belief seems to be that art is just for little kids, and that teens and grown-ups don’t want it in their books. I don’t understand! Doesn’t everyone love art?”

    Oh, most definitely. Especially when the illustrated novels look (and read!) like Lips Touch. I can’t get over how gorgeous it is, both the artwork and the writing. I just keep looking at it. Then I’ll read a little bit. Then re-read it because the words are so lovely. Then look at it again. I’m not sure I’ll ever finish it at this rate, though I’m dying to know what happens!

  5. Joan Holub

    Tanita, I loved Laini’s bookshelf too. I actually enlarged it with my google magnifying tool so I could read some of the titles and authors a little more clearly. A snapshot of an author’s bookshelves could be so intriguing. Makes me think I’d like to see some of my other fave authors’ shelves as well.

    Laini, I was just over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast reading Jim’s interview, so I met the adorable Clementine Pie and saw some absolutely gorgeous art from Lips Touch. Congratulations on the nomination for the 2009 National Book Award!!!

    So interesting to hear that you often get inspiration for villains from nature. And this comment, “When writing magic, one must be careful not to give characters too much power, or there can be no tension!” was something I hadn’t really thought about, but it makes perfect sense now that you say it.

    LOVED the green-winged Clementine Pie photo. The expression on her face is so cute. And the photo of Jim reading with her—I love a guy that reads to his children. A major AWWWWW to that one.

    Very interesting interview, Laini and Shelf Elf. Thanks!

    ~ Joan Holub

  6. shelfelf Post author

    My treat Laini! Thank you for being here and sharing a glimpse into your writing and family life.

    Kerry

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