One year after releasing The Queen of Nothing, the final book in the Folk of the Air trilogy, Holly Black returns to the world of Elfame with an illustrated collection of short stories featuring Cardan, an inscrutable royal fey central to the trilogy. Black spoke with PW about why books about Faerie bewitch readers, leaving space to return to and expand on a world or characters, and how her writing has—and hasn’t—changed since the start of her career.
How does this new book fit into your Folk of the Air trilogy?
This collection starts in a period following the trilogy, but then it jumps back, so readers get a lot of backstory about Cardan, as well as his perspective before and during the trilogy. The collection is bookended with stories that take place after The Queen of Nothing.
How did you come to return to this world for a new book?
When I was planning the trilogy, I intended to write a novella. I always thought that it would be a Cardan novella, but, when I sat down to write it, I realized that there was no way to go about writing it without spoiling the reader’s sense of who he was at a time when he really needed to be more ambiguous. I ended up writing a story about Taryn [the main character Jude’s sister], whose point of view we don’t often get to see.
Still, many readers wanted to know what was going on with Cardan, so when I was talking with Little, Brown about things we could do after the trilogy, I thought it would be nice to do something special and illustrated.
What is it about Cardan that made you feel he should be the focus of this new volume?
He begins the book in the role of a villain, but, then, of course, it turns out that there are characters who are way more villainous than him! He takes sort of a back seat, villain-wise and, over the books, discovers that he doesn’t have to be a villain; there are other possibilities for him. He changes a ton and I think that part of his character is fascinating, as we only see his transformation from the outside [in the trilogy].
What was it about Rovina Cai’s work that made you feel it was the right fit for this book?
Rovina’s artwork has this incredible mood and motion that felt very much in line with the way that I wanted people to feel when they were reading the book. She’s really good at transporting you into another space and environment. She draws the characters wonderfully, but it’s her amazing sense of place, emotion, and expression that stand out.
Why do you feel these stories about humans holding their own in a dark, magical world have continued to resonate with teen readers?
I’ve heard people talk about why we like survival stories. They say that we like to try to figure out what we would do in those situations. Would we make the same choices this person or character would make? Or would we choose a different path? Would we find our way through this experience better than the protagonist? I think that is part of what draws people.
Going into Faerie is part survival story, but there’s also this aspect of it being a place that has pleasure and magic. When I think about Faerie, I think a lot about faerie fruit being this thing that is so delicious that everything else is dust and ashes in your mouth. You definitely should not eat it because it will ruin your life, but it’s so good! In fact, everything is so beautiful [in Faerie] that anything afterward might feel dull. You probably shouldn’t go, but that beauty and magic makes for something that is really appealing, even though you might get eaten or wind up doing something you don’t want to do or being trapped there.
Speaking of the otherworldly settings and details of Faerie, what inspires your descriptions and worldbuilding?
A ton of it comes from faerie folklore, though there isn’t a ton of folklore specifically about going into Faerie. Tonally, thinking about the things that show up in folkloric stories is key. There is a certain language to Faerie; it’s the difference between having a platter of oat cakes rather than a platter of cookies.
You’ve written multiple standalone novels, series, and short stories for both middle grade and young adult readers. How does your writing process change depending on the project scope?
In a longer series, I think you need to plot differently because you have to think about where the breaks will be. You want to break in a place where you bring the story—by which I mean the plot—to some resolution, but you don’t want to bring the characters themselves to that resolution. You have to think about the emotional cliffhanger, while remembering that no one wants a story cliffhanger. So, yes, when thinking about a longer work, you want to convey that the story will continue, including details that will be useful and story-generative later.
When working on a book I know is a standalone, there are things I don’t worry about. For example, when I wrote The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, I remember consulting with a friend who is a doctor. He said that he didn’t think that coldtowns would be sustainable in the long-term, but I thought, it’s a standalone! Not sustainable? Not my problem!
When you plan to set multiple books in the same world, how do you make sure you keep the world open for the possibility of more books while maintaining established details? Did you consider this when writing your Modern Faerie Tale books, long before returning to the same world for the Folk of the Air trilogy?
I did not plan for more books back when I was writing the Modern Faerie Tale books in 2002. I didn’t even know there would be a second or third book back then! I actually just went through and revised the Modern Faerie Tales, cleaning them up and changing the language a little bit, and I did manage to add in a couple little things that attach to Elfhame.
I think, because the world is set in folklore, that, even though I’ve made some changes, it wasn’t very hard to go back and use the same basic rules. I have kept notes over the years, too, recording certain decisions I made.
You’ve been publishing books for young readers for almost two decades now. How has your approach to storytelling changed as you’ve grown, and the industry has changed?
I hope that the books I’m writing now are better characterized, written, and plotted. I learned a lot over the years about plot construction. When I was writing Tithe, I remember thinking, “I wonder if I will ever make it out of this book.” When it was done, I said to myself, “I will never write another book where I don’t know the ending!” So, I’ve come up with endings for all the books I’ve written since, but I’ve never actually used the endings I’ve come up with.
I think I have become a better writer, but I have not become better at figuring out when to start. My friend, Sarah Rees Brennan, loves the drafting process, while I love having a draft and then messing with it. When she writes, she says she thinks, “This is great! This is all good!” When I outline, I think everything makes sense and that I’ll be able to get from point A to point B later, but, when I’m writing, I think, “Who wrote this plot outline? This is terrible!”
Do you have any upcoming virtual appearances or promotions to share with readers?
I’ll be going on a virtual tour for this book starting November 23! All of the appearances are up on my website and on my Instagram. I have friends and new acquaintances who will be appearing with me, live from all of our homes!
What are you looking forward to in 2021?
Project-wise, I have a bunch of things that I’m working on, including books for teens and an adult novel. It’s really exciting to be in a place where I’m planning the next five or so years of my life. I can’t really talk about any of it, but I’m working on all of it—and trying to become a better plotter. Optimism reigns eternal!
How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories by Holly Black. Little, Brown, $17.99 Nov. 24 ISBN 978-0-316-54088-9