First, we would like to ask you about Blood Magic, a duology which for a very long time has been the only work of yours translated into Spanish. What does Blood Magic mean to you, bearing in mind that it was translated into so many languages? And how has your vision of romance in novels changed in these ten years since its original publication?
Blood Magic was my very first novel published at all, anywhere. And it was, as you mentioned, translated into around twenty different languages. So it was an amazing publishing experience for my first book. It was well received and that is always nice, and not all of my books have been... so to start my career that way has been good.
In the ten years since then, a lot has changed in the US YA publishing community and the things that people focus on. The original draft of Blood Magic, also had queer characters in it, and I had trouble selling it. Back then, no one was explicitly saying “this is too gay”, but there was a lot of “we don’t really know how to publish this”, “we don’t know how to market this so we can’t buy it”, so my agent and I looked at the book and decided that I needed to make it less taboo because it had queer (it was gender queer) issues as well as blood magic, of course, and necromancy. And so there was a lot of taboos that it was pushing at, and I decided to pull back on the gender queer part to see if I could sell the book in that way. And I did, obviously.
I’m very confident that if I wrote the original Blood Magic now, I could publish it as it was. It could have the violence, and the blood magic, and the necromancy and the queerness. So that makes me very happy, but sad for readers ten years ago and for queer writers; so many of us were policing ourselves about what we wrote. Publishers did not think that it was commercial, that they could sell anything.
But now so much has changed and Lady Hotspur is the perfect example of that because essentially every character is queer or at least openly queer positive (they’re friends with queer people or, you know, supportive of that). So I was able to write a book with all kinds of queer layers about the politics and the characters and the romance and all kinds of things. Blood Magic (and The Blood Keeper) and Lady Hotspur are nice political bookends with a ten-year-gap in between them being published here in Spain.
Blood Magic will always have a very special place in my heart because it was my first and because of the choices I felt that I had to make in order to find a way to be true to the story but also to take out the queerness.
Our next question deals with The United States of Asgard trilogy and the fact that it was cancelled midway. How was the experience of eventually self-publishing the books belonging to the saga?
The Lost Sun and The Strange Maid were published by the same publisher in the US that published Blood Magic and The Blood Keeper, and the sales were low, so they cancelled the third book and then I self-published the whole trilogy. I got the rights back from the publisher and repackaged the covers and did a little bit of editing and then put that trilogy out on my own just like e-books (although you can get the print books, most people just read the e-books). And then I put the novellas into another volume. So that’s what happened.
The experience of self-publishing them was for sure different. I know a lot of indie romance writers, who do a great job: they love self-publishing, they’re very good at marketing and at writing quickly and at writing to their audience, but I have no interest in marketing and publicity. I just want to write my book and then have someone else do that, so I did not enjoy anything about self-publishing. I don’t know if I would do it again, quite honestly. So… I’m a bad example of indie publishing because I really didn’t do it well, because I didn’t want to. I was also very upset about the series having been cancelled, and it was a big blow to my career: it took me almost three years to sell new books. There was a dip in my career because when a book does not sell well that lands on the shoulders of the author. So, it was difficult, yeah...
I did write The Queens of Innis Lear during those three years and also another YA book that is called Strange Grace, which has also been translated into Spanish but not published in Spain. So I wrote those two books during that period of time, and eventually sold them, obviously. Strange Grace was the one that I sold first and I rewrote it a few times, but it took a long time because no publisher wanted to take a risk on the Tessa Gratton brand. I considered using a pen name, but at the end of the day decided not to and then did the transition to adult. To sell an adult fantasy novel was a little bit easier, because they were not so concerned with my so-called failures of the YA series. And it was a lot of fun.
We also would like you to explain to us what the Merry Sisters of Fate (including Brenna Yovanoff, Maggie Stiefvater and yourself) was all about and how was your whole experience.
The three of us started a blog, a short-story blog, in, I think, 2008, a long time ago. It was before Brenna and I were published at all, although Maggie had her first book out.
We were trying to improve our writing skills. Maggie (who was also an artist, a visual artist) had done “a painting a day” project, where she completed a painting from start to finish every day for a year and she looked back on those and was like: “my craft improved so much, so fast, I wonder if we could do that with writing”. And so we did, for a full year, all three of us wrote and published a short story every week. We wrote fifty short stories in a year, and most of them were bad, a few of them were fine and maybe like five or six of mine I thought were truly good stories. The second year we bumped it down to every two weeks and then we did one more year where we did just one a month. So by the end of that period we each had published around seventy short-stories in a very short amount of time. We decided to try and put some of our favorites together and then talk about what we thought worked about them and what didn’t. So the actual book, The Curiosities, has our notes: we annoted our stories, talked about each others’ stories and the process of writing and editing; and so it was a very rewarding project.
