During Laini’s recent visit to Australia, I was lucky enough to be able to interview this amazing and inspirational lady.
Below are some of the questions asked in the interview.Some of the answers have been edited, just to reduce the the length of the answer or to remove spoilers, but these are all Laini’s words, and nothing has been removed that alters the context of her answer. More of the interview will be posted on the Australian YA Bloggers & Readers Goodreads Group soon.
How did Daughter of Smoke and Bone begin?
I had been working on a different book, that was a science fiction book about ballerinas on another planet. I like to make fun of it now, but I think it could actually be a really cool book. But I just couldn’t get a feel for it, I couldn’t figure out who the characters were, I wasn’t having any fun, the world building wasn’t fun. So one day finally after really probably going too long trying to force myself to write it, I gave myself a day to write anything just for fun. I just remember it so clearly.
This girl came from out of nowhere and she was arguing with her father, who wasn’t human, and he had these big rams horns and he trafficked in teeth. I knew where that came from, but they just came on to the page fully alive instantly, and their dialogue was so real, and already their dynamic was so real in a way that those other characters just weren’t. I wrote all day long with a smile on my face, I had never had a writing day like that before.
I didn’t have a story at that point. I had the teeth, and I knew that he trafficked in teeth but I didn’t know why. The other thing was that Brimstone was wearing a wishbone around his neck. But once Karou wasn’t allowed to touch it, then it became ‘why?’ and ‘what is it?’. So there were two questions at the end of that writing day: ‘why can’t Karou touch the wishbone?’ and ‘what does he do with the teeth?’. And also then it was “why was this girl raised by monsters?’ and ‘who are they?’. So I had all these questions, and that was the beginning, once I tried to answer those questions, then I started to have a story, and I was very excited.
When you started writing Daughter of Smoke and Bone, did you know it would be a trilogy?
No. I did not know what it was going to be. I really didn’t know anything about it, I answered those first questions, I figured out what the teeth would be for and I was very excited. I still didn’t have Akiva, and I still didn’t really have a plot, but somewhere along the way I had an idea about a Romeo and Juliet storyline. Early on, I thought that it would be future character, maybe a child of a character from the first book, a child of who I didn’t know because there hadn’t been a romantic lead yet, but I thought that maybe there would be a Chimera who was the romantic counterpart. But once I had the Romeo and Juliet idea in my mind, then gradually I thought ‘no, that’s for now, I need to use that now’ and then I needed somebody who would be the natural enemy of the Chimera, and that’s where the idea of the Seraphim came from, and it slowly started to come together. Even when I started writing Days of Blood and Starlight I didn’t know if that would be the last book or if there would be another one. I didn’t know much, I figured it out as I went along, but by the middle of that book I knew it wasn’t going to be the last one.
Which was the hardest and which was your favourite scene to write?
I don’t if I can think of a single scene. A lot of it was logistics and trying to work out the flow, and try to have things unfold in a natural way, but yet in a direction that I hope that they will go. Sometimes the hardest things aren’t things that when you are reading it seem like they would be hard. Whenever I have a dramatic event to write, whatever it is, those are usually the easiest. Something with actions, where it is clear what needs to happen in the scene, where there is an obvious end to write towards and it’s just the job of writing. I guess the harder scenes to write are the internal scenes, where you are trying to convey a characters thoughts and emotional growth or whatever, versus where something is just happening, those are always more dynamic and easier to write.
With fun scenes to write, memorably in Dreams of Gods and Monsters, the character of Scarab, I had never made myself decide who she was going to be, I wanted to wait and let her step into a scene and reveal herself. I didn’t really know much about her, I knew she was a young queen of the Stellians, and that’s it. I intentionally waited until she was there on page and that was the most surprising scene. There were so many things that came out of that scene that ended up really informing the entire arc of that book, as far as what happens at the end. That day of writing, writing that scene, the whole bigger framework of the story came about.
Do you come up with ideas on the spot and join them all together or have an overall plot and try and fill it in?
