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Author Spotlight: Naomi Novik

Author Spotlight: Naomi Novik

A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets.

Read more about A Deadly Education and Nebula Award-winning novel Uprooted, Spinning Silver, and the nine-volume Temeraire series as we put the spotlight on New York Times Bestselling author Naomi Novik.

The Scholomance school is like an entire character in itself. What inspired you to build this place? What was your writing approach to introducing The Scholomance and its intricacies to readers?

I introduce the reader to it as I myself am introduced to it. I am a “discovery” writer--I learn about the story I’m telling as I go, and that’s part of my own motivation to keep going. The school in particular was an evolving character like any other character that I had to learn more about as I went. 

The material aspects of the Scholomance school have a few key influences. The first is an illustration I encountered when I was ten years old in a book from the Time-Life series, a painting of wizards studying dark magic in a pitch black room. According to the legend, the students were locked away for years in a school run by the Devil himself - shut away from sunlight with no teachers, or human interaction from the outside, and receiving their answers written in letters of flames on the wall. It was a place of total darkness and despair - that was very vivid to me.

Another inspiration for the architecture in particular was the Titanic--photos of the construction of the Titanic, and pictures of people next to the propellers, the scale of it gives you the impression of something that could really grind people up.

The third piece evolved based on the larger question: what reason would bring people to send their children to this terrible place? The answer had to be that it was better than the outside. Why is it better than the outside? On the outside, there are more monsters. If the goal is to protect the lives of your children, the Scholomance has to be a fortified location. How then, do you build such a location to ensure that it provides the best protection possible?

Bottlenecking is the key. It’s the same tactic that allows a handful of people to defend a narrow mountain pass against an enormous army. An enormous army is winnowed down and only a few people can fight at once. The same way that traffic jams are created when five lanes of traffic are forced to merge into two lanes to get into a tunnel or a bridge. It controls the number that can come in and the pace at which they can come.

El has this "tear the walls down" energy to her—which can be relatable to many disillusioned young people. How did you decide that El was the character through whom you would tell this story? 

I don’t really sit down and decide, “Here’s my character, and I’m going to write this story.” I wrote the first line of the book, and the first line was in El’s voice. And I wrote the second line, then the third line. Each time I wrote another line, I learned more about the character. Each next line gives me a little more inspiration about them. I don’t think up those lines in advance. They flow from the lines that came before. So it’s very much a discovery process. 

What made you start a new series? 

I did not set out deliberately to start a new series. In my mind, The Scholomance is a single story. 

But I wanted it in separate books, because I wanted the break that corresponded with the end of the school year. I wanted the punctuation of the year ending in the way of the classic boarding school trope - the magic boarding school in particular. Obviously, Harry Potter is the most famous example of this; the sense of a school year ending, a book closing--that sense of a milestone passed. For those of us who’ve experienced school on an academic calendar, there’s this sense of evolving from year to year, and this is written into our collective memories. 

But I was going to write the whole thing at once, in two books, and my US publisher had worked out a schedule that would allow me to do that--only as I was writing the first book, it ended in an unexpected place, so I realized a third book had to happen, and then I simply didn’t have enough time to write the whole thing at once. So I have ended up writing a series completely unwillingly and by accident!

When you write a series, are all the major plot points already outlined?

So this will sound odd, but I find plot the least important piece to understand. My plots are determined by what the characters do next, which is determined by their abilities and what they need and want -- and what is going to happen in reaction to their actions, which is determined by the way the world around them works. As a result, as far as what exactly happens - I can’t know that until I know the characters. 

So I did know certain things about the world relatively early on, and certain things about some of the characters early on, but almost nothing of the actual plot. And even those things I knew, or thought I knew, evolved as I went. 

What about the fantasy genre draws you and makes you want to write within that space?

All fiction is fantasy. It’s all made-up! Realistic fiction is simply the subset where you constrain yourself to what you feel could happen in the real world--but it didn’t actually happen, so it’s not actually any more true. 

That said, constraints are valuable in fiction for many reasons, among others that it helps the reader believe in what’s happening. So in the fantasy genre, you have to be careful to build your own constraints. But when used well, that allows you to control the world in your story so that it supports your story more intimately. 