And then the second one, The Anatomy of Curiosity, we just did because it was fun and we wrote longer stories to focus on what we thought were our strengths. So I wrote a fantasy story and I focused on “here is how I build worlds”, “here is how I invent all the details that make a world come to life”; Maggie focused on character and Brenna focused on plot. They’re aimed to be teaching tools for teenagers who want to be writers, who want to learn how we do that. So that was the whole genesis.
How different is your approach when writing adult vs. young-adult short stories? Especially bearing in mind that YA short story anthologies are not that frequent in the YA market, at least not in Spain.
I don’t actually know that I think of my adult vs. young adult short stories very differently. I think about my adult and young adult novels very differently, but to me a short story only has room to ask one question. Like I’m gonna present a character or a world and it can only be about one thing because it has to be very short. And I try to stick to that very closely because, if I don’t, I write huge doorstopper novels like Lady Hotspur, which is very long. Most of my short stories are shorter than even just the individual chapters of Lady Hotspur.
So… when I sit down to write a short story, I know why I’m writing it whether it is for an anthology, so there’s a topic, like the Vampires Never Get Old anthology: it had to be about vampires and teenagers, so that was a good guiding principle. But then, when I had written stories that were intended to be adult short stories, I had never had that much direction, it’s just been like: “Would you write a science fiction short story for my online magazine?”. So that had to be science fiction but that’s a HUGE prompt.
So I think that for me it would be mostly about theme: is the story about growing up? Is the story about challenging your world or your parents or traditions?; those kinds of themes that I write about in all of my young adult books. Or is it a theme that adults deal with more often than kids who are needing to choose who they want to be and how to show that to the world? So I think it would be theme, but I also have written significantly more young adult short stories than adult short stories, so maybe once I have more experience in the adult market I will have a different answer.
In other interviews you have said that the idea of “living (or having to live) with passion for a longtime” is what captivates you from vampire literature. Could you expand on this idea?
That is a little bit what my short story in the Vampires Never Get Old anthology is about: how do you live forever? What makes it worth it? Why would you want to? And the short story is about a teenage girl who is given seven days to choose if she wants to become a vampire or not. One of the vampires who is trying to convince her says that teenage girls make great vampires because they know how to be angry and how to live passionately, because that’s what he thinks all teenage girls do. They can take that into immortality better than someone who is made a vampire when they are forty, and they are bitter and sad with life. That was what I was really writing about: what kinds of passions are worthy of lasting hundreds of years?
For instance, fighting injustice would be a big one for me, you know, this is something I’m passionate about, how would I keep being invested in trying to make the world a better place over the course of hundreds of years when humans find some many ways to be cruel to each other and to oppress each other. What is the point of life if we are not trying to make life better, for everyone? So that’s how I approached it in that short story. Most of my books had that kind of idea at the core that we should be making the world better not worse. It’s with momentary choices every day, when you are faced with those questions: what would put more good into the world, what would tear down oppressions and cruelties and that kind of thing.
I think that’s really important in general but particularly for young adults to be encouraged to think about, because I remember I had all my political awakenings when I was like fourteen-fifteen-sixteen, and frequently adults would tell me “you don’t have to worry about that yet” or “you are too young to understand that”, and that always infuriated me. I think it is important to create that space in literature for and about teenagers just to say “look, you are not too young”, “you are smart enough”, “you can see a different perspective than adults necessarily do” and are primed to analyze the traditions that create this kind of structural oppressions in the world.
Besides, that struggle of fighting injustice can be precisely seen in Lady Hotspur through Hal...
Yeah, and that’s also essentially what Lady Hotspur is about. Particularly, Prince Hal trying to figure out how to make space in this kingdom for her to be who she is, and obviously she struggles with that a lot, but that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write Hotspur: because on Innis Lear the political system is so different and essentially what Rowan has to do is be like “because I said so”: this is how is gonna be, this is what I’m gonna do and you cannot argue with me because you know who is on my side? This entire island, and I can prove it.
