My Grace is Writing: An Interview with Graceling Author Kristin Cashore

Heidi on September 19, 2008

Graceling Anyone who reads YA Wednesday probably knows by now that I’m a big fan of Kristin Cashore and her first novel, Graceling. Katsa, the book’s 18-year-old, beautiful-yet-angsty girl protagonist lives in a world of seven kingdoms (it’s a fantasy novel, did I mention?) where she’s a Graceling (which means she has a “Grace” or special talent). Katsa's Grace happens to be her ability to kill with her bare hands, and she’s spent much of her young life as a henchman for the king. Her fighting skills are unmatched until she meets Po, a mysterious fellow Graceling from another kingdom. Fighting ensues. Romantic confusion ensues. Adventure ensues. It’s awesome.

People have been buzzing about this book since ALA last January, and raves were popping up on blogs all summer long. Cashore has also been connecting with readers through her fun website/blog, This is My Secret, where she talks about writing, blue herons, Graceling bookstore spottings, her other books in progress... and this photo (below) part of a recent SLJ shoot by Jensen Hande. (She also pre-answers the old standbys: “What’s your writing process?” and “How did you decide to become a writer?”) Sword_laughing_2

As she was getting ready to kick off her fall book tour, a busy Cashore talked to us about her experience of writing the book, and what she’s working on now: You had an interesting post on your blog recently about the YA classification being more for libraries and publishers, and that from a writing perspective it is simply about creating a book that you would want to read. At some point, though, you must know that you’re going to tell the story from a teenage perspective, which is subtly different from an adult perspective. When did that happen for you?

Kristin Cashore: It happened at the very beginning--my characters came into my head as teenagers. And for me, the difference in perspective is a very simple one. The challenges and confusions my characters face are no different from those an adult might face--questions about independence and interdependence, love versus entrapment, protecting the powerless, standing up to terrible injustice in the world, seeing yourself for all the things you are. But because my characters are young, they’re facing these issues for the first time, which adds this wonderful, palpable intensity to the writing process. (And hopefully to the final book, as well!) I think this is what I love so much about YA. Often, the same things happen in these books that happen in adult books, but in YA, they’re happening for the first time, which makes every problem huger and more confusing, every emotion more intense, every failure more shattering, and every success more triumphant. It’s a wonderful setup for getting at the emotional truth of basic life experiences. It’s also great for myth-making! On your website, you describe your writing process as starting with characters, or more specifically with arguments between characters. What was your inspiration for Katsa? How did she develop beyond the initial argument?

KC: I went back to my original book plan to look for the answer to this question, because the honest truth is that I can’t remember. It was funny to go back, because the very first note I ever wrote was something about a clinic for teaching self-defense to others—which is a natural progression for Katsa’s character, but doesn’t start to reveal itself until well into the book. I’d forgotten how early I was thinking of Katsa that way. I also seem to have been focused on the tiredness and sadness she feels about the violence of her own Grace, and also on her ferocious independence: her determination never to get married or have children is on my very first page of notes. So is her loneliness and her sense of herself as an “unnatural” person. And of course, I also have about 8 scribbled pages of arguments between Katsa and Po (even though I wasn’t sure who they were at that point—their names and circumstances keep changing in the arguments)!

Seriously, though, getting your characters to squabble is a great way to get the sense of who they are. People reveal their vulnerabilities when they’re all wound up and maybe saying things they shouldn’t, you know? And conflict is helpful when you’re trying to plan a book. Character and plot grow from conflict. At what point did the world of the seven kingdoms emerge, and how did it evolve and affect the arc of the story?

KC: I went back to my book plan for this question, too, and was kind of amused to discover that the seven kingdoms emerged very specifically from the opening scene I wanted to use for the book. I wanted the book to begin with Katsa sneaking at midnight through the court of a kingdom other than her own, rescuing a stranger who’d been kidnapped from a strange land. This gave me at least three kingdoms just to start with: Katsa’s, the stranger’s strange land, and the kingdom of the kidnappers. So, from the beginning, I had a sense of a big world, and as I hammered out the plot, that world kept growing. I realized that it worked for there to be a number of kingdoms, most of which were badly run—it fit in with Katsa’s desire to sneak around from kingdom to kingdom doling out undercover justice. It also made the mystery I was building more mysterious—if there are seven kings, it takes longer for your protagonist to figure out who’s responsible for mysterious goings on.

I fleshed out the details of my world as I went along, and that includes its dramatic landscapes and weather, which turned out to be really fun tools for making my characters miserable! I’m always curious to know how writers gravitate toward a certain genre. Did fantasy present itself as the best genre for Katsa, or were you interested in writing fantasy from the start?

