After completing the most excellent Grisha Trilogy (that’s Shadow And Bone, Siege And Storm and Ruin And Rising), Leigh Bardugo has returned to the world she created with a standalone heist story that’s both accessible for newcomers and an absolute treat for her fans.
We took the chance to chat with the author about what makes the perfect heist novel, the success of The Grisha Trilogy, the importance of connecting with your readers, and what advice she has for first-time authors.
What would be your quick pitch for Six Of Crows to a first time reader?
Quickest pitch is: Six dangerous outcasts, one impossible heist.
The slightly longer pitch is: six kids, with very little to lose, all for different reasons, are offered a huge amount of money to try to pull off what may be a suicide mission. They have to break into a fortress that has never been breached before, and heist out a scientist who has secrets in his head that could unleash magical havoc on the world. And if they can do it, all their lives will be changed. But that means that they’re going to have to not kill each other first.
Was it at all intimidating trying to think about what your next book would be after completing the Grisha Trilogy? Was it nice to stay in the same universe?
It was nice to stay in the same universe because there were corners of it that I really had not yet explored, and it was fun to present Grisha power and some of the earlier events [from the original trilogy], through a completely different lens. I also wanted to step away from “chosen one” stories and Six of Crows gave me the opportunity to do that. As far as it being intimidating? No – I don’t think I was so radically successful that I needed to worry about it. For me, the stumbling block is that I don’t write fast enough. I’d love to be able to write two books a year – I have a long list of books I’d love to be writing, but I am just not one of those people that produces that quickly.
What goes into creating a great heist story? And by extension, how do you create the ultimate heist team?
Well, what I quickly discovered when I started writing Six of Crows was that most of our expectations from heists come from film and television. And that the conventions and tricks that work in film and television, really do not work on the page. So I had to find ways to satisfy the audiences desire to essentially be fooled but not to be duped. I think we want the characters to be cleverer than us, and we want those moments where we suddenly see it was all part of a plan all along. We want those moments of tremendous improvisation when things do go wrong, but you really have to lay those breadcrumbs narratively in a different way.
As far as the team goes, you always want people with a healthy dose of mistrust. A lot of bad blood helps to keep the tension high; a few people who haven’t worked together before and are sort-of finding their way with each other to keep everything in balance. I think when it comes to pulling off a heist each of those characters needs to be challenged, to also confront something within themselves; it should be about them personally, it can’t just be about the thing they’re trying to get.
The characters and the world you create are quite gritty, is that the kind of fantasy you’ve always been drawn to?
No, not always. When I was younger I definitely wasn’t reading gritty fantasy – though I was reading Stephen King, which is gritty horror, and he certainly has a fantastical element to his stories. But I read Harry Potter and CS Lewis, and I don’t think Tolkien is particularly gritty, you know – and Madeleine L’Engle, and Dianna Wynne Jones. So I think there was probably a greater innocence to the fantasy that I was reading.
My touchstone as a fantasy writer is George RR Martin – the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire are, to me, the peak of what fantasy can be. That said, I think sometimes we as authors are tempted to be more gritty, or to put more sexuality or violence in our books in a reach for credibility, and for me it has to be the appropriate fit for the story. I don’t want my reader to feel as though they were beaten around the head and shoulders with the violent and the grotesque. And I also think that those moments of real violence and of real danger, when boundaries get pushed, are more effective if they are bracketed by things that are less jarring to the reader.
Were you surprised by the way that fantasy fans embraced the Grisha Trilogy? The books obviously connected with people in a very powerful way.
That’s kind. When I was writing Shadow and Bone my only goal was to finish it. I had a lot of different first and second chapters in my drawer, and I had never finished a book before. At that time, the idea of people actually reading the book was a far off dream. So then to have people discover it the way they did, and engage with it the way they did was not only surprising, it was gratifying in ways I did not expect.
I think you write a story and you don’t realise it will become someone else’s story. I notice that particularly when I go to events and readers come up and tell me their personal stories and why they were affected by the books – and that to me has been the most startling thing of all. And I don’t know why – because I’m a reader; I know how powerful books can be. (But I feel it’s hubris to set out to write something and to say ‘I am going to shape some young minds now’… I don’t think I will ever approach a story that way, and if I do, slap me!)
How important do you think interacting with fans is for an author?
That’s a really complicated question. I don’t think it is a necessity for authors at all. I think an author can absolutely be removed from the work, though it is harder in the crowded market that we have. If we want to keep readers and to try to establish yourself early on, I think it does help to be out there, to show that you are open to conversation and to questions, and to be encouraging of people who are out there promoting your books for free.
Readers who discover your books and then try and force them on their friends, or their following on Tumblr… there’s really no substitute for that kind of word-of-mouth marketing. But in the grand scheme of things, I don’t know how much it affects sales. I think you have to do it because you enjoy it, and if you don’t, there is no point to doing it. Young people in particular sense insincerity pretty quickly.
Which author/authors do you find yourself getting the most excited about when they release a new book?
Frances Hardinge – I wish that she’d come out with a new book every month, except then I’d never get any work done, I’d just be lying in a pool of happy readerness. George RR Martin, of course; he’s definitely made it easy to pace myself. Laini Taylor, Rainbow Rowell, Glen David Gold, Louise Erdrich.
Do you have any non-Grisha novels planned? Do you think that you’ll stay in the fantasy genre?
I do have some non-Grisha work planned, though I can’t talk about those projects just yet, but after the sequel to Six of Crows, I’m going to take a little break from the Grisha world and explore some new territory. I also have a few short stories outside of the Grishaverse: one is a horror story, called Verse, Chorus, Verse, which is in Slasher Girls and Monster Boys. I also have a short story in Stephanie Perkins upcoming anthology, Summer Days and Summer Nights: I am very excited about that.
Never say never, but I really can’t imagine writing something that doesn’t have some element of the fantastic or speculative in it.
What advice would you give to an author creating their own fantasy world?
Don’t just read fantasy. Absolutely be familiar with the genre and envelope yourself in the genre, but you need to be reading other kinds of work. I think that some of the greatest world builders out there are not writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. You can learn a lot from authors who really bring settings to life, and I think you learn different ways to use language, and to think about story structure that will make your work fresher than that of people who are only reading in one area.
Finally, who is your favourite fictional thief?
Well obviously I love Sabetha from The Gentleman Bastards, and yes she is clearly better at her job than Locke. Or Cassel – he is maybe more of a conman than a thief – from Holly Black’s Curseworkers trilogy.
Six Of Crows by Leigh Bardugo is available now from Orion Children’s Books. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.