An Interview with YA Fantasy Novelist Tamora Pierce
Author of The Song of the Lioness and Protector of the Small series, Pierce is known for her strong female protagonists and won the Margaret Edwards Award in 2013.
We had the privilege of conducting a short phone interview just after Ms. Pierce completed the first draft of Exile, the long awaited novel featuring Numair and his history.
Form: Novel and short story
Genre: YA Fantasy
Why did you become a writer/poet?
I did have ideas for other careers but they were sort of kid ideas at first and when my father suggested that I try to write down some of the stories I was telling myself, that just seemed like the natural thing to do. Then when I hit a rather mammoth case of writer’s block in my 10th grade year, I punted to my next plan which was to go to college to start an advance degree in clinical psychology working with teenagers. But I began to write again the summer before my junior year, and that was pretty much the end of that. It was the most natural thing, barring the usual hitches and bobbles all writers are victim to, that all artists are victim to. It was the most natural thing in the world for me, I just couldn’t conceive of doing anything else. I worked day jobs to pay my rent, but writing was where my head was at.
Why did you choose to work in the speculative genres?
Because that was where I lived, in speculative fiction. I read realistic fiction, but I didn’t always care for it. If I did care for it, it was historical fiction. The thing that surprises me is that more people don’t read fantasy because if you think about it, up until 4th grade or so, most of us read what would be called at an older age, fantasy. We’re reading about talking caterpillars, kids who draw their way out to an adventure and back home again, and little people who live on the heads of mushrooms. Fantasy, and even science fiction, are most of what we read up until we’re in 4th grade. But that’s what I continued to read, that and historical fiction. My father introduced me to Edgar Rice Burroughs when I was in 2nd grade—both my parents read a lot of historical fiction—and that just seemed more interesting to me than a lot of the contemporary stuff and most of the writers that were considered right for girls were historical writers anyway.
What aspect of speculative writing do you find most challenging, and how do you address that?
I developed my workarounds for the stuff that a lot of people might complain about like creating worlds, creating languages, creating cultures, and so those things aren’t difficult for me, I just go to my workarounds and proceed from there. The hardest thing for me with writing any books is coming up with plots. Its has always been that way, since the time I first started writing. If I’m lucky, I can steal a plot or a portion of a plot from history or from real events and that’ll keep me going. But if I’m stuck, then I go to other people, my husband, my friends, my editor, my agent. I’m reading partners with Bruce Coville—we’ve been writing buddies since ‘98 and we read to each other—so sometimes I’ll go to him and he’ll bail me out.
What motivates you to keep writing?
Deadlines. Deadlines are a splendid motivator, I think of deadlines and I just keep going. But before that, it was a matter of…I would think of the people who did not wish me well. In particular, my mother who was a brilliant, but very troubled woman. She could have done so much with her life and she didn’t and I would think of her and I would just write all the more. We were really poor and I knew if I was ever going to go anywhere with my life—because i’m not very good at anything else, I’m certainly not good at math—so if I was going to get anywhere, writing is what was going to get me there. Between those two things, poverty and my mother, I would just be driven further on and then I got to the point where I had deadlines. And then that kept me going.
How did you deal with rejection as a young writer?
I am the broody sort, so I gave myself deadlines there too. I would give myself a day to be depressed when a short story or article came back and a week to get depressed when the novel manuscript came back and then I would send it out again. And I could be depressed even after I sent it out, but it had to go out again. I would just look at it and say, it is not doing me any good sitting in the drawer, which was actually how I got a tiny career in writing reviews of martial arts movies. I got mad about a movie and wrote an essay about it and thought, it’s not doing me any good just sitting around, so I’ll try it, what the heck. You can be depressed all you want, but keep sending it out.
How has the industry changed since you started publishing in 1983?
To begin with, there was barely a young adult industry at that point and time. We had writers like Judy Blume and Robert Cormier who created a separate section of the bookstore and library called young adult. There were books when I was growing up that were geared toward teenagers, but it wasn’t really until the 80’s that more and more books were being written for teenagers, so there was that. Nobody else was doing what I was doing in `83. Robin McKinley was, but her books were being shelved in adult as well as YA, and then she stopped doing girl heros, or she was doing them on a more literary level than I was. I’m a storyteller.
Then audio books came; they were just something that truckers did, when I started publishing. And by the 90’s, they were more and more important for readers, people were buying them and the invention of the walkman, and then of course, iTunes, meant that people were carrying music and books and listening to them, and it expanded what the reading impaired students could read.
And then people got more and more into computers. In ‘83, I took my advance money and bought a computer with it, and I was probably one of the first people I knew to have a home computer and an iPad has more memory than that computer had. But I changed over very early on. By the 90s of course, there were people with lots of computers, but the internet was starting to become a big thing and I was very shy, and this was a way for me to talk to other writers, it was a way for writers to communicate with each other and for fans to communicate with the writers they really cared about. That was the next big change, and then, of course, in the Oughties, there was the advent of the ebook and the ereader, and iTunes. Then there was the movement of writers getting together on the internet and doing group events, meeting fans, and doing skype chats with libraries around the world. They even have a world reading day were writers do events with schools and libraries and those who are not traveling will do Skype events with a school overseas, and all of this—ebooks and Skype appearances—none of this was even a dream back when I started publishing.
