We recently had the good fortune of catching up with Kristin Cashore, author of the wildly popular YA novels Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue. In our Q&A session, Kristin offers candid advice on how to wisely use the limited space allotted for your story and how to embrace the traditions of the fantasy genre while finding your own unique voice. We also learn some fun facts about what she’s doing when she’s not climbing the New York Times Best Seller List and updates on new writing she’s currently working on.
Why did you start writing Fantasy?
I started writing fantasy because the characters who appeared in my head had some pretty unusual abilities, and the world they inhabited had that sort of vaguely "pre-industrial fantasy world" feel that fantasy readers are probably pretty familiar with. My imagination sort of dropped me down firmly into the fantasy genre. I would say that it was probably a combination of the fantasy writing that influenced me, and the things my imagination did with those influences!
Are there any pitfalls or clichés you try to avoid when writing a work of Fantasy?
Honestly, there are too many to list. I can't tell you how many times I've read something in the fantasy genre after writing something of my own and found the two things disturbingly similar, such that I felt like I'd somehow retroactively plagiarized. I think at a certain point you have to accept that when you embrace any particular genre—and that includes literary fiction—there are certain familiar conventions, perhaps clichés, that will probably appear, appropriately, in your writing at some point. However, I do try to educate myself and work to avoid certain pitfalls/clichés that I've come to realize are offensive and problematic. For example, in my first book, Graceling, I gave one of my main characters a disability, but in such a way that his magical powers erased, to some degree, his disability. I've since learned a bit about disability politics and have come to understand that a magical cure to a disability is a problematic fantasy trope that suggests that a person with a disability needs to be healed in order to be a full or complete person. That's just one example of a cliché I will be much more careful about in the future.
What inspired you to write the Graceling Realm series?
All of my books are pretty character-driven, and each book in this series started with the wish to explore a particular character. I would add that, as I suspect is the case with most books, the writing of these books involved about 1% inspiration and 99% plain old work.
What are some of your favorite works of fantasy?
Well, offhand, I loved Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, and two of my favorite authors are Madeline L'Engle and Margaret Mahy.
What are you working on currently?
A few things! I have one realistic book and one cross-genre book in revisions, and I've just started writing a new book that I'm not quite ready to talk about yet. It's still just a seed!
When you're not writing, what are some of your hobbies?
Is napping a hobby? What about looking at the sunset? I'm a pretty active person and I spend a lot of time keeping up with my friends. I love to travel and bake bread. I also have a modest umbrella collection. :)
For our Fantasy Writing Competition, we ask that students write 400-1,000 words. Do you have any advice on how to write a full story in such a short format?
Seeing as the shortest thing I ever wrote was about 114,000 words, I'm not sure if anyone should listen to my advice, but—this sounds like a delightful challenge! I think I would approach it by trying to emphasize characterization. Don't waste words over-describing when you can describe your characters better by getting them thinking, or doing things. Get them talking and see what they say. Try to fit the description in around the action and the dialogue so that you're giving more space to saying and doing than to describing.
Of course, this is the absolute wrong advice for someone whose short story is by nature descriptive, so, like all writing advice, it should only be followed if it sounds like it fits what you're working on.
If you could spend a day in any fantastical realm, where would it be and why?
One of the integral things about being a fantasy writer is that I get to stick other people into fantasy worlds but don't have to be there myself. I'm probably being too literal, but this wouldn't really appeal to me unless it was a fantasy world with modern electricity, plumbing, and medicine, and wasn't completely patriarchal...
Does being immersed in writing Fantasy ever effect your perception of the real world?
It's funny—I think I keep my fantasy world separate from my conscious perception of the real world, to the extent that if someone comes up to me in a signing line and says a line from one of my books, I'll embarrass myself by not recognizing it, and if one of my friends makes a clever allusion to one of my plot points in conversation, it will completely go over my head. I have wondered if this is an unconscious function of the way I write, or perhaps of why I write? I'm quite a daydreamer and I have a very vivid imagination, but I don't sit around daydreaming about my characters or my fantasy world—unless I'm at my writing desk trying to figure out something specific to advance my writing that day. Once characters, or a particular world, become part of a prospective book, boundaries form around them. They become exactly that: part of a prospective book. Part of my work. Part of this particular piece of art I am making. They exist nowhere else.
Of course, on the other hand, my work is part of me, so it has to be one of the things I bring to my perception of the real world! But I expect it would take me quite some time and a lot of space to tease that one out.