KC: I definitely did not sit down and say, “Okay, I want to be a fantasy writer.” In fact, I wrote Graceling after writing a (feeble) middle grade contemporary novel, and after writing Graceling, I wrote a (dreadful) YA contemporary novel. Both of them need major work (in case you haven’t gathered that), but they were a refreshing break from fantasy. I hope to get back to them after I finish the fantasy manuscript I’m currently writing. I also have an idea for a book that might best be described as (contemporary) magical realism… I’m eager to give that a try. Switching things up now and then is definitely good for the brains!

I’m a voracious YA fantasy reader--I adore Robin McKinley and Tamora Pierce, for example--and I also tend to love King Arthur retellings (like Mary Stewart’s and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s, for example). When Graceling came to me, it came with that kind of feel (NOT that I’m equating myself with those marvelous writers). For one thing, I knew that Katsa and Po had superhuman abilities; also, I knew that they lived in a pre-Industrial Revolution and pre-feminist movement world. At any rate, I think I made both Katsa and Po a bit too sparkly for realism! There are also elements of romantic comedy, particularly in Katsa and Po’s battle training. Where does that influence come from?

KC: I see what you mean--one of the formulae for romantic comedy is that the partners fight each other, right up until the very moment when they realize their attraction and give in to it. Katsa and Po definitely get to know each other in a combative way—literally—and there is an unavoidable physical intimacy to that. And both of them enjoy it (though I expect Katsa is rather unaware of certain aspects of her own enjoyment of it). It’s a good question, and I’m not sure what influenced that for me. I’d have to say that conflict in relationships has always interested me a whole lot more than people getting along. Princess Leia and Han Solo are so much more interesting before they realize they’re in love and get all kissy and sappy. And who doesn’t like a good fight? :o)

I guess part of the romantic comedy aspect also grew naturally from Katsa’s clueless nature. She is utterly oblivious when it comes to romance; it could not be more off her radar or further from her interests; and that allowed me to put her into the occasional amusing situation--such as her total flabbergastedness (that’s a word, right?) when a friend proposes marriage to her.

I suppose the fighting/falling in love thing also grew directly from Katsa’s nature, come to think of it. Fighting might be the only way a character like Katsa could fall in love. The nature of the Graces and how they work is a central part of the story. How did you develop them? Did the special abilities of each Graceling drive the story at all, or did you allow new Graces to reveal themselves as you were writing?

KC: This is going to be a tricky question to answer without giving away spoilers—I’m allergic to spoilers—but I’ll try—forgive me if I’m impossibly vague at times!

Katsa’s and Po’s Graces certainly drove my plotting process. Their Graces, in all of their manifestations, were in place in my mind from the beginning. And the metaphorical and physical journeys each of them goes on—and the way that they come to terms with the truths of their Graces—was part of my plan all along. The plot that you see is very Grace-driven, and with some small adjustments, it is pretty much the plot I’d planned out from the beginning.

Actually, a side note here: with a book like Graceling, where there are many things going on that fit together in a somewhat complicated way, it can be really hard to change your plot plan once you’ve begun! Changing one thing creates a ripple effect of other changes throughout the book, and with everything wound so tightly together, you have to be super careful, or the whole thing starts to collapse. Does that make sense? It certainly added a level of stress to my many rounds of revisions.
Returning to your question about the Graces. All of the major characters’ Graces were in place from the beginning. But certain minor Gracelings did surprise me by revealing themselves as I was writing. A couple examples: I didn’t realize that one of the kings had a guard of 15 Gracelings until I got to the question of how he was guarded; nor had I planned out the character of Captain Faun, a sea captain who’s Graced with knowing the weather before it comes. Besides Katsa, who's your favorite character in the story and why?

KC: Ooo, this is a fun question. I’d like to mystify everyone by picking Po’s doorman, or the goose Katsa catches for dinner one night, or something. And it’s true I am rather fond of some of my secondary characters—Captain Faun and the Lienid sailors, for example, and King Ror, and Po’s brother Skye. Hmm. Everyone I’ve named so far (other than the goose) is from the kingdom of Lienid, which suggests a prejudice, and also leads me to my true favorite, the Lienid prince, Po.

Here’s the thing: Po fits with Katsa. He sort of belongs in a book with Katsa—and so it’s hard for me to consider one a favorite without bringing in the other. I won’t say they complete each other, because that “You complete me” line from Jerry Maguire makes me shrivel inside. I’m all for people completing themselves. (Although I do love when Heath Ledger’s Joker says it, satirically, to Christian Bale’s Batman!) But Katsa and Po do happen to have skills and temperaments and vulnerabilities that work well together. They’re good for each other, they’re a good fit, and fitting with each other makes each of them a bit more comfortable in an uncomfortable world.

