Last November, Susan Dennard, author of The Witchlands series, came to BookPeople on tour to promote her new YA book The Luminaries, the first of a planned trilogy from Tor Teen.
Interview by Zoë G.
Zoë G.: I know The Luminaries originated from a Twitter thread, but was there any other inspiration for where the story started?
Susan Dennard: I first tried to sell The Luminaries in 2013 as a proposal. I was in the middle of my first series, Something Strange and Deadly. And typically when you’re a few books in, you start trying to sell the next thing because publishing has a two year lead time, usually. And so I came up with this proposal. Like, I just had this idea for Winnie Wednesday. And I don’t know, she was, I think, the starting point. And then I came up with the clans, like, why would a girl have a name like that? And then I just kind of went from there. I made a proposal and pitched the idea. And my publisher was like, eh nah. To be fair, paranormal was no longer popular. There’s definitely not paranormal magic creatures. It’s like, a contemporary fantasy. And that time what was popular was, like, dystopian, and then more like full high fantasy, right? So that’s sort of why I ended up selling Truthwitch next instead.
I set the idea aside, and my agent and I were like, we will do this another day, you know? And then in 2019, I was at LaGuardia, and I’m waiting on a plane. And I was not in a great place with my life, having just gone through a miscarriage I didn’t want to think about. I didn’t want to be in my thoughts, so I was like, let’s just instead of doom scrolling on Twitter, as I was prone to do, (aren’t we all?), I genuinely have no idea what prompted it, I was just like, let’s just like try doing a sort of poll adventure. Like, I’ll make a story in second person point of view. So it says, “You wake up on the morning of your 16th birthday to a crow, tapping at the window.” Then I gave two choices, and people got to vote. And I was like, it’ll be like five people. And then it was thousands of people. And it turned into a six-month adventure. I based it loosely on the original. I took the same world and characters as my original proposal. And I try I started sticking initially to that. And then, you know, the people of the internet made such bad choices that we very quickly deviated from my original design. But it was really fun. It was so fun to make it up each day on the fly. So when it came time to actually write my next book I was like, let’s try The Luminaries again. But this time I took the same character in the same world. I did not follow the Twitter version, because I was like, yeah, no one would buy that. And it’s a new story and you carry new secrets and stakes, but lots of Easter eggs for the original people on Twitter.
ZG: Right, that’s so cool! So you came up with the days of the week as the clans. What prompted that? Each of them have their own unique, special thing.
SD: Yeah, they each have their mottos and their virtues. Winnie throughout the book thinks culture runs thicker than blood, meaning people identify so strongly with their clans that like even if your personality is different, it’s hammered into you to be a certain way, right? I think back in 2013, I was thinking a lot about how fun it is, and it still is, to like, sort yourself, right? You know, there was Divergent, Harry Potter. I mean, there are so many more now I’m blanking on them all, of course. Oh, Fire Emblems. If you’ve ever played that game, I’m a big fan, you can just sort of see which group you would fall into. And I think I was thinking that way when I was planning it originally. Like, how can I have something like that? Because it’s definitely one of those tropes that I love. Yeah, I’m all about including whatever I love. What I love, sorry, if you don’t love it, don’t read it. So that was sort of where that came from.
ZG.: That’s cool. Who is your favorite character in The Luminaries?
SD: I love Winnie. She’s a lot like me. She’s way braver than I am, but I think makes far more impulsive choices. But like she is kind of grouchy, but really loyal. And a scientist. You know, she views the world as a scientist and kind of wishes she’d been born a Monday instead of Wednesday. Since the Mondays are the scientists, and I’m a scientist before I was a writer, I actually got to use a lot of my old ecological brain when I was writing her.
ZG: There are so many different kinds of nightmare creatures in the, I don’t know, the fog-type thing, but some of them follow some of the paranormal stories, but they all kind of change. Did you have fun coming up with the different creatures?
