One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Laini Taylor

Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.

It might be possible to resist Laini Taylor’s words and worlds, but I kind of doubt it.  I didn’t even try.  A friend sent me Blackbringer (book one of the Dreamdark series) and I fell headlong in love from the first sentence–“The wolf tasted the babe’s face with the tip of his tongue and pronounced her sweet, and the fox licked the back of her head to see if it was so,” for the record.  When Lips Touch was nominated for the National Book Award I was thrilled, but not surprised (it was a YALSA Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults as well.)  And then came Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Karou and Akiva and Brimstone and Zuzana and finally the not-very-well-kept-secret of Laini Taylor exploded and it was wonderful, because there is no resisting Laini Taylor’s words and worlds.  The detail, the scope, the sheer width and breath and depth of them just sucks you in like a beautiful, deadly, whirlpool.  Here there be marionettes and teeth and pomegranates and spiders and bat wings and blackened handprints and death and hope and courage and, of course, love, and how can anyone be expected to resist that?  My advice is not to try.  Just dive into the maelstrom and enjoy the ride.

Thank you so much, Laini, for taking the time to talk; for sticking with me through travel, technical difficulties, and kid time; and for the really excellent description of teen hair fail (been there.)

laini taylorAlways Something There to Remind Me

Please describe your teenage self.
I was ordinary and undistinguished, probably wearing ill-fitting jeans and exhibiting a lack of hair-styling mastery. If I wasn’t reading, I was daydreaming. I had a very good vocabulary and no sense of when not to use obscure words in conversation, so I got a lot of blank looks, and I’m sure I sounded pretentious. I memorized poetry, loved foreign films, and dreamed of escaping to Europe to pursue some grand, artistic life. I was a decent student and a decent athlete, and I had good parents and a small number of good friends. My high school life wasn’t terrible, but it would make a really boring book.

What did you want to be when you grew up?  Why?
I always wanted to be a writer. This has been a constant since very early childhood, with a few other—half-hearted—interests cropping up along the way, generally due to the influence of some book I was reading at the time. Like, thanks to Gerald Durrell, I wanted to travel the world collecting wild animals for zoos. None of these detours were ever serious. I’ve only ever really wanted to be a writer. In high school, specifically, I wanted to be a writer who vanished inexplicably and was believed dead. Yes, really. I would not be dead, of course. I would be living fabulously, secretly, in Tahiti. People would discuss the mystery of my disappearance in cafes the world over. This fantasy was mostly not serious. Mostly. I’ve always had ludicrous, over-the-top daydreams! Plus, I was under the influence of John Fowles novels at that time.

What were your high school years like?
When I was fourteen, my family moved from Brussels, Belgium to Orange County, California. It was 1987ish. This was not a happy move. I’d been living overseas for six years (my dad was in the Navy), first in a small, southern Italian beach town and then a major European capital. I’m sure I thought I was very worldly, but California was not impressed. I was lacking certain critical skills. For example, I didn’t know how to use a curling iron! In Orange County in 1987, you had to use a curling iron. For my first attempt, I curled in the wrong direction and scorched a kink into my hair. It was awesome. But I learned how to do it, sort of, to this effect: I would start out the school day with giant tidal-wave bangs (success!), but by second period the hair spray would start to give out (failure!) and my hair would slowly lose its structural integrity and collapse into a sad, half-resting state. Thinking back, I’m sure that not all of high school was about hair, but it kind of feels that way. I challenge you to look at my year book and notice anything else! “That hair! Oh my god, that hair!”

What were some of your passions during that time?  
Thinking back, I don’t feel like I was really passionate about anything in high school, and I wish that weren’t the case. I wish I’d had some esoteric obsession, or particular area of expertise, but I was kind of a bland generalist. I was on the soccer, diving and track teams, belonged to the Model United Nations club along with my best friends, and had long-running crushes on unattainable boys. Outside of school, there wasn’t much to do. There were no cafes or any other places to hang out. My mom had a convertible VW so I could borrow that and drive my friends to the beach. We would go all the way to Laguna Beach to make jewelry at this one bead store. We rented movies, especially French ones (Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources were faves) and tear-jerker period pieces. Junior and senior year I worked at uninspiring mall jobs to save money for my escape back to Europe. I suppose if I had any passion then, that was it: laying plans for my escape!

Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
Probably, more than anything, moving around shaped me. As a Navy family, we were always moving, and I took it in stride (which is not to say that it was without drama), but looking back now, I think how difficult it really is to live a life of uprooting. By far the most challenging time for my brother and myself was the move back to the States when we were in high school. For the first time, we were moving into a civilian community. Before, we’d always been integrating into military communities where everyone else was as fluid as we were. We were all equally open to making new friends; it was our normal. It was not the normal in Fountain Valley, California! (Plus there was the hair issue! Oh NO!)

This is a great subject for a YA novel—being the new kid in town—because it’s just such a fraught proposition, and so much can go wrong. I navigated it all right, I guess, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the root reason that I write YA is as some kind of a deeply buried wish to do these years over, and do them better.

(This is certainly a very thought-provoking interview. Maybe it’s weird that as a YA author I never think about my own teen years, but I guess I don’t, because this feels like new territory for me.)

What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
As soon as I graduated from high school, I was on a plane back to Europe. My parents had said long ago that I could, and I’m sure they imagined that some of my friends would be going too, but it turned out that none of their parents would let them, so it was just me. I was seventeen and had no life skills, but I got a Eurail pass, a big backpack, and a copy of Let’s Go: Europe, and I backpacked around all summer on my own and then stayed on another couple of months in Paris, living in an attic (which sounds more artistic and atmospheric than it was), babysitting French kids, and daydreaming a lot about being a writer. It was my Big Adventure (though it really was a fairly small adventure), and I can’t imagine myself without having done it.

What advice, if any, would you give your teen self?  Would your teen self have listened?
I found myself giving this advice to a young friend recently, knowing I wouldn’t have listened to it myself at her age: Forget about boys until your mid-20s! Sorry, boys, but you’re not worth the trouble until maybe then. (Most of you, anyway. There are probably exceptions!) Teen self, my advice is just to focus on you, your dreams, your friends, your interests, skills, grades (yes, grades!). When it comes to boys, in the words of Karou: “Be that cat.” (This is from Daughter; she’s thinking how she’s sick of being the kind of cat that’s always twining around ankles saying “look at me, pet me, love me”; she wants to be the kind of cat that’s perched out of reach on a high wall, untouchable, needing no one. Not that Karou abided by this advice either, but wow, maybe she should have!)

Do you have any regrets about your teen years?  Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
I wish I would have written more, painted and drawn more. I wish I would have started a weird zine or something, been more creative—and more individual. In my story-writing efforts at that time, my characters were these quirky girls who drove old ratty French cars like Citroens that they’d written poetry all over, and they belonged to secret societies that read Dante and stuff like that. I daydreamed hard about being quirky, but I really wasn’t. I was awkward and kind of socially paralyzed. I was too self-conscious to dance at parties, and at football games I was even afraid to woo-hoo, as though I might do it wrong! In elementary and middle school, I’d felt very bold and powerful, very much myself, but I lost that in my teens. I wish I could have held onto it somehow.

What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
My friends, and the good old days when my parents took care of me and life was so easy, before adult concerns—though of course I didn’t appreciate it then!

Every Day I Write the Book

lips touchI found it so interesting that you’ve talked about two of your characters—Kizzy (from “Goblin Fruit” in Lips Touch) and Karou—as being similar to your teenage self in some ways, two sides of the coin, as it were.  Kissy, you’ve said, “was my teenage self in a much more direct way…emotionally she was all the big dreams that I had for my life.”  Karou, on the other hand, “was much more the answer to…who I wanted to be.”  Both characters have connected with readers like crazy.  One reviewer noted your intense and “sympathetic understanding of [your] audience,” asking “who as a teenager didn’t feel like a chimera, a mix of seemingly disparate parts forming an uncertain self?”  How do you create your teenage characters, and how do you get the emotional tone so right?  Was writing for and about teens a conscious decision or simply a result of the stories you wanted to tell?
Writing about teens wasn’t a conscious decision. After college, I stopped writing for a long time, for various reasons including not having dealt with my creative hang-ups, and not have discovered my voice as a writer. Time passed and I rediscovered my love of fantasy (thank you Harry Potter!), and when I started writing again, it was middle grade and YA fantasy.

