Laini Taylor’s YA short-story collection Lips Touch Three Times (Scholastic/ Levine, 2009) was a National Book Award finalist; Taylor followed that book up with the acclaimed Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy (Little, Brown). This month sees the publication of Strange the Dreamer, first in a duology. Taylor spoke with PW from her home in Portland, Ore., about how Harry Potter revived her love of fantasy, the process of crafting a complex world, and her lifelong struggles with perfectionism.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Yes, I did always want to be a writer, but I didn’t actually do much writing. When I was a kid, books were always my favorite things. But what I called writing when I was in middle school was two things: crafting complicated worlds and crafting beautiful sentences. I loved language. I was fooling myself for a long time, world-building, noodling with language, but I was missing the crucial storytelling element. I wrote a lot of first pages. I did this into my 20s, even my 30s. I had a faerie novel and a witch novel and I would switch back and forth between them. It was purgatory. Now I understand that it was a paralyzing perfectionism that kept me from ever actually writing. I know so many people with these same issues—they give up writing because they think it should come more easily and more naturally. They don’t realize it’s hard.
How did you get over that yourself?
I started going to the SCBWI annual conferences. I went to my first one in 2001—I was an artist then. My husband Jim Di Bartolo and I both went. We had met the first day in art school and we were starving artists together, so we decided to go to SCBWI and get discovered. We had just gotten married and used some of our wedding money to go to the annual conference in L.A. That was a huge piece of getting over my issues—to be around writers and editors, networking and learning. I formed relationships with editors and writers. Eventually it got to be more painful to not write than to write.
So you began as an illustrator?
I actually was an English major at UC Berkeley, and after I graduated I worked for a few years as a travel book editor at Lonely Planet. I still thought of myself as a writer, but then I decided illustration would be easier than writing! So I went to California College of the Arts—back then it was called California College of the Arts and Crafts. I didn’t finish, though.
But you initially went to SCBWI as an illustrator?
Yes, and then by 2003 I had a gift line and I was showing my portfolio to an illustrator at SCBWI, who told me to show it to another illustrator, who told me to show it to Jane Putch. She was a licensing agent and she took on my gift line. We eventually licensed my line to a manufacturer and then I didn’t have to do production anymore and was able to turn to writing fulltime. After I had written a good part of my first book, Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer, Jane took that on and never looked back. Now she does mostly books.
By the time I was working on Blackbringer, I had heard lots of editors speak and I had an idea as to some who might be right for the book. So together Jane and I targeted some editors. TimTravaglini, who was then at Putnam, bought it. It was meant to be a five-book series, but the publisher, Nancy Paulsen, left after the first two books to start her own imprint, and then Tim left, and so in the end there were only two books.
As a kid, fantasy is what made me a reader and a writer—it’s what I loved. In my teens, I left it behind and became “literary.” I was a very pretentious teenager. For my 18th birthday I requested the 54-book series Great Books of the Western World—all by white men. For a while, I didn’t even read any contemporary work. I only bought books at used bookstores, mostly selecting them by the bindings. Then one day when I was in art school, I read a review in the San Francisco Chronicle about a new middle-grade fantasy book and I went straight to an indie bookstore and bought a copy of the first Harry Potter. After I read that I rediscovered the genre of fantasy, which I had loved as a child. You know how C.S. Lewis said, “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again?”
When I started trying to write again, I was trying to write the kind of contemporary fiction that was being written at the time, and I just wasn’t into it. After a few years, I realized I could write about anything. I came back to fantasy. That really opened up a door for me. Writing fantasy was so much fun; that’s when I found my voice.
How did YA become your chosen audience?
My first two books were middle grade—maybe because I fell in love with books again through a middle-grade fantasy. It took me three or four years to finish my first book. I actually burst into tears when I finally finished it. I wanted to stretch my writing, so while I was waiting for the editorial letter I started writing stories. After I’d written a few I noticed that they all hinged on kissing. Actually, on one kiss that changed everything. That was when I moved to YA.
Because of the kissing.
Yes! I thought I might try to sell them to magazines as short stories, but Jim was reading them and it was his idea that it be a book. We had done a comic book together, The Drowned, in 2004—I wrote it and he illustrated it—and we had been wanting to do another book together. He had done the covers and several interior illustrations—character portraits—for each of my first two books, but we hadn’t actually worked together again. At first he was going to just do traditional illustrations for this book—which became Lips Touch Three Times—but Arthur Levine, who was the editor, suggested we try something a little different. So Jim and I started thinking about it and realized that each story was prefigured by that of another woman, whose circumstances were similar but whose fate was quite different. So we decided to try to tell the earlier story through illustrations before the story itself began.
