Interview with Sarah Rees Brennan [Part 2/3]: On Writing, Diversity, and Urban Fantasies

Part two of the interview with the fantastic Sarah Rees Brennan is here! This time she discusses diversity in books, writing alone, writing with friends, and the setting for her upcoming book Tell the Wind and Fire!
For part 1 of the interview click here, and for part 3 click here.
Happy Christmas, my lovelies!

You have always been a very vocal proponent for diversity in books, not just in interviews but also in the characters that you write. What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing diversity? What are some major pitfalls and challenges that writers often face while writing diversity? Any suggestions?

Thank you for thinking of me that way! I wouldn’t presume to offer suggestions, there are many many people and many writers much more qualified than me! It is such a highly charged issue and I don’t in any way want to present myself as an expert. I fall down into pits all the time, and have sometimes spoken about these issues and come off entirely wrongly.

I think, as a writer and a reader, you just have to be paying attention all the time: challenges change, as the world and media change. I think that being committed to diversity at all is a hugely important step. The greatest problem is still a lack of diversity and a lack of interest in diversity.

Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon started Diversity in YA in 2011 … they have been talking about these issues, in-depth, with statistics and many thoughts and tips, for four solid years, and people kind of nod and go ‘Oh, no, absolutely’ and wander off. I see a lot of people going ‘we want books about (THIS) so badly!’ and my response is always ‘But those books … exist?’ Not in the numbers they should, and they’re not given the promotion they should be, but they do exist. It’s just if you only pay attention to the top five most popular books, you’re not going to hear about them.

I read an article about how we need more mainstream books, books which get made into movies and TV shows, which include (this sexuality)– I’m trying to avoid identifying the article, not the sexuality, here– and I was just boggled. ‘How do they think books become mainstream?’ I thought. It isn’t like certain authors and certain books are picked for popularity by a random stroke of fate. Publishers should market books which include diverse sexuality more– they tend to market the less diverse books more, because they think they’re more likely to sell big– but books become successful through people buying and reading them. It sucks that such books are harder to find– but by finding them and supporting them, you’re showing you really do care and you’re doing your bit to help them become mainstream. Want a bisexual love triangle? Did I mention Malinda Lo and her book Adaptation? Asexual protagonist? R.J. Anderson’s Quicksilver. When the finding gets tough, I google for what I want and find excellent diverse books self-published or published by small presses. And if you’re a writer, WRITE them. Research what you’re going to write about, be respectful because it’s a deeply sensitive subject. If you get it wrong, that sucks, but I do believe that if you don’t try at all, that’s much worse. The books and shows and movies that don’t try at all should be looked severely askance. When writing diversity, there’s pushback from within (people are much more likely to criticise a diverse book for being flawed, than a non-diverse book for being … non-diverse) and without (people think LGBTQ+ characters and storylines are Sinful and Extra Sexy, or a grab for more sales– ridiculous, since as I said, non-diverse books tend to get promoted more and sell better, people try to banish racially diverse books to their own special sections away from their genre, people review those books as having ‘an agenda’ as if books which misrepresent the real world by presenting it as all white, straight, able-bodied, &c. don’t have a clear agenda of their own).

We’re all stumbling into pitfalls all the time: we all stumble into the harmful default view of the world a lot. I recently wrote a post on women, and women who like women, and how readers are conditioned to think boys are more interesting, and their feelings more important. I saw one book blogger reblog it, and I’m always on the lookout for good book blogs, so I went to the blog, and aside from the one post reblogged from me, it was 100% about boys in books, and their feelings. Swathes and swathes of boys and their feelings and how interesting and beloved they were. And I LOVE seeing love for book characters, but I admit I was a bit crestfallen: I wandered away thinking ‘Nobody really believes girls are interesting, then!’ I don’t mean to single out any one blogger, any more than I want to single out any one article– it’s a pervasive problem. I often have to quit blogs, frequently feminist book blogs, because the bloggers start talking almost exclusively about fictional boys and I can feel myself starting to be convinced nobody really cares about girls– especially not girls who like other girls.

There was another feminist blog (like, the blog title was about feminism!) and it had a list of ‘undeservedly’ popular YA authors which consisted of 4 women, 1 man. I was one of the four women, and that was hilarious: can you imagine? The number of male YA authors more successful than me is, like, all of them. I could list dozens. But it was just the natural default– of a feminist– to condemn and criticise other women, before she went after men.

The system’s really broken, and that means we’re all broken, too: we’re all going to do gross, sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic things without even thinking about them. I do gross things, all the time. We do great things, too: I do believe that. I bet the feminist blog that listed unworthy women has also done a lot of great feminist things, helped change other people’s thinking and recommended other female creators to people who loved them. The book blogs that blogged a ton about boys has probably brought a ton of great and diverse books to people, and made them really happy.

How does anyone accomplish half of what they should? Well, how do a million people, coping with way more than I ever am, continue to do the things they have to do? You just do. And you hope someday, somehow, you’ll start doing things right … or at least learn to do things better, do things a little closer to right. That’s what we should all be trying to do. Or what are we doing?

Some writers believe that writing is a solitary act, but you’ve been involved in several collaborations and anthologies. In terms of non-fiction, you’ve written essays for The Girl Who Was on Fire, Women Who Love Vampires Who Eat Women, and Shadowhunters and Downworlders. In terms of fiction you’ve contributed to Monstrous Affections, and you’ve collaborated on works like Team Human and The Bane Chronicles to name a few. How do you choose which projects to get involved with? What do you love most about collaborating with other writers? What are some of the challenges?

