Holly Black is one of my heroes. She’s an incredibly talented writer, obsessed (in the best way) with the fantasy worlds of the faerie, and she takes us, her readers, on amazing nail-biting journeys. In “Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale,” a wonderful dark and edge-of-your-seat fantasy, while it was the story of 16 year old Kaye, it was also the story of Corny, a gay teen. For including Corny in the world of Faerie, for including gay people in her staggering flight of fantasy, I will always be one of Holly Black’s most enthusiastic fans.
I had the good fortune to land an exclusive SCBWI Team Blog interview with Holly Black as part of the countdown to SCBWI’s 38th Annual Summer Conference on Writing and Illustrating for Children, coming up August 7-10, 2009 in Los Angeles. (You can still register for it!)
Here, for your enjoyment, is our virtual conversation.
Lee: Hi, Holly. First, let me thank you for agreeing to be interviewed here. I’m really looking forward to this. Ready? Here goes. First question: What’s a perfect writing day for you?
Holly: A perfect writing day is a day where I get a ton of pages written and am able to jot down lots of notes for the book as a whole. Maybe it's the day when I figure out the important twist or something that makes a character I've been struggling with come alive. It's when the pages I produce won't have to be massively revised; instead, they're full of lines that express exactly the feeling I was hoping for.
The perfect writing day almost never happens.
Lee: That made me laugh - but it's good to know what a perfect day WOULD be. You write both Middle Grade and Young Adult novels. Can you tell us what you see as the difference in how you approach those stories?
Holly: I think that whenever I am writing a book, I try and cast myself in the characters' headspace. And when I'm writing middle grade, I try to remember what it felt like to be nine and ten and twelve. What I noticed. What I was interested in. When I'm writing teen books I try to remember what it was like to be sixteen or eighteen or twenty. What I was really doing. What's true. And from there, it's easy to differentiate the way the stories will go.
Lee: That's makes so much sense. Kind of like we writers have to have these multiple ages of arrested development, so we can remember what it was like to be our character's ages!
Here's something I've been wondering: In the world of picture books, there is very little interaction between the writer and the illustrator (unless of course, they’re the same person!) You’ve worked with Tony DiTerlizzi (a writer and illustrator) on the many amazing books in the Spiderwick Chronicles series, and with Ted Naifeh (an illustrator) on the awesome graphic novel “The Good Neighbors.” What’s your vision on the collaboration between words and pictures?
Holly: Actually, what I learned from those experiences was how different it was to work with different artists. With Tony, we'd sit down and discuss the plot together, then I'd go off and write while he drew and we'd send work back and forth with comments. With Ted, we had a much more traditional collaboration. I wrote each of the books and we did briefly discuss the plot (Ted gave me a great idea, in fact - one that changed the whole series) but mostly we each did our work in relative isolation. Right now I am working on a project with the illustrator Rebecca Guay tentatively titled Angels Fall - and that's different too. Like all relationships, each collaboration has its natural flow and finding that is the challenge and, ideally, the fun.
Lee: That makes a lot of sense - just like any two creative people would have different ways of collaborating. You know, I actually listened to the Spiderwick Chronicles as an audio book in my car before I ever saw any of the illustrations, and it completely worked for me. Then I got the books out from the library, and it was so interesting to "see" the characters from Tony's artistic vision. I imagine that if I'd read them with the illustrations first, it would also have been wonderful, but it would have been a different KIND of wonderful. You have books in print, books on audio, and even books made into movies. What do you feel is the ideal way (or order) for people to encounter your stories?
Holly: I feel like as a writer, I hope people will read my books. Listening to them (and certainly viewing them as a film) changes the experience, which is fine too. People should choose the way they like best. There's no wrong way.
Lee: I find that sometimes, there’s this sense that if the literature is going to have so few representations of a minority, there’s an effort to not show that minority character in a bad light - which sometimes leads to them lacking any flaws, and thus being boring. The flip side is that any “bad” traits of the character can seem like you’re stereotyping the entire group.
