As a girl, Laini Taylor wanted to be a writer. She would dream up magical worlds filled with witches and monsters. But once she got into high school and college, she started reading literature — all those serious books about the real world that serious people read. And she stopped writing.
“I had no life experience,” she laughed. “And really nothing to say. I felt a lack of ability to contribute to that body of work.”
Then years later, she read a little book you might’ve heard of. Harry Potter? And her childhood imagination rose up like a phoenix.
“That whole ‘write what you know,’ you don’t have to do that,” she said. “I find it much more fun to imagine what I don’t know and want to figure it out.”
Since then, Taylor has imagined stories to incredible success. Her early collaboration with her husband, illustrator Jim Di Bartolo, “Lips Touch,” was a finalist for the National Book Award, and her “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” trilogy is an international best-seller.
We sat down with Taylor at her Portland home. It’s sunny and bright and filled with wonder: paintings of her characters, small figurines of magical creatures, princess dresses for her daughter Clementine Pie, and a library with a grand fireplace and floor-to-ceiling book shelves that seems right out of a fairy tale.
Which is fitting: Taylor launched a new series this week about a young librarian who also has big dreams, “Strange the Dreamer.”
Taylor will read from the book and talk with Sara Grundell of the YA website Novel Novice at Powell’s at Cedar Hills Crossing on April 6.
Q&A with Laini Taylor
Aaron Scott: You write what you imagine — what people call “world-building” in the sci-fi/fantasy genre — where you create the worlds and creatures that populate them and the magical laws. In your last two series, you started with our world, Earth, and added layers of fantasy on top of it. For this new book, “Strange the Dreamer,” you’re completely creating a new world. In the beginning, when Laini Taylor says, “let there be light,” how do you go about creating a new world?
Laini Taylor: When I was a kid and writing, the thing that I called writing was actually just pure world-building. I never did any storytelling, I just dreamed up these worlds and drew these really comprehensive maps and labeled them down to the little detail, where the witch’s cottage is in the forest and everything.
I don’t do that anymore. I don’t do all the world-building up front. The characters are primary. And then I need to know some things about the world. But as far as writing an epic trilogy, I don’t try to figure out anything about what I need to know in book three or any of that world-building. I try to understand a little about the parameters of the world and then, narratively, when I get to something that I need to flesh out, I do it then, and I find that then it suits the narrative, rather than trying to structure the narrative around the world-building.
Scott: What did you figure out at the beginning of “Strange the Dreamer”? What was the starting point for the story in this world?
Taylor: So the starting point for this one was a character who had been in my head for a long time. She was the Muse of Nightmares, and that was going to be the title of the book. She sort of lived in this tower high above a city and her job was to send nightmares to the people in the city.
That character sort of merged with some other ideas: I had this idea about the aftermath of a war between gods and men, and it sort of fit together, and I started constructing a plot around it. She was supposed to be the title character, the main character. But the more I developed the world and the idea of this lost city, the more the center of gravity of the book shifted over to another character, who ended up stealing the plot and the title and everything. And that was totally unexpected. I was working on it for eight months before I finally figured out what was holding it up, that I was writing the wrong story.
Scott: And that’s Lazlo Strange. Do you want to tell us about him?
Taylor: Lazlo is a junior librarian and war orphan, and he works in the greatest library in the world. Since he was 5 years old, he’s had this dream of traveling across the world to this epic, sort of mythic lost city that nobody quite believes is real that has not been heard from for 200 years. Then this chance does present itself for him to become part of a delegation to this last city and find out what happened.
And he’s also a really nice guy. He’s like the nicest characters I’ve ever written.
Scott: And he bears some similarities with Harry Potter. Just insofar as being an orphan who gets to go to a wonderful place of learning, this library. What is it about someone who doesn’t have that familiar past and has to find themselves that really excites you?
Taylor: Well part of it is just, it’s something you find a lot in youth fiction for various reasons, but one of the simple technical reasons you find a lot of orphans in kids’ books is because — or kids off at boarding school, kids on their own — is that you need kids to be solving their own problems. You need to get adults out of the picture somehow.
It got so bad — my daughter’s 7 — and maybe when she was 3 or 4, we started referring to the parents dying in a book as the normal thing. “The normal thing happened, and her mom died.” Because it’s so common, and I realized that I was doing it too.
But I think it’s more than that. There’s a lot of questions of identity. In “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” with Karou and with “Strange the Dreamer” with Lazlo, in both cases the questions of who they are are integral to the plot and part of the mystery of the book is …
Scott: Often paired with that orphan narrative is: But you’re really special and you have some kind of special power.
Taylor: Yes. We can make fun of it because it is done so much, but I really think that that is the most powerful trouble, for me I think that is the most powerful trope in literature, is the idea that you’re special. And we all want that.
I mean you look at every story that’s a blockbuster story. You look at “Star Wars,” you look at “Harry Potter,” there are so many more. And that is so often at the heart of it. Even “Twilight”: “You’re special, you smell really good to this hot guy. Like really, really good.”
But no, I don’t mean that mockingly, but it’s that desire of a reader to project themselves into a character who is special and who has power and agency in a way that we don’t. And I think that’s really the heart, I mean personally I’ll say this, I think they create the most powerful reading experience and the most fan identification and the most voracious readers, whether it’s romance or fantasy or sci-fi or even a horror, to some degree, is that they tap into those, kind of like the archetypes in a way. They tap into something totally primal in us: this need that we have as human beings that we have satisfied with myth forever. And you don’t get that in realistic or mainstream fiction. But I think we still need it and we still want it.
Scott: I never thought about that, that we would more identify with the wizard than a character in a Jonathan Franzen novel.
Taylor: Well, personally, I know who I would rather spend time with.
Scott: So Laszlo is on his hero journey of discovery, and then once he gets to the city of Weep, what I love is that, in the city of Weep, he’s kind of walking into the end of one story. The story of this book could’ve been about how these supposedly evil god-like creatures come, and they subjugate the city of Weep, and then a hero comes along and he slays them. But instead we’re getting that hero’s journey 15 years later, after the good guys have ostensibly won, but now they’re having to deal with all of the trauma and the fallout. And was that intriguing to you, to upset that paradigm of looking at what happens when the good guys win?
Taylor: I do, I think I must be very interested in that idea. Most adventure books or fantasy books, you get the battle, and you get the good guys winning and this idea that everything is fine now. But really it’s not fine. You know, these people have been living under tyranny for 200 years in terrible conditions, and they’re not fine. And we’re seeing the aftermath of really severe trauma on a societal level.
And I had just written the word “trilogy,” and I didn’t really want to do that again. I had read a bunch of books at that time, it felt like sometimes you read a few books in a row and they maybe have all the same characteristic that bugs you, so it really exacerbates that irritation. So in this case it was villainy villains. And in fantasy the ante is so upped at this point. You have to be so gross now to even get a rise out of readers. And I just didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to write a bad guy, and I also didn’t want to write an action climax.
Scott: And what I love about it is not only are you getting rid of the villain, but you’re really eschewing the good/evil duality in that the big hero in the story had to do a horrible act. One of the characters at one point settles and that really struck me, which was that, “Good people do all the things that people do, it’s just when they do them, they call it justice.”
Taylor: It’s so easy to see things from just your own perspective. All you have to do is shift it or flip it around, and the things we call “justice,” how did they look? Let’s just look at the Middle East, for example, and all the civilians that we’ve killed this week. How does that look from their perspective?
Even in “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” and again “Strange the Dreamer,” it’s really important to me that there’s no good side and bad side. Most of the time, people have an excuse, at least in their own mind, of what they’re doing. And soldiers, war heroes, the idea of them being purely good and unscathed by the things that they’ve had to do is ridiculous. So this character, Eril-Fane, the god-slayer, this great hero, is an incredibly haunted character.
Maybe it’s because I’m a parent of a small child, but I got kind of tired of that, the Disney solution to kill the bad guy at the end. You know, like in “Beauty and the Beast,” just that being out in the world right now? Where as we tend to prefer the Miyazaki model a little bit: like you actually have to save the bad guy.
So my antagonists in the story are a child, severely traumatized by war, and a guy with really crappy parents, I guess you could say, who have been shaped … you can see completely why they are the way they are. And there is conflict, but the solution to this conflict is not to kill them.
Scott: And we should say Godspawn, they’re basically the children of these evil godlike figures, and humans that they’ve basically used for breeding, which does bring the thought: even though there’s not the big wars and the violence of a lot of fantasy novels in this book, there is still two of the most taboo forms of violence, which is rape and the killing of children. Which are really intense things for her, particularly, in a YA book. Did you worry that they would be too dark? Or how did they become part of the story?
Taylor: There’s very little that’s too dark for YA anymore. We’re writing for really a sophisticated, savvy audience, who have been consuming media as it stands for a number of years now. And also, whenever I feel like I’m writing something that’s horrible — I had this experience with “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” where there is also a situation of breeding soldiers on women who weren’t really, who didn’t choose this for themselves — but then you just look at the world for one second and it’s just so much worse than anything I’ve written.
I don’t want to get into the real level of horror that the world is. I don’t want my books to be that kind of place, and yet I feel like it’s necessary to honor, at least to some level, the darkness of, if I’m writing about war or tyranny or oppression, then you’ve got to honor the real ways in which war affects people and what tyrants do, and how crimes like rape are used as a weapon of war.
And I didn’t want to spend time there – this happened 15 years ago, and it has shape the culture in a really profound way — but we didn’t have to see it on the page to know that it’s happening. I didn’t want to actually show it or be exploited, I didn’t want to write those scenes, but it’s important that this culture was shaped in that way because it is such a big thing in conflicts that are going on in our world right now.
Scott: Have you had readers who approach you and say, “I read this and it inspired me or allowed me or somehow opened a window to how I see real-world events like this,” who might look at some of the conflicts going on and be like, “Now I understand there are two sides to these conflicts”?
Taylor: I mean I have had a lot of readers saying, “You’re talking about Israel and Palestine, aren’t you?” And pointing out all the parallels because the characters in “Daughter of Smoke and Bone,” one side has Hebrew-derived names. But the thing that’s great about fantasy is it does allow you to look at these things that are going on in the world but through a new lens in a way.
We have so many preconceived notions. If we’re going to look at Israel and Palestine, for example, we all know what we think we know about that or what we think we think about that. We come to it with so much baggage. But if you look at it through fantasy, through characters of different races, species, religions, you can kind of cleanse all those preconceived notions out of your mind and just look at the two sides of a conflict without automatically bringing a notion of good side-bad side to it, and you have to just figure it out.
It’s like, when you turn on the news and a talking head is talking and you don’t know how you feel about what they’re saying until you see if there is an “R” or “D” next to their name. I felt myself doing that: “OK, who is this guy and how do I know if I agree with him if I don’t know what party he’s in?” So it’s really interesting to take a story that doesn’t have any of our teams in it and then you have to figure out from scratch, and I think that fantasy is really great for that.