I never even thought about it. I was deeply in love with these books that connect with young readers (and not-so-young) in such a profound way. I’ve since thought a lot about why I’m drawn to write younger characters, and I don’t have a good answer. In so many ways, I still don’t feel like “a grownup,” and in spite of my age, I don’t relate to grownup life all that much. I really don’t know what to make of that!

blackbringersilksinger In a 2013 interview you highlight fantasy’s “ability to universalize themes in a way that lets us look at Big Ideas like war and honor and sacrifice and love…as human themes that are deeply meaningful in our lives, free from the allegiances and prejudices we bring to stories that happen in our real world.”  Both of your series (Dreamdark and Daughter of Smoke and Bone) tackle a number of Big Ideas—war, the power of hope, destiny, the idea of heroes, the search for identity—and I’m wondering if you could talk a little about theme in your own work?  Do you ever set out to tackle a Big Idea in advance or do specific themes present themselves through the story or characters?  What themes tend to resonate most with you, either in your own work or in others?  Is there a particular theme that you’d actively like to explore in the future? 
I don’t really think about themes at the beginning. I’m just telling a story, just following characters. Somewhere in the back rooms of my brain, though, there are strange, wizened alchemists mixing themes together, and drawing lines with string between one thing and another. Making meaning. That stuff happens in the dark, and it’s the best, how it creeps up and surprises you. Meaning! Yay! Thank you, weird shadow-people from the brain alleys!

At some point I begin to see it, and I become more deliberate with it, sculpting the narrative to strengthen ideas as well as plot. There are a set of themes and motifs I find myself returning to over and over again, unconsciously. Self-sacrifice and redemption, impossible choices, the inhumanity of war, family bonds that go beyond blood. It is also very important to note that chocolate has appeared in every one of my books!

gods and monsters blood and starlightsmoke and bone I’m trying to figure out how to ask a question about world-building, and how it intersects with your fascinating post on the “Dance of the Known and the Unknown.” Your ability to craft a “well-structured and creative setting…astonishing in both its detail, and the canny way it is woven into the narrative” has been noted by numerous critics, who praise “world-building descriptions…[that] stop your heart,” and the “masterful blending [of] an intricate fantasy world into our own.”  I’m wondering if you could give us a sense of how world-building works for you?  It seems like your “Dance of the Known and the Unknown” started as an explanation of plotting, but the lyrical description is so characteristic of your world-building that I wonder if the idea intersects there as well?    
Yes, definitely! Interesting observation :-).

I try not to do the world-building up front, but prefer to discover it as I go, so that it becomes an organic outgrowth of the storytelling, rather than a set of pre-ordained constraints for the storytelling to navigate. With my Dreamdark books, I did a lot more planning and note-making about the world before I began writing. I have notebooks filled with ideas and inspiration. That was really fun, and I treasure those notebooks, but I can also see that that degree of preparation was motivated by fear of diving into the unknown.

With the Daughter books, and even “Hatchling,” from Lips Touch, I approached it in a really different way, creating situations and characters and then seeing where they took me. Writing that way very much is the dance between the Known and the Unknown!

cake and puppetsYou host a website that collects past writing essays (from 2007ish) and your regular blog often features musings on the writing process, as well as your answers to questions from aspiring writers.  You’ve talked about the genesis and writing of your Dreamdark books, Lips Touch, and the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, and have been extremely generous with your insight, advice, and honest depiction of life as a writer; clearly you think a lot about the process of writing.  Have you experienced anything truly surprising or unexpected, writing-wise, between your first novel and your current book?  Have you changed your mind about any part of the process over the years?  Have you received any advice along the way that was particularly valuable or pertinent?  And finally, what do you struggle with the most these days and what do you consider to be your greatest strength as a writer?
Great question! I’ve been thinking about this a lot since finishing the trilogy, since it only hit me after the fact how much my process has changed over the course of writing these books. I’ve got a half-written blog post on the subject, and haven’t really put it all into words yet, and probably won’t be able to here, but I’ll try!

