Rae Carson’s debut novel, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, was nominated for the Morris Award; her next series was longlisted for the National Book Award, and then she wrote for Star Wars, a property she’s loved since childhood. In her new book, The Empire of Dreams, Carson returns to the world of The Girl of Fire and Thorns to reacquaint readers with Red, a young orphan introduced in an earlier book who became an unexpected fan favorite. Carson spoke with PW about returning to an already familiar world, why writing for Star Wars is a dream come true, and how she found herself telling stories for teens.
What appealed to you about revisiting your original trilogy, The Girl of Fire and Thorns?
It was kind of an amalgam of factors that came together at the right time. I had gone off and done some new stuff. I did a fantasy historical, which was fun, and some work for Star Wars, but I had this character who had first appeared in The Bitter Kingdom, the third book of the Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy. Her name was Red. She was just this little orphan foundling girl and her story has been niggling at me for years and years. In addition to that, I got fan mail about her all the time. For some reason, she really resonated with people, even though she had only had a cameo appearance. It was the perfect storm of [writing her story] making business sense and it being the story of my heart that I really wanted to write. When those two factors come together, you go for it. I pitched it my publisher; they were on board right away.
I think [Red] appealed to me so much because she was a little girl who had clearly had some trauma in her life, and I’ve had some trauma in my life. I won’t go into the details, but I did relate to her on that level. I felt that there was a story there that could be told uniquely from my perspective or someone like me, so, I dove in.
When did you begin to consider telling another story set in this world?
As soon as I finished The Bitter Kingdom, I had an idea for how to continue Red’s story. The world [of The Girl of Fire and Thorns] is so big in my head—even bigger than on the page—so there are all sorts of things that I could explore given the opportunity. I’m one of those authors who needs crockpot time for an idea. So, even though I had all these ideas, I really appreciated being able to do some other things [to let them simmer].
Red’s story, though filled with action, intrigue, and mystery, is very much about trauma, trust, and belonging. What inspired your interest in these themes?
I’ll only speak in general terms. I’ve had some serious conversations with some family members and my agent and my editor. There’s a big push right now for authenticity in literature, especially children’s literature and, with the advent of social media, some readers feel that when an author hints about their own experience, that readers are then owed a window into that experience. I decided that I’m willing to disappoint people if it means I don’t have to relive my trauma.
So, with that caveat, I will just say that while I come from a generally privileged background, there are some things in my past that were frightening and formative, having to do with poverty and some abusive people in my family.
One of my struggles now is that, when the traumatic events in my life happened, I was a kid with a child’s perspective, so my memories of those times are a bit iffy. I’m not sure exactly what the truth is in every situation. I wanted to portray Red as having memories that feel really vivid but come from a different perspective. When you read the “now” portions of the book versus the “then,” her voice is a little bit different. The “then” voice is almost fairy tale-like. She had a different way of seeing the world. It was important for me to portray that experience. A couple of strange things happen to me because of trauma, like I have this socially embarrassing startle reflex. I wanted Red to have PTSD, like I do, but I didn’t want that to be the complete sum of her story and herself. It’s part of her life but isn’t her life.
Romance takes a back seat in Red’s story, whereas it was centerstage in the original trilogy. Was this intentional?
In the Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy, there are hints of romance in the first book, but it goes nowhere, but the second book gets pretty hot and heavy. So, I do love romance, but I also love friendship stories. I’ve been noticing the shipping tendency on social media; no matter what you put out there, someone gets shipped, which is fine. I think that’s a healthy fan interaction to have. But I also think it’s healthy to understand that relationships can be platonic.
I love falling into friendship stories, so in The Empire of Dreams, Red and Ivan have a somewhat contentious alliance at the beginning of the book but in time they grow in trust and affection. Also, I’m sensitive to the fact that a girl going into a man’s world and trying to make it as a woman in that world is a pretty common trope in fiction, particularly young adult fiction. I was able to subvert and comment on that with a little more strength and power by taking out the expected romance.
Now, if I have an opportunity to write a sequel to [The Empire of Dreams], then all bets are off. Just like with the Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy; I wrote the first book and had my female protagonist stand strong and alone at the end. That was my hope for Red, too, but romance is a part of life, so if I continue her story, I might have to go there. That sounds super fun to me.
The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy wasn’t planned as a multi-book story?
When I create a world, the world building is always so much bigger in my head than on the page. I wrote The Girl of Fire and Thorns knowing there was more to explore and hoping that I could write more books in that world, but I was so new to publishing that I didn’t know how any of that worked. My agent and I submitted the book and my editor responded to my agent: “Is this a trilogy?” To which I responded, “Why yes, it is.” That’s how it became a trilogy. I knew it could be, and, once they expressed interest, I did a happy dance and got to work figuring out how to write two more books.
When I was a kid in the bookstore, all my favorite authors were series authors. The dream for me, being a science fiction and fantasy fan, was to write the trilogy. You know, like Lord of the Rings and the series written by David Eddings or Terry Brooks.
Does your writing process differ depending on whether you’re writing a series or standalone?
