Why is YA so popular? We ask authors Leigh Bardugo, behind the new Netflix series Shadow and Bone, and Marie Lu
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Young adult titles enjoyed strong sales during the pandemic, as young readers sought adventure outside the confines of their bedrooms. Many of them found him in the complex worlds created by Leigh Bardugo – including Shadow and bone the books were adapted into a Netflix series that aired on April 23 – and Marie Lu, the mind behind the Young elites and Skyhunter series. Authors and friends explain how they build characters, tell female stories, and why YA is taking over.
Judith Pereira: Let’s start by talking about how you build your worlds. Where do you start? Is it the characters first or the plot?
Leigh Bardugo: I’m really curious to have this conversation with Marie, because we’ve known each other for a long time, but it’s not the kind of conversation we have over tea.
Marie Lu: I tend to start with the characters. Usually someone gets into my head, and they’re not always fully formed. With me Legend series, I was watching Wretched, and I wanted to write the teenage version of a criminal versus a detective, but I didn’t know where to put them. A little while later, I saw a map of the world in the future, and it was horrible and flooded. So I combined that with my characters and started building. With Skyhunter, I had an idea for a girl named Talin who had been moved from her home and moved to a new society, where they did not accept her as she gave her life for the country. This was inspired by Dr. [Khizr] Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, when he spoke about his son’s death in Iraq. But the world comes to me in pieces as I develop my characters.
KG: I start with the bare minimum of a plot and a character, but I really need to know where I’m going. For me, a world breaks down into a sense of power and a sense of belonging. And power comes first, because it’s such an integral part of the plot – and it can be magical power, political power, interpersonal power in a family, in a town, then in a town. , a country and a world.
The sense of place is sort of secondary to me and tends to change the plot a bit. For the Shadow and bone trilogy, I was focusing on Imperial Russia in the mid-1800s. Six of crows, I knew I wanted there to be some influence from the Dutch Republic of the 1700s. So the research changed the plot because I got a better idea of how these economies worked, how these worlds worked. worked, and they all influenced each other.
JP: Let’s talk about war, since your two novels deal with it from a female point of view.
KG: I think young women are at war every day. We see this play out over and over again. So for me, sending a young girl to war resonates with so many readers because they think so, even though the culture tells them everything should be okay.
ML: I’m interested in the untold story – much of our written history has been told from the perspective of the straight white man. And it’s something that I love Shadow and bone – you say it from the perspective of someone who is not usually featured in war stories.
KG: Adelina in Young elites is so much a testament to what war does and what it means for a woman to occupy space that is not the norm of what we consider acceptable or beautiful. And that’s a dark story. But as someone who loves an antihero, I find it incredibly rewarding.
JP: Marie, tell me about writing a protagonist so full of rage and sadness, and not very likable.
ML: The funny thing is, I didn’t start by writing it as the main character. I wrote 100 pages where the main character was this very nice guy who walked through life with powers, and Adelina was the bad guy. From the moment I wrote to her, she kind of took over. I didn’t think much about it until I gave it to my agent, who didn’t smear anything. She said, “Marie, when you gave me this, did you think it was good?” I asked if she liked something or if I should throw it all out and go cry. And she said that Adelina was the only interesting character and maybe she should be the main character. At that point, my whole idea changed.
KG: Ouch, my author’s heart felt this miles away. Zoya [from Shadow and Bone] has been a very polarizing character for many readers who say she is rude, mean, dangerous and so angry all the time. There is a certain double standard that applies to female characters and, for me, Zoya’s journey has allowed her to feel that rage and gain power from it, while also trying to let her negotiate the difference between fear. and vulnerability.
JP: You both talk about characters who speak to you. Is it a dialogue you hear from them, or is it feelings?
ML: There are characters that are loud in my head and take up a lot of space. Adelina was loud and I knew immediately what kind of personality she had. Talin, however, was very reserved. She keeps a lot of things close to her chest. I do these exercises called cleanroom scenes before I start a draft. I put characters in a clean room, and they just talk to each other – I want to see how they react to each other. With Talin, I was looking for a character who would bring her out of her shell. When I put her with Red, the other main character, they immediately clashed, and that’s how I knew they were the angle.
KG: There is nothing nicer for me than writing dialogue, so many of my books are very dialogue-rich in their initial drafts. It’s also the way I work on plot issues. I’m going to go for a walk and have a conversation with myself and do the vocals. I am fully committed to being the eccentric of the neighborhood. I also have ideas when I fall asleep, and I absolutely have to save them immediately or they are completely lost the next day.
JP: Are there already any characters you’re starting out with that just don’t suit you?
KG: I had every intention of killing Nikolai Siege and storm – he was going to be murdered by his brother, and Alina was going to be accused and would have to go on the run. Then I started to write it and I enjoyed it so much. Most of my characters spend a lot of time ruminating, doubting, wondering if they’re doing the right thing. Nikolai doesn’t waste time like that; his confidence is infinite. It was such a joy, and it really helped me get through the trauma of writing my first sequel. And at the end of Ruin and riseI knew I wanted to give him his own book. But he had to wait backstage while I did other projects.
JP: Leigh, you have a Netflix series coming out, and we’re definitely seeing more young female protagonists who aren’t white take off in books and on TV.
KG: Why do you think everyone is so afraid of YA? Since YA as a market category started shaking the books, what have we started to see? Hot take after hot take: “Why do adult women want to read YA?” It surely means the death of society and literature as we know it. So why the panic? The tropes in YA are no more absurd or repetitive than those we see in other genres. Is the problem that young women and marginalized people are leading revolutions, asking to be placed at the center of history? I was really angry when I saw these articles which so despised the authors and the readers of YA. Now I just think, “We really need to join you.” It fills me with pleasure.
ML: If YA isn’t literature, then I don’t want to be literature.
JP: Which writers have inspired you?
KG: It is difficult, because Dune was essential for me, but I also recognize that there are a lot of issues that I certainly didn’t face as a kid. But you can see its influence in my writing. I loved Stephen King, George RR Martin, Diana Wynne Jones, Octavia Butler. When I started junior high I was really struggling. I didn’t fit in. And I walked into the school library, and there was a table of science fiction and fantasy books that said, “Explore new worlds.” And I thought that was what I needed – I need to get away from this world.
ML: I remember being 11 years old, and I saw this book cover in the library of a mouse holding a sword – so the Redwall Brian Jacques’ series was my gateway to fantasy and science fiction. But I remember the very first time I read a fantasy woman series starring a young lady – Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s dart series – and that was a turning point. Same thing with NK Jemisin.
JP: For a year now, children have not been to schools or their libraries.
ML: I am really sad for the younger generation. At the same time, I think young people are more resilient than what we attribute to them. Young people have been through many tumultuous things in history and come out stronger.
KG: I think for me my favorite books growing up, no matter how dangerous or traumatic, were places I returned to over and over again as a respite from the ordinary world. We really don’t know how it’s going to break out. It impacted how my creativity worked, and it broke it in some ways. But I hope our stories will always provide this safe haven for people.