Before I was published– er, with the exception of one book I co-wrote that was never published, there’s always an exception!– writing was a very solitary act for me too. From the age of five to about twenty-three, I was always scribbling, sitting on my flowery bedspread up in my bedroom all alone and writing, sitting away from other people and writing. Sometimes I’d write, and pop stories up on the internet. Mostly I’d write, and stuff another mass of hundreds of pages under my bed, never to be seen again. I loved it, but it was essentially lonely. Then I moved from Ireland to New York because my parents were gently hinting I might want to move out of home (when I do a thing, I do it dramatically!) and I made friends with other people who wrote, too: we would sit in cafes together talking about writing and structure, I would eat about four cupcakes in one sitting because that’s my process, dammit. That was when being published seemed like more than just a dream, not because I was meeting published writers and editors– I’d met them before– but because I finally got a sense of what you have to do to your writing to make it publishable, how to shape a book rather than just throwing a story onto a page and going ‘What now? I could … fix the grammar! Oh God, that didn’t help!’ and hiding it under my bed.

Talking about other people’s stories with them, helping shape them and burrowing your way inside them– knowing that other people’s stories would be a different shape without you there– is empowering, too. And it’s fun: you make a game of it, and try to find out the book’s secret, and by that point you’re laughing with stories and storytellers.

I remember sitting at a table with a bunch of friends plotting, and we were like: how to get that plot point– okay, a scene between those two characters– how would they interact? And I and one of my friends started speaking in the voices of those characters. We just kept talking, and the writer whose books they were just kept typing and occasionally going ‘Guys! Slow down, guys!’ Spontaneous unsexy roleplay. That’s what writers are about. We’re cool people.

In New York at an event the other month, I met a group of girls who all wrote, and I thought that was such a gift: to find people to write and have fun with early, so you always think of creativity as fun, so you always know you’re in conversation with other writers. Looking at other people’s work objectively helps you be objective about your own: talking to other writers always gets me excited to write my own stories.

I love being asked to contribute to anthologies, whether they are anthologies of essays or of short stories, and I love co-writing with my friends! Really, I love saying ‘yes’ to writing and to adventures, so if what’s proposed is a writing adventure … guess what my answer will be.

Serious and adult interlude, please hold: One thing I would say, if you’re intending to co-write professionally: have a contract with co-writers. It seems very weird, because the writers you cowrite with are usually your friends and hence you love and trust them, but there are always going to be challenges with co-writing, and it really helps to have the security of a contract– to know ‘Even if they run away to Timbuktu and never write another word, this is what we’ll do’ and ‘even if I get run over by a car, this is what they’ll do.’ It’s all arranged: you can’t let anyone down, and it’s easier to separate the professional and the personal if you start out with them separated.

The setting you write always comes alive in my opinion. In The Lynburn Legacy and The Turn of the Story especially, the settings are almost like characters. However, your upcoming book, Tell the Wind and Fire is a little different from these two— it sounds like an urban fantasy, being set in New York City. Can you tell us a little bit about this new fantasy world?

I would love to. 

I lived in New York for a year, and I’ve visited it many times since, so I felt comfortable writing there– just as comfortable as writing books set in England, where I’m not from either. 😉 Admittedly, I’m in edits and still getting the distances all wrong, but that’s because I have geographical issues that have only become worse with the advent of google maps on my phone. Without the blue dot telling me where I am going, I am helpless. My phone was once nicked in an airport, and I then got lost trying to find the phone shop … on the main street of the capital city … in the country where I have lived for twenty-eight years. Fortunately I have a really weird accent, so even when I’m in Ireland people assume I’m foreign and give me directions pretty nicely.

In both The Demon’s Lexicon and The Lynburn Legacy the magic in the world was secret, and it was fun to write both urban fantasy (TDL was set largely in London and Exeter) and rural fantasy (TLL is set in the fictional, but influenced by several real towns, Cotswold town of Sorry-in-the-Vale) thinking about writing the real world, making it seem as close to real as I could, until people could believe in a haunted river or invisible swordfighters on the Millennium Bridge: in secret magic lurking just around real corners.

SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1uRrS74
By Ari! SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1uRrS74

In The Turn of the Story, it’s another world, like Narnia or Tortall– a world that hasn’t had an industrial revolution and there are no cities, seen through the eyes of someone from our world who is just going ‘No wifi! No central heating! Oh my God, all these fields!’ and slowly starting to see more to the world, and having to think about unicorns and mermaids and harpies as real beings and not something from books.

But in Tell the Wind and Fire, magic is out in the open in our world– two kinds of magic, Light and Dark. My heroine Lucie wears magic rings she can channel power through: so do a lot of people. It’s possible to have evil doubles, though said doubles are forced to wear black hoods to conceal their stolen faces. People look different, and the city is transformed with them.

It was fun to think about how magic would revolutionise a landscape: especially a city as well-known and iconic as New York. How would time and magic influence this city that I love? How would real magic, that a lot of people have and everybody knows about, affect cars –buildings– affect how people dress? Exploring that made for a completely different setting than I’ve ever had before, and I hope it makes for a completely new kind of story … which I double hope people will enjoy.

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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 2016. 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.