When you’re writing a character who is part of an under-represented group (like Corny, the gay teen in “Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale”), how do you deal with the pressure of “role modeling” the character?
Holly: The more a character is a complex, layered person, the less that character stands in for any one group, but it's also our job as writers to be responsible in our portrayals. Knowing stereotypes is important, not just in terms of avoiding them but also because the character would be aware of them. And I think it's important to know people in the group being represented.
With Corny, I wanted to reflect some of my gay friends who aren't great a picking out clothes, love computers and other geeky stuff, and who don't fit in easily to mainstream culture, even mainstream gay culture. But Corny's got a lot of other stuff going on with him. Although far from perfect, he's probably the person I identify the best with in all the Modern Faerie Tale books. All his mistakes are ones I think I would make if I was suddenly allowed access to Faerie. I'm glad, though, that in Ironside, he had a chance to work through some of what happened to him in Tithe and also to get a much happier (and deservedly so - he was really put through the wringer) ending.
Lee: Yeah, I loved Corny's character. And I thought you were very brave in including the implied masochistic aspects of Corny’s initial attraction to Nephamael. Can you talk about that choice?
Holly: I think in any kind of relationship where one person has all the power and can literally convince you that pain causes you pleasure, there is going to be a masochistic aspect.
Tithe, as a book, has a lot of power games going on with all the characters. Kaye has total control over Roiben who is also being controlled by Nicnevin because of a promise of servitude he gave to Silarial. Corny is controlled by Nephamael (Nephamael also has control over Roiben at a later part of the book). Faeries are capricious beings, except when bound by promises. It's the only thing rigid about their nature and I was really interested in that. I don't think that Corny is the only person in the book who comes off as a bit of a masochist.
Lee: Yes, the power games were fascinating. I love how you were brave enough to make your gay character a full player!
You had this beautiful pivot moment in “The Good Neighbors. Book One: Kin” where the teen girl character says (pg. 79, for those of you reading along), “A lot of kids have this fantasy that secretly they’re really the princess of a foreign country. Turns out that pretty much sucks.” That theme, that access to a secret world changes you and you can’t go back to your “normal” life before, is something I also see in the world of Tithe, and in the Spiderwick Chronicles. What are the through-lines YOU see in your writing?
Holly: I write a lot about going back home - both metaphorically like where the Grace kids return to a family home, but one they personally have never been in and in the sense of Kaye literally returning to the place where she grew up. I also write a lot about balancing between two worlds or two aspects of yourself. Kaye doesn't want to stay in Faerie forever, Roiben has to figure out how to balance beween the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, and in the Spiderwick books Arthur Spiderwick illustrates the perils of a life out of balance.
Lee: I love how you put that. So, with the Summer SCBWI conference quickly approaching, what single piece of advice would you offer to someone planning to attend?
Holly: It's good, I think, to have some goals going in. Maybe you want to focus on some aspect of technique that's really bothering you--like figuring out how to improve your dialogue. Maybe you want to connect with other people for a critique group. Maybe you want to hear about new and interesting agents. Having something [as] a focus helps me remember that it's not possible to do everything. Other than that, have fun and let all the rest happen spontaneously.
Lee: I agree that going into the four day "kidbookapalooza" with a specific intent - at the same time as being open to serendipity - is a great way to approach it. And, the final question of our interview... Would you let me scoop the name of your talk at the conference? (Also, if you know the day and time you'll be speaking I'll include that info for the interview readers!)
Holly: I'm going to be talking about the basics of fantasy writing on Saturday the 9th at 9:30AM. I will be guzzling a lot of coffee to be awake at that hour. Hope you'll come out so I can meet you in person, Lee.
Lee: I'll be there, even if I have to arrive astride a kelpie!
Thank you Holly, for a wonderful interview. I hope all our readers will enjoy it as much as I did!