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Interview with...

Rachel Hartman

El Templo #71 (agosto 2019)
Por Marta Álvarez
230 lecturas

Seraphina’s bilogy features dragons, but it is not the classic adventure that may come to mind when one thinks about said creatures. Both Seraphina and Shadow Scale tell a very political story. Why did you choose to make it that way?

For some authors, there are some things that come naturally. For me, those are characters and worldbuilding. But plot? What is that even? I rewrote Seraphina four times! The very first version was a much smaller story: she was still a half dragon, and her mother had died, and it was all about her and her father in their house, being sad. My editor said: “That’s too small. It is like, with this world, you had a beautiful garden, but you chose to tend only one plant. Maybe it is a beautiful little plant, but you are ignoring all the possibilities!". So I had to grow the story into something bigger. Quests against an ultimate evil have never appealed to me, I wanted to do it differently: I decided to make the story about when Seraphina leaves home, and what it is like.

It ended up being political because, when you have a world where dragons can take human form, there had to be laws and rules. How are people going to get along? Would they be afraid if they knew their neighbors were dragons? Were dragons obligated to tell? This seemed good source of tension for a plot. From there, the political intrigue came naturally. It also ended up being sort of a mystery, also, which was surprising… I never thought I could write a mystery.

You have mentioned a garden metaphor. Speaking of that… Seraphina has her own “mental garden”, where she takes care of her half dragon siblings. How did you came up with this way of interaction between characters?

In some ways it is a metaphor for what it is like to be a writer: you always have people in your mind, and if you don’t pay attention to them, they get louder and louder.

But also, when I was a child, my parents were a bit hippy, and we had this thing called “a council of all beings”, a guided meditation where you lie on the floor, close your eyes and someone says: “Okay, so you are walking through the woods…” and you have to imagine what you see. And I would always see such amazing things! Because I have a really good imagination. But everyone was like: “Oh, you’ve seen something really deep and profound in your unconscious!”. But for me it was just fun, and I think it comes from there: the idea that your mind is a place that you can go in, and there’s geography, and architecture and motifs…

And the world itself —Goredd— is so complex too! Each realm has their own traditions, each saint has their own prayers… Where did you get your inspiration from?

The world has been with me for a very long time. I was twelve when I first started thinking about it. All through high school, whenever I had to write a story, I set it in this world. In my twenties I did a self-published comic book, Amy Unbounded, which was also set there. It is a medieval one, which I realize is a like bit of a cliche in fantasy, but… When I was sixteen my dad had a sabbatical year in England and I just fell in love with cathedrals, and half-timbered houses, and the fact that you can walk around the street and... here is a roman wall! History was everywhere in a way that it was not on the US. I just fell in love with it, and I studied a lot about the middle ages.
One interesting thing that I think fantasy doesn’t take advantage of often enough is that the middle ages where a very different world, a very different culture. A lot of people —maybe not here as much as in the US— has this “Disney idea” of it: the princess, the castle... But it wasn’t like that. It was dirtier, but also very vital in terms of religion.

Trying to explore that was very interesting for me. For example, how do you have cathedrals but not actual catholicism? Because I didn’t want to offend real people with real beliefs. I had to change that, and the novel has this sort of modified paganism. Instead of a god you have saints, but saints are independent from each other, so…

 

In Seraphina’s bilogy, the main conflict is the tensión between humans and dragons. Did you intended it to be a metaphor for some kind of real life oppression, as you do with misogyny in Tess of the Road, or is it just part of the story?

It is easy to look at Seraphina, a half dragon, and think she is a metaphor for race, for being gay, or trans. But, in fact, all I intended her to be was a metaphor for shame.

Writing for young adults, I asked myself: “What is an experience that most teenagers have?”. Your body is changing, social life is complicated... I think most teenagers have at least for once thought: “If people really knew how weird I am for real, my life would be over”. And so, Seraphina was a way of making that particular shame literal and putting it into the world. People could read it and think about whatever they were ashamed of in their own life.

Sometimes it doesn’t work for some people. I have some readers occasionally saying: “This is obviously a metaphor for being mix raced and it doesn’t work at all, because I am and I was not ashamed”. Which is interesting, because that was not what I intended but, as a writer, you can’t control how people are going to read, and everybody brings their own experiences to the book.

Metaphors aside, your books also have some explicit representation. For example, there is a trans character in Shadow Scale, or the quigutl, a dragon species who are able to change both their sex and their gender whenever they need it. None of their cultures have any problem with that, although many would argue that such thing would not be possible in a medieval world, not even in a fantasy one. But you did it!

That was important to me, those particular representations. I have a lot of family and friends who are trans, or gay, or a variety of kinds of queer. My mother is married to a woman, and so is one of my sisters. Those are my people! It felt very natural to include LGBTQ+ characters. If they weren’t there, I would have felt that the world was sort of empty and wrong.

Including other races was harder for me, although I’ve tried too. As a writer, you have values, and you want to convey them into your work. I think you have to continue to try and have as many different examples of different kinds of people as you can, so there is variety, so that people don’t say: “Oh, there is one trans character, so that stands for all the trans people, and she did it wrong!”. See, you have this one, and you have this one, and this one… And you go on and just try to explore as fully as you can.

