2017 Alex Awards Winners: An Interview with Sarah Beth Durst on The Queen of Blood

cover art for The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth DurstThe Queen of Blood is the first book in Sarah Beth Durst’s Queens of Renthia series and one of the winner’s of YALSA’s 2017 Alex Awards. Today I’m thrilled to have Sarah Beth Durst here on the Hub to answer some questions about the book.

Congratulations on The Queen of Blood’s selection as a 2017 Alex Award finalist! Where were you when you heard the news? Who was the first person you told about your win?

Sarah Beth Durst (SBD): Thank you so much!!!

Shortly after I heard the news, I called my mom.

Me:  “My book won the Alex Award!”

My mom: “My dog was attacked by three coyotes.  I chased them off.”

Me:  “We had very different mornings.”

She began her day to the sound of her dog yelping.  Looking out the window, she saw three coyotes had pinned him to the ground out beside the well.  She ran outside — without any kind of anything to defend herself — and shouted at the coyotes.  Scared them off.  The dog was fine.

I began my day to the sound of the garbage truck rumbling one street over.  Looking out the window, I saw the truck hadn’t reached my street yet.  I ran around the house — without any kind of anything to defend myself — trying to empty all the trash cans and toss out anything suspiciously green and fuzzy in the kitchen before the garbage truck reached my street.  And as I was scurrying around, I was checking my email on my phone, because multitasking.  I saw an email from one of my editors that read, “Congratulations on the Alex!!!  Just heard the news!!”

I was floored.  It’s a moment I’ll never forget (though I did, in the moment, forget all about the garbage truck!).  I’ve wanted to be a writer my entire life, and to have librarians (the ultimate book experts) essentially say, “We like your book, and we think other people will too.”…  Really, it means the world to me.  I am so honored and grateful and thrilled!

What was the inspiration for The Queen of Blood? Did you always know that this book would be the start of a trilogy?

SBD: Sometimes ideas sneak up on me.  This one reached up and struck me right on the face.

I remember the exact moment this book was born.  I had just arrived for a writing retreat in the Poconos.  Each writer was given a charming wood cabin, nestled beneath the pine trees.  I was walking up to mine, glorying in the bird song, admiring the trees, reveling in the moment… and I tripped over the step to the cabin and landed flat on my face.  Cut my lip.  Tasted blood.  And had the idea that would eventually become THE QUEEN OF BLOOD:

Bloodthirsty nature spirits.

THE QUEEN OF BLOOD, book one of The Queens of Renthia, is set in a world filled with nature spirits.  But they aren’t sweet, frolicking pastoral sprites.  These spirits want to kill all humans, and only certain women — the queens — have the power to control them.

After falling on my face and coming up with this concept, the very next thing I decided was that I didn’t want to write a Chosen One story.  Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely love Chosen One stories.  I’ve seen every episode of Buffy, read Harry Potter at least five times, and am still waiting for Merriman Lyon to show up and tell me I’m one of the Old Ones.  But for THE QUEEN OF BLOOD, I wanted to write about the one who isn’t picked to save the world, the one who isn’t qualified to be a hero, the mediocre student who has to work hard to even be on the same playing field as her peers.  Daleina lacks the innate skill and talent necessary to be a queen, but she is determined to protect her family and save her world.  I wanted to write a story about someone whose true magic is her determination.

I knew very early on this was a world I wanted to explore in more than one book.  I’m currently working on writing book three of The Queens of Renthia, which will complete this story arc, and after that, I’ll be writing a standalone adventure set on the islands of Renthia, filled with lots of intrigue and sea monsters.

I am absolutely loving writing these books!  It’s been such an immersive experience.  Every day, I sit down at my computer and it feels like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia… except in Renthia, the trees can kill you.

YALSA’s Alex Awards are given to ten books written for adults with special appeal to teen readers. Did you envision this series as being written/marketed to adults from the beginning? Did writing for adults change or influence your writing process compared to when you are writing books for younger readers?

SBD: Yes, I knew from the start that this would be a book aimed at adults… but I also knew from the start that it would be accessible to teens.  There’s a simple reason for this: I try very hard to write the book that I want to read, and I still love the kind of books I read as a teen.

For me, the writing process isn’t any different.  A story is a story.  No matter who the reader is, I try to tell the best story I can and be as true to the characters as I can be.

That’s really the secret to writing for different age groups: if you stay true to your characters, then everything else will work itself out.  If you write through the eyes of a twelve-year-old princess, as in my new middle-grade novel JOURNEY ACROSS THE HIDDEN ISLANDS, the book will come out appropriate for a middle-grade audience.  If you write through the eyes of an eighteen-year-old student and a forty-year-old warrior, as I did in THE QUEEN OF BLOOD, then you’ll have a book appropriate for teens and adults.

Renthia is a world inhabited by magical creatures and spirits. Of all the things that you created in this world, what is your favorite? Is there anything you created in this book that you wish you could bring to the real world?

SBD: Renthia is a world of extremes, thanks to the spirits: towering trees, endless glaciers, and sky-piercing mountains.  Aratay, the country at the heart of the Queens books, has HUGE trees — I picture a cross between Lothlorien and the forest moon of Endor.  People live in houses that are suspended about halfway up the trunks, and the bravest among them travel through the forest on terrifyingly high ziplines.  Singers perch at the top of the canopy, welcoming the sunrise and sunset with songs that echo through the forest.  It’s a beautiful place.

The spirits themselves are beautiful too.  My favorite is an air spirit that looks like an ermine with bat wings.  Daleina rides on him — you can see that scene depicted by artist Stephan Martinere on the cover of book two, THE RELUCTANT QUEEN.

But I wouldn’t want any of Renthia to exist in the real world.  I’m far too afraid of heights.  And of being eaten.

Can you tell us anything about your next projects?

SBD: My latest middle-grade novel, JOURNEY ACROSS THE HIDDEN ISLANDS, came out in April from Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  It’s about two sisters, one winged lion, and a lot of monsters.  My very first picture book, ROAR AND SPARKLES GO TO SCHOOL, about a little dragon’s first day of school, will be out in June from Running Press Kids / Hachette.  And book two of The Queens of Renthia, THE RELUCTANT QUEEN, will be out from Harper Voyager in July.  Also this year, the film adaptation of my YA novel DRINK SLAY LOVE will premiere on Lifetime as a TV movie!  I’m ridiculously excited about all of this.

Thanks so much for interviewing me!

Thank you to Sarah for taking the time to answer my questions about The Queen of Blood!

— Emma Carbone, currently reading Infinite in Between by Carolyn Mackler