Buffy the Vampire Slayer's influence on your first YA trilogy, Paranormalcy, is rather obvious. Besides, in the acknowledgements of Slayer you did state that Buffy is "the series that made [you] who [you are] as a writer". Could you please explain to us what it means to you and what you learned from it?
The marriage of humor and horror was a huge influence on my writing style, but more than that, it was the first series I watched that centered a teenage girl as the main character. I loved that not only was she the most powerful person in the world, but that her emotions—her relationships, her friendships, her loves and heartbreaks—were treated just as seriously as her abilities. It made me feel strong and important in a world that so often dismisses teenage girls.
We can imagine what it meant for a die-hard Buffy fan, as you are, to be "THE chosen one". However, we wonder how intimidating it became once the initial rush died down. How much freedom did you have in choosing what story to tell? And how restrictive was it to respect the canon subsequent to the series?
It was definitely overwhelming when I sat down to create my own Slayer. I knew how much the show meant to so many people, myself included. I was given tremendous creative freedom, which was exciting but also intimidating! Fortunately, the Buffyverse canon is limited to the seven seasons of the show (plus Angel, where they overlap) and several seasons of graphic novels. Because I didn't want to disregard the graphic novels, I made a decision to set my book after the first "season" of comics. It was a nice entry point for both die-hard fans and people who are new to the Buffyverse. And a huge bonus was getting to write in a world that people already care about and have developed whole internet databases around! It made my research a lot easier.
While it is true that Buffy has been a constant in your life in the ten years since Paranormalcy was originally published, it has come to our attention that it has not been the only one: Stephanie Perkins and Natalie Whipple have been present in your acknowledgements since the very beginning. To them, indeed, you refer as your "first and last critique partners". How important is it for a writer to have this kind of bonds?
Writing is such a solitary pursuit. Having friends who understand what it is like, cheer for you, and also help you continually get better, is invaluable. I found them through writing and they've been my best friends for more than a decade!
We are very much interested in your view on writing and its benefits. What role does the act of storytelling play in your everyday life?
I have really high anxiety, and learned at a young age that a great coping mechanism was feeding a story to my brain. Instead of laying awake at night worrying, I could lay awake working out scenes of a story I was telling myself. I still use it that way. But I also think storytelling in general is a great way of exploring not only the world at large, but also your interior world—the things inside yourself that you wouldn't normally look at, but that fiction allows you to explore.
We are passionate about The Conqueror's Saga. At the beginning of the year, Puck published in Spain Now I Rise, the second installment, and now we eagerly await the release of the final book. How did you manage to achieve its historical weight—not giving in to the history written by the winners—and at the same time keeping it moderately accessible for all readers?
Thank you! It was such a challenging trilogy to write. I did thousands of pages of research for months before I ever started writing the books. One of the most important things I did was pull from as wide a variety of sources as I could—especially sources written at the time from both sides of any conflict. But I also wanted to make sure even though it was as historically accurate as I could make it, it never read like history. I studied fantasy novels and structured it the same way, building the world around my readers. And finally, I tried to really ground it in the characters. Countries and borders shift and disappear, but people are always people, and they're the heart of any story.
The second question related to the trilogy that we would like you to answer is: Why was it important for you to tell this particular story—in which you explore, among other main topics, politics and faith—?
I'm always intrigued by why people make the choices they do. Among other things, I really wanted to explore how normal people get to the point where they can justify doing truly terrible things in pursuit of their goals. Because despots and warlords and conquerors aren't born that way—it's a journey. I was interested in going on that journey with two main characters and seeing how they both responded to the life they were given.
In the trilogy, you also explore the question of gender and queer identity. The constant erasure of queer identities throughout history is commonly discussed nowadays. What is your approach when exploring them in historical fiction?
We know that queer people have always existed. How openly they lived depended on the time and place, but their stories are everywhere. I wasn't interested in writing a world that didn't reflect that reality. I also wanted to explore power: who has it, how they get it, how they keep it, what they sacrifice on the way. Gender and sexuality are both facets of power and made an interesting lens to explore this story through.
This is the last question about the trilogy, but we could not miss the opportunity to let you know how much we adore Radu, first. However, the question is about Lada. Lada is—even if that sounds cliché—not like the rest of your protagonists: she is an anti-hero. In spite of this and even though her actions have no excuse, readers can feel for her, due to what she must face. There will be, however, those who will not hesitate to make a heroine out of her, thus coinciding with the figure in which she is based: Vlad the Impaler, either a national hero or a massacrer of innocents, depending on who you ask. In your opinion, where is the line between heroine and villain drawn? And why did you decide that Lada would not only be a girl, but most importantly a teenage girl?
When I was thinking about Vlad the Impaler and how he never, ever backed down, even when it made sense for him and his country, I had the stray thought that he should have been a woman. Because for women to have power historically—and even now—they have to do more, fight harder, and never back down. Any sign of weakness is fatal. My favorite example of this is Empress Theodora of Byzantium, who rose from being an actress to the wife of the emperor to co-emperor, and ended up saving her husband's rule. There was a riot in the city and he and his advisors were ready to flee for their lives. But having been born into nothing and forced to fight for everything she ever had, Theodora knew that running meant they could never come back. So she commanded them to stay, gathered the troops, slaughtered their enemies, and saved her husband and herself.
For me, Lada was a way of exploring what a girl would have to sacrifice in order to obtain and hold onto power during that time period. I wanted to take the reader down that path with her so that they would understand her choices, even if they didn't agree with them. Whether she's a hero or a villain is just like the real Vlad Dracul: it depends on who's telling the story.
Now we will move on to your latest retellings: The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein and The Guinevere Deception. Firstly, how does your approach differ when writing a direct retelling with a more or less limited world, such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, from writing a looser retelling, as it must be the case of the Arthurian legends due to the lack of a canonical version?
I wanted to write a really faithful retelling of Frankenstein, more a conversation with the original than a reimagining. Because of this, I did a deep dive into the text and also Mary Shelley's life, and then structured my novel around that, staying as close as I could to both her style and her story. After writing about real history and then writing a faithful retelling, it was really fun to jump to the Camelot Rising trilogy and get to play with archetypes and ideas since, as you said, there is no official Arthurian legend.
Secondly, what drives you to tell stories that are—unlike the originals—centered around female protagonists, such as Elizabeth Lavenza and Guinevere, who are characterized—in the retellings—by their moral grayness?
All of my retellings are motivated by dual emotions: love and anger. I love these stories, but they also make me angry, because the female characters in them are usually denied agency and even personhood. I wanted to explore these worlds and ideas from the point of view of a woman, to understand how someone like Elizabeth Lavenza could exist alongside Victor Frankenstein, to look at the stories of Camelot that didn't happen on the edge of a sword and therefore weren't considered worth telling. And because I allow my main characters to be fully realized humans and not cardboard cutouts of what a girl "should" be, they are, inherently, morally gray, complex people.
The first book in the Camelot Rising trilogy has one curious point in common with the Mind Games duology: while in the latter girls are the only ones who have special powers, in The Guinevere Deception not only is the magic system logical, but also one that is very feminine. What was the rationale behind those decisions?
I suppose I'm always looking for ways to give women more power! So many of the Arthurian legends are about men wandering around with swords defeating magic. But the women aren't given swords. How would they protect themselves and the people they love? I made the magic system very feminine, controlled and secret. I liked to view it as traditions and knowledge passed from woman to woman to give them power in a world that wanted to deny it to them.
The Camelot Betrayal, the second installment in the Camelot Rising trilogy, will be the next book of yours that will be published in the United States. According to our understanding, right now, you have no more books under contract. This is something completely alien to you, since you have been under different contracts since 2009 (more than one and even two at a time). Will you take advantage of this opportunity to try out something new?
Ha ha! You're too late! I have already sold something new, but it's still a secret for now. I love writing and telling stories so much, and am always aching for the next challenge!
Finally, we would like you to recommend some author(s) or book(s) that you especially like because of the way in which they play with the conventions of a particular genre, either as you usually do—with your signature humor—or in any other way.
I really love Victoria (V.E.) Schwab, because she's not afraid to try new genres and types of storytelling, but always with her signature character work and eloquence. She's one of the few authors I follow to any genre or age range!
It has been great chatting with you, Kiersten, and we hope that soon Puck will bring you to Spain so you can meet all your devout readers.
Thank you! I hope so, too. It would be a dream come true! Until then, I'll meet you in a book.