I’m always expanding the world in my head, so I don’t have to go back and retcon very much to continue a series; the material is already there. I wrote Red’s story as a standalone because I wanted people to be able to read it without reading the first three books [set in the same world]. At the same time, the world is so huge that, in my head, I could spin off four stories right now, on the spot, about where I could go next.
I speak to other authors all the time and apparently this is pretty common. We often get asked where we get our ideas, but that is just not an issue. It’s like asking, “Where do you get your oxygen?” The ideas come so fast and furious that the question is actually, “Which idea is worth spending a year of your life on?”
To write The Empire of Dreams, did you take extra steps to ensure continuity in world building and detail?
I did because it had been so many years. I did go back and reread the trilogy. My publisher, Greenwillow, keeps a series bible for each of their authors, too. Our copyediting team puts together a document, which is really helpful, especially if you change copyeditors. You can easily go back and say, “This person has green eyes and is from this city and is described as such and such.” I used that and added to it as I went; I had a team and system in place to help with continuity.
In addition to your fantasy trilogies, you’ve written stories in the Star Wars universe. How did this come about? Are you a big Star Wars enthusiast?
Oh my gosh, yes. I’m a huge Star Wars fan. Star Wars was really formative for me. I saw the first movie in its original theatrical run when I was three years old; I have vivid memories of that day and that experience.
Somewhat adjacent to the trauma that I alluded to, which happened when I was 10, was the Return of the Jedi release. I didn’t have a lot of resources, so I didn’t think I was going to be able to go see the movie, but I was obsessed. I would beg my mom to take me with her to the grocery store so I could hang out in the magazine aisle and read about the movie and read the first pages of books. I was Princess Leia for many years running because, as it turns out, when you’re poor, you can still cobble together a Princess Leia costume. My mom eventually took pity on me and purchased the Return of the Jedi novelization, just to shut me up. I read it cover to cover and cried through the whole thing, wanting to know how the story ended because we thought, at that time, that it was ending. It was the first novelization I ever read. If you had told that little girl that she would write the novelization of The Rise of Skywalker 30-some years later, she would not believe you. It’s been an amazing journey.
I did go to my agent a few years back and said, “Talk to everyone you know at Star Wars and beg them to let me write for them.” She did and we heard crickets for a long time, then I got asked to write a free short story for a charity anthology. I have a firm rule about not writing for free, but I said yes so fast. I did that and they were pleased. I wrote from the point of view of R5-D4, the little red droid that was almost purchased by Luke’s uncle, but he blew his motivator and instead R2-D2 was purchased and the galaxy was eventually saved. That led to some more work; I received another anthology offer and then a wrote a prequel to the Han Solo movie called Most Wanted. Then they offered me this Rise of Skywalker novelization.
I love Star Wars with all my heart, and it’s been fun to go back and forth between this and my own property because they’re very different. Playing in someone else’s world instead of mine has made is possible to rest certain muscles while I flex others; I found it really refreshing and motivating. I learned some good skills writing for Star Wars, like how to write fast and to an outline. It’s been fun to put those tools in my toolbox.
What draws you to writing for teens?
When I was in my early 30s, I started having a shift in world view from finally being able to shake off some things that had happened to me. I realized that I’d been raised with a harmful perspective about some things. I changed political parties; I changed religions; it was a complete 180. It felt like going through a second adolescence and rediscovering all my beliefs and who I was all over again. I didn’t set out to write young adult novels, but, when I wrote, the stories that came out were coming of age stories about discovering self and identity.
Are you interested in writing for other audiences?
I’m working on some other things right now, that I probably can’t talk about. The Rise of Skywalker is for all ages; I had to voice it appropriately, so that it would appeal to both kids and adults.
I definitely want to write for more audiences than just young adults, but this is how my career has worked out. The Girl of Fire and Thorns was shopped to a bunch of adult editors who all turned it down. My agent at the time felt strongly that it was an adult book and, before Graceling came out, there weren’t a lot of big crossover hits. So, thank you, Kristen Cashore, for paving the way, because once her book came out the young adult audience for fantasy exploded. I got a new agent and we decided my book had been mis-marketed. We sent it out again as YA, and had multiple offers within 24 hours. I wrote The Girl of Fire and Thorns in 2005 and it wasn’t published until 2010. My path to publication took half a decade or 24 hours, depending on your perspective.
What’s next for you?
I have a book coming out sometime next year with Greenwillow that I also started writing five years ago. Remember: I need a lot of crockpot time, so it’s been in my head a long time. The funny thing is, it’s about what happens after a huge pandemic. People will never believe I started writing this book five years ago. The title and publication date are still up in the air.
And I’m cowriting a book for adults with my husband, C.C. Finlay, who is an author and editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. We work together on everything; everything he writes, I have my hand deep in that cookie jar and vice versa. We decided we were going to formalize it and do a project together. We’re about 50,000 words in. I love it, but I can make no promises to readers.
The Empire of Dreams by Rae Carson. Greenwillow, $18.99 Apr. 7 ISBN 978-0-06-269190-3