And so, in Aremoria, the political system mirrors both history and current political systems, where it is more all people deciding things and creating things and struggling with what has been in the past and what is necessary for the future, like upholding these power structures. And so Hal, mostly Hal, has to come to grips with making queer space in a system that is inherently antiqueer. So… even in my adult book it is pretty much about fighting for justice. Recientemente se ha publicado en España la antología Los vampiros nunca mueren.
The premise of your short story for Vampires Never Get Old comes from the idea that all vampires are queer. Have you always thought so?
Yeah, I am queer and I can’t imagine being alive for a long time and not eventually coming into some kind of queerness. I just don’t understand how that would happen, so any time I read or encounter movies with vampires who are straight I’m like “did you even think this through? How, how is this possible?”.
So that was one of my starting points: are all vampires at least eventually queer in some way? In my short story, they explicitly choose who they’re going to make into a vampire; it’s not something that happens accidentally —the way in some vampire mythologies you can accidentally make someone, that’s not how this one works—. There is an intentionality to who this already queer vampires would make into vampires, so of course they’re gonna also pick people who are already queer or seem to have that potential in them. That was practical worldbuilding for me, because I just don’t get straight vampires, and also, you know, I think queer people seek out other queer people, that’s been like historically true across cultures, for safety.
Shakespeare is next! We know that his work has always been a source of inspiration for you, but more specifically you have retold two of his plays (King Lear and Henry IV) for the duology composed by The Queens of Innis Lear and Lady Hotspur. In which ways has his works influenced you? And what can we see of Shakespeare in these two novels?
I love Shakespeare for a couple of main reasons, one being that his plays are so complicated: you can find great and terrible things about ALL of his plays; I can critique any of them and I could say something nice about any of them. And they have lasted, I think, because they are actually very specific. Some people would say “oh, Shakespeare is universal”, I don’t think that’s true because people don’t actually care about universal things. They care about universal themes but not about universal characters who are generic, so Shakespeare’s characters are extremely specific and they use language in amazing ways.
I love poetry and English in particular. I studied the history of it, Old English, Middle and Modern, and Shakespeare writes modern English, not Middle English. That's a mistake a lot of people make because it sounds very archaic, but one of the reasons that is true it is because Shakespeare invented a huge percentage of what we considered to be English vocabulary. The reason why sometimes his language sounds incomprehensible, it’s because he was making up words.
And then also all of his plays, every single one of them is funny, even the tragedies, and that gets overlooked in a lot of productions. Hamlet has some of the funniest lines in all of his work and sometimes you’ll watch an adaptation, like the Kenneth Branagh movie and everything’s so serious and there’s nothing funny in that, even though some of those things are beautiful and emotionally wrenching. But then there was an excellent Hamlet ( I think it was the one the Royal Shakespeare Company did four or five years ago) with David Tennant: he played Hamlet and Patrick Stewart was Cladius and it was SO funny. I was laughing so hard that I was crying in a few places and it was like this is why people in Shakespeare’s times liked his works, because of all of the sex jokes.
So, in general, I love Shakespeare. I mean I even encroached him into Blood Magic: one of the main characters loves theatre and Shakespeare. But I first encountered King Lear when I was in high school. I read it in my Literature class and I actually hated it. I felt betrayed by Shakespeare because it is so sexist, so sexist, the women (the characters) are one-note, they don’t change and then the king Lear himself is the worst king, he is bad at everything, he treats everyone terribly... and am I supposed to have sympathy with him? Eighteen-year-old Tessa was like this is TERRIBLE and so for almost sixteen years, in the back of my head, I wanted to fix King Lear. So that’s what I was trying to do with The Queens of Innis Lear, and I loved writing that book.
When it was done my editor was like “would you like to do another Shakespeare? Because I love this book and we should publish a second one” and I thought to myself: well, I just wrote my least favorite Shakespeare so you know what I should do? I should rewrite my favorite Shakespeare play and because I’m a huge nerd my favorite is Henry IV, Part 1. And I have always loved it because it is tragic and it is hilarious, and it has romance and it has absolutely everything in this one play.
The ending is all about the character of Hotspur and the character of Prince Hal and they are never on stage together until the very last scene, but the whole play is about how they are alike and different and which one of them is better and which one would make a better prince. And then, in the end, they come together and they have this duel and Hal kills Hotspur... I was obsessed with this beautiful last scene, there were a whole bunch of lines of it in Lady Hotspur because I just love it so much. I loved it in a kind of a reader and a writer way, and I also liked it in a fan way where I was like: what would fix this whole thing? It’s as if instead of killing each other, they had just kissed... if only they would kiss that would be so great, and so that was the basis for Lady Hotspur.