Basically, when I got serious about finishing novels (around 2005), I thought I had to plan them out and be in control of them at all times. I had a lot of fear of moving forward into the unknown. I believed that I was a “plotter.” Early in the writing of this series, I did try to plot and plan it out, but it really resisted my efforts. I found I could only see a little way ahead. I had vague ideas for the overall story arc, but no clear and orderly plan, and certainly no outline. This was terrifying but also really freeing.

What I’ve discovered about myself over these five years goes back to that question about the “dance between the Known and the Unknown.” By far most of my story arises from the writing of scenes, from being inside the scene with the characters and letting things happen. It’s a really different headspace than the plotting/outlining headspace, and it feels much more vital and organic, as though the characters are real and alive and I’m not fully in control. It’s magical, the things that happen that I didn’t plan. I love it! The storytelling process ends up feeling to me like swimming from buoy to buoy, with each “buoy” being a story beat I have to reach. Once I do, I can cling to it for a while and catch my breath, take stock, let it sink in. (And also revise and prettify it.) Then when I’m ready, I strike out swimming for the next buoy.

Basically, I’ve learned to have faith in the process. It’s really exciting!

Just Can’t Get Enough

This question comes from Shannon Hale:  “Laini, I don’t just want to read your books, I want to eat them. Your words are delicious. Your scenes are vivid. I feel and smell and experience your stories. I’d love to know a little more about your process. Do you collect words? What’s your process for crafting sentences? How much do your sentences change from first to final draft? And will you secretly revise all my books for me please?”
Oh, Shannon, I feel the same way about your books! *Hug!* Thank you!! I do collect words. In fact, I don’t know that Daughter of Smoke & Bone would exist—at least in anything like the form it does now—if I hadn’t “collected” the word wishbone on the inside cover of a writing notebook shortly before starting it. It was a part of a short list of words I scribbled down for no reason other than that I liked them (along with solstice, disguise, eclipse, and alchemy), and when I found myself, out of nowhere, writing a scene with this blue-haired girl and her monster father, Brimstone ended up wearing a wishbone on a cord around his neck. I have no doubt that this was due to that word being on that list, and it became the key to the story. I heard Susan Cooper speak at a conference once, and she said, “Job number one, for a writer, is to keep a notebook. Job number two: refer to it often.’ This is something I do with great pleasure.

As for writing sentences, oh how I love sentences. For a long time, that’s what “writing” meant to me: crafting sentences. I could happily spend a day on a single sentence, trying out every possibility, polishing it until it was perfect. I actually passed years doing that. It’s a horrible way to try to write a novel! So now I try to find a balance between the love of prose craft and the imperative of storytelling. My happy place is still very much in polishing the prose, so I love to revise.

I don’t have true first drafts because I revise as I go. I can’t move forward unless I love the writing, so I spend a lot of time doing that along the way. It’s incredibly inefficient but my brain needs it. So my “first draft” has already been edited a bajillion times by the time anyone else sees it.

And I’ll revise your books if you revise mine! :-)

Laini has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Marcus Sedgwick.  Watch for an interview with him coming soon!


Laini Taylor is the New York Times bestselling author of Dreams of Gods & Monsters, Days of Blood & Starlight, Daughter of Smoke & Bone (a 2012 YALSA Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults), the Dreamdark books Blackbringer and Silksinger, and the National Book Award finalist Lips Touch: Three Times (also a 2009 YALSA Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults).  She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, illustrator Jim Di Bartolo, and their daughter, Clementine. 

You can find Laini by visiting her website and blog, the Official Daughter of Smoke & Bone tumblr, or by following her on Twitter.

–Julie Bartel, currently reading Midwinterblood by Marcus Segwick and We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

3 thoughts on “One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Laini Taylor”

  1. I love Laini, I love her books, and I love this interview!!! Thoughtful, fascinating questions from Julie, and such honest, generous answers from Laini. Thank you both for sharing!

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