Middle-grade readers likely have crossed paths with Tui T. Sutherland’s books, whether under her own name or one of her aliases. As an editor at HarperCollins, Sutherland helped the group collectively known as “Erin Hunter” develop the long-running Warriors series, which details the conflicts and intrigues among cat clans. As a writer with HarperCollins, Sutherland took a turn as Erin Hunter on the Seekers series and created the Menagerie series (with her sister, Kari Sutherland). For Scholastic, she contributed Spirit Animals Book Five: Against the Tide, wrote eight Pet Trouble books about doggy dilemmas, and created the epic Wings of Fire series, set among two continents inhabited by dragons. Her first two Wings of Fire novels have been adapted as graphic novels by Barry Deutsch. The Poison Jungle, the 13th episode in her Wings of Fire series, hits shelves on July 30.
Sutherland spoke with PW from her home in Massachusetts. For expert assistance during the interview, PW’s reporter consulted with her own 10-year-old daughter Oona, a devoted Sutherland reader and Wings of Fire specialist. Oona jumped in to ask the first question.
(Oona): When you decided to become a writer, did you make a specific choice to write for young readers? And if so, why?
Yes, I did, and oh my gosh, for a lot of reasons. I’ve always loved kids’ books, because I feel like children are the most interesting audience and the one you can affect the most. I remember the books I read when I was 10, 11, and 12, and I feel like they shaped me and my view of the world, and the kind of person I wanted to be.
It’s such a wonderful field to work in. I’m interested in joyful and hopeful stories. There’s a lot of dark, crazy things that happen in the dragon books, but the kind of thing I’m always trying to head toward is that idea of hope and agency, that no matter who you are you can control your own destiny. I want kids to feel that coming out of these books.
You mention books that shaped you. Can you recall particular books you read between the ages of 10 and 12?
I always think of Anne of Green Gables, especially because I reread it recently, and I had this weird experience of feeling like, “Wait, was I exactly like her before I read this book, or did reading this book make me exactly like her? Is this why I am the way I am?” I wouldn’t be surprised.
I read a lot of things like that, about girls who wanted to be writers, who wanted to tell their own stories, take charge of their own lives. I also would note Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey—about Menolly and her fire-lizards, and about how she is a girl in a world where she doesn’t have a lot of options, but she creates them for herself.
Can you talk about your early years and what led up to Wings of Fire?
When I graduated from college I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d always wanted to be a writer, and when I was a kid, I wrote all the time. I wrote lots of beginnings of stories. Oona, do you like to write?
(Oona): I like to write, yeah. I’ve tried to write part of a story. I’ve only gotten the beginning, though.
Well, that’s what I was going to say. If that happens to you, don’t get discouraged, because that’s super normal. I loved writing beginnings, but I would get distracted and try to write something else. I hardly ever got to the end of a story. But I liked the fun of writing, and the excitement of coming up with new characters and worlds. I used to draw little maps and name all the parts of the world.
I had less time for writing when I was in high school and college. When I got out of college, I was like, maybe I should go to art history graduate school, maybe I should become a stage manager—I had all these different ideas. But first of all I went home, because I didn’t have a plan yet. My parents welcomed me back, and about a week later my mom started leaving very pointed hints about “when are you leaving again?” [Laughs.] So I went to New Zealand for six months—my mom is from there, and that’s where my name comes from—and I stayed with my uncle while I took a couple of classes at the University of Auckland, and one of them was a children’s literature class. I kept coming back to writing, and especially children’s books. I started brainstorming ideas then.
When I got back, I saw in the New York Times an ad for jobs at Penguin. So I went in and interviewed for an editorial assistant position. They said, “We have two options open right now. We have one in our adult nonfiction science department, and one in our children’s book department.” I was like, this is a very easy choice! My boss was Jane O’Connor, who is now the author of the Fancy Nancy books; she was my first mentor in publishing.
What lessons did you learn about writing from your start as an editor?
What was great about working at Grosset and Dunlap was that I got to do a lot of “little” writing—I got to write sticker books and easy reads—and it was a good way to ease into the process of writing a whole book. Jane was the one to say, “Do you want to try something a little longer?” I did a Who Was? book for the biography series—Who Was Harry Houdini?
And then I went to work at HarperCollins. That was when I was starting to write on my own, at home. My first novel was a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream [This Must Be Love, HarperCollins, 2004], set in the present day, with two girls sending each other notes. It’s actually hilarious to read now, because I was writing it right before smartphones—I don’t think they even had email! They were just sort of dropping notes in each other’s lockers. A teenager reading it now would be like, “What century is this set in?”
I had a whole bunch of stuff after that. I was always working on my own things, but I would say yes to anything that came along.
You edited the first Warriors books and wrote part of the Seekers series under the Erin Hunter pseudonym. How does the behind-the-scenes collaborative process work?
I was the editor of the Warriors series for the first 15 books. When we first started out, Vicki [Victoria Holmes] would come up with the idea for a book. She would write a full outline, and then she would send it to me at Harper, as the editor. I would go through and make big, general, plot changes, and we would discuss it. Once we had an outline that we were both happy with, we would send it to one of the two authors at the time—Kate [Cary] and Cherith [Baldry]—and they would take turns writing the books. So Kate could be working on book one while Cherith was writing book two, and it could switch back and forth between them. Vicki meanwhile could be planning out book three.
