I am super-excited to present my recent interview with Kristin Cashore, the author of Graceling.
If you haven’t read Graceling yet, I ask you, “What are you waiting for?” Obviously, you haven’t read my review yet. Enjoy this, folks. Just get a load of Kristin’s answer to the first question. Wow.
What inspires you (situations / works of art / places / foods / people)?
So many things inspire me—photographs, sculptures, landscapes, buildings, things people say—and when it happens, it’s always a small and indescribable moment. You look at something and it’s beautiful and strange—or maybe it’s horrible and strange—so much so that you can see and feel what’s beyond it. You catch your breath; your imagination stirs and growls and starts to grow new arms and legs and kidneys.
I have some photos of an icy, mountainous wasteland torn from an old National Geographic; I think these inspired some of the landscapes in Graceling. During the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the TV coverage showed Greek monasteries sitting atop impossible, unreachable pillars of rock. That probably inspired Ror City, and some of the other Lienid landscapes.
An oak tree in my neighborhood inspired parts of my second book (Fire, out next fall), as did the colors of the sky and the river at dusk. With the book I’m writing now, tentatively titled Bitterblue, sculptures I saw years ago are crowding into my mind—in particular, Bernini’s Daphne and Apollo, which is a sculpture of a woman turning painfully into a tree.
I think anything that stops you and makes you aware can be inspiring.
Is your writing space a place of loveliness? Describe where you work.
I just got up and did about 30 minutes of cleaning, because your question properly shamed me. Now I can say that my writing space is a place of loveliness.
I write longhand in a green armchair in a (usually) sunny window. (I live in northeast Florida). A dragon kite hangs from the ceiling above me. Across from me is a low bookshelf, with books (naturally), pictures of my parents and sisters, a statue of a striped cat with a long neck, a pair of Groucho Marx glasses, and a road atlas, a world atlas, and the Star Wars Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy so that I always know where I am. There’s an inflatable globe on the floor that I kick around a lot; there’s a side table to my left covered with books, letters, post-it notes, and my cup of tea. There are college-age young men trying to kill themselves on skateboards outside the window to my right. On my walls: a picture of Sydney, Australia; hangings from Cameroon and Ecuador (gifts—I’ve never been); and, two alphabet posters—one the Finnish alphabet and one the Alternative Alphabet Poster for Little and Big People (C is for Compost; V is for Vote; you get the idea).
I write in a place of great comfort. The light turns yellow in the afternoon and shines through the trees onto my walls. When it rains in Florida, it really rains, and I sit in my armchair and watch palm tree fronds float down the street. I’m from the north, where palm tree fronds do not float down the street, so it never fails to feel strange and wonderful to me.
(Poster can be found for purchase here).
Based on things you’ve written in your blog, it sounds like you actually enjoy the writing process (gasp), and that you don’t find the writing life especially torturous. So what’s your secret to enjoying both the writing process and the result?
I do enjoy it, except for when I hate it, and I don’t find it torturous, except for when I feel like I’m being eaten from the inside by my cannibalistic brains.
I think that every book comes with its own heaven and hell, and the secret to loving the process changes each time to suit the book. With Graceling, the secret was a mix of sheer determination and finding the fun in it. With Fire, I never found the secret—that book kicked my ass from beginning to end. With my current project, Bitterblue, I’m in danger of being overwhelmed by too many details, and the secret seems to be backing up, finding perspective, and hanging on to my faith that I can do what my ambition wants me to do.
Some of my practical tools these days for keeping perspective: some brief morning yoga; some brief nighttime meditation; walks along the water; and spending as little time as possible in my office, which is where I keep my computer. The Internet is a wonderful invention but it’s also a black hole—especially when you’re a writer whose first book has just entered the world.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
This is less a piece of writing advice than a feeling I’ve gained in my time of working with my editor. In response to my occasional freak outs, in response to my moments of panic over this or that part of this or that book, she has said, over and over, “I trust you.” And you know what? That’s an amazing thing to be told. The other day, she e-mailed me this: “The process might feel like crap sometimes, but your heart and your brain will carry you through every time. I promise.”
It is awesome to be believed in.
For me, right now, writing, at its base, is about having the faith of a mustard seed: doing something, and doing it with all my heart, even on the days when 99% of me doesn’t believe I can do it¬—because 1% is enough. The best writing “advice” I’ve ever received is the trust of my editor, which has made it so much easier for me to have faith in myself.
In your opinion: Best Fantasy published in the last year…
I’m actually not qualified to answer this question! While I’m writing fantasy I hardly read any fantasy—it interferes—and I’ve been writing fantasy exclusively for a few years now. I have a backlog of fantasy that I’m dying to read. I can name two 2008 fantasies that I did read and loved, though: The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas and The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski.
Best Fantasy published EVER (no pressure)…
Ha! Well, this depends on what you mean by fantasy. If you mean animal fantasy, Charlotte’s Web. If you mean magical realism, The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy, closely followed by every other book by Margaret Mahy. But if you mean, as I suspect you mean, the grand, high sort of fantasy—well, yikes, the mind reels!—but I think that today, at least, I’d have to go with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Tomorrow I might pick something else.
If you could live inside a book written for children or young adults, which book would you choose and why?
Wow, what a question. It’s much easier to name books I wouldn’t want to live inside. M.T. Anderson’s Feed is a beautiful book, for example, and so is Sonya Hartnett’s Sleeping Dogs, but—um, yeah, no thanks.
Let’s see. It would have to be a place where I could have some agency—not a place where the world is happening to me and I’m powerless, like in Alice in Wonderland. It would have to be a very complex place, too, not constricting; a place with a lot of “scope for the imagination,” as Anne Shirley would say. Maybe one of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books, or any book by Margaret Mahy, or Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or A Ring of Endless Light? Or maybe David Macaulay’s Black and White. I could see myself as an escaping jailbird. Or an escaping cow.
Maybe I had it right before, when I mentioned Anne Shirley. I don’t think I’d generally fare well in a time/place where women were subservient to men, but Anne of Green Gables is full of love and humor and ambition and beauty, gentle men and strong women. And Prince Edward Island is gorgeous—and I love seafood!
What are a few of the titles currently at the top of your To-Be-Read pile?
My To-Be-Read pile is about 35 books deep, so I’m glad you only asked for the ones at the top. Let’s see. Arcadia by Tom Stoppard; Black Juice by Margo Lanagan; In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden; The Last Days by Scott Westerfeld; The Story of My Life by Helen Keller; The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life by Thomas Moore; Win a Few, Lose a Few, Charlie Brown by Charles Schulz.
I know this is a bit like asking a parent which kid is the favourite, but… which character in Graceling is your secret pet?
This is a tough one, because I don’t really have pets, especially once I’m done with a book and have moved on to something else. However, I do remember, when I was writing Graceling, being rather fond of Oll, Raffin, and Po’s brother Skye. I think I relate more to my characters who don’t have extraordinary powers than the ones who do. Maybe the ones who do feel a bit out of my league. I mean, am I really cool enough to be Katsa’s friend? What on earth would we talk about? Katsa: “I was just attacked by a rhinoceros in the woods. I killed it with my bare hands.” Me: “Hmm. Well. Can I open you a can of soup?”
When, or how, did you come up with the idea for characters with “Graces”? (For those sad individuals who have not yet read Graceling, a “grace” is an extreme skill or talent).
I don’t know. Maybe from reading Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley? Katsa and Po came to me as a pair—a squabbling, scuffling pair—and their powers were present from their first appearance in my head. Raffin came on their heels, and he didn’t have any weird powers. Next came my villain, whose status was undetermined until I’d hammered out my plot a bit and discovered that he had hidden powers.
They just came to me that way!
The super-nasty bad guy in Graceling is sure to creep out many readers. Well done on that! I’m curious to know, aside from this character’s scary Grace, what Grace would you find the most terrifying?
Thanks! And, ooo, good question. Mental powers definitely scare me more than physical powers; I would much rather share a room with Katsa than with any sort of mind reader, for example. Nor would I particularly like to hang around a person who was always seeing the future, especially my future. I guess the following are the types of Graces that would scare me most, starting with the most terrifying: (1) a Grace that could alter or control my mind; (2) a Grace that could invade the privacy of my thoughts or feelings; (3) a Grace that makes it impossible for me to find the chocolate.
One of the major themes your book raises is the idea that extraordinary power demands deep responsibility. Katsa grows into this understanding throughout the story. What other issues do you hope readers might consider or discuss with others as they read your book?
Hmm. Maybe the many different kinds of love that exist in the world; maybe the question of how independence and interdependence fit together; maybe (*cue violin*) the matter of learning to accept oneself—love oneself—trust oneself—forgive oneself—and respect oneself.
I don’t write with particular messages in mind. But if my book could encourage people to think for themselves in any new way, what a thrill that would be.
Could you give us a little teaser for Fire, the Graceling companion book coming our way in 2009?
Fire takes place 30 or 40 years before Graceling, in a land across the “uncrossable” mountains to the east—a place called the Dells, a kingdom that the inhabitants of the seven kingdoms don’t even know about. There are no known Gracelings in the Dells, but there are beautiful creatures called monsters. Monsters have the shape of normal animals, but their hair or scales or feathers are gorgeously colored—fuchsia, turquoise, sparkly bronze, iridescent green—and their minds have the power to control the minds of humans. Fire, seventeen years old, is the last remaining human-shaped monster in the Dells. She is impossibly beautiful and has frightening mental powers; people tend either to love her far too much or to mistrust and despise her. Her kingdom is on the verge of civil war, and she must find her place in it; there’s romance, there’s adventure, there’s a lot going on, actually!
(WARNING: Graceling spoilers ahead!) Fire is fully Fire’s story. But if you’re wondering what connects it to Graceling, the answer is that one of the background characters is a creepy little boy with mismatched eyes who comes from no-one-knows-where and seems to have a peculiar ability to influence people with his words.… sound familiar?
Pretty please say that you are working on another story about Katsa and Po and Bitterblue and the gang, and please say that it is almost finished?
In other words, lie? Actually, I am writing a book with Bitterblue as the protagonist—she’s the 16-year-old Queen of Monsea. Katsa and Po and others from Graceling are part of the story, as are a whole bunch of new people. However, not only is it nowhere near being almost finished, but it’s going very slowly. And you should be glad, because that means I’m taking my time, being careful, and making sure that it will be the very best book it can be.
Thank you Kristin for giving all of us a glorious book to love for years and years, and an interview to sink right into. Happy writing. We can’t wait!