Leigh Bardugo got together with authors M.L. Brennan (AMERICAN VAMPIRE), Django Wexler (THE SHADOW CAMPAIGNS), and Teresa Frohock (MISERERE) to chat about all things books, writing, and connecting with fans!
PART ONE: UNICORNS, HIGHLANDERS, AND THE CHARACTERS WE KILL
Q: What are your feelings about seriously harming or even killing main characters?
Leigh Bardugo: I’m glad that you mentioned doing serious harm, because for me, that’s sometimes the more interesting choice. I like to take away the thing that the character believes defines him or her and then see what happens.
As for killing off characters, agreed on all fronts, particularly Teresa’s points re manipulating or cheating the reader. A death is like a declaration of love or any dramatic moment really—it has to feel earned. Even if the death is deliberately arbitrary (Whedon does this a lot—shrapnel! stray bullet! danger is everywhere!), I think the fallout has to be deeply felt. Otherwise, you’re just upping the body count and there’s a good chance the reader will begin to feel brutalized or simply stop caring. I don’t know. It’s easy to talk about these things in the abstract, but I just locked the third book in my trilogy and I worried quite a bit about striking a balance between the reality of war and narrative satisfaction. I still don’t know if I walked the line successfully.
Q: Is there an element you put in your books not because it was necessary to the plot or characters, but just because it was awesome?
Leigh Bardugo: I like imagining Teresa setting fire to the world. In Siege and Storm, Alina discovers that Mal has been spending his nights brawling in what started out as an ordinary fight club scene because, well, I wanted to write about a fight club. But my friend Sarah called me out on it. She basically said, “What is this Far and Away shiz?” And I knew she was right, but I also knew there was a reason beyond bare-knuckle shenans for why I felt so attached to the scene. It was only on the rewrite that I realized the change I needed to make to give the moment significance: Mal is an ordinary soldier and he needed to be challenging Grisha, the members of the magical elite. He’s doing it to prove he isn’t helpless, to get a bit of his own back—and it ended up having an impact not only on his character, but on the rest of the trilogy.
I desperately, desperately wanted Sturmhond to have a sky fortress in Siege and Storm. I had this whole vision of how it would plummet to the earth in this big battle. But with the rules I’d created for the magical system, it was impossible. In theory, a group of Squallers could have kept a floating fortress aloft and stable, but in the context of my world it would have been an absurd expenditure of resources, completely pointless. So that was the end of the sky fortress. But I still think of it fondly.
Tell us about one novel that you wish you had written.
Leigh: Lawd, I never know what to make of this question, but I’m going with Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil. It’s one of the most perfectly plotted books I’ve read, and it also strikes this tone of possibility that I haven’t encountered many other places. It’s an intimate story, but it has grand scale. It’s historical fiction, but there’s an element of magical realism. It’s whimsical and improbable, but grounded in something sinister, and heartbreaking, and absurdist. After I read it, I started trying to write a literary novel set in early 1900s Los Angeles. I never got past chapter two. At the same time, I’d hate to have written Carter because then I’d be deprived of the pleasure of simply reading it.
Q: Is there a book you pretend you’ve read, but haven’t? Answers after the break!
Leigh Bardugo: I always nod or smirk as appropriate when Jonathan Franzen’s books are mentioned, but I’ve never read them. The problem is that, at this point, I’ve read enough of his commentary that I’m incapable of giving him a fair read. Am I missing out? Tell me fellow panelists. Unless you haven’t read him, in which case, nod or smirk as appropriate.