Warriors took off after the first six books. It got bigger and bigger, Harper wanted more and more, and it was Vicki’s idea to expand it into another series, which was the Seekers, the bears’ books. The series was being passed on to another editor as I was leaving, and she was the one who said, “You know, we could really use another Erin Hunter!” So I got to do a Warriors field guide, as a test run of the Erin Hunter voice, and I wrote books one and three and five of the Seekers series.
Did the collaborative process change when you went from being the editor to being a writer?
It was similar because I got a chapter-by-chapter outline from Vicki that I had to write to. It was different because I didn’t get to edit it anymore! I sort of had to go along with the story I was given. Vicki’s a lot darker than I am, in terms of how many characters can die, and how horribly and tragically. In Warriors, I could push back—I did a lot of “save all the cats,” as much as I could. I couldn’t do that as much with Seekers, and I had to go along with all of her crazy ideas! [Laughs.] But it was such a good exercise, learning to write in different styles. “Erin Hunter” is a very different style than the Wings of Fire books. And I’ve also done a couple of Little House on the Prairie spin-offs, where I had to write Laura Ingalls Wilder-style, and I like testing out how other authors—who are very different from me—would write, and then coming back to my own voice. It clarified what I wanted my own voice to sound like.
(Oona): How and when did you decide to write the Wings of Fire series? Why did you choose dragons to write about?
That’s connected to what we were talking about, because after I left to be a full-time writer, I did a whole bunch of things: I did some Pirates of the Caribbean books, I did a series called Pet Trouble that was realistic fiction about kids and their dogs, I did the Little House spinoffs, I did the Warriors and Seekers books. And what I was really wanting to write was fantasy that had big, epic stories but was funny and relatable, and character-based. My agent [Steven Malk at Writers House] said to me, “Have you thought about a fantasy series where the dragons are all the main characters?” I got excited right away. Like I said, I read all the Pern books [by McCaffrey] and I’ve also been reading Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series—those are amazing!
The difference between writing about dragons, as opposed to about bears and cats—besides that it was all my own stories, all my own characters, and I could make it as joyful and hopeful as I wanted to—is that dragons, because of the magical element, can be closer to humans. They can have books, they can have castles, they can have music and magic spells, things that helped me build out a world that I wanted to hang out in. I loved working on Warriors and Seekers and I learned a lot about scene-writing and setting, which is something that was a weakness of mine before. But dragons gave me so much fun stuff to play with. It felt like a bigger, more fantastical palette, with lots of things that I loved: especially books—I always wanted to read fantasy stories where the characters read books, because that’s what I do all day.
(Oona): I wanted to know if you base the dragons’ personalities on anyone you know, and if you have a favorite dragon?
Aw, sure! I try not to make the dragons too directly close to anybody. The big exception is that in book eight, there’s a little dragon named Cliff [a SkyWing], strongly based on my [second son, who was a] three-year-old at the time.
I started writing the books right after my first son was born, so I was thinking a lot about parenting and character-building, both as a parent and as a writer: how do you shape these characters, these little people? I was thinking about what I wanted my son to be like, and it was basically Clay [a MudWing dragon we meet in book one]. I was picturing my firstborn as the older brother of the family. I wanted him to be kind and loyal and to do things for the right reasons. I couldn’t exactly say Clay was based on my son because he was a baby, but I think he’s turned out like that; he’s nine now, and I feel very lucky. I don’t think I did that—he just turned out perfect, the way he is.
Then his younger brother came along, and he’s such a huge personality. He’s the funniest, craziest little person. Part of me was going to write Qibli [a SandWing introduced in book five] based on him because he’s so smart and active, but Qibli was becoming his own character and I didn’t want to get them enmeshed in my mind. So I thought, “I’m going to make one character that’s all [my son’s personality],” and that is Cliff. He was really fun to write.
Did you conceptualize Wings of Fire as an ongoing multibook series about the same set of characters? How did it evolve?
It started off as a five-book series, and I planned them all that way. Books one through five are one arc, books six through 10 are another one, and books 11 through 15 will be its own arc as well. I guess I think of it as TV seasons. I was a huge Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, and what they did is they had one Big Bad that they would defeat by the end of the season, but they had lots of stuff left over that they would deal with in the next season, if they got renewed. So each five books is finishing a story but getting you ready for another one, if you want more.
(Oona): The jackets for your books usually picture the dragon whose point of view guides the story. Why did you decide to imagine each book through a different character? (I’m guessing that Sundew narrates Book 13 due to this!)
Yes, yes, I’m super excited about that! I love writing the characters who are funny and active. Dragons like Glory [the RainWing protagonist of book three] and Peril [the SkyWing namesake of book eight] are really fun to write. [Peril] says all the things that I would never actually say. Sundew [a fierce LeafWing] is pretty different from me too, and she’s a very sparky character.
