Author Interview & Giveaway: Laini Taylor

By Karen Rock

Laini Taylor, author of the bestselling YA fantasy series Daughter of Smoke & Bone, has been busy touring the country promoting the second book in the trilogy, Days of Blood & Starlight. 

In between attending themed parties thrown by students and packed book signings, she took the time to answer a few questions for us.

Daughter of Smoke & Bone and the recently released sequel Days of Blood & Starlight raise the bar in fantasy fiction series writing. What do you enjoy most about this genre?

First, thank you so much! And the answer is: I enjoy everything the most about fantasy, that is, about fantasy versus non-fantasy. I read all kinds of books, but fantasy in all its forms and sub-genres is by far my favorite, and what I always return to.

When I write, even if I were to set out to write something mainstream and realistic, I feel sure that magic would creep in. I can’t help it. I relish the imaginative possibilities of fantasy, where anything can happen. I love creatures and mythology and folklore and the idea of these things crossing over into “reality.” I love thinking about magic, and what it would be like if it were really part of our lives.

And one of the biggest things about fantasy that I appreciate is its ability to universalize themes in a way that lets us look at Big Ideas like war and honor and sacrifice and love in a resonant way, as human themes that are deeply meaningful in our lives, free from the allegiances and prejudices we bring to stories that happen in our real world.

Laini on book tour at BookPeople in Austin, Texas

I think that fantasy serves a very important function as an allegory for everything we contend with in reality, and best of all: it is empowering. I personally think that the biggest appeal of fantasy is in the vicarious experience of heroism, and acting in the world in a larger way than most of us get to in real life. In books, living through the characters, we get to affect change in major ways. We get to save the world! Besides all that, it is just the most fun!

The imaginative worlds and the creatures that inhabit them in your YA trilogy, Daughter of Smoke & Bone, are stunning. What inspires you creatively?

Thank you! Folklore is a big inspiration. The books that I keep in my writing room versus the downstairs library are chiefly my folklore books: fairy tales, superstitions, myth and legend, creatures, and also books about warfare and battle.

Reading folklore from a particular culture is a great way to go about devising a fantasy culture: within the framework of folklore, you get at a sense of what makes a culture feel cohesive and real, what gives it a unique flavor. Sometimes I draw specific ideas, other times I might just make note of what I think contributes to the overall pervasive sense of a real culture. I make notes in notebooks and end up finding these tidbits later and using them in a kind of patchwork quilt of ideas, just taking my favorite parts and reforming them into some new whole, with additions of my own.

Some great books on creatures are A Field Guide to Demons by Mack & Mack, and Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns & Goblins by Carol Rose.

I can’t say that either of these informed the specific characters and beings in Daughter of Smoke & Bone, but they have definitely been ingested by me and become part of the general imaginative well that I draw from. Weird science and history are also big sources of inspiration.

Neither of your protagonists, Karou, a human raised by Chimera, or Akiva, a Misbegotten angel, fit neatly into their worlds, nor do they seem wholly comfortable with their lives. Were there times, growing up, when you felt as though you didn’t fit in? How might such experiences have shaped you as an author and your work?

Sure, I think that the fantasy trope of the outsider is a great metaphor for adolescence in general. As I said earlier about fantasy serving as allegory for the real concerns in our lives, here’s a great example. There are certain tropes that have huge universal appeal, for the very reason that they are such a part of the human psyche, and this is one of them: the outsider searching for connection, for meaning, for belonging. It’s rooted in basic human needs, and is hugely powerful.

Personally, I moved a lot as a kid, having been a Navy brat, and I had to learn to make friends swiftly. I was lucky for the most part to live in communities where everyone was used to this swift friend-making and reforming of social groups (other military kids), but it was a lot harder when I moved to a civilian community at age 15, where this was not the case.

It turned out all right, but I absolutely remember that time in my life as a powerless one, and not my favorite. I literally fled the country it the day after high school graduation. I couldn’t get on a plane fast enough, back to Europe, to another group of people who swiftly and easily reform social groups: travelers.

Laini with students

It is no coincidence, I think, that travelers and journeys are another powerful fantasy trope. I’m very grateful for my upbringing moving around and living in cool places, for giving me a taste for the exotic and mysterious, which I love in books as both a reader and a writer.

Zuzana and her boyfriend Mik are two of my favorite characters! They bring humor to grim, dark moments such as when Zuzana calls the diabolical, white-mane wolf, Thiago “The other white meat.” Is it important to make readers laugh, even during high-stakes, dire moments?

Absolutely. There were some books that served as my “cautionary tales” while writing Days of Blood & Starlight: books I’d read where things became so unrelentingly bleak for the characters that I just didn’t want to be there. I found myself reluctant to open them back up; sometimes I didn’t open them back up.

When I was writing Days, I knew it would take the characters to a grim place, but I didn’t want it to ever be too much for the reader. I wanted to keep some of the levity and whimsy and rich fun of the first book, and Zuzana and Mik were definitely a big part of the plan for accomplishing this. I love writing them, and I’m glad to hear that readers love reading them.

Their purpose isn’t just comic relief though: they are a reminder to Karou of her old “normal”, and of another way of living besides war and deprivation, and of the possibility of love. They are a living, breathing, kissing exhibit A of a life worth fighting for.

