As part of the Name of the Blade blog tour, I'm so pleased to welcome Zoë Marriott back onto the blog to discuss her latest novel and her writing techniques.
Frail Human Heart, the final book in your Name of the Blade trilogy, has just been published. How does that make you feel?
All the feels! There’s a definite thread of disbelief that five years of my life have gone into writing this story, and some relief that I’ve actually managed to complete the third book – bring the trilogy to what I feel is a satisfying close – and keep my sanity mostly intact. There’s a lot of pride and happiness and a little sadness that my father, who loved these books, didn’t get to see the trilogy finished. And some apprehension too. Will people like it? Will they think it lives up to the previous two books? And… what next for me? Eeep.
Can Frail Human Heart be read as standalone, or would you recommend readers start at the beginning of the series?
Even though I worked hard to create self-contained plot arcs and distinct character development within each of the three books, deep down I really do think of this trilogy as one story broken into three parts. The whole series takes place over less than a week and the events of every book start up again minutes or hours after the last one.
I’m not saying the books can’t be read out of order - growing up almost everything I read came from the library, which meant you grabbed whatever books were available and were grateful, and I often read series and trilogies completely out of order. It never affected my enjoyment, that I can remember! But I do think it would be misleading to call the books in this trilogy standalone. So if someone fancies Frail Human Heart, they’d probably be best to get The Night Itself first and start there.
Would you ever write another trilogy?
Ahem. But really though, I’ve come to the conclusion that my brain just doesn’t work this way. No matter how carefully I plot and plan, events are always evolving in my head and my characters always expect to have some input, and that is nearly impossible to manage when you can’t go back and fiddle with the beginning of the story because it’s already on shelves. I’ve made both my editor and my agent swear that if I ever start contemplating a trilogy again, they’re to immediately hit me with something really heavy. Like a shovel.
I would consider writing more companion novels, though – stories that are linked by a setting or theme, like the Ruan books (Daughter of the Flames and FrostFire). That’s a different kind of challenge, and one that I find fun.
I always think of you as being one of the first authors to bring diversity into your books, how do you feel about the recent surge to include more diversity in YA?
Oh, thank you! I don’t think I was anywhere near being one of the first, though. Authors like Walter Dean Myers and Ursula Le Guin and Nancy Garden were writing diverse books for teens when I was a baby. People of colour, QUILTBAG people, disabled people, have always been writing books that represented characters with their own experiences, it’s just that those books either weren’t recognized as such, or were thought of as ‘issue’ books and shoved onto ‘special interest’ shelves in the bookshop or library, which limited their reach. Especially diverse books that were any other genre than contemporary – like historical or fantasy or romance – sort of skated under the radar. They didn’t even use the word ‘diverse’ when they marketed Daughter of the Flames. It was called ‘multicultural fantasy’.
I’m delighted that more people are talking about this now, and that diversity is actually considered important, something to be aspired to. But the most vital thing, for me, is that people don’t just talk about this, now that we’re all talking about it. We need to DO.
I’m not just talking about writers. I’m always seeing readers on Twitter or Tumblr say ‘Oh, I’d kill for a book about THIS’ or ‘Where are all the books about THAT?’. But those books are out there. They exist. Not as many as there should be, but that’s all part of the same problem. Those books are there, those under-valued authors are out there, but you have to go looking for them. They’re probably not getting the same push from their publisher or from librarians or in bookshops as other books. They’re considered risky or niche. So you have to seek them out and support them and their writers, to ensure they’ll be considered successful, paving the way for more books that take risks and more authors that don’t come from privileged backgrounds.
Do you feel fantasy gets the same attention in the UK YA market as contemporary novels?
That’s a tricky question to answer! These things go in waves and I seem to have this terrible knack for always being ahead of or behind the wave, instead of riding on top of it. When I was trying to get my first book, The Swan Kingdom – which is a high fantasy fairytale retelling – published, everyone told me that fantasy for girls was a hard sell, that young women didn’t want that. Then Twilight came and smashed that idea, but everything was about paranormal romance and urban fantasy – and then Dystoprian – and meanwhile I was still writing high fantasy.
So a few years pass, and Game of Thrones hit TV screens at about the same time Sarah J. Mass and Leigh Bardugo and Rachel Hartman’s high fantasy books were released and suddenly epic high fantasy, ‘Game of Thrones for girls’ as some less than imaginative person coined it, was the hot thing – at exactly the time when I was writing an urban fantasy trilogy! And now I’m passionately working on another high fantasy fairytale retelling… and John Green and Rainbow Rowell are on top of the pile, and everyone is saying that fantasy is over.