More than the overarching plots about the war or the prophecy, I’m interested in each character and how they change over the course of the book. I never get bored because I’m switching to a new character and dealing with their situation and their history and how they handle it. When it comes to fantasy stories, I’m less interested in the idea that there’s one hero who’s going to come save the world, and we have to sit around and wait until that person shows up. I’m more interested in the idea that every person has their own story and can make a huge difference. So I’ve always liked telling the story from one person’s perspective and then flipping it around and telling it from a different character’s perspective.
We’d like to ask about violence in the books, because deadly events occur with frequency in the first five books. Have you ever felt reluctant to kill off characters? You said a bit about this earlier, regarding the Erin Hunter style.
When I first started the books, I thought, they’re giant flying lizards with teeth and fire, so their whole world is going to be violent. I was trying to contrast my five little dragons against the rest of that world. I was in a lovely writing group at the time, and they kept saying that they needed to see the effects of the war in order to understand why it was so important to stop it.
As I expanded, I realized that I didn’t want just five good dragons and a whole world of bad guys. That wouldn’t be fun. Every new character I met I wanted to understand more, especially as they started meeting their siblings out in the world, or the gentler rainforest dragons. So it evolved with the books, and the new continent [in book 11] was a chance to start over and plan out a whole new society. There are certainly things I’m thinking about now, like the social-political situation that we’re in, and how to sort of apply it to a dragon world.
(Oona): You use slang in the dragons’ voices, and despite the high-stakes drama, they often speak and react in funny, snarky ways. Why did you decide to write the dialogue like this?
A lot of fantasy, especially older fantasy, is hard for kids to get into, hard for anyone to get into, because it’s so dense with flowery language or old-fashioned speech. Right now there’s a lot of amazing middle-grade fantasy that doesn’t do this. I much prefer funny books myself, and I wanted kids to feel how amazing fantasy can be: the giant plots, the crazy twists, the shape-shifting and all kinds of stuff that can happen, but in a voice that feels relatable, that’s fun to read and fun to write as well. That’s very intentional. I want it to feel like real kids having these adventures, even though they’re dragons.
(Oona): The dragons have similarities to insects (bees, moths, butterflies) as well as humans. What sorts of research do you do for these books?
When I was starting to think about the continent in book 11, and what kinds of dragons I wanted to have there, I knew I wanted to have some new tribes. I already had done habitat-based dragons [Sand, Mud, Sky, etc.], which came from watching documentaries like Planet Earth. I went back to the nature documentaries for ideas, and I ended up finding one called Life in the Undergrowth, which is amazing, and terrifying—don’t watch it right before bed. All the stuff about wasps! This is the first time in my research that I thought, nope, this is too creepy to put in my book. These animals do things worse than anything I want my dragons to do! But it did give me a lot of ideas. Certainly the HiveMind is something that has shown up in fantasy before, but here it was based on a wasp that can inject a caterpillar or ant and have it do its bidding for a while. There was so much cool insect behavior, plus it gave me a huge list of names to work with. Cricket [the cover dragon of book 12] came to me right away. I could picture her completely.
How do you manage to write so many books? Do you have a daily writing schedule or a rule that you follow for writing?
Most of my writing is done in the middle of the night. I’m a super night owl, so I do a lot of writing between 11 p.m. and 3 or 4 a.m. Those are my best writing hours, and that’s when I do have quiet time. But it’s always thrown off, especially [by family obligations]. Staying up till 3 or 4 is not going to be great. I mean, I might do it anyway and just suffer through tomorrow. But can I figure out how to live on my crazy schedule and still adjust to the children’s world?
One thing I try to do is write at least one sentence a day on whatever I’m working on. I don’t always. But my deadlines are four or five months apart. So usually what happens is I finish a book and sort of collapse for a month, and then suddenly panic that the next one is due in two or three months. I’ll start writing 1,000 or 2,000 to 3,000 words a day if I can, and towards the end—the last month of deadline—I’ll just push through, and collapse again, and then panic. The cycle of collapsing and panicking! My husband is amazing, my parents are really helpful, and my editor, Amanda [Maciel] at Scholastic is wonderful about helping with everything that has to happen, giving me time to get books finished. I feel very lucky, doing the thing that I love.
(Oona): What is next for the Wings of Fire series—do you foresee how you will complete it? And can you give us any hints about other new series or projects?
Book 13 is done and will come out in July. [The third graphic novel is coming in October. And the next novel, in February 2020, is going to be another standalone, like [my earlier Legends book] Darkstalker, and from the point of view of the humans in this world. It’s called Dragonslayer, and it follows three people who have grown up with the threat of dragons overhead all the time. It’s going back to the time period of books one through five. Oona, you may remember that in books one through five we would see some little humans…
(Oona): The Scavengers.
You’ll get to meet some of those humans and see things from their point of view. It’s a weird flipping it all on its head, but it’s nice to be able to use the word “hands” again [and not “talons” or “paws”]. After that will be books 14 and 15, for sure. I like to focus on each arc, on its own. I don’t want to do it just to keep the series going. I want to have something I really care about to write.
The Poison Jungle (Wings of Fire 13) by Tui T. Sutherland. Scholastic Press, $16.99 July 30 ISBN 978-1-338-21451-2