Author Tamora Pierce made a name creating trailblazing heroines long before “strong female protagonist” became a YA buzzword and a way to bank millions at the box office. Her pioneering stories earned her the Margaret A. Edwards’ Award for her “significant and lasting contribution to writing for teens,” the American Library Association’s highest honor for young adult writers. Many of today’s most well-regarded and bestselling YA writers also consider Pierce’s books something of a touchstone.
Sarah J. Maas is among them. She says, “Tamora Pierce’s books shaped me not only as a young writer but also as a young woman. Her complex, unforgettable heroines and vibrant, intricate worlds blazed a trail for young adult fantasy — and I get to write what I love today because of the path she forged throughout her career. She is a pillar, an icon, and an inspiration. Cracking open one of her marvelous novels always feels like coming home.” Wow.
Garth Nix agrees: “Tamora Pierce’s writing is like water from the swiftest, most refreshingly clear, invigorating, and revitalizing river. I return to her books time and time again.”
Tamora Pierce’s Tempests and Slaughter, which will be published in February 2018, will be the newest story from her beloved world of Tortall — the setting for many of her legendary books that have captured readers’ imaginations for decades. So why are we talking about it now? Because Pierce is coming to Nashville on Friday, November 3, 2017. And because she will release Tortall: A Spy’s Guide on October 31 — full of insider extras about Tortall and its characters for fans old and new.
Leigh Bardugo: I’m so delighted to get to talk to you. I was lucky enough to join you for a panel in New Orleans a few years back and it’s still one of the best events I’ve ever gotten to be a part of. At one point, you did a shockingly good imitation of a marmoset and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder.
Zoo creatures aside, like so many readers, I’ve been living in Tortall for a long time. When you began these books, did you have a sense for how broad and deep that world would become? Or were the boundaries more modest?
Tamora Pierce: I had no notion whatsoever of where the books would go when I started! All I knew was the scene in which Alanna and Thom’s father told them they were leaving for school. After that I literally followed Alanna as she talked Coram into letting her pass as her twin so she could study warcraft at the palace. I saw each new place as they went to it, developing characters and scenarios as they were needed. It was the only time I would write a book this way, and it went through a lot of revisions after I split it into four at my agent’s request. I wouldn’t start planning books out before I started to write when I began the Daine books, when I had to come up with ideas to sell to my publishers that I hadn’t been working on for a decade!
LB: Alanna, Beka, Keladry, Numair, and more. You’ve given us many different kinds of protagonists and shown us many different kinds of strength and intelligence. How do you build your heroes and heroines?
TP: When I started to write in middle school I soon realized my characters were all alike. I fixed that first by basing characters on people I knew. When I ran out of people I knew, or I needed someone different, I turned to performers or actors, sometimes the characters played by an actor, athletes, and sometimes simply from photographs that grabbed me. Once I work with a character for a short while they become their own people, separate from those I base them on, so I seldom tell them. In the meantime I know how they dress, how they move and talk, and often the way they think.
Thus my younger sister the paramedic became Alanna (only with red hair, not blond), my dad became the Lord Provost in Alanna’s time, and my stepmother became the Shang Wildcat. (This tells you something about my family!) Fellow writer and a bit of a trickster himself, Bruce Coville became Kyprioth in the Aly books. I excelled myself with my best friend: she is Queen Thayet (yes, she is that beautiful); her imperious mother is a Stormwing queen; her cranky dove became a griffin; two of her dogs were dragons, and two more became the dogs Achoo, and Little Bear. (Actually, I cast a lot of animals I know in my books, including my cats and animals I know from city parks.)
Once I have the look and name for the character, I write them interacting with the others. That reveals their characters to me. They always turn into their own people, separate (mostly) from those I’ve based them on. This is why I rarely tell people when I’ve based a character on them. (It’s also safer that way. Either they dislike the character they’ve become, or the character is a little too close to the real person.)
LB: Has the kind of character you’re drawn to changed? And are there any “musts” when it comes to your main characters?
TP: Definitely as my life and experience have grown, so has what I’ve learned about people. I hope my understanding of people has improved and expanded — I work hard at that. These days people are far more open about who they are, for one thing, and I travel more. I’ve introduced more varied characters now in terms of race, sexuality, ethnicity, and physical and mental issues, where I can do so and they fit. It’s part of my lifelong desire to make fantasy as realistic as possible: I want readers to feel they can enter the stories and take part.
As times have changed, I’ve tried to bring more variety in my characters to my books. It’s important that readers feel part of my universes—there’s too much exclusion and battering in this one. And I’m not perfect at it. Sometimes I screw up royally in my attempts to portray people of different races and beliefs, and sometimes I offend royally. Then I have to shut up, listen, learn, and try to do better. It’s a process, but it’s worth it.
LB: Despite the boom in YA and the welcome proliferation of female protagonists, I feel like we keep having the same discussions about what our characters are allowed to do and how likeable they have to be. What would you like to see more of in fiction for young adults?
TP: Many more non-middle-class-whites and first-worlders, vari-gendered/differently-abled lead characters. (I know, put your money where your mouth is, Pierce.) Less fall-in-love-forever-with-the-first-one-you-have-sex-with books, more books where the lead is active for a positive end, either deliberately or by accident (accident is more fun). Less happily-ever-after, more let’s-create-something. Plenty of writers already do this, but there are still too many catty cliques and fancy-shoe books for my liking.
LB: Has your process changed much over the years and as you’ve moved from place to place? Are there things that have gotten easier or harder along the way?
TP: I hope so! Any kind of artist doesn’t keep growing/changing in their work will go stagnant. They’ll either quit being able to work or they’ll keep creating the same thing over and over. I’ve been lucky to have people in my life who have urged me to take chances—all of my editors, particularly Mallory Loehr at Penguin Random House, who has always urged me to take a new turn in a new series (whether I accepted the idea graciously or not!), and my writing buddy Bruce Coville.
Things don’t get easier when you keep trying something new — they just get a different kind of hard. That’s all right as long as you make it work. There are often days I just walk into our living room and yell till I cough my ire out, but that’s just how I have to survive things. I really don’t want to get stale, and that’s the alternative.
LB: I can’t wait to explore Tortall in A Spy’s Guide. Can you give us a little taste of what to expect?
TP: It’s a collection of documents that should make sense to most fans. The story is: George (Tortall’s assistant spy master) is clearing out the office adjacent to his. When his children were small he kept them there while his wife and the nanny were away. Once they were old enough for tutors, he kept documents in there. Now he’s cleaning out crates and crates of who knows what from the beginning of his time on the job. Like most of us, he starts reading some of the documents, and we get a look at things that have passed through his hands. There are dossiers the spies have compiled on visitors, including people we know and people we don’t. There are palace menus and notes from the chef. We have reports on urgent matters, letters to the princess meant to marry the heir, dance steps, portraits of notables, images of weird critters—something for everyone, coming on Halloween!
LB: At the risk of going full fan, I just want to thank you for being so generous with new authors and for giving me so many happy hours as a reader.
TP: My thanks to you, Lady Leigh! Keep up your own amazing work! Cheers.
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