Like another great fantasy writer, J.R.R. Tolkien, war is a major component of your series. In Days of Blood & Starlight, a young soldier asks Akiva a heart-wrenching question. “What is it all for?… I can’t remember. I… I don’t think I ever knew.” What do your characters come to learn about war? Or what do you wish they’d learn? How does your portrayal of war differ from Tolkien’s?

Cake is served at a school visit!

Hm. It seems like this could be a question for serious study!

I love Tolkien, and am mindful that he experienced war in a very real way, as a soldier in WWI, and was drawing on personal experience in a way I never could (and thank goodness for that!).

I did not feel in any way equal to the task of depicting war, and I was a little slow in admitting to myself that I had set myself up to try to do that. I was afraid of it, because in some YA novels the wars come across as contrived and unbelievable and I hoped I could do justice to the gravity of the subject matter without taking my readers farther into a realistic depiction than any of us really want to go.

As horrific as some of the events in Days are, they don’t come close to the true horror of war. I went as far as I felt I could (and even that was uncomfortable) for the kind of book I wanted to write, and for the audience I was reaching for.

What I think my characters are coming to grips with is the fact that this isn’t a matter of good versus evil (as is more the case in Tolkien). It’s people killing people, and neither side is in the right. It’s all senseless, this ceaseless cycle of attacks and reprisals.

The thing that interests me is: how do you begin to end something like this? Can enemies learn to see each other in a new way? It has happened, in human history. It clearly can happen, and that gives me hope. The idea was to show how it might happen, where and how it might begin — with a few characters — and how it might take hold and spread. That’s where we are in the series, right in the middle of that sea change. It will remain for book 3 to see them through — hopefully!

How much of the series was planned in advance before you wrote the first novel, Daughter of Smoke & Bone? Did any of those plans change and if so, can you share any of those differences with us? How flexible are you in allowing such changes to your overall plan?

Ha, well, nothing was planned before I wrote Daughter. It all began as a freewriting exercise, and grew very organically out of what appeared in one day’s writing. That said, it took a lot of brainstorming after the initial concept to get the plot to take shape.

For a long time, I tried to make it be a stand-alone novel, but after a while it had clearly become too big for that, so I grudgingly considered two books, and then finally, after finishing Daughter, accepted that it was a trilogy. (As with taking on war, I was afraid to take on a trilogy. It’s all very daunting!)

My plans for the series arc have been fairly loose since then though. I like to leave myself a lot of room to explore, and tend to not think too far beyond the ending of the book at hand. I leave my future-self to contend with future books, and I suppose I have a degree of faith that I’ll figure it out as I go.

There is fear, too, of course, but outlining the whole series in detail just wasn’t ever an option for me. I really have only a shadowy plan, and a hoped-for outcome. The way I write, so much of the plot needs to come out of the characters’ emotional arcs, and that just is something that arising through writing, and never through outlining.

In the past I tried to do detailed outlining up front, and I found that I couldn’t know what the characters would do so far ahead of time, and also that it killed the excitement for me. There were a few moments I was writing toward the entire time, that were the carrots I was chasing, and that don’t happen until close to the end. I knew I wanted to get to them, and the whole book was a way of making it happen in a way that felt natural and—this is what I’m always shooting for—inevitable.

If you were a chimaera in one of your novels, what would you look like?

Definitely a Kirin. In creating Madrigal, I created the chimaera I would want to be!

Thanks so much for answering our questions, Laini! We’ll look forward to the amazing conclusion of your trilogy.

Cynsational Notes

More on Karen Rock

In a quest to provide her eighth grade students with quality reading material,
English teacher Karen Rock read everything out there and couldn’t wait to add her voice to the conversation of books.

Now a debut YA series author, Karen is thrilled to pen stories that teens can relate to. When she’s not busy reading and writing, Karen is downloading live versions of favorite songs, watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” marathons, obsessing over reality TV contestants (Adam Lambert you were robbed!), cooking her family’s delizioso Italian recipes, and occasionally rescuing local wildlife from neighborhood cats.

She lives in the Adirondack Mountain region with her husband, her very appreciated beta-reader daughter and two King Charles Cavalier Cocker Spaniels who have yet to understand the concept of “fetch,” though they’ve managed to teach her the trick!

Check out her website, her co-author website, her Facebook page, and follow her on twitter @karenrock5. Then check out Camp Boyfriend.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of three bookplate-autographed copies of Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor (Little Brown, 2012). Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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13 thoughts on “Author Interview & Giveaway: Laini Taylor

  1. Laini Taylor spoke at one of our SCBWI-MI conferences – she was lovely and inspiring, and her books are brilliant. Thank you for the giveaway!

  2. Laini's writing is beautiful and lyrical and she's right; there is no good or evil in her novels. Just two sides fighting a war that has no beginning and no end.

  3. Thanks, everyone! I'm a huge fan of Laini's work and it was a dream come true to interview her. I enjoyed asking her these questions and… reading her awesome responses… enjoyed it even more! – Karen Rock

  4. Nice interview. How fun it must be to have people dress up to see you.
    How did you pick the name Zuzana? Thank you.

  5. It is SO amazing to hear Laini talk! She came up to WA when her first book came out and having already read it I just adored hearing her speak about the book. She is SO talented!

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