You've been playing Dungeons and Dragons for a long time now. Does that help you with writing in any way?

Any form of creative mental play helps with writing. Painting helps with writing. I found my writing improved significantly when I started vidding (video editing) for fun. Working on a computer game. Coding helps my writing. In a sense, everything I do helps me with writing.

That said, for me there are major differences between world-building in Dungeons and Dragons and world-building in context of writing a novel. If you’re DMing a Dungeons and Dragons game, you have to be prepared for your players to go off the map. If you’re playing in real time, you either have to be a master of improvisation or you have to have nailed down enough answers about your world that you can figure out what happens. That’s why I think the game of D&D grows out of Tolkien so clearly. If you look at Tolkien and his appendices, he built this entire world with languages, with history, all the way down. He’s the ultimate dungeon master! 

But I don’t build a campaign world when I’m writing a novel. In general, I don’t want to know much more about my world than I have to know in order to write the next line, because that’s what allows me to experience it as a journey of discovery, and that’s what makes the world-building very specific to the story and the characters. 

But doing Dungeons and Dragons has illustrated that contrast to me, so it’s been helpful in that sense as well!

Historically, fantasy narratives have been more male-centric. The main characters in your last few books are women, unlikely heroines who are coming into their power. What is it that you want to show through these female characters, their strength, their perspective?

Sorry, I’m going to go on a tear here, but this is NOT true. Fantasy narratives have not been more male-centric. 

The primary heroes of most fantasy narratives that every single one of us have grown up on are girls, specifically princesses. The heroines of fairy tales, the Disney princesses - that’s fantasy! And even if we narrow it down to the very constrained limit of the fantasy genre as seen in the bookstore, it’s been heavily female dominated for a long time. I think back to the books I was reading back in the 80s: Ursula Le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones, Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip, Madeleine L'Engle, Andre Norton. Anne McCaffrey, a giant of science fiction and fantasy. Mercedes Lackey single-handedly filled bookshelves! And many of them were writing about women, and even when not, they were still writing as women. 

I aggressively resist erasing the work of the women who came before me. I am not some sort of groundbreaker climbing Everest alone, which is itself always a lie. I am writing in an amazing tradition of women writers and characters, and among still more of them today. I am so happy to be within that tradition and community. 

If I had to identify something in my work that is distinctive, it’s that I am increasingly interested in telling stories that are about community more than about hero. My stories often focus on an individual protagonist, but to my mind, the protagonist is not a solitary figure, but always--serving community, in search of community, building community, defending community, and is grounded within community. I am trying to work my way to a resistance of the narrative of the lone hero. I think that’s a lie. That narrative has always been a lie. It's a pleasant delightful lie--it’s a egotistical fantasy at heart--and that can both be enjoyable but it can also feed selfishness, feed thinking of yourself.

El is a bit of an unlikely messianic figure, at least for the students at Scholomance. How do you navigate the concept of having a protagonist-savior with concepts of self-agency, and both individual and collective power of the people around the main character?

The Scholomance does interrogates this hero or “Chosen One” narrative in a few ways. 

The biggest one is that very often, a lot of stories about learning magic hide the cost of magic: they tell a story that you can have magic through your own individual efforts, i.e. that magic comes by studying hard, learning something, and you just have it! You get this magic, and it’s yours. 

Our own society encourages us to pretend that magic is free in similar ways. “I worked hard, I got paid, and I bought this iPhone. It’s magic! And it’s mine!” But we know, we all know deep down, that much of the actual costs are being paid by other people somewhere else, or will be paid by you in the future and in your children’s future.

Magic isn’t free. Whenever there is real magic, someone pays for it. And trying to claw apart the story to get to that truth, to expose and show that truth on a visceral level, is part of what I’m trying to do. 

And in addition, when you even think about the idea of The Chosen One, there’s immediately a question of who gets to choose. It’s fundamentally external. “I am chosen,” means someone else has chosen me. I didn’t choose. 

That is something we all have to grapple with. We have all come into a situation not of our making, and not of our control. And we all don’t get to choose. We are all chosen in our own way. The story of how we either rise or fall within our circumstances, both delightful and awful, is deeply connected to the story of becoming an adult, of the coming-of-age story.

Without giving anything away, The Last Graduate ends with a gripping cliffhanger. 

