Interview with Sarah Rees Brennan [Part 1/3]: On Heroism and Fantasy Tropes

So, over Twitter, I asked Sarah Rees Brennan if I could interview her for The Book Wars, and SHE ACTUALLY SAID YES! Needless to say, I got very excited and sent her many long questions, all of which she patiently answered. As a result, we have for you today part one of the most interesting interview I’ve gotten to do for this blog.
Happy Christmas Eve, readers!

I sing many praises about your writing to my fellow Book Warriors, but the thing I love most about your books is the way you represent power and heroism in your fantasy worlds. In The Lynburn Legacy for instance, we see power represented through the enslavement and murder of innocents, but on the flip-side, there is strength and heroism in the way that Kami speaks the truth, creating awareness about how corrupting certain kinds of power can be. What is it about traditional heroism that you feel did not work or did not appeal to you? Did these subversions come as part and parcel of the characters you created? Or did you have to actively work characters in a way that effectively represented the power dynamics you were (presumably) seeking to explore?

You are very kind to sing my praises, whether in carols or operas! I’m into any kind of music when the theme is praise of me. 😉 (But really, thank you.)

I feel I can’t take that much credit: many stories are written about the power of words! The girl reporter heroine is a classic heroine, from real life examples like Nellie Bly, who went round the world in less than eighty days and bought a monkey on her trip (Nellie Bly would have been an amazing live blogger) to Lois Lane. There’s a tradition of heroism, right there. 

But I do think it’s true that in traditional fantasy (and what are superheroes but fantasy, I’m taking those, I’m coming for everything you love) men are the ones more likely to have the special super powers, to be the farmboy who shall be king, and to have real world ambitions that are taken seriously as well as their fantastic destinies. Clark Kent’s a reporter, as well as being Superman: well, great. Let’s see women who have superpowers, have the epic fantasy hero arc, and are devoted to their jobs too. That’s what I wanted to give Kami: the whole hero deal, in a way that would encompass Gothic mystery and traditional fantasy and paranormal romance, all three, and calling some elements of all three into question while still embracing the genres.

She has magic powers, but she has a lot more besides, so when she loses them she’s not lost. She’s presented with a mystery and she solves it. She has a sweeping romance. She has a life ambition, and she’s told by people that writing a school newspaper is ridiculous, that standing up against evil (in the form of an adult man with real power in her town) is pointless and too dangerous, and she tells them that they’re wrong and she’s right. This series of answers, as you’ll see, very much became about the importance of women believing in themselves. Teens, boys too but especially girls, are often made to doubt and second-guess themselves, and I wanted to write about a girl who loves dresses and self-defence and words above all, and how her strong sense of self is ultimately what saves her.

Human history is full of people who took power unjustly, by hurting others, and it’s not such a stretch to represent that through fantasy– by showing demons possessing humans in The Demon’s Lexicon and sorcerers sacrificing people in The Lynburn Legacy. There will always be people justifying it, because they want power, so surely it’s okay and right for them to take it. But it never is.

There is such a difference between stealing from someone else to get power, and asserting your right to your own power, though. In the end of both series…eseses the characters I thought of as on the good side had made mistakes, had been forced to make dark choices that may or may not have been mistakes, but they had also weighed the cost and consequences of unlimited power: they were very aware of who they were and how far they were willing to go.

I feel like you’ve been playing around with the Bad Boy trope in your books. In The Demon’s Lexicon we have a demon/boy hybrid that makes him almost literally “bad”, but then we also have Gerald who is actually quite evil (though in a Charming Rogue kind of way). And then, in The Lynburn Legacy we see Kami quipping about how bad Jared is at being a Bad Boy. What is it about this trope that attracts your attention as a writer?

I don’t know if the Bad Boy trope does attract my attention especially … mostly I just like all tropes. I find them fascinating! 

