Teen Press Corps member, Ivy, and Bookseller, Savannah, interview Muse of Nightmares author, Laini Taylor
Ivy: How did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Laini Taylor: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. There really wasn’t a time, right? I always remember knowing, back before I even have memories.
I: Where do you find inspiration for your books?
LT: Everywhere? History, science, you know, humanity. People, folklore, mythology…
I: Why did you want to write Strange the Dreamer in particular?
LT: Well, Strange the Dreamer, there was one specific seed. This character that has been in my mind for many years, called the Muse of Nightmares. She lived high above a human city and sent nightmares to people who live there, that was all I knew. And when I was thinking about what I want to try next, this character kept persistently coming to me. And it wasn’t really a full idea at that point.
Since I’m not a fast writer, though, these ideas I’ve had over the years old, sort of standing in line in my brain. Like, they might meet in line and go from fragments of ideas to being a plot. And so, there was a partial idea that was about the half-human children of gods that didn’t belong in either world, and those ideas started to come together. They took on a vague story, a shape, and so there was a lot I didn’t know about what, as far as themes, would emerge as I was writing it, but that was where it started.
I: Why do you write fantasy?
LT: I mean, fantasy was what made me fall in love with books as a young reader. And what I wrote when I was a young writer, and then, you know, as an English major. And for years after college, trying to write, I would try to write things that you read in college, and it didn’t really work out for me having any fun. And I went to art school, because that seemed like a really good backup plan. And then around that time, this is like, 1990, I just happened to read this new book, that I saw reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle, and it was Harry Potter. And it wasn’t like an overnight thing with me, or anything like that.
But, I gradually started reading, especially middle grade and young adult fantasy, and all this stuff that sort of happened since, you know, my high school in the in the 80s. I don’t think I would have been reading it if there wasn’t an interest. I discovered this whole world of books that really, when I did start writing again, helped me discover that there was so much to write about, and really just fell back in love with fantasy and reading fantasy, and it just felt really natural and really fun and exciting.
I: Do you think as a teenager you would have read your own books?
LT: I don’t know if I would have… I mean, I think I would have maybe in secret or something. I was kind of obnoxious as a teenager. I mostly bought used, hardcover, leather bound classics, and I memorized a lot of poetry and stuff like that. I was kind of insufferable. I think I would have liked [my books]. I think that I wrote Daughter of Smoke and Bone for my teenage self. It seems now, in retrospect, very obvious that I should have been writing. I was sort of closed off to that and missed out on a lot.
You know, there’s some quote or something about when you get old enough to read fairy tales again, sort of thing. That there’s this period in your life you pass through in adulthood that feels like something you have to master. I think there’s a lot of pressure to be grown up in a certain way and I did that and then eventually found my way back to the things that I loved, and outgrew the notion that adulthood and being grown up means a certain thing.
Savannah: Did you always plan to connect Daughter of Smoke and Bone to Strange the Dreamer?
LT: When I first started writing Strange, I didn’t really know that much about it yet and I didn’t realize things that we would find out in Muse of Nightmares. But while I was writing Strange, which was initially supposed to be a standalone because trilogies are hard, it started to change in so many ways from being about the Muse of Nightmares to being about Strange the Dreamer, from being about Sarai to being primarily about Lazlo’s journey.
And one of the things that happened is I figured out a lot of the backstory that is set up in Strange the Dreamer is answered in Muse of Nightmares. And so once that was the case I realized that, you know, I had this multiverse just sitting there waiting for me. Of course it would take place in the same multiverse! It really started to piece together and it was really exciting.
S: I read this series inverted, so I did Strange the Dreamer and then I’m now finishing the trilogy, and so for me I started freaking out the minute I put it together…
LT: I think it’s interesting to read in that order because certainly reading Muse and Strange if you haven’t read Daughter you won’t miss anything, but it’s like you’re wearing secret glasses, especially at the end of Muse.
S: Do you have plans, because you even leave in a situation where you could continue with the same characters, but doing an entirely new adventure where they might potentially meet another queen…?
LT: I do like the idea of that story… You know, when I was writing Dreams of Gods and Monsters I hadn’t really intended to set up a whole ‘nother war before I finished that story, but it did happen and I thought ‘Well I like knowing that that story is out there to be told’ and then this one sort of dovetails with that. I don’t have any immediate plans to write that, and it also sounds really hard… I hope to write it someday, but right now I’m doing other stuff.
I don’t know who the main character would be. I like to think that everybody would be in it, but who the focus would be I don’t know. Maybe it would be a younger character, somebody of the next generation. I don’t really know… Somebody’s kid? Somebody’s cute half-chimera, half-seraphim kid? I don’t know…
S: Oh my god…
LT: That would be fun. But there’s a lot of stories I could tell in that multiverse. These little ones… but I wish I were faster and could just sit down one weekend and write a novella or a short story. I usually get tied up in knots over one thing for a year, year and a half…
S: You’re worth the wait.
Going off your tweet, you had been talking about an experience you had, why did you write Minya the way you wrote her? What were you trying to to get at? What is your goal in your writing when you’re trying to get these perspectives across?
LT: When Minya first came to be, the idea of Minya was more whimsical and weird, like, ‘This little girl has been a little girl for 15 years, isn’t that weird and cool.’ But I didn’t consciously know when I started out writing her. She was more like this mischievous character. But she became who she became really to answer: ‘Why would a child stay frozen in time?’ She became a metaphor for trauma in the same way that Weep is literally still living in the shadow of its dark time. And so they’re both in frozen states, you know, frozen by trauma.
So, Minya became a really meaningful character to me. Really, she became the heart of the story in a way. And the question is, what do you do when somebody in a position of power over has a mind that cannot be changed? That is absolutely closed to empathy, reason, facts, other points of view?
And the incident that [Savannah] is referring to is that I said this at an event in St. Louis the other night, ‘What do you do when you’re confronted with a mind that can be changed ?’, and a woman shot out of her seat and said, “Why should you try to change someone’s mind, we need to agree to disagree!”
“Well, not when they’re trying to kill everyone you love.”
And she said, “Well, I haven’t read the book.”
Okay. And then I might have like, calmly explained that when it comes to certain things like human rights, and, you know, decency, that we cannot agree to disagree. I got a little upset. I don’t really remember what I said, because I was like, flooded with adrenaline. I don’t think I was rude, but I was definitely excited.
I think that my books, and fantasy in general have this ability to sneak these ideas into your mind while you’re busy, like, enjoying the kissing scenes or whatever. And so, even if it’s not going to change someone’s mind overnight, it’s laid this groundwork or creates a subtle shift in the landscape of your mind that in combination with other things over time, might make you begin to be more tolerant or more compassionate.
That is not what happens when someone yells at you in a bookstore and you yell back. I’m not sure she’ll read my book, I didn’t know the story with that woman, but I was just thinking that I do hope my books and other fantasy books have that effect and that ability to kind of get in there in a way that doesn’t immediately make all the doors and windows slam closed.
You know, it’s like ‘Oh, you’re gonna try to give me a new idea, you’re gonna try to change our mind!’, but instead of kind of sneaks in there when they’re not paying attention and and I think that is a huge value while reading. All fiction, but fantasy in particular can really take on these big issues that people are super close to. She was defensive from the get go. It’s like she might as well have said ‘Don’t you try to change my crappy racist ideas’ or whatever. She was so defensive right from the beginning.
In some instances that you’re trying to do that, it’s slim, but a book sneaks past that. And not in a super dramatic way, but in a way that next time they encounter it, they might start thinking. At least I hope so. Not for everybody, as some people are beyond help. Maybe one of the other lessons is that you can’t save everybody.
S: I was terrified to read the book. I wanted to read it but I had to physically make myself read it because I couldn’t see a way out.
LT: Me either!
S: I was so scared of what she was gonna do. I was like ‘They’re screwed!’ No matter what happens, it’s done.
LT: I didn’t figure out the thing until halfway through the second draft and so I do have these theories set up and I didn’t expect it to end that way it did. The whole time I was writing it, you know in the prologue we find out someone falls from the sky and I actually thought it was somebody else the whole time I was writing it until the very end. That changed so much what the next book would be and I was really excited and energized, but I also didn’t know how to solve that problem and I just thought ‘We’ll figure that out later…’
Then I was like ‘Dang it!’ because I didn’t! I kept waiting for something to come to me and I kept writing scenes where they were continuing to sort of have the same clash. Nothing would give and it wasn’t finite. So I finally like came came up with this one little thing that would not just solve the problem temporarily, but it was fun and actually led to what I was trying to do, which is to give Sarai a way to explore her gift and grow. So it finally came together but never does that happen in the first draft or in the planning stage.
S: That something with reading the series in the inverse is that the minute I finished and Sarai had died, and then I’m starting the other series and I’m like “She could get a body!”
LT: It’s funny that people who haven’t read Daughter of Smoke and Bone maybe expected me to give Sarai a body and and but why come up with a different magic to do that, when one already exists somewhere out there. It also wasn’t really the most pressing thing because of the nature of her ghostliness she can go on like that for a while if she has to. I didn’t want to come up with artificial feeling, handy solution to that.
S: Everyone is happy and perfect. I like that.
LT: I want that, and every reader wants that, even the author wants that, but you have to be realistic.
S: It would be too perfect if that happened.
LT: And I feel like I’m pretty easy on my characters, like I don’t really kill that many of them. There was one person in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy… there’s a few people that died but there’s certainly a lot of readers who will never forgive me from Hazael…
S: I know! I kept waiting for you to bring him back in some way…
LT: Philip Pullman called it the ‘Bill Must Die’ principal or something like that. It was like if you’re writing about war and no one ever dies, then the reader’s never afraid somebody else might die. It’s kind of like the Ned Stark thing. Once you kill the main character you know that nobody is sacred and no one is safe.
I think readers do need to feel that uneasiness. But I also don’t want to kill everybody. That’s ultimately one of the things I love about YA and fantasy is that as hard as it is in the story and as much as I’m going through it’s about hope and actually having the ability to change the world in a way that we don’t feel like we have in reality. Teaching us, training our minds to believe in fact that we could make a difference and we could do something, that we have personal responsibility in the world and all these things. And so I don’t want to be bleak, even when it is I don’t want it to end that way.
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