Yes! The last book is called THE GOLDEN ENCLAVES. It is complete and currently in revisions.

I apologize for the cliffhangers! I actually don’t like cliffhangers and don’t deliberately set out to write them. 

But in my own head, this book is fundamentally a single story that is punctuated by the opening and closing of a book, and so the places where it breaks are those places where something has ended and something is beginning. Something about making these transitions invites these cliffhangers that I really didn’t intend to torture people with.

But sometimes as a writer, you write a scene, or you write an ending line, and you say, “That’s it. That’s the end.” My editor on Book Two said, “You should tell us a little more,” but I had to tell her, “I can’t! That’s it! That’s the end of the book.” When you feel that strongly, you take it. 

What can we expect from the last book and will we find out more about the world outside The Scholomance School?

Yes. :) 

All I can really say is that you will find out more about this world, about El, about Orion, more about their context, and interesting things will happen!

What are the classic fantasy literature you always go back to?

There’s so much! In the previous question above, I mentioned a whole slew of classic female fantasy writers. Start with all of Ursula Le Guin, THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD by Patricia McKillip, THE BLUE SWORD and THE HERO AND THE CROWN, by Robin McKinley. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern. 

There is also so much amazing work being done in the field right now. N.K. Jemisin, if anyone really needs me to recommend her? Because I do! If you haven’t read The Broken Earth trilogy, you’re missing a fundamental work. Martha Wells has been knocking it out of the park lately, Zen Cho is one of my favorite writers. Readers who’ve enjoyed UPROOTED and SPINNING SILVER should absolutely go straight to Katherine Arden - do not pass Go! Seanan McGuire is writing such incredible stuff, under all her names.

What are you reading now?

THE FOOD LAB by J. Kenji López-Alt. I’ve been cooking a lot during the pandemic. I’ve also been watching his YouTube channel, which is amazing! He puts a GoPro on his head while he cooks for his family and just narrates it. 

I just read a bunch of Kate DiCamillo books - which are middle-grade and children’s, because I was writing a review of her most recent book for the New York Times, and it was really delightful. I highly recommend THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE. Just lovely and deeply about love, in a deceptively simplistic way.

How are you dealing with the current pandemic situation as a writer?

The hard part has been dealing with it as a parent. But I’m writing the books. They’ve gotten written! So I dealt with it.

The film rights for A Deadly Education have been bought. What are your hopes for a screen adaptation?

That it brings people into the world; that it is a successful movie, rather than just the books put onto the screen.

I do think it’s a huge challenge to translate a novel (especially a novel in first person, and therefore incredibly reliant on interiority) into an external story of two hours. Fortunately, we have a couple of fantastic writers working on the script. I’m just riding along with the development, and hopeful for it!

Any world-building or character design advice for writers who are interested in writing fantasy?

My first piece of advice is not to listen to any advice unless it works for you. I can only tell you what works for me, but there are as many answers to that as there are writers. 

But for me, I start writing. Then, each line tells me a little bit more about my characters and my world. The first line of the Scholomance was, “I decided that Orion Lake needed to die after the second time he saved my life.”

What does that line tell me?. It immediately tells me:

a) My characters are in some place that is very dangerous.
b) My character is angry, and we don’t know why. Why is she so angry? This guy saved her life twice, and she’s mad enough to kill him?

c) It tells me Orion Lake is some kind of hero. He’s going around saving people’s lives.

d) This character is calculating. “I decided he had to die.” It’s not, “I tried to kill him.” A character who would have said, “I leapt at him and tried to beat him to death with my fists,” is a different character than “I decided he was going to have to die.”

The information gleaned from this one line tells me a lot. If you write a corking first line, a line that makes you want to know more, it then makes you ask, “What’s the next thing that happens?” As a writer, you yourself interrogate what that line is telling you. And then you have to respect it. You have to write a second line that could have been said by the same character in the same situation as the first one. And as soon as you do that, you have built the world out a little bit.

Also, I was thinking of the legends of the Scholomance that I knew, so  I did have some sense that that’s where they were. I was remembering this thing I was interested in since I was ten years old. What another writer is interested in - that’s what they have to write about. You have to find something you are interested in and care about, and write about it. 

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