Gerald, the villain of TDL, wasn’t a Bad Boy trope to my mind at all– he was a bad person, but he was unassuming, kind, charming, polite, the type of young man old ladies instinctively like and trust. He was very good at seeming both vulnerable and harmless– and a Bad Boy type doesn’t seem harmless. The group in Demon’s Lexicon honestly thought he was not all that powerful when they first captured him, and they were proven so terribly wrong. Gerald was very like Alan of TDL, in fact– both of them present as nice, trustworthy, sweet, maybe too harmless to the point of being despised as nerdy– but underneath, there was something quite scary. Rob in the Lynburn Legacy is actually the same way as Alan and Gerald– not nerdy at all, but fitting into a different ‘harmless’ trope, that of the reliable dad– broad shoulders, kind of into gardening in that down-to-earth way (but actually is a rich white dude with a nice house), says ‘son’ a lot, might’ve coached a sports team when his kid was younger.  

(The real, reliable ‘dad’ figure in The Lynburn Legacy is Jon, Kami’s father, and he doesn’t present as a Dad Trope at all– he’s really young to have a kid Kami’s age, he’s Asian, he’s a gamer guy who wears funny T-shirts and talks about web design, he’s short and sarcastic. We don’t see as many great dads like that as we should, because great dads like that exist in real life.)

The scary thing about the characters able to come off as Good Guys when they’re not good people is that everyone underestimates them, but they never underestimate themselves. They know exactly how terrible and terrifying they can be, and all they can accomplish. The thing that makes Alan of TDL on the side of good is that he’s terrified of all he can do, whereas Gerald and Rob both glory in it. 

There’s so little that can stop the kind of person you instinctively trust– they have to stop themselves.

… Er, but back to bad boys! 

I remember having to darkly disappoint a reader once. (I mean, many times, I’m sure, but I’m talking specifically …)

READER: Don’t you think there was some remnant of a human soul in Nick?

SARAH: Well … you should think what you want, the author is dead … I mean, figuratively … I feel fine … I’m doing great …

READER: But what do YOU think?

SARAH: Just a demon. One of the nastier ones.

READER: JUST A DEMON?

SARAH: Just a demon who got lucky. And went with the luck, rather than going backward.

I just thought being an evil otherworldly creature was more fun. 😉

Nick of The Demon’s Lexicon and Jared of The Lynburn Legacy both fit into the Bad Boy tropes, but they’re not at all similar as people: Jared’s totally inexperienced with the ladies, has a lot of feelings, and loves reading enough to demand to be read Dickens on his sickbed. (He’s also the Gothic heroine in the series, running around terrified in his nightclothes and getting buried alive.) Kami and he joke together about his surly leather-clad ways in the same way you joke with your brilliant blonde friend about being a ditz, or your tall scary-looking friend who’s really a teddy bear about menacing you: she loves him and knows him so well that she could never see him as anything but three-dimensional.

Nick was me thinking about the Bad Boy of literature, who is appealing usually because his ‘tall dark handsome, few words and vague menace’ front *is* a front. I thought: what if it’s not? What if he really is unable to feel most feelings, what if romantic love is something he can’t understand, what if he isn’t acting cruel but is cruel– what if the monstrous mask fits over the monster’s face? And could you love the monster, anyway? Well, maybe you could … but probably only if you raised it by hand like a baby bird, a demonic cuckoo in a human nest. (A quote from Caitlyn Siehl that I specially love: when is a monster not a monster? Oh, when you love it.)

But you don’t want to say: all angry boys are monsters. Sometimes, as with Jared, you’re angry because you’re coping with trauma … anger is a real and very natural human feeling, and can’t be demonised entirely, even if it might look demonic.

So, Nick and Jared exist in relation to each other, to me, as the vastly different two ends of a spectrum, two enormously different faces behind the masks.

Tropes are interesting things because they are never the whole truth: in real life, you fit people into types because you don’t really know them– ‘mean girl’ or ‘jock’ or ‘nerd’ or what have you. You accept that’s all there is to them because let us face it, there is not time enough in this world to appreciate the rich tapestry of every human soul we meet.

Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights was a forerunner of the Bad Boy trope. Rob, who I mentioned above, was inspired by Heathcliff in some ways–his obsessive romantic love, but also the things Heathcliff does that we don’t talk about a lot, these disturbing patriarchal things: his desire to take over the estate, his willingness to kidnap, coerce and hurt women and children –even his child, even his wife. We don’t think about Heathcliff as a dad, but he is one, in the books –and his wife and child both die, and he does NOT care. Wuthering Heights spans decades– we see Heathcliff change from a wronged boy who could definitely be seen as a Bad Boy, to someone undeniably a bad person, who it would be very hard to romanticise if we didn’t know his story.

That’s what a trope is, to me: the first impression of someone, the impression someone’s choosing to send out into the world. That’s the introduction, and then I invite the reader to sit down with the character, see why they wear this particular mask, what are the lies about this mask, what’s the truth in it? I always want to go: sit down and let me tell you their story. It’s not what it seems. (Jeanette Winterson quote: Trust me. I’m telling you stories.)

Arguably, you are also drawn to the Bad Girl trope, given awesome characters like Holly Prescott and Cynthia Davies and Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle. And as with the boys, instead of leaving the girls as tropes you make them real, three dimensional characters. What is it about this trope that attracts your attention?

Again I think it’s just a question of I Love Tropes!  

I think Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle (of The Turn of the Story) is actually much more of a Bad Boy trope than a Bad Girl trope. She’s tall, dark, handsome, taciturn, violent and honourable, and all the fair creatures swoon over her while she– well, she believes in equality but the pretty things do need looking after. 😉 Which calls into question, of course, why these tropes are gendered, and what reversing the genders for those tropes looks like. Is she any different? Do characters *see* her differently? Do readers see her differently? (I’ll spoil you, the answer for that one is ‘hell yes.’)

Holly Prescott’s (The Lynburn Legacy) source is more the Mean Girl trope, which is hilarious since Holly is such a sweetheart. I just kept seeing ‘gorgeous blonde who is popular with the boys’ as shorthand for ‘no good, evil, stupid, malicious, and worst of all–wait for it–slutty!’ as if ‘enjoys sex’ is the world’s greatest crime instead of something everyone who ever has sex should be going for. 

By Ari! For Halloween! SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1zRGln3

One conversation between Holly and Kami, in which Kami finds out Holly does better in English than she does and is surprised and realises how awful of her that is and yet Holly still doesn’t think of herself as smart, was lifted from life. (I played Kami, and boy did I look like an idiot. We’re all so keen to put people in boxes, and use that to feel good about ourselves. It’s so messed up. I wanted to record that great truth of my teen embarrassment for all time.) Sin of The Demon’s Lexicon was a protagonist created by me reflecting on a lot of characters who weren’t protagonists: she was a performer who took pride in her skill, she was black and had to deal with being overly sexualised when dancing, while at the same time embracing being a sexual person in her own terms and embracing the role-playing inherent in being a performer, and finding someone to love who embraced all of that about her. And she was practical and responsible and snarky, too. Her voice was important to me to have, in talking about power and possession and especially the roles we all find ourselves playing, throughout the series. She was one half of my Demon’s Lexicon One True Pairing, to use a fandom term (and more on fandom later) … and the one of the OTP who got a PoV book. I’m not sure any of them are really Bad Girls, though. I’d really like to write a true Bad Girl heroine one of these days: someone who’s so angry she has elements of the monstrous about her. I haven’t yet! I’m going to though. It’s a promise. (Will it be published? Well, there I cannot promise anything …)

Click here for part two of the interview! And here for part three!

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Sarah Rees Brennan is the author of the dark, magical Demon’s Lexicon trilogy, and the recently completed Gothic romance/fantasy trilogy, The Lynburn LegacyHer upcoming book, an urban fantasy set in a New York City, Tell the Wind and Fire is expected to be published in 2015. When Sarah is not writing (and co-writing) fabulous stories … well, she’s still writing– from Jane Eyre parodies, to essays, and more stories! She lives in Ireland, but you can probably bump into her on Twitter, Tumblr, and LiveJournal.