How has that changed your own approach to writing?
Well, when I got that computer…I used to be a real pain in the butt about rewrites, I would just complain and moan and complain, and it wasn’t because I thought my work was so great, it was just a pain in the butt. And the computer changed the way I thought about rewrites and how I went about rewrites because it turned it from something I had to actually cut and paste and print in between the dots and then retype it all and the correct type and paper and everything was expensive and I wasn’t a wealthy person. It turned it into this green, organic ribbon that I could move around with no harm, no foul. If I didn’t like it, I could just erase that chunk and it would be gone and it made me much more fluid about how I approached rewrites and how gracious I was about accepting suggestions for rewrites.
And then with the advent of the internet, it helped me with research, infinitely. I can go on a multitude of websites and find the information I need, or at least can get pointers to where I can get my hands on the information I need where back in the late 70’s early 80’s I would have to go to a library and chance that I would stumble across what I needed.
Also, in the early 90’s, I belonged to AOL Treehouse, which was a chat room for kids, and I would do a couple of hours a week, and I would talk with kids and not even necessarily about my own stuff, just answer their questions about any old thing they came up with. Not only did it teach me to answer on kids chats really fast, which made adult chats really slow, but it gave me experience to start a website of my own, with Meg Cabot—although Meg had to drop out because her career took off like a jet—which my husband and I ran for a long time, called Shero Central. I got very comfortable in dealing with my fans, and I got ideas from them and feedback from them that I wouldn’t normally have gotten back the 80s when my relationship with readers was a lot more standoffish, mostly cause I was really shy. I got to know them better, I got to be more casual with them online, and once I was casual with them online and I heard about their lives and their troubles, what they were going through, I couldn’t be stiff with them in person because these are my fans, I knew them. So I could talk to them and we could have fun, and they would be a lot more outgoing with me as well.
What is your biggest regret as a writer?
My biggest regret that I’ve had as a writer…hmm…I regret that I didn’t have more space with the Alanna and Daine books to develop the characters, I concentrated more on the plots. I don’t feel like I do plots well and I would have liked to have expanded on the characters more in those books, but in those days they were holding us to a 200 manuscript page per book limit, very strictly, so its not like I had the chance then and could have done it. I did spend 8 years at the same time as I was doing those books as a head writer for a radio comedy and drama company that I sometimes think was a waste when I could have been building up my own career, but I learned a lot about how people sound and how people speak and writing dialog from them, so I guess it wasn’t a complete waste.
On the flip side, what is your favorite thing you’ve ever written?
Its like asking your parents, who’s your favorite kid, and they say, aww, you’re all my favorites, and you know that’s a crock, but I usually say the most recent one because that’s the one where I feel I did the most things right, which means that in a year, i’ll have a different favorite one.
I just finished exile, which is about Numair and the time before he met Daine, but if I’m at a school and don’t want to give the whole explanation of “you’re always your worst critic and you’ll always see stuff you would have done better now” answer, then I have to say Squire from Protector of the Small because I love Kel and Raoul as a team. They compliment each other very well. He’s not only a lot of fun, but he’s had his eye on her for a long time. He never questions that she can be a knight, he’s always known she’s going to be one, and she’s going to be a good one. He sees she can be a commander and he sets out to teach her those skills and I love the stuff with the griffin. That’s me talking about rescuing wild young and how its a mixed blessing. I like how Raoul teaches her to deal with royalty by mostly screwing up.
I loved them together so much, that when I was really under deadline and I wanted to finish, but I had to stop writing for a full week right near the end because I knew that when I finished the book, that was going to be it for Kel and Raoul and that was going to be it for them and I was going to really miss their team-up. So if I really have to pin down books, I’ll go with Squire or I’ll go with Shatterglass from the circle universe, because its my own private joke. I learned it dealing with gifted kids, who go to college and end up tutoring other college students because there is something to me very hilarious about taking someone who is older, they’ve been told they’re really smart they’re really good, and then you stick them with an arrogant, grumpy, 14 yr old teacher.
If you had to give just one piece of advice to new writers, what would it be?
Be persistent. Just keep after it, keep going, because the more you do, the better you’ll get and the more you’ll do. And don’t worry if you don’t finish something, if you keep after it, keep doing more, and eventually you will finish something. That’s the main thing. The rest will come, you’ll learn the rest as you go. In our house, its called Dare to be Stupid after the Weird Al Yankovich song. Don’t let anyone discourage you, don’t listen when anybody tries to make you feel bad about what you’re doing, just keep after it.