In the very first chapter of The Thief, you explain the geography of the kingdoms that have figured in all four novels. Were you conscious of laying out the foundation for a series from the start?
That's a hard question to answer when you put it that way. Everything I've since written about that world was there when I wrote The Thief. Mede, the Continent, the larger conflicts, all the other characters existed in my head as I was writing The Thief. I didn't intend to write more than The Thief at the time.
The rest of the series is all Barbara Barstow's fault. She was at the Cuyahoga County Library in Ohio. When Susan Hirschman [then Turner's editor] called to congratulate me on the Newbery Honor, she said, "Barbara Barstow has a question for you: 'Where's the next book?' " I folded up what I was working on at the time and started work on The Queen of Attolia instead.
How are you able to ground readers in a sense of place the way you do, using all five senses?
When I'm imagining the story, all of my senses are active, so I'm imagining what the people are seeing and thinking and hearing and smelling. Sometimes I pick the one I'm best able to describe. I might not be able to adequately describe what the aroma is in the air, so I'll describe what they hear. Sometimes you just have writing fail. You have to go with what you can do (and do right), instead of what you want to write that continues to come out wrong when you try to get it onto the page.
How do you choose the narrative form for each tale?
Different things have gone into each of those decisions. When I was writing The Thief, I was really interested in the conventions that drive a first-person narrative. So often in the first-person narrative the hero wakes up and reflects on her life, then looks in the mirror. Of course it's artificial, but because it's conventional, we accept it without thinking. In The Thief I was more interested in the superficial thoughts of the narrator through the course of events in the story. I wanted to see how strong people's sense of conventions are, and the answer is: really really really strong. I feel that I gave away things over and over and over again, and the power of people's conventions were so strong that they were surprised at the end.
What has drawn you back to this world again and again?
After I started to work on The Queen of Attolia, I realized that there were more complete stories in my head for these people. When I have a brain full of random pieces of information, it is just a brain full of random pieces of information. Once I block out an entire story, it stays in my head until I get it written. I've tried several times to take a break and write short stories, and I realized I couldn't until I got these stories finished.
Does that mean that once you sit down to write, the stories are right there?
I tell myself that right up until I sit down in front of the computer. I have clearly fooled myself, that I'll just bang it out because, after all, I know the stories. But when you're putting it down on the page, you're taking something three-dimensional and making it two-dimensional. Which of the events will be carved into stone and put into the text?
Readers unpack it. They have a great deal of control over what's generated in their own heads by the text. It's one of the reasons I avoid telling readers how I pronounce the names of the characters. It's up to them to decide for themselves. Or explaining what's in the text. It's either in there or it isn't. I don't want to tell you what really happened on page 135. I want to leave autonomy for readers to make the story in their own heads. And therefore the story that comes out is not necessarily the same as the story in my head, nor does it have to be. People can read one of my books and come up with a completely different interpretation of events. If they're happy with it, I'm happy for them.
Is there another episode to come?
There are two more. Then I will have these stories, I hope, out of my head and I'll start writing something else.
[Spoiler Alert: If you haven't yet read The Thief or The Queen of Attolia, you may want to skip these next two answers.]
Do you think in part that people were startled by the ending of The Thief because they enjoy being surprised?
Part of it was people's reluctance to hint at the ending in reviews. Think about how controversy over spoilers has grown since The Thief was published, and discussions about "Is it okay to include spoilers or not?" I know that no one spoiled the ending for years. People went in not expecting to be tricked, and so they weren't looking for things. I'm one of those people who reads mysteries and never figures out the end because I don't want to know the end. Some do it for sport: "By what page did you know who the murderer was?" I'm more interested in being presented with a neat package at the end that's very satisfying.
What we expect from a narrative drives what we see in a narrative. Going back to the example of the first-person narrator recounting the story of her life in the first 10 pages--on the one hand, I know authors work hard to seamlessly integrate those things into their story; on the other hand, I know that readers, whether they're 12 or 25, will accept that set-up as natural even though it's artificial. It's artificial, but in a way that we accept--in the same way that a red octagonal sign means we stop, and we don't even think about it. There are rules in storytelling that we know, but we don't know that we know them. We can be played very easily by other people manipulating those rules.
How do you work with your editor?
I remember after The Thief, when I was writing Queen of Attolia, I didn't tell them anything about it and didn't send in the draft until I had it very close to being finished. I knew I was cutting the hand off my main character; it was only going to take one sideways look from Susan Hirschman and my nerve would have failed. I had to know that she had seen exactly what I had in mind before she said, "No, you can't do that." I didn't want to be left thinking, "Well, she didn't really understand how well it would've turned out when I cut off his hand." I knew I had to show her exactly what I wanted to do before she had any idea it was coming.
When Barbara Barstow asked me for another book, I started to think about exactly what would happen in Gen's future, and I quickly realized that I could produce a whole series of books with him getting into trouble and triumphing, and getting into trouble and triumphing, and getting into trouble and triumphing, and that would ultimately be very unsatisfying for me and for readers. The next significant thing in Gen's story was him getting into trouble and not getting out of it. The interesting thing is what happens when he gets caught. So I had to think for awhile about what would happen that wouldn't be fatal, and wouldn't be "Gen gets out of it again." Losing his hand is a compromise position. It didn't come out of nowhere. Probably the biggest influence on that story is The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, about a boy who has his whole life planned, and in a catastrophic moment of heroism he shatters his femur and cannot be a soldier anymore. What do you do with the whole rest of your life when your plans have been changed?