SD: I wanted it to feel like was the legends that we all know are based on these, as if like, when nightmares escape the forest. That’s all the legends that humans know. And those are the real things, the real version that history has taken, and so like there’s these vampira, which are sort of like vampires. But in one of the books, she thinks about how there’s a non-legend that you have to give them permission to enter your home, which is like vampires. But then it goes into the science of why that is. Yeah, because in the force, there’s a reason, right, and then there’s things like Banshees and manticores, but they don’t look necessarily like what you traditionally think of them. Just because to there are so many variations of legends around the world. And so I wanted it to be like this is the real one. And all those are just the urban legends that grew out of the real ones that the Luminaries fight.
ZG: I thought they were really cool. I really thought they were really interesting. Were any of your characters inspired by anyone you knew in your life?
SD: I get that question a lot over the years. And no, not specifically, there’s not necessarily someone I could point to and be like, they are just like that person. It’s more, I take maybe bits and pieces. So in my first series, there’s a character who’s an inventor, my husband’s an inventor. And so it was easy to take that sort of thing. I think everyone we meet sort of goes into this collective bucket in a writer’s brain that we pull from. I can’t say there’s any one person who was super based on anybody that I know. But then, you know, there’s relationship dynamics, like the relationship between Winnie and her mom. I have a really great relationship with my mom. She’s awesome. And so, I wanted to have a character like that.
ZG: That’s really cool. So Jay is a very interesting yet also very mysterious character. What was the inspiration behind his character? Where he fit in the story when you imagined it?
SD: Gosh, I don’t know. I like broody boys.
ZG: No, that’s a great reason though. *laughs*
SD: I don’t mean for me, “boys”, being as I’m an older woman, but you know, like for Winnie, right. I don’t know, he had such a fully formed personality in my head. He’s clearly hiding things. But like, clearly also doesn’t want to be, and I just thought that was such a cool push-pull dynamic to have between him and Winnie. We learned a lot more about him in book two.
ZG: But there’s so much still so much to know.
SD: So much to know, yeah! This book is just the introduction, basically, because it is a trilogy. Yeah, and then, you know, it’s just so much I love the trope of like, we used to be friends. Now we hate each other. Why? There is just so much potential there. You know, it’s like a sort of twist on the traditional enemies to lovers.
ZG: Yeah. And their dynamic is very interesting and a lot of fun. The trials are very, like specific, a lot of it makes sense, because the Wednesday’s loyalty and that kind of thing. How did you come up with the trials?
SD: I mean, I guess I just, I wanted there to be three trials because it made sense to the shape of a book thinking of it, like three acts. And I knew that the first two, you know, kill a nightmare. That’s the basic thing a hunter would have to do right now. Spend-the-night in the forest hunters would definitely need to be able to do that. Spending the night in the forest is not easy. So you need to prove your mettle. And then I figured, you know, each clan is so different, they probably would have unique trials that would change. It’s like hazing, you know, like a fraternity or a secret society. Obviously I won’t spoil anything, but Winnie’s third trial is intense. And so it proves the loyalty that she’s supposed to prove as a Wednesday bear. So yeah, I’m not even sure how I specifically came up with it. It just sort of felt logical.
ZG: So, I guess as much as you can say without spoiling, what’s next for the next books in the series?
SD: Next is: I can’t tell you the title, but we do have one. But the first book kind of ends with two very open mysteries. And so that is really where we jump off to in book two. There is a lot that happens in book two. It’s already done. So we know exactly what comes and we learn a lot more about Jay and more about Erica as well. Another one of Winnie’s ex-bestfriends and her dad, what happened with her dad four years ago. So a lot to learn there.
ZG: Yes there’s so much to learn! This one is just kind of a fun question we kind of throw in. If you could be like a kitchen utensil or appliance, what would you be? Because it’s always really interesting to hear what people pick.
