A Conspiracy of Kings is Megan Whalen Turner's fourth book in the series that began with The Thief, a 1997 Newbery Honor winner. Bookshelf caught up with Turner in California, where her husband's job has taken the family for a sabbatical year. (Note: this interview contains possible plot spoilers.)
Okay, so the big question that has haunted me for a decade is how do you pronounce Attolia?
My standing policy is that people get to pronounce the names any way they want but I say a-TOLL-ee-uh and u-GEN-uh-dees.
The proper nouns in your books are very original. Where do you get these names from?
They're all based on the Greek formation of names, that is, they are not Greek names but they are constructed from Greek root words in the pattern of Greek names. But that's not entirely predictable. Basically, if I like something, I stick it in. And it's not always entirely under my control.
Are you enjoying your year in sunny southern California and away from chilly northern Ohio?
We really like Ohio. We live in Shaker Heights and kids play flashlight tag outside until 11 o'clock at night in the summer all by themselves. But here we are four blocks from the beach. However, the house we rented has almost no hot water, no central heating, and no oven. I'm calling it "the year without baked food." I crave lasagna but the rent is low.
You began your writing career with a book of short stories (Instead of Three Wishes, Greenwillow) and now you are working on a series that is epic in its sweep. Was that a deliberate evolution?
Actually, I wrote those short stories about six blocks from where I'm living now. That was the year Mark had a Guggenheim Fellowship at UC-San Diego and that was the year I sat down to write. I had been a bookseller and I chose short stories because I thought I could probably get one done. I also thought those stories would go into a drawer and never see the light of day.
Right. By the time I finished, I had an idea for a novel, so I sent the stories, sort of as a writing sample, to Greenwillow. I was very surprised that they wanted to publish them.
When Instead of Three Wishes came out, I was pregnant, and when The Thief came out I was pregnant a second time, and I had my third baby the week after I turned in the final draft of The Queen of Attolia. My husband said, "If it's going to be one baby per book, I think we're done now."
The Thief has always seemed to me to be written for a younger audience than the books that followed it, including A Conspiracy of Kings. Do you agree?
I don't have a ready answer to that. The age of the reader is not the best predictor as to whether they are going to enjoy the books. There are certain readers at 12 who are going to enjoy them, others, at 18. I have been surprised when friends have said, "We're reading The Thief to our 10-year-old," because I was afraid the next thing they would say is, "And we're going to read Queen of Attolia next." It's hard to say to anyone they are not ready for Queen or [The] King (of Attolia) but in those novels a lot more happens offstage. It requires readers to intuit more things about the story and that, perhaps, requires a more mature reader.
Also, The Queen of Attolia contains one of the most upsetting first chapters I've ever read.
I have heard this before. It was pretty terrifying to write. And I wrote and polished that book to a far more finished degree than The Thief. I also did not say a word about it to Susan Hirschman [Turner's editor at the time] before I turned it in because I think all it would have taken was for her to look at me hard and say, "You can't do that," and I would have caved. I still wondered if she would say that after she read it, so I made sure she would make her decision having read a manuscript that contained exactly what I had in mind.
Obviously, she liked it, but what exactly did she say?
I wish I could have been a fly on the wall as she read it. I sent the book off explaining that I was going to meet my family in Colorado and she tracked us down. I had given her the name of the place we were going to be but not the number. She talked to my mother. When I came back from skiing, my mother told me, "Your editor said you wrote a great book."
When you said "I have heard this before" earlier, do you mean you often get the question, "How could you do that to Gen?"
Yep. I have some famous hate mail, written in purple pen, from a reader who said "I will never forgive you for this," so, yes, readers were upset by that, but they've been upset by a lot of things. I've pushed a lot of buttons. I could have written a whole series about fun, cool, exciting things Gen could get away with, but they would all be leading up to a point where he did something he didn't get away with. The next significant thing that was going to happen to Gen would be when he got caught. It was inevitable. So I started Queen there. I knew some people would be upset but I trusted they would also see it had to happen eventually. To write something else would be a kind of lying to ourselves.
Do you recommend that people read the books in order?
I'm a firm believer that each novel should have its own beginning, middle, and end, and more or less stand alone as a story, but I would prefer that people start with The Thief. If you read even the [jacket] copy on the back of the later books it will change your reading experience of The Thief, and I've always felt The Thief isn't really a success until I can get somebody to read it twice. The best fan mail I get is from people who say, "I read the book and then I immediately read it again." I hope you see the story very differently the second time through. Knowing the ending changes your understanding at the beginning.
The Thief was a Newbery Honor book in 1997. Was winning on your radar?
Not at all. In fact, I had it in my head that the winners had been announced the week before they actually were so we were joking for a week, "No phone call. I guess I didn't win the Newbery. Keep working," and then the next week I got the call when I wasn't expecting it all.
I always think the Newbery is a wonderful gift to a writer.
It's an immense gift. It meant I could take the time to write the The Queen of Attolia. I don't know what I would have written if I had been under pressure to turn out the next book in a year. It took me three years to write Queen and six to write King. By the time King came out I was just thankful anybody remembered my name
You certainly will never be accused of writing the same book twice. I guess I was aware while reading books two and three that Sophos (a character in The Thief) had largely disappeared but until I read the latest book, I didn't realize the breadth of the canvas you were working on. You already had book four plotted while writing books two and three?
Remember I said there are things that happen offstage? Well, one of those things is what was happening to Sophos. Now, all of those things could have been simply summarized. In my head, it all would have still happened but to the reader it would have been events that were referred to but never fully explained. So all along, I knew what had happened to Sophos, but I didn't know while I was writing the other books that his story would also be a book.
What made you decide it was worthy of its own novel?
The fact that it didn't fit in anywhere else? I couldn't summarize it. The reader had to know more about all these things than I could explain in a summary.
One complaint I predict you will get is: not enough Gen! So promise us, please, you are working on another Attolia book.
There are other people who have said "I want more Gen," but there are also people who said that about Costas [who appears in The King of Attolia]. I just have to hope they'll warm to Sophos. And I hope there are going to be more books. I was really confident there would be another one at least before I started working on.
Can you tell us anything about it?
If I wrote faster I might be willing to talk about it, but too much talking about them before they actually show up messes with their chances of showing up.
A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner. Greenwillow, $16.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-06-187093-4