It was like well... the one thing I know I can fix in Henry IV, Part 1. is to make everyone gay. Everything will be better if it will be rewittren and everyone was a little bit gay and then I changed most of the characters, I slid them toward the opposite end of the gender spectrum wherever they have been. The play itself only has two women and so that’s why the book has only Rowan and Connley… I mean, I hesitate to really call Connley a “man”, but that’s definitely the spectrum. It wasn’t an easy book to write, but it was constantly good for me as a writer: I didn't hate any part of the writing process and I usually hit a point in a book where I’m just like “oh my god, this is terrible” “why did I do this to myself”... That never happened with Lady Hotspur. I loved what I was trying to do and I loved all the characters so much. I even changed the ending like six times, but that would be major spoilers!
A big part of the worldbuilding behind the duology was making sure that not all your characters were white / Caucasian by default. Why do you consider important to avoid color blindness when writing literary fiction?
I don’t think that colorblind writing ever works, because not only does it not make sense with worldbuilding but readers bring expectations of race with them. And so if you try to do colorblind writing, then it ends up (like in the US) white by default, whiteness is the dominant culture so the vast majority of readers would just assume everyone is white, so you have to purposefully put in the writing racial coding, you have to build it into layers, cause otherwise people’s color just get erased.
I do think that when it comes to performance, in movies and plays, with something like Shakespeare, there’s a lot of value in doing colorblind casting because that interrupts people's assumptions about race, and that’s the first thing you have to do to get people to talk or think critically about white supremacy. And so... is good with that, but I have never personally encountered a book where I thought colorblind stuff worked. And I think that, right now, it’s almost pointless to write a book that doesn’t engage with race, coming from the US in particular. That’s obviously where my background is, that’s where I am from, and that’s where my training is, in intersectional global feminism. I went to graduate school to study that and I thought I was going to go into politics.
I don’t see the value in writing a book that doesn’t challenge white supremacy. If I’m doing that, what is the point of my books at all, because literature needs to be a conversation, especially speculative literature, the point of it is to use other worlds, or outer space, or whatever, to reflect back on our current situation. That’s what literature is for: entertain and challenge, and hopefully do both. That is why I have explicit non-white cultures, specially in The Queens of Innis Lear and through Innis Lear, but also through the politics and situations of Aremoria in the second one. It is very important to me and otherwise I should just get a job at Starbucks, basically, they have better insurance than I do.
In Lady Hotspur, you make use of a certain kind of fantasy that is deeply rooted in nature. This particular fantasy does not only function as a core element of the narrative structure, but it also affects the whole cast of characters. Why did you opt to do so?
The main reason that I picked this style of fantasy for this duology is because it’s also the way that Shakespare does magic. When there is magic in Shakespeare’s plays, and not like the ones that have greek gods in them and that kind of stuff, but actual magic like The Tempest, for example, or Midsummer’s Night Dream, it’s always nature-based, and it’s almost always just a very subtle thread.
In King Lear, there’s a huge thematic binary between Nature and God. I wasn’t not interested in Christian religion for this project; it wasn't something that I really wanted to spill all over, so I really leaned on the nature aspect. The biggest antagonist to King Lear himself is literally a storm, and so that was the kind of thing that I was drawing on there.
In one way, it was a very specific project-based choice: this is how Shakespeare did it in King Lear; there’s no actual magic in King Lear or in the Henry trilogy, but I knew I needed magic because I like magic. So I took what was there and amplified it in a lot of ways. My favorite character in the play of King Lear is Ben, the bastard, the fox who becomes the wizard in Lady Hotspur, who has a great speech about fate and the stars. He’s angry at everyone because he sees it as unfair that he doesn't get anything even though he’s better than everyone at skills. He’s a better fighter, a better politician than his brother, but he’s not gonna inherit anything just because he was born a bastard. And in this great speech of his, he is basically saying: “it is ridiculous and terrible that we use fate and the stars to determine our lives''. So I took those two things and then added the nature aspect and the storm to create the magic system for The Queens of Innis Lear. And then drew that into Aremoria. I wanted the Aremore magic to be older and at the same time more potentially accessible. That’s why I used, essentially, fairies: the earth saints are really based on old celtic fairies, like the Tolkien elves. And yeah, in general nature magic is just my favorite. I default to it, because I find so much beauty and awe in nature. I love hikes and big parks and the ocean, really any landscape that I can get into. I feel that If magic was going to be real, that’s where I would find it: in a dark forest or at the edge of the ocean. That’s almost a personal belief: that’s where magic really lies and... so all of my books that have magic, it’s nature magic. I can’t help myself.