None of your books after that include any visual narrative. Why did you do it in that book and not in the following ones?
I would have loved to have them illustrated, but that’s out of my hands. But Jim and I do have other things we hope to work on together in the future.
In all of your books, you build very detailed and complicated worlds. How do you come up with, and keep track of, everything?
I have a natural tendency to put in as much as I can—a huge percentage of my time is spent resisting complications. My brain is always trying to layer things. Everything always branches out into more and more interesting things.
I don’t do the entire world-building up front. I have to know just enough—kind of like doing a map as you are crossing a terrain. You map only as much as you need to know for the next part of the terrain. I don’t know what I’ll need in the future. Then I’m inspired by all that has happened. I try to outline, but I’m never really able to. I have to set the characters in situations and see what they do. This means I do a lot of backtracking—it’s not efficient. With Daughter of Smoke & Bone, I knew how Book One would end, but I didn’t know anything after that. When I was writing it, I said to myself, “let future Laini worry about that.” And of course when I got to Book Two, I was cursing earlier Laini who said that.
Could you talk a little about your writing process? Do you write a fast first draft and then fix it, or do you perfect each sentence as you go?
I need to build the work as I go. I’ve tried many times to do fast first drafting but it doesn’t work for me. I discard a lot, but I have to perfect each sentence as I go. I have to love it before I can go on to the next. So much for me is discovered at the sentence level. I learn so much about the characters from the prose. It’s an integral part of the living, breathing story.
So you don’t rewrite a lot?
Well, at the end of the first draft the prose will be clean, but there are often big thematic issues to be fixed. My first drafts are polished, but there’s a lot of editorial work and strengthening to do. I’m still so caught up in my perfectionist issues that it’s like writing with the brakes on—it’s like they’re broken and I can’t take the brakes off. It’s very hard. It’s definitely not always fun.
What kind of editorial input do you get from your agent and editor?
I tend to wait to show them anything until I’m far along in the process because my perfectionism doesn’t allow me to solicit help—it’s kind of like cleaning your house before your house cleaner comes. I also need to have enough written that I can tolerate feedback. My books are written in acts, and the first act, which is usually 150 pages or so, takes the longest. It can easily take a year. Because I’m always pushing against deadlines, my agent and editor usually get the material at the same time. Jane doesn’t edit, just gives me some feedback. And Alvina [Ling] I’ve been with for four books, so I get a lot of input from her. I really rely on that; it’s such an amazing gift to have somebody read my work so closely.
With Strange the Dreamer we were trying to get a sample ready for BEA 2016, so I sent [Alvina] the first act and then kept on writing before getting her editorial letter. Her letter spurred me to rewrite that act again. So I was editing the beginning of the book before it was finished—which was for the best. That book was hard the whole way! I actually wrote 30 different opening chapters—10, 12, 14 pages of polished chapters. I couldn’t help myself! When I was first writing it was hard for me to delete anything, but now I throw out a lot.
How long did it ultimately take to write Strange the Dreamer?
It took about 20 months. Most of my books take about a year and a half. When I’m getting near the end, I try to go away for a few days—usually I can only take three. I’ll go to a hotel in downtown Portland, or out to the Oregon coast to a small house or a beach hotel with kitchenette. I much prefer going to the coast—it’s so nice to be able to meet a word goal and take a walk on the beach, and also to have more room to stretch.
What are you working on now?
The sequel to Strange the Dreamer, which is called The Muse of Nightmares. That was actually supposed to be the title of Strange the Dreamer. The book was supposed to be about Sarai; that’s how I pitched it. I kept rewriting the opening and I just couldn’t find my way into it. I was developing Lazlo as a secondary character. He was an impoverished scholar living in a crypt, who loves fairy tales. When I wrote the line: “His nose was broken by a falling volume of fairy tales,” I lost my heart to Lazlo and the whole center of gravity of the book shifted. I realized Sarai wasn’t the main character. I finally found my way into the book through him. I couldn’t resist him.
Will Sarai be the main character in the sequel?
I hope she will come into her own in this book, and discover herself the way Lazlo does in Strange the Dreamer.
How is work on this book going? Have you found your way into it yet?
This is really one big story in two pieces—it was originally planned as a standalone but got out of control—so it picks up where Strange leaves off. And, knock wood, I haven’t had difficulty finding my way in. I’m having great fun getting into the mysteries I was only able to hint at in the first book, to expand the scope of the story and to see how the characters respond to the profound changes in their lives.
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. Little, Brown, $18.99 Mar. 28 ISBN 978-0-316-34168-4