I always had been more of planner before and that was out of fear, really as a perfectionist, a fear of taking the wrong turn or writing on the wrong path, doing more work than was necessary, all of that. I didn’t really understand until the end of Dreams of Gods and Monsters how much I’ve changed in the course of this trilogy, and how much I have loosened up and be willing to let the story and the characters drive the ship, sort of, and see where they go and realise that it is okay to do way more work than shows on the page and to explore because that’s where the good stuff comes from. So I had a very loose idea, I knew how I wanted Karou and Akiva to end up, but I didn’t know what it would take to get them there. And I didn’t know most of the stuff that would happen in the middle, I would try to figure it out but from the beginning of Days of Blood and Starlight I could never figure it out in a map line, it just totally resisted so I would just have to start writing. It was scary but now that’s the best part. It does mean a lot of backtracking and cutting and reconceiving, and I generally never get something right the first time.
Where did your interest with the Hebrew language and mythology come from?
It’s not really built on any great knowledge on my part. Akiva was hard to name. I love names, but they have to feel just right. I made lists of names trying to come up with the right name for him and at some point the idea that the Seraphim would have Hebrew names came about. There’s sort of a backbone of all my books, there’s this unspoken idea, I think that Brimstone sort of gives voice to it a little bit at some point, that all human mythology and folklore is based on glimpses of something true. In this case, obviously if there are Seraphim in the next world then humans would have glimpsed them or interacted with them at some point long ago, and that actually the Hebrew language is rooted in the Seraph language.
How did you come up with the idea of the angels being the “bad guys” and the devils being the repressed “good guys”?
They’re not. It does seem like that a certain point because the Seraphim are the empire, but they are also individual Seraphim, so it’s not simple. But I did like the idea that from a human perspective that if he had gotten these glimpses, if we had seen a seraph, we would naturally assume, because of what our human value system is, we would assume that anything beautiful is good and holy and that anything scary or quote/unquote ugly is evil. And so we would have just made the assumption based on nothing more than that, that’s how simplistic we are. So that’s the legend we have built around these small glimpses that we’ve had, and they’re not, they’re just people at war and there is no good or bad, except in the rulers. Which is usually the case, that there is somebody really bad at the helm and that they are the true evil. The Chimera aren’t good, they’re brutal too. Brimstone did lead an uprising in which many civilians were killed, which we can’t call him bad or evil for that. Also think of the Seraph civilians and they have no power in the matter. It’s just people. I think it’s much more interesting than thinking of anyone as good or evil, or any group of people as good or evil.
Is it hard to kill off characters? Would it be sometimes easier to work around that?
In the collection Lips Touch there are 3 stories, and the first story has an ending that sets you up to not feel comfortable expecting a happy ending for the second or third story. I am not going to say what those endings are, but because of the first story you can’t be comfortable, and I think that’s important in fiction and in a story. I think it’s really important to create that situation for a reader in an intense story, where they can’t be comfortable and they can’t feel like anyone is sacred.
It must be a hard choice to kill off a character, as there must be a valid reason to do it, rather than doing it for the sake of doing it.
I am often shocked by the death counts in books. But in YA books because maybe I am not expecting it. But I am always really off put by gratuitous death and body counts. I see it a lot where I don’t feel like the grief is there, where it is more like a video game and a lot of people are slaughtered, and no one really mourns them, or it’s like they’re not even really people, their just extras in an action scene, and I can’t stomach that.
There is so much left to explore in this world, will there be any more in the future? Any more novellas?
Possibly. I really have my hands full with the new book. There is so much that could still be explored in the world of Karou and Akiva and their friends, but I don’t have any plans right now. There could be a fourth book, and I hope that someday it will come about that I can write that fourth book. I don’t know, it needs to grow in my mind, I feel like that would be huge book. Each book sort of grew exponentially, it went from the human world to a reverse unpeeling of an onion, it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and this one way, way bigger. It’s daunting to think of how I would write that next conflict, so I will let that sit for a while and see how that goes.