Just before leaving Lady Hotspur behind, we would like to talk about the use of language in the duology. When writing the two independent novels, you made a conscious decision of reversing the gender of the titles of nobility in order to introduce the gender perspective. How did you tackle this?
I am constantly frustrated by gender language, which in English is not even close to the problem that it is in Spanish.
It’s difficult enough in English and “they” has been a singular pronoun since at least Shakespeare’s times. In some of Shakespeare’s plays, he uses “they” to refer to a single person. So it has been built into English, into classical English so to speak, for years and there’s still people who push back at it. And that’s just one word. We don’t have to worry about agreement between adjectives and nouns and things like that. It’s much easier than that but still fighting that is hard.
I struggled with using the titles because that is one thing that English does divide into gender: prince and princess, king and queen… titles for people they do carry that way. I was like “I don’t wanna do this”; it’s a relative small way to remind people that we do have gender baked into our language; just a little challenge every time a reader reads “Prince Hal” and has to remember “Oh, this is a woman”.
I definitely did that on purpose and was able in Lady Hotspur to get into explicit conversation through Hal and Charm. Besides, another reason why I wanted to introduce this Charm character is because it was a great opportunity to get into the different gender politics: cause that’s something that was hinted at in The Queens of Innis Lear but there was no story opportunity to actually interrogate that at all. I’ve been trying to gently challenge readers more instead of getting a baseball bat —because sometimes I do that and my books get “cancelled”—, so I am trying to learn more commercial ways to challenge readers and to entertain readers; find that line. So Prince Hal was a good way to do that.
The last question is about Night Shine (which will soon be published in Spain and the fourth novel of yours that we will get to read). Being as it is dedicated to genderfluid teens, enbies and transgeder kids, we would like you to explain to us how different it’s from previous fantasy young adult novels of yours.
The style is a little bit different. It is very much a fairy tale, so the language is very “once upon a time” and some of the names are fairy tale names: the Sorceress who Eats Girls and the main character’s name is Nothing (actually I’m really interested to see how the names are translated). That was something that was difficult as a writer and has been difficult for some readers, but that’s part of the point: names and labels and who we say we are to the world and being able to define ourselves and then change how we define ourselves.
The magic is explicitly non-binary, so the world itself is a very black and white world: they see power in a night vs. day, man vs. woman, they dress in color contrast (that’s a big part of the culture). But then the most powerful magic is the kind of magic that manages to break those binaries, to be in between; so it’s really just a story that is my own thesis about how power can be found in fluidity and in change. And part of the point of the word queer in itself is outside of the norm: it was a slur in the the US particularly for a long time and then part of reclaiming it has been “No, this is part of the things that we want, we want to find power in being non-binary, as far as sexuality and gender goes”.
And so that is… I wrote it. I loved it. It was hard because it is a very personal book. And where I struggle to find my own power not just as a person but also in publishing and to find my voice and find that place between stripping all the queerness out of Blood Magic and making everyone queer in Lady Hotspur. Where do I find myself and my voice? So Nightshine is kind of a story about that. All of the characters, all the main characters, have little pieces of me, much more explicitly than in most of my books. I’m very excited about it.
It is about a girl named Nothing who realizes that her best friend, who is the heir to the throne, has gone on an adventure and an impostor has come back. So she goes on a quest to rescue the prince, because she thinks that he has been kidnapped by the Sorceress who Eats Girls, because she knows that he is not... He uses masculine pronouns throughout the book because he has a lot of personal reasons for that, but he is indeed genderfluid and Nothing knows that about him, but it’s a secret. And, because of that, Nothing thinks that nobody is going to even think to look here because everyone thinks that Kiran is a boy and the Sorceress who Eats Girls only eats girls.
It’s a fairytale quest to rescue the prince from the Sorceress and then she finds out who she is in the process. There’s a lot of little demons and spirits, so it was a very fun book to write. I’m excited and I’m working on a sequel, actually, that hopefully Leo, my Spanish editor, will also want to publish.
So that’s all! Thank you so much, Tessa.
Thank you! Those were very interesting questions.