Out of the Darkness with New York Times Bestseller Leigh Bardugo
It was a moment of pure terror that set Leigh Bardugo onto a path that led her to the sensational New York Times bestselling Grisha trilogy and critical acclaim from authors such as Veronica Roth, who revealed, “If I came for the world, I really stayed for the characters. Alina is a great character — her humor is what really struck me, at first, because I don’t see that many leads in YA sci-fi/fantasy with a truly solid sense of humor. She’s also smart and strong, I would say, but she doesn’t suffer from …that almost superhuman resilience. She’s a strong character who is also insecure a lot of the time, unsure of herself, and she makes big mistakes and errors in judgment throughout the books, and I find that really appealing, as a person who makes big mistakes and errors in judgment myself.”
Epic, irresistible and beautifully written, The Grisha Trilogy is now firmly entrenched as a key series – and fandom – in the YA and fantasy book scene, inspiring a devoted community of readers, reviewers and incredible fan creativity. Now optioned for film by Dreamworks and David Heyman (the Harry Potter dream team) The trilogy is set in a beautifully realised other world that has echoes of Tsarist Russia and of darkest fairy-tale. Ravka is a country literally torn apart by darkness—a wasteland known as the Shadow Fold has severed it from its coastline, leaving it vulnerable to enemies and choked off from contact with the outside world.
And it was darkness itself that inspired the first story in what was to become The Grisha Trilogy. In Dublin for Shamrockcon and to meet her Irish Fans, I met Leigh in a noisy coffee shop in the heart of Dundrum Shopping Centre, a place where it is never truly dark. Leigh explained, “I work as a makeup and special effects artist, and at Halloween everyone wants to be your friend; so I left the city and went to stay with friends in the mountains. They went out for the evening and I fell asleep reading. When I woke up it was dark, pitch dark, country dark. I’m from LA where there’s always light and I was absolutely terrified. I was sure there was someone else with me in the room, but I literally couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. It was an unfamiliar house and I had no idea where the light swithes were . My heart was pounding. Eventually I got the lights on, but it started me thinking about that level of helplessness and fear of the dark – I started wondering what would happen if darkness was an actual physical place – what if there were monsters there? Why would you go to a place like that?”
And the germ of an idea started.
Leigh explained, “I was working in copywriting, had been writing fiction in my spare time for years. I’d had started lots of novels but never actually finished them. I’d get a few chapters in and lose my way. When the idea for Shadow and Bone came, it wouldn’t leave me alone, but I doubted my own ability to finish a book…as a writer, you read and you have good taste. I was reading tons, but I was expecting my first draft to be the same as the finished book.” When Leigh’s father passed away, she found her professional writing to be much to solitary, giving her too much time to slip into depression. “It seemed mad but I decided to give up my job and retrain in make up and special effects. Being away from the computer professionally allowed my own writing to flow so I even after twelve hours on my feet I could sit down in the evenings and really write. About that time a friend suggested I do the graduate MFA programme, and a switch sort of flipped in me and I said to myself that I was going to write my book, I was going to write it in the next six months and I was going to finish it.”
“I’d taken screen writing classes, knew how to create a three act structure and a twelve beat outline, but I’d never though of applying those techniques to a novel. With Shadow and Bone I had the whole story in my head and I discovered I was a plotter – I applied those screenwriting techniques and once I knew where I was going it all flowed. A big part of it was letting go, telling myself that no-one would ever see it, it wouldn’t be sent out. You never write a good first draft. Previously I’d listened to the myths that writing is a calling, but it’s a job and like all jobs some days are bad days – I’d been thinking that the bad days meant I wasn’t a good writer.”
“My first draft captured the sense of power I wanted – the corrupt monarchy, Alina’s powers, but nothing really had names. I took a month to research and quite a lot of the plot changed. I wanted to go somewhere different with this book. When I was a child I was obsessed with Ireland but I felt that everyone has done the Celtic legends, and medieval England. Then I went into a second hand bookstore and found an old atlas of Imperial Russia. Russia had everything I wanted in my story, the divide between rich and poor, serfs, a failure to industrialise.” Leigh immediately realised that Russia was great inspiration for fantasy, “Even if you knew nothing about Russia, everyone has heard of Rasputin, Faberge eggs, Anastasia….”
Leigh told me, “I had a really eerie moment – I’d based Os Alta on St. Petersburg and then I found a picture of a monastery on an island and it was like seeing my city come to life. The hairs stood up on the backs of my arms.”
Leigh has been credited with developing a brilliant badass heroine in Alina. But she’s not a traditional or cliched fantasy character, she’s deeper and more complex. In a recent interview Leigh said, “I think in YA there’s sometimes a temptation to create heroines who are infinitely resilient and wise and confident because those are the behaviors we want to see teens embrace and maybe we want to see those things in ourselves. We aren’t always comfortable witnessing real frailty or vulnerability in our heroines, but I like characters who struggle, and doubt, and who don’t always do the wise thing.” I asked her how she had found Alina, and she revealed, “I found Alina’s voice the hardest to find. I made the classic writer mistake of making her sweet, soft and quiet and I disliked her intensely. Then I started thinking, wait a minute, she’s had this rough life, she’s had massive change, she’s not a peasant but she’s not an aristocrat. I started to find her pragmatism and her sourness, her stubborness, to understand how bitter she is about the past…Writing her was really uncomfortable, she thinks little of herself, she takes a long time to learn how to use her powers because she’s never had power of any story, personal or mystical. As writers we need to be willing to take our characters on a journey.”
I wondered if Leigh had set out to write a trilogy? She shook her head, “I just started out to finish one book! But when I was half way through writing I realised that the ending I had wasn’t right, I realised there was a bigger story and I started making notes for books two and three. Then, when my now agent read it, she said it felt like a trilogy, and the ending hasn’t changed.”
Getting that crucial publishing deal is the holy grail for writers, and I asked Leigh if she had had an agent when she started this book. She told me, “No, I submitted a query letter to many agents, and it wasn’t a very good query letter, I got a lot of rejections. Part of it is querying at the right time with the right book. It’s really important for new writers to research agents and be specific – there are tremendous resources online to help you do that. Nobody was looking for epic fantasy when I was querying, but then I saw a blog post my agent Jo [Joanna Volpe of Nancy Coffey Literary] had written about how much she loved Lord of the Rings, so I knew she’d understand my book.”
And Jo loved the book, as do readers. Here is one typical review: ‘I can use one word to describe this book and that is “powerful”. Powerful because it’s original. Powerful because it’s eye-catching. Powerful because it makes you feel all the emotions that are mentioned in the English dictionary. And powerful because it’s made me have a whole new outlook and something to look forward to in the future of YA.’ (DarkReaders)
The complete Grisha Trilogy is available now with the launch of the third book. Pick up Shadow and Bone, Seige and Storm and Ruin and Rising at your local bookshop, or pick up the set online here.
Read our review of Shadow and Bone here.
(c) Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin
Find out more about The Grisha Trilogy here:
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GrishaTrilogy
At Leigh’s website: http://www.leighbardugo.com/
On Twitter: @LBardugo
Or follow the Orion YA Twitter account @fiercefiction