It can start to get gross when authors analyze their own characters—AND if I say any more I’m getting too close to spoilers—so I’ll stop there. Because you’ve studied and written about children’s literature pretty extensively, you probably have a much more evolved perspective on YA fiction than many reviewers. How has that affected your experience of publishing your first novel, and seeing reviewer and reader responses?

KC: My MA in children’s literature and my critical writing definitely affected the writing of Graceling. Firstly because in some sense, the act of writing critically was a wonderful precursor to writing creatively. There are huge differences--writing creatively feels much less constricting to me—but you need a lot of the same tools to do both well: structure, rhythm, subtlety, persistence, passion, the patience to wait for the right turn of phrase. Secondly because studying any sort of literature teaches you about things like depth--layers of meaning--that are fun and rewarding things to play with in creative writing.

I’d say it’s also had one negative effect, which is that I sometimes overanalyze my own writing. “Will it survive a feminist reading? A multicultural reading? A Marxist reading? Why are all of my heroes from the noble class? Oh, this is dreadful!” Sometimes I have to say to myself, “Turn it off, already!”

I don’t think my studies have had much effect on what it’s been like to see reviewer and reader responses, however, except maybe to make me appreciate the responses even more. Reviewing is an art in itself—one that, incidentally, I find agonizingly difficult, so I take my hat off to good reviewers. And my reviewers seem to have studied children’s literature just as closely as I have, if not more. And—nothing is more gratifying to me than the responses I’ve gotten from young readers. I certainly have nothing on them when it comes to depth of emotion and the ability to express it in words. I get the funniest and most touching emails! It breaks my heart that I don’t have the time to write back to everyone. We’ve linked to your blog a couple of times on YA Wednesday, mostly because it’s fun and you seem to really be talking to your readers. Do you feel like your blog has helped you connect with general readers or is it too early to tell?

KC: I have a love-hate relationship with my blog. It’s an evil temptress always trying to suck up my time. I have so much fun with it; I love being goofy, being honest, letting off steam, posting fun links, embedding videos of Beaker singing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” etc. And I love interacting with my commenters. But I think I need to set up some boundaries in my own mind, so that, for example, I am not constantly writing my next blog post in my head every time I go for a walk. A blog can take over your life, the same way bread dough can take over your kitchen if you use too much yeast. This may be especially true for writers. (The blog part, I mean, not the bread dough part; sometimes I use too much yeast, but that’s a reading problem, not a writing problem…)

But to get to your question, which I seem to have avoided so far—the blog is beginning to connect me with general readers, which is awesome. It’ll take some time to see how much that aspect of it grows. I’m hopeful. You’re working on two other books related to Graceling. How’s that going? Do you see it as a series or just related novels?

KC: HA! It’s nice of you to imply that it’s going, though I suppose that could be interpreted in a number of ways. It’s going somewhere, definitely, or at least I’m going somewhere (namely, the Planet of Crazy).
That was not an auspicious beginning. Let me try again.

Why, yes. There are two other books related to Graceling, thank you for asking. One, tentatively titled Fire, is sort of a prequel and sort of a companion book, and is currently in revisions; it’ll be in bookstores in fall 2009. Fire takes place 30 or 40 years before Graceling, in a land across the “uncrossable” mountains to the east of the seven kingdoms--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 the hair or scales or feathers of monsters 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. The book is her story, and if you’re wondering what connects it to Graceling, the answer is that one of the minor characters is a creepy little boy with mismatched eyes who comes from no-one-knows-where and seems to have some peculiar verbal abilities.… Graceling readers might be able to guess who this is!

The other, tentatively titled Bitterblue, is sort of a sequel and sort of a companion book. Bitterblue takes place 6 years after Graceling and stars a sixteen-year-old Bitterblue, whom Graceling readers should remember. Po and Katsa and other folks from Graceling also appear in the book, of course, but it’s Bitterblue’s story, and at the moment it is comprised of about 150 pages of “rot, shards, and contagion,” which is a line I borrow fondly from Lynne Rae Perkins’s Criss Cross. Perkins uses it to describe a pile of garbage. I use it, frequently, to describe my own writing. At the top of a page in my writing notebook, for example, I will scrawl, ‘THIS IS ROT AND SHARDS AND CONTAGION but that’s okay because I’ll fix it later.” Highly motivational. Sigh… Bitterblue has a long way to go yet.

I think that each novel will stand on its own, but I also think it’d work best to read them in the order in which they were written. I never planned to write a series; I wrote Graceling as a stand-alone book. But then these other stories began to call to me—and I decided to answer the call. :o)


Thanks, Kristin. --Heidi

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