SD: Oh my gosh. Probably just being a coffee maker because I have like, six. I’m such a coffee like, aficionado, so I have a million different machines. I have a French press. I have an espresso machine. I have a drip coffeemaker that is very fancy. I have two different pour overs. I really like coffee. So depending on my mood, you know? Is what I want to make. I have acquired many over the years, so I feel like I would probably some kind of coffee machine. Oh, maybe a coffee cup to hold all the coffee.
ZG: Nice. I like that. Do any of your characters inspire you?
SD: Yeah, definitely. I think all of them. They are in many ways what I wish that I could be. They are braver or stronger or more vulnerable and in touch with their emotions. You know, they helped me kind of do that as well. There’s a lot that you can do with a book both like, from a healing point of view, if that’s what you need, or just discover yourself. I had a person email me recently who had just finished reading my first series and it was the coolest but longest email just breaking down all the similarities between the Something Strange and Deadly series and The Witchlands, which are vastly different genres. You know, the first one’s paranormal first person point of view steampunk and The Witchlands is huge, sweeping, epic fantasy. But she found all these similarities that I never considered. And it was like, wow, it’s really interesting. Clearly, there are things that I am really interested in as a writer, and that is what I’m leaning toward. And I don’t even realize I’m doing it. But it was a fascinating email to get. It was like, oh, you’re psychoanalyzing me!
ZG: Who’s your favorite character to write in The Witchlands?
SD: I mean, I love all genuinely love all of them, and you kind of have to if I’m in their head. I really love Aeduan of course. He’s fun because he’s so out of touch with his emotions. The man has no idea what he’s feeling. Then you have Merik who’s so in touch with his emotions on the other end, but in denial somewhat. Yeah, everyone is really fun to explore. I mean, Vivia is so fun too, because she’s just like, got so much against her. She’s such a fierce character, right? And take out my feminist rage and write her just for that. I don’t know. And then like I have some occasional characters like I got to write from a certain character’s point of view in Witchshadow only one scene at the end, but I was like, oh, we’re popping into your head now, it’s awesome.
ZG: So is it kind of difficult balancing all the different POVs because they’ve jumped kind of all over the place?
SD: It’s so difficult! What I have found, and I’ve discovered this during Windwitch, each book follows one character slightly more. So Windwitch is Merik’s book, Bloodwitch is Aeduan’s, I have to figure out their character growth and arc before I can do anyone else because I want everyone else’s story to echo theirs. So like, in Windwitch everyone has to discover that their enemy isn’t their enemy. So I had to figure out that was Merik’s story before I went through and then did that with everyone else. He’s with Hell-Bards. Isuelt and Aeduan are together. And so they all sort of echo each other’s story, and in Bloodwitch everyone has their power taken away in some way, shape, or form, right? They lose their agency but I don’t know what that will be until I figured out the main character. So I tend to write each point of view separately, I write all of the main persons and then I go back and write everybody else’s and I weave it together, which is complicated. But it’s the only way I found works because of the way that I chose to structure the story. Which, don’t do that! I made it so much harder for myself than I needed to. I’m proud of it, but whew, man.
ZG: Did anything specific inspire the magic system in The Witchlands?
SD: No, and I think the best I can say is that I have read so much fantasy in my life I just have this huge Compendium upon which to draw in my autopilot algorithm of a writer brain. There’s just so much in there, and so I don’t know. I came up with the idea of thread witchery first, thread magic, and Iseult was the first idea for that series. And then I just explored it from there like, what would a character who can see everyone’s emotions need as a best friend? Probably someone who sees the opposite of emotions, which is like truths, even though emotions have their own truth, which is sort of the thing that is dissected throughout the series. Which one is the more powerful magic? So actually, Safi came to be because I first thought of Isuelt and then I just explored from there and originally there weren’t even the elements. I actually added those in because an editor I’d submitted to who was interested in buying was like, let’s simplify the magic. Let’s just make it six elements and then I was like, No, how about instead we just divide them all into six categories. And I think I tricked her into thinking that was less complicated. I think it’s actually more complicated. I tricked her and she bought the series!
Get your copy of The Luminaries by Susan Dennard at BookPeople!