2014 Teens’ Top Ten: An Interview with Leigh Bardugo

The Teens Top Ten winners have been out for a few weeks and I was so pleased to see Leigh Bardugo’s Siege and Storm, the second book of her New York Times bestselling Grisha trilogy on the list. I’m happy to present a brief interview with Leigh about her work and series in general. If you’re interested in reading the rest of our Teens’ Top Ten interview series, take a look!

Congratulations to Leigh; many thanks for answering these questions and letting me clarify on Twitter! If you’re looking for more about Leigh be sure to check out her website, Tumblr, and Goodreads page.

To me there are distinct classes in the Ravka (peasants, Grisha, royalty) and different kids of Grisha who at first stay within their own group. You have set up the binary of light and dark, Alina and the Darkling, but things blur a bit by end. So how does the blending of Alina and the Darkling, dark/light inform your view of Ravka by the end and your view of our world? Are things really so different from each other?

I do think life would be a lot easier if people, decisions, experiences could be categorized as either purely bad or good, but that’s pretty rare, and I try my best to make sure my fiction reflects that. What’s the point in creating a dictator a reader wouldn’t be tempted to follow? Why should a heroine be immune to greed for power just because her cause is supposedly just? The action of the trilogy takes place during a time of tremendous upheaval and I think it’s natural that you’d see a breakdown in the traditional order of things. But I also think it’s worth noting that, even at the end of the trilogy, Ravka remains pretty stratified in terms of class. It was tempting to just tear down all the walls and shout, “Democracy!” but that wouldn’t have been true to the world I created.

Photo by Kevin Rolly
Photo by Kevin Rolly

You used to be a makeup artist, so how does working with the creation of an image, models, makeup, and perception influence your work as a writer, other than the perhaps obvious character of Genya?

Interesting question. I think teens are keenly aware of the way beauty and image operate as a commodities, and I wanted to deal honestly with that in the story. Genya is definitely the biggest way my work as a makeup artist carried over into my writing—not just in her skillset, but in the way she embodies both beauty’s power and its limitations. That said, Nikolai and the Darkling are also invested in the power of image. They both have a gift for spectacle and are master manipulators—each playing to his own strengths. But Alina learns from their examples and, by the final book in the trilogy, she’s beginning to use her own public image strategically and become a political player in her own right.

Were you able to travel to Russia for your research, or would you like to travel there? Any particular favorite spots or places you would like to visit? What fascinates you about Russia and its culture(s)?
When I wrote Shadow and Bone, I was working a day job and just trying to make ends meet, so taking a research trip to Russia wasn’t an option. But I’ll definitely get there someday. I want to see St. Petersburg and visit Yasnaya Polyana to see Tolstoy’s home. I’m Jewish—Spanish on one side, Russian and Lithuanian on the other—and in my family, Russia was always cast in the role of the glamorous oppressor. Even when I was a kid, it took on a kind of larger than life status, and in a way, it took on the traits of a fantasy world: beautiful but brutal, magical but dangerous.
I know this has been covered before, but can I just say your response to an anonymous comment about the “unnecessary lesbians[s]” in your books made me so happy! You say that “story trumps statement or we’d all just write angry pamphlets”  but what are some of the statements you’re trying to make in the Grisha trilogy? To me it’s: the importance of personal histories and how they shape you for good and bad; a great example of female power without falling into a “strong female character” trap; and the effects and hazards of desires for light, darkness, for power, and for love. Can you elaborate on what you wanted to say or create in writing these books?
Thank you! I did worry that responding to that anon would create a false sense that I get lots of angry mail like that. I don’t. The vast majority of the responses to Tamar and Nadia have been positive and I think it’s important to put that out there. As for messages, I really just wanted to tell a good story. I wanted to create a fallible heroine, and a villain you couldn’t just dismiss. I wanted the temptations of the Grisha world to feel real whether they were romantic or political. That said, when I was writing Ruin and Rising, I was definitely aware of the “strong heroine” discussion, and I wanted to show a lot of different modes of strength—male and female. So I have soldiers, teachers, mothers, politicians, and lab geeks playing a part in the war. They’re all valuable in different ways, but they’re not all nice or noble.
Finally, anything more you’d be willing to tell us about Six of Crows and your new series? It’s set in Kerch, but will we be seeing any characters from the Grisha trilogy?
Six of Crows takes place around two years after the end of the Ravkan civil war. You’ll be hearing a bit about the characters from the Grisha Trilogy and you get to see one of them in a cameo, but the story really belongs to the newcomers. It centers around a team of thugs and outcasts who have to pull off a heist that may turn out to be a suicide mission. Grisha power plays a major role in the plot and one of the team is a Grisha living in self-imposed exile, so there will be some familiar elements for fans of the original trilogy. And I have to admit, I had a good time playing with this new country. Kerch and particularly its capital, Ketterdam, are so different from Ravka—glamorous and seedy, full of warring gangs and shady characters. Maybe not the best spot for a vacation, but a delightful place to start a story.
Thank you again, Leigh, and congratulations!
-Anna Tschetter, currently reading Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi