YA masters Rae Carson and Leigh Bardugo talk world building and feminism -- exclusive
Rae Carson, whose Walk on Earth a Stranger was just longlisted for the National Book Award, and Leigh Bardugo, whose next book Six of Crows (out Sept. 29) is one of fall’s most anticipated titles, are masters of YA fantasy, building realistic worlds, and imbuing feminist values into their work.Both authors have also just begun new trilogies, so we saddled them with some of our most burning questions — and they seemed to have quite a bit of fun answering them!
Read on to find out the first steps Bardugo and Carson take when building a new fantasy world, and what aspects of their worlds they wish applied to our own:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Both of you have new projects coming out this fall that could be considered “unconventional” in the world of YA fantasy. Six of Crows is a heist novel, and Walk on Earth a Stranger is a Western. What made you decide to pursue these genres?
Rae: I’d love to say I chose to write a Western because of some highfalutin moral imperative.
Leigh: Wait. Hold up. “Highfalutin”? You’re so method.
Rae: Henceforth, please refer to me as “Method Rae.” But, yeah, I chose it because I thought it would be fun! While researching Walk on Earth a Stranger, though, I came to feel strongly about finding voices that had been lost to the whitewashing and manwashing (is manwashing a word?) of history—those of women, minorities, the disabled. But fun is always my prime objective. And I must be honest here; I don’t think there’s such a thing as “unconventional” when it comes to YA. YA readers are the most open-minded in the literary world. They’ll read anything.
Leigh: Right? YA readers are just not rigid about genre. They’re all for the mash-up. My motives were fairly lowfalutin. After the Grisha Trilogy, I think I was a little burned out on “chosen one” narratives and I wanted to take a big step away from that. The characters in Six of Crows aren’t kings or queens; they don’t have grand destinies. They’re just six kids desperate enough to attempt the impossible. And I love heists, but I didn’t ever consider writing one until I was driving down Beverly Boulevard and saw a billboard for The Monuments Men. It didn’t make me want to see Monuments Men, but it did make me want to watch Oceans 11 again, and suddenly all I could think was MAGICAL HEIST.
Before either of you were published authors, you were both involved in the world of beauty. Rae, you competed in beauty pageants and Leigh, you were a makeup artist. Did these experiences impact the way that you write your characters, particularly female characters?
Leigh: Rae! You were on the beauty pageant circuit? I did not know this.
Rae: Ask me to do “the walk” sometime. Competing in pageants made me hyper-aware of the unfair expectations society places on women in terms of youth and beauty. But it also gave me empathy for women who use beauty as a creative exploration. When expressed healthfully, dressing up, doing hair, crafting makeup, etc., is an art form. I think the important question here is: Leigh, would you be willing to do my makeup sometime?
Leigh: You know I can’t refuse you. But there may be glitter liner. To me, beauty is a commodity and that’s the way it’s treated in my books. It has power, and though that power is limited, some characters understand that better than others. On a sort of unrelated note, I have to say that I’m really excited by what I see happening in beauty and cosmetics right now. For so long, the “natural look” was held up as some kind of holy grail, as if somehow you were never supposed to look like you were trying.
Rae: Wow, you just described my teenage years. The message was always: It’s good to be pretty, but don’t look like you’re trying to be pretty! Inherent in that is a lot of misogyny, I think, because the implication is, “You must work hard to achieve a feminine ideal for which society has nothing but contempt.”
Leigh: It’s a trap. Vanity is shameful. Effort is shameful. But not looking a particular way is shameful too. Now I see crazy brows, blue lips, pastel hair, colored contacts. Beauty has become fantastical and performative, and it has less and less to do with adhering to a standard someone else might find attractive. I think that’s a good sign.
One of the most frequently praised aspects of both of your books is the world-building. What are the first steps that you each take when creating a new world from scratch?
Rae: Leigh, do you get this question as often as I do? Because I get it a lot.
Leigh: Second only to “Where do you get your ideas?”
Rae: My sense is that many people are intimidated by world-building, but I promise there is nothing to be intimidated by. An author starts with some basic foundations, i.e. “The story takes place in a forested land with harsh winters,” and builds from there, using common sense. For instance, a forested land with harsh winters is going to have a lot of wood for building and thick, warm clothing, whereas a story that takes place in the desert probably won’t. See what I mean? Easy!
Leigh: My stories usually begin with the characters and some elements of how power (personal, political, magical) functions in the world. The rest develops as I write, and research helps a great deal with that. If you’re going to write about an agrarian economy, research agrarian economies. If your main character is starving, then you should know what it means for a malnourished body to break down.
Rae: I love that you bring up malnourishment. Some of the most common pitfalls I see occur when authors don’t check their privilege. Billions are living in a personal apocalypse right this second, so a little research and empathy can go a long way toward developing a convincing world.
Leigh: I also like to look outside of high fantasy for examples of great world-building—The Shipping News, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Love Medicine, more recently The Golem and the Jinni. Whether or not you like these books, they’re all set in places that are almost as alien to the reader as Middle Earth or Westeros. And because the geography, politics, culture, and history of these places are so deeply entwined, these particular stories couldn’t happen anywhere else. For me, that interconnectedness is the gold standard.
What’s the hardest part about world-building for you?
Rae: The hard part comes when you create a magic system or other fantasy element. In that case, there’s no real-world equivalent to guide you. The onus is on you to make sure everything is consistent within the parameters you’ve set.
Leigh: Yeah, and then you have these rules you can’t break. I had my heart set on a flying sky fortress in Ruin and Rising, but it required too great an expenditure of magic. I want that damn sky fortress.
Rae: I beg you to write a book about a sky fortress.
What aspects of the worlds you’ve created for your books do you wish applied to the real world?
Rae: I want to live in a world with magic. I’m certain that if I lived in Leigh’s world, I’d be a Grisha of unspeakable power.
Leigh: All would bow to Rae and bring her tribute. Magic would definitely be my first grab. But Rae, if you want to deliver Hector to my door, no complaints. Post-mustache, that is.
When you’re building a world, what’s the goal? Consistency? Believability? Originality?
Rae: Mine is immersion. I want my readers to feel like the world is as close and real as their own.
Leigh: I want the reader to feel that country has always been there, that we’ve just stepped into one chapter of its history.
What’s the hardest thing about starting a series, as opposed to a stand-alone novel?
Rae: The hardest thing is understanding what a looong game it is. Years of writing and editing. Tackling book two while having no idea if book one will succeed. Living with characters for so long that they eat your brain.
Leigh: The closest I’ve gotten to stand-alones are my short stories, and I give myself a lot more leeway on those. I just let the story develop. Sometimes I sit in the bathtub and narrate it in my storyteller voice (she sounds a lot like the Ukrainian lady who always steals my lane at the pool). But with a series, I need to know where I’m going. I need to know the ending, even if the road looks a lot different once I get there.
Carson and Bardugo with fellow YA author Marissa Meyer.
What’s the best thing?
Rae: Living with characters so long that they EAT YOUR BRAIN. (Trust me, it’s both bad and good.) Series give you a chance to build your audience in a way that stand-alones don’t. From a reader standpoint, I love the payoff that comes with long investment. Stakes are more epic, character arcs more satisfying, triumphs more earned.
You have both described yourselves as feminists. Do you actively try to convey feminist messages to your readers via the plots of your books?
Rae: Yes? No? Sometimes? For Walk on Earth a Stranger, I was very deliberate about exploring the Gold Rush through a feminist lens, but when something is so important to your world view, it’s going to spread into your creative work whether you’re intentional about it or not. Like a fungus. Except awesome.
Leigh, I loved how interesting and complex the women in Six of Crows are. Did you do that on purpose? Or did it just happen naturally?
Leigh: Why, thank you! I didn’t set out to write Nina and Inej any differently than my male characters, but like you said, the empowerment fungus gets you every time. I think I’m most deliberate in my folktales, because they’re deliberate subversions of fairy tale tropes.
Rae and I both write stories featuring a lot of women. And I think that’s the first trick to writing a feminist work: Write plenty of women. That way you get to write characters, instead of worrying about paradigms.