What you will notice though, is that all those trends initially came from the US. Most of the big PR spends, the big attention, the big sales, is led by what the US is doing. Not what we’re doing. And that’s an issue, because what we’re doing here is amazing. The problem isn’t that UK fantasy or UK contemporary novels are in competition with each other: it’s that we’re being pushed into competition with everything that comes from the US. Writers in the UK are fully capable of setting trends - they are so insanely talented, writing some of the most wonderful, daring, dangerous, beautiful, funny books around. What I want to see is UK publishers and booksellers believing in that unique talent we have here in the British Isles and pushing UKYA writers instead of constantly shunting us aside for the newest buy-ins from the US.
You are known for being very hot on planning your books; would you ever considering just pantsing it for a change?
I would argue that by planning the structure of my novels in detail, I’m actually allowing myself the freedom to pants a lot of the stuff that’s more important and instinctive to me, like my characters’ emotional arcs, their growth, their relationships. Those things develop on the page in ways that surprise and delight me and I’ve learned never to try to inhibit that process because the book just dies. But would I ever start and finish an entire novel just writing by the seat of my pants? I literally don’t think I even *could*. I’d ramble on for twenty five pages about how the weather was a deeply profound metaphor for the upheaval of my heroine’s soul and then give up.
Does Twitter help or hinder your writing process?
Both! And I wouldn’t have it any other way. The key is to sit in your notifications tab, I think – that way you can respond to anyone who tags you, like lovely readers, and take part in invigorating and inspiring conversations that involve you, but you don’t get swept away into the glorious glittering distractions of the feed.
I know you are a detailed researcher for each novel. How long does the research take and is it carried out before or during the writing process?
Again, the answer is both! Before I feel brave enough to start figuring out who my main characters are and what is going to happen to them, I have to do a big chunk of research, sort of gain a toe-hold in their world. I need to know that I can decide ‘They ride over a bridge to the plains, taking shelter in a small village where the villagers give the heroine a beautiful gown to replace her ragged clothes…’ without stopping to check if my characters would have had access to horses at that time within their culture, and whether it’s believable that there would have been public bridges, and that there are plains in that country, and that such a plain would have small village settlements on it, and that the women even wore gowns, let alone pretty colourful ones…
You can see how easy it would be to trip myself up on something basic! And the outcome of that research will shape the story. In a culture where horses aren’t available the travel will be entirely different, so maybe my characters won’t travel, or they’ll undergo journeys but much more slowly and under entirely different conditions. Depending on how available resources are – books, CDs, museum exhibits, nature documentaries – this part can take between a month and several months.
Once I’m confident enough to start filling things in with broad strokes in my synopsis, I do more focused research on the specific issues that concern this story and these characters. But it doesn’t stop there; when I’m actually writing I’m researching all the time too. If I need my heroine to do a particular dance, do I need to invent a fantasy form of dance for her and seed this throughout the story, or was there actually kind of dance that would work for this, and what was it called, and how should I describe it? Would it work better for the story to use the real thing, or invent something new? And sometimes you discover something really amazing that makes you entirely rethink the story and suddenly instead of being a book that has one dance scene, it’s a book about sword-dancing, which is scary but fantastic!
Who are your favourite #UKYA authors?
Oooh, this is unfair. Well, there are the classics, like Diana Wynne Jones, Peter Dickinson, Robin McKinley, Susan Cooper, Terry Pratchett, Alan Garner, of course.
It’s more difficult to talk about my contemporaries because I could list a hundred writers and still be leaving off loads of talented people! C.J. Daugherty, L.A. Weatherly, Helen Grant, Keris Stainton, Jo Nadin, Emma Haughton, Sally Gardner, C.J. Skuse, Eve Ainsworth, Caroline Green, Emma Pass, Kate Ormand, Rhian Ivory, Alexia Casale, Keren David… the list goes on!
Which authors make you star struck?
Any of the classic ones I’ve mentioned up there definitely would, although I’ve never met any of them, and sadly some of them have already passed away, so I won’t get to. I also met Cassandra Clare once and was a babbling mess, but she was one of the most charming people I’ve ever met and managed to put me at ease, which was quite a feat…
What do you plan to write next?
Well, I’m currently waiting to get my edit letter for a companion novel to Shadows on the Moon, set in the same fairytale Japan setting. It’s a retelling of Beauty and the Beast and the working title is Barefoot on the Wind. I love it. Hopefully it should be out next year.
Thank you so much for coming on the blog, Zoë. It is always a pleasure to have you on.
Frail Human Heart by Zoë Marriott s the third book in The Night Itself trilogy. All three books are available to buy now.
To find out more about Zoë Marriott: