Friday, May 11, 2012

Interview week: Robin LaFevers, author of GRAVE MERCY

Welcome to Interview Week!
All this week, I'm interviewing awesome authors--and giving away a copy of their book! Come back each day this week for another author and another chance to win an awesome book.

Quick Stats on Today's Author:

We can read all about your life from your bio in the jacket flap of your book. So, what's a completely random fact about you that most people don't know?
I have the blackest of black thumbs and kill every plant I touch. I have been ordered to stay out of our garden, except to look, and we do not own a single houseplant.

As a kid, what was your favorite book? Have your tastes changed since growing up?
I know this makes me one of millions, but THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA was my hands down favorite when I was a kid. My father gave them to me for my eighth birthday and I think I read the entire series at least once a year. They were the first fantasy books I read and I was just gobsmacked by the idea that authors were allowed to make things up; they didn’t have to ground their stories in reality. That was the moment I decided I wanted to make things up for a living. Since I still read fantasy, and now write it, I would have to say that my tastes haven’t changed much since then.

What’s the most interesting historical fact that you discovered while writing GRAVE MERCY, which takes place in a world based on medieval France? (Either one that ended up in the book, or one that didn’t make the cut.)
There were so many! It’s hard to pick just one. Because it ended up being so very central to the story, I would have to say it was the degree to which the early Catholic Church intentionally (as in it was part of the instructions it gave its clergy) set out to incorporate so many pagan deities, festivals, and locations into their own tradition. It was a well thought out tactic in luring reluctant unbelievers into the fold of the church. Gods and goddesses became saints, Catholic holidays were planned to coincide with pagan festivals, and churches were built on or near ancient holy sites. In fact, that was one of the sparks for the book, a photograph of a stone church built right next to a pagan standing stone.

It's the inevitable question: what inspired GRAVE MERCY?
I knew I wanted to write the story of a girl who was utterly powerless and put her through all the trials and ordeals that would shape her into an instrument of power—not just physical power, but also the power to stand firmly in her own self and make her own choices and decisions.

For that kind of story, I needed a big, sweeping canvas with high stakes and lives and kingdoms at risk, and a time when teens were in a position shape the world around them. That search brought me to the middle ages and a world full of sacred relics, patron saints, and lots of social turbulence.

Then I stumbled across another fascinating research tidbit and learned that many women in the Middle Ages preferred joining a convent to marriage because convent life gave them more independence and autonomy than they could ever have as married women! That kind of lit my imagination on fire and began to play with what sort of convent would be the best avenue for my heroine’s journey, and I decided on a convent that would give her power over life and death. 

One of the things that stood out to me in GRAVE MERCY was the way you created a very realistic girl from a medieval world that would still be sympathetic to readers today. Can you tell us a little bit about how you balanced the medieval world and character details with modern readers?
Wow, interesting question! She wasn’t a medieval person to me, she was simply Ismae, a girl struggling to find her place in this world and carve out some sense of power over her own life, somewhat universal themes that apply to any historical time period. So I focused on her core, internal arc first, and I really do think that those types of archetypal journeys sort of transcend time—they apply to us all.

One of the things I find most fascinating about writing historical fantasy is really trying to understand the worldview of people living in earlier times. What was life like without technology, where there was little understanding of science or the laws of physics and so much of life felt random and out of one’s control? Since Ismae belonged to a convent that served Death, what would her faith look like? How would her devotion be tested? What sorts of rituals would her life entail? Those questions were in the forefront of my mind whenever I sat down to write and helped me get into the head of a 15th century girl—what metaphors and similes would she use? What points of reference would she have? So that was probably the key to having her feel medieval on the page.

I also tried to (mostly!) use words that were only in use prior to the 16th century or phrases that felt reminiscent of that era. I definitely fudged sometimes; when the choice came down to readability I went for that over historical accuracy every time, because my overriding goal was that the story and the voice of Ismae be accessible to today’s teen reader

Can you tell us a little bit about the process--particularly the timeline--of writing & publishing GRAVE MERCY?
 I first got the rough glimmers of the idea for this book about seven years ago. I worked on it for five or six years, squeezing it in between other, contracted novels and projects, so I was able to take my time researching and building the world of the story. Because it evolved into such a strange, bizarre idea, I promised myself I didn’t have to show the finished product to anyone if I didn’t want to. (This is a little lie I often tell myself that somehow gives me the freedom I need to get the story down.)

I ended up doing countless drafts, mostly because there were just so many different directions the story could go in! Not to mention a huge variety of tones it could take, and it just took me forever to figure out which story I wanted to tell. I think that’s one of the luxuries we lose once we become published and are writing on contract—that freedom to play in the world of story and take our time, so I try to make time in my life for those kind of projects.

However, once I settled on the story I wanted to tell, it still took me forever to nail the voice. I got halfway through an early draft and realized that third person POV simply wasn’t working. So I changed the entire book to first person, which is much, MUCH more than simply changing pronouns. There is an entire different flow to language and narration when you change POV. The manuscript flowed much better, but I was still having problems with the heroine getting lost among the dramatic historical events.  It wasn’t until page 350 (of a 420 page mss) that I realized that the book had to be in first person PRESENT tense. I took to my bed for a week with a case of the vapors when I realized that. And writing in first person present is like speaking an entirely different language, so I had to completely rewrite the whole damn thing—again.

Which taught me an important lesson: experiment with tenses and POVs in the early stages of a book—just don’t set your POV choice on default mode.  

So about seven years from first glimmer to publication, and about twelve drafts. Not a quick or easy process, but definitely one of the most rewarding books I’ve ever written.

If your reader could only take away one emotion, theme, or idea from GRAVE MERCY, what would you want it to be?
That we owe it to ourselves to wrestle with the concepts of love and faith and honor and duty. We need to figure out what those mean for ourselves and not swallow whole the concepts handed to us by others.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned since becoming a writer?
How exposed I feel. I never expected that, but the deeper you dig to tell compelling stories, the more you expose parts of yourself, many of them not even consciously. It is a deeply uncomfortable feeling and not one I would choose (I am a card carrying introvert, after all) but apparently it is the tithe I must pay to the writing gods. 

Beyond the typical--never give up, believe in yourself--what would be the single best advice you'd like to give another writer?
You know that book you’re terrified to write? The one that is too hard, too scary, too weird, or too damn intimidating. Yeah, that one. That’s the one you need to write.

(Beth's note: that answer right there, the one above? Possibly the best answer ever.)

What do you think are your strongest and weakest points in writing? 
Evil question!  My weakest points (that I will admit to publicly) are an overfondness for exclamation points, parenthetical asides, and em dashes. And I am truly terrible at proofing my own stuff unless I haven’t looked at it for three months.

Probably my strongest point is that I am always hungry to learn more, try more, take it farther, deeper, wider. I love that I have a career that allows me to learn new things every single time I sit down to work, and I try to take full advantage of that.

 And now for a giveaway! Leave a comment with your email address below to be entered to win a ARC copy of GRAVE MERCY--and it's SIGNED! Please note that the ARC has a different cover. One winner will be picked next Monday; sorry, but this needs to be North America only. 
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