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Holly Black

El Templo #94 (junio-julio 2023)
Por Carlota Bouwmans
132 lecturas
Holly Black (New Jersey, 1971) ia a famous North-American writer of what she describes as "melancholy and decadent contemporary fantasy". She has published over thirty young adult novels and, recently, an adult one (The Book of Night, 2022). She is known internationally thanks to the stories set in the world of Faerie, such as the Modern Faerie Tales or the Folk of the Air trilogy. We have had the chance to interview her in Madrid during the tour for her latest book, The Stolen Heir.


Let’s begin talking about your visit to Spain. This weekend you will be signing in different bookstores of Madrid, but this is just the last stop of a tour across Europe where you’ve also visited France and Poland. What is it like to go on tour for a writer?

Usually, you’re moving every day, so you get up, you fly somewhere, find some food, go to sleep, get up, and do it again. I’ve been really lucky with this tour because in the flying dates we haven’t done an event just to make sure I got there and everything was okay, so I got to walk around a little bit. We got to walk around Paris, we got to walk around Krakow, and yesterday I got to walk around here. I got tired a bit, [laughs] but still, so fun to walk around and see the Palace and the maze gardens. Loved the maze.

This is the second time that we have the pleasure to interview you. The first time was in 2011. Back then, you hadn’t yet published the The Folk of the Air trilogy, which has been a massive success worldwide. How would you say your career has changed in the last decade?

2011 would have been… The Curse Workers would have just come out, I think? I’m trying to think where my career was in 2011, [laughs] I think that’s where it was.

Yeah, I mean, I think in 2011 I had, at that point, written in Faerie for a very long time. It’d been about 10 years, and I was actually doing some other things. It was during the time when I was writing my magical mobster books, the Curse Workers, it was just before I wrote Coldest Girl in Coldtown, and so probably the biggest difference, other than the fact that so many people have read The Folk of the Air, is that I came back to Faerie, with Darkest part of the Forest and then with Folk of the Air and now The Stolen Heir. And I also wrote an adult book in between! So, a lot of changes, really.

The first books that you wrote that took place in Faerieland are the Modern Faerie Tales. Since then, you’ve written many more novels based on the world of faeries, the last one being The Stolen Heir. When you began to create the world of Faerieland, were you already aware of the magnitude of this setting? At that moment, did you plan to write more stories based on it?

No, I mean, when I was writing Tithe, it was my first book, and I was like “Please, let me figure out how books work”. I remember getting to the end of the draft that finally was the book and being like “This feels like a book. This feels like the ending of a book. I think I wrote a BOOK”. Because, before that, I had been kinda floundering in the middle, and trying to get the characters to get up off the couches and go on quests and do things, and trying to teach myself dialogue and characterization, you know, what makes tension.

And I know some people talk about second books as being more difficult, but I cannot imagine that because to me nothing will ever be as hard as that first book, where I really came into it being like “Books. What are they really?” [laughs].

So, Tithe was the first book that you actually finished and made you feel like “Okay. Now I’m going somewhere”.

Yeah! And I was so relieved to be finished, I never thought beyond that. I just thought: “I’ve made a book!” [laughs]. In fact, the moment I realized I was gonna have to write the second book, I really was like “What? Another one?! [laughs] Alright, if this is what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna have to write more of these”.

Something that stands out about the setting of your books is that you combine the most mundane aspects of the real world with a fictional faerie land which is totally unpredictable. The real world as we know it is always present, creating a very interesting dissonance between the two. Why keep the human element in your stories?

I think that, um, something that really interests me… Well, fairies are part of our world, in a way, right? The folklore comes from our world. Fairies have always existed in stories alongside people, and to me that relationship and that dissonance is part of what they are and what is interesting about them. The thing that I come back to again and again with fairies is Christina Rosetti’s fairy fruit in her Goblin Market, where you have this thing that is delicious and will destroy you, that will make all other food be dust and ashes in your mouth. You definitely shouldn’t eat it, but you want to; it’s a kind of ruinous beauty, and I think that feeling is the thing that I come back to when I’m writing about Faerie.

Another ever-present feature of your stories is that the protagonists are outcasts, beings of any kind that feel that they don’t belong to their world. For some of them, like Jude in The Folk of the Air or Kaye in Tithe, Faerieland is a way to escape to a place where their oddities are insignificant. Is that a message that you wanted to convey in your stories or did it come up naturally while you were writing them?

I write a lot of times about characters who are torn between worlds, who have one foot in one place and one foot in another, and are trying to reconcile those parts of themselves. The reason that they feel like outcasts is because in both places they’re aware of the tension, and I think that is something that I’ve certainly felt in my life. I think it’s something that people often feel, when you’re being pulled in two directions, and you are being asked to choose. Usually, by the end of the story, the thing that I have wanted for all of those people is to find a way to have a foot in both worlds forever, to find a way to reconcile those two halves instead of choosing.

Well, I would say that Wren is maybe a little bit different, because she is truly an outcast in her own. She is unable to reapproach the world that she wants, so I think she’s on a slightly different journey.

Let’s talk about the Folk of the Air trilogy. Jude Duarte is a fascinating character. We could say that almost all your characters are gray in the sense that they are willing to commit atrocities for their own benefit, but Jude is specially ruthless. How did such a complex character take shape in your mind?

So, I think Jude… For her, really, the crucible of who she is is in the prologue, where she’s living in the human world, a guy comes along, murders her parents and then takes the three kids. What I think fascinates me a lot about Faerie is that they have a different moral compass, so he [Madoc] is like “Well, it is true that I murdered these people, and… that’s okay. But, it wouldn’t be okay for me to leave these kids. Obviously I must take them back and raise them as my own, because they’re my wife’s children”. Again, just a moral system that as humans we do not identify with.

So, Jude is taken back and she is raised by Madoc and she comes to think of him as her dad, but she is never going to forget that he killed her parents. That essential tension and that essential lack of ever really having safety, and ever really having power, forms who she is. To me, the question of the Folk of the Air books is how far she would go for power, and by extension, safety—but also power. And in the end, you know, would you be willing to burn Elfhame to ash, have the person you love leashed forever, if you were sitting on a throne of skulls at the end?

The trilogy that began with The Cruel Prince is the first thing that comes to many readers’ minds when they think about the enemies-to-lovers trope. However, its plot, full of conspiracy and plot twists is also remarkable, as well as the setting, which always unveils places that we didn’t know before. What do you enjoy writing the most: the endless corners of Faerieland, the complex plots or the romance?

It’s a complicated answer because… It’s not always fun to write the hard parts, but there’s a different way it’s enjoyable. I went ahead when I was writing The Cruel Prince and wrote the part where Jude takes Cardan captive and she is literally thinking: “Kill this guy. I would be so much less stressed. I’m scared of him, and you know what would make me less scared of him? If he was dead”. And 15 minutes later, he is like “I have these feelings for you and I’m disgusted by them”, and she’s like “WHAT?! That was not the relationship I thought we had” [laughs].

I wrote that part because I knew that the book wouldn’t work if that part didn’t work. But it was really stressful to write because I was thinking “I need to make this work, and I need to calibrate it, and I need to get all these lines right”, whereas, “Description of a fairy ball? Let’s go! What’s on the feasting table? This is just fun” [laughs].

So, there are different kinds of enjoyment: one is the gears that make stuff work, but I have a lot of fun with the stuff that is pure candy.

Let’s move to The Stolen Heir, your last novel. In this beginning of a new duology, we follow Suren, the queen of the now dissolved Court of Teeth. Suren already appeared in The Queen of Nothing, which leads us to believe that her story had been brewing in your mind for some time. When and how did you start to think about writing this new duology, which also follows Oak, Jude’s brother?

When I was writing Queen of Nothing, I realized that I was interested in this truly horrifying child [laughs] who also was no doubt terrifying. There are awful things happening to her, but she is so scary that I don’t think we necessarily read all the awful things happening to her as how terrifying they would really be. And I think some of them, we look at them and we think “Are they restraining her from doing something?”, and we don’t quite know how to approach her. But I was really interested in what it would be like to take her and then go on a journey with her.

And with Oak, the thing I was most interested in is that he… His sisters and his mother are trying so hard to protect him. So much of the plot of The Folk of the Air is to keep him from having the traumatic childhood they had, and also from being in great danger. So they want him to be okay, right? They want him to be okay.

But how is he gonna be okay? He knows that his birthmother was murdered because of him, he knows that his family right now is ripped apart because of him. He knows all of this stuff, and so, he has both the pressure of seeming okay, because they did all this stuff for him, but he also has a debt that he feels he can never repay.

Oak is such an interesting character because you see him as a child in The Folk of the Air trilogy, and then you jump to see him as a young adult, taking risks and seducing people. It’s shocking to imagine him that way.

Yeah, I wanted to… It’s hard to take somebody that you know as a kid and then make them an adult, and I was hoping that, especially by making him seem a little bit silly and a little bit sunny when we meet him, we would not necessarily expect the stuff we would then find out about him.

If there’s anything in which all of your readers can agree, it is that the endings of your novels are difficult to foresee. You always manage to surprise us, and The Stolen Heir is no exception. For you, is the ending one of the most important parts of a story?

Absolutely. The ending is… It’s the thing you leave with. I think that if a book is working up until the ending and the ending doesn’t work, you can’t come out of it with the same kind of enjoyment, whereas if other parts of the book aren’t working… It’s not like I want them not to work, but if the ending works, it’s the taste you leave with. You can forgive some other parts, so I think it is really one of the most important things.

I think the most important thing is the beginning, because otherwise you’ll never get to the ending. You want in the beginning to feel like you’ve been made an intriguing promise, and that you’re in the hands of somebody who knows what they’re going to be doing.

You’re writing the sequel of The Stolen Heir in this moment, titled The Prisoner’s Throne. What's the writing process of this book being like?

I finished the draft! When I go home I have to “engooden” it [laughs].

But, yeah, when I decided I wanted to do a duology, one of the things I thought about was: “What is something that I can only do in a duology form?”. And the idea of having one book from one character’s point of view and then the second book from the second character’s point of view really intrigued me, because I had never done it before. And obviously, when you get to the end of The Stolen Heir, Oak’s got some problems he needs to work out in the next book. [laughs]

So, it was really fun to have somebody [Suren], then both move forward in the story, but also give insight into what was really happening and what was going on with him internally, and what was going on with Elfhame that led him to do the things he did. That part was very enjoyable.

Oak will be the narrator of the second book, then. Interesting!

You’ve also written an adult novel, The Book of Night. What are the main differences that you noticed when you switched from a Young Adult public to an Adult one?

This is going to sound silly, because it’s obvious, but it actually made a huge difference: the protagonist has ten more years of life, at least. And, again, it seems really obvious but it’s ten more years of being a different person. Because we reinvent ourselves over and over, we go through different jobs, and different communities, and so they have a lot more history. That was a really interesting thing to grapple with: of how many different places she [the protagonist] could have been, and how many different mistakes she could have made, because [laughs] Charlie Hall has made a lot of mistakes in her life.

And one last question before we go: if you were part of Faerieland, ¿which creature would you like to be? Human, faerie, red hat, witch…

Hmm, I like that question. I… I might like to be a kelpie. ‘Cause I like to swim. And I could change myself into a lot of different… I could be a person, sometimes, I could be a pony other times… [laughs].

That is so cool! Interesting choice. Well, that is all for now. Thank so much for talking with us and have a nice weekend in Madrid!

[Laughs] Thank you!