But even with my conscious attempt to try and do good representation, sometimes there are still problems. In Seraphina, for example, there is a transphobe trope which I did not realize: the bad guy gets dressed as a female to fool people. I didn’t understand that that was transphobic, because he wasn’t trans. But one of my friend explained that, in fact, that is the story that everybody sees: that when you dress up as a gender that is not you birth gender, you are doing it to fool people, because you are a bad person. And I had no idea. You learn as you go. That is how you have to do it, unfortunately.

 

You decided to change that, having trans characters who are completely accepted in their cultures in a way that they wouldn’t be in a real medieval era; homosexuality is also better-perceived than it was then. But a great part of Tess of the Road is about women being oppressed. Why did you decide not to erase this particular oppression?

One of the great things about fantasy is that you can create the world you want to see, and that is wonderful and beautiful, and it can serve to push back against the real world. But sometimes, in order to push back against the real world, you need representation of the world so that you can punch it in the face. In Tess I had misogyny, but it gets focused on religion, on the followers of certain saints who take their words to heart. Because that was my experience growing up: I grew up in Kentucky, which is toward the South, which is very religiously conservative. For example, I took a sex education class in a baptist church with my mother, taught by the pastor… The only thing I remember —besides being totally embarrassed— was this day when they showed us slides of sexual transmission diseases. It was so gross! By the end I was like: “I will never, ever have sex!”. It is hard to get over that! Even if you think you are too smart for that, it gets into your head.

And so I wanted a book that pulled that apart. Because Tess undergoes a sexual assault, and I did also in my life. And I feel like I can trace it directly to not quite understanding my own body and not knowing how to say no. They don’t teach you how to say no. You are not supposed to ever say no, because you are not supposed to have sex until you are married, and once you are married, you would never say no! It is terrible. I wanted to write a story about that, really digging into it. It was a very personal story that I thought really needed to be told.

And also, the valorization of bad boyfriends, which I think is everywhere in YA… For example, a lot of people found the Twilight series very romantic, and I was like… How? But, in fact, I started reading Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell, and it is a delightful book, but when I read it I found myself getting madder, and madder, and madder. And I finally figured out the reason was that there is this girl, she goes off to university, and I thought: “Where is the bad boyfriend? The boy here turns out to be a nice person! That is not how it goes!”. And then I thought: “Mmm… Maybe there is something I need to talk about that I haven’t talked about yet”.

But how to do it without turning it into his story? I decided to write about what happens afterwards. How you find yourself again when you feel like you have just messed up your entire life.

It was really painful. I had always been told not to put too much autobiography into a book and I always thought it was a matter of vanity, like: “Oh, you are not so special to tell your own story”. But no, it is because you have to be ready to talk about things that may have really happened as if they were fiction. For example, once my editor said: “Nobody would react like that!”, and I was like: “… I did!”. That is hard.

There is this other kind of representation, in Tess, when she has her period. A lot of fantasy books deal with girls who go on adventures for months or even years, but they magically never get their period?

I think writers just don’t wanna have to talk about it. Although I understand that in the past women didn’t have periods as often as we do now; good nutrition means we have them more often. But still, that doesn’t mean they didn’t have any! And I did want to talk about that. I think there is a bias that a woman can’t go on adventures because she is going to feel sick, she will have to lay down and be delicate… I wanted to show that, well, of course not! Women are practical and have had to deal with this for ever. There is this scene where her boss asks her: “Do you have everything you need?”, and my editor was like: “Why is this here?”, and I said: “Well, that is how women treat each other!”. I wanted to show a moment with two women just talking about it, because that is what you do!

 

Apart from all this messages and metaphors, is there something else about your books that you had never had the chance to talk about? Maybe something that you like about them but people are not noticing, something you want to point out?

Actually I would like to credit my Spanish translator, Marta Torres Llopis. She is so good and precise in language. And, bless her heart, my books are hard to translate because there are all this puns and jokes. For example, the bad boyfriend: she named him Val so there could be jokes with his name, because in the original version his name was Will, like the phrase “against my will”, which is in the book. And she e-mailed me like: “You made a joke, and I can’t do that in Spanish” What if I change his name and then I can do this?”.
People in Spain like these books, and I can credit her a lot for that, because she has really done an amazing job. And Nocturna Ediciones as well, they have been very supportive and enthusiastic, and I really appreciate that. So include my words of thanks!

Now is our time time to thank you for giving us your books. Speaking of which… What are you working on right now?

I am working on Tess of the Sea. She finally —I am going to make a some spoiler here— gets her wish and goes to sea. And it is interesting because Tess of the Road is about learning to be the protagonist of your own story, but the next book kind of reverses it: once you get to that place where you feel secure, how do you then let go of your ego and learn to be the sidekick in someone else’s story?

It may take me another three years or so… I am so slow at writing. I am so, so sorry! But I am working hard on it.

It will be worth it, for sure. Thank you for your work… and for this interview!

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