YA fantasy author Holly Black talks about writing the first book in her new The Folk of the Air series, The Cruel Prince, which tells the story of three sisters - Vivi, Jude and Taryn - who see their parents murdered in front of them by faerie general Madoc and are then brought up by him in the world of Faerie.
What inspired the story and the series?
I’ve been writing Faerie books for a long time and I really wanted to write something that was set inside of Faerie instead of coming from the perspective of someone who gets to learn about it.
The first idea I had was the kickoff of the book. There are three kids and a Faerie general murders their parents because one of them (Vivi) is his heir, then the two mortal kids (Jude and Taryn) get taken and raised in Faerie too because he feels responsible for them.
Why did you choose to tell it from Jude’s point of view, instead of her older sister Vivi’s?
That’s something I’m always interested in, characters who have one foot in two worlds. I like the idea of somebody who has in some ways been brought up there. I like that Vivi doesn’t want to be there. She’s the opposite of Taryn and Jude, who are young enough to have accepted Faerie more. That’s the world they grew up in and all they know, whereas Vivi has grown up in the human world and wants to go home.
A lot of your books are about Faerie – why are you particularly interested in that world?
There are some things about faeries that no other supernatural creature will give you. For one thing, faeries – unlike werewolves, who are transformed humans, or vampires, who are undead humans – are not human, they never were human and their culture is not human. They may look like us, although many of them don’t, but they are not us and the alien-ness of that is part of the attraction to me. The fact that they are an ecosystem, they’re not one creature – they’re nixies and pixies and sprites and brownies and boggarts – appeals to me from a storytelling point of view, and I also like the association with nature. One of the things that I really love about fantasy is that feeling that the world is bigger and stranger, and I think faeries give you that.
Have you done much research into the world, or do you make it up, or is it a mixture of both?
I love reading folklore. I didn’t come to writing about faeries first, I came to reading about them because I enjoyed the stories.
When you’re writing about folklore, what you’re really doing is making choices because there’s so much and some of it is contradictory. When you’re building a rule-based system, you’re saying “I’m going to take this story and I’m going to interpret it this way”. Writing in Faerie actually required making more decisions than the folklore supported because it doesn’t necessarily explain what the hierarchies of Faerie are and things like that. I had to figure them out to write something that’s a lot closer to high fantasy. That was interesting and a challenge because I do want to keep it as close to the folklore as I can.
What was the inspiration for the character of Prince Cardan?
It’s hard to talk about him because he’s a character who we, even by the end of the book, don’t know an enormous amount about. He falls into an archetype of character that I’ve read before and appeals to me, but he’s a very different character to any I’ve written before and I thought: “I want to figure out how to pull this off”. To have the story I wanted to tell, he had to be a very particular person and those constraints helped create his character too. My goal was to make you hate him.
What can we expect from the rest of the series?
In book two, there’s going to be a new and bigger threat and, of course, there are the challenges of governance. There’s also trying to figure out what Jude and Madoc’s relationship looks like on the other side of all this, and her relationship with Taryn.
Were you nervous about starting a new series when your past books have been so successful?
I realised that I haven’t written that many series and I’ve written even fewer series that I knew were series when I started them. Other than The Spiderwick Chronicles and the Magisterium series, where I had another person collaborating with me, this is the first time that from the first sentence, I knew this was a trilogy. It is nerve-wracking in a sense because you’re saying: “for the next three years of my life, I’m going to live in this world”.
You mentioned co-writing series - what are the differences between writing on your own and writing with someone else?
You get to do all of the things you would like in exactly the way you like [when writing on your own], whereas with co-writing, the great thing is someone is pushing you to do the kinds of things you might not ordinarily think of on your own. I really enjoy co-writing but I think, for me, one of the things that’s enjoyable about it is that I have my own stuff too and that if there’s something I really want to do, I can do it in my own work.
What have your fans seemed to like most about your books and has that surprised you?
I feel like readers always love characters more than anything else and they want to know what they’re doing. I wrote Tithe and then Valiant, which was set in the same world but with different characters – I did not realise how much that would make people mad. I really didn’t understand how much it would annoy people, which is why this series follows Jude all the way through.
Do you think there’s a difference between the US and UK YA scene?
I know some of the books but I’m not sure I know the UKYA scene. The scene I probably know in some ways better is the fantasy community in the UK. I think that there’s a real love of challenging and interesting work that pushes boundaries. I don’t think US readers hate those kind of books, but I feel like more of that comes out in the UK – it’s a little bit darker. I think there are more standalones, which is maybe why I feel they are darker because that is a quality of standalones.
What feedback do you get from your fans?
Teenagers are great readers – they’re smart and engaged. Their response is often very thoughtful. Sometimes they notice things in books that I don’t or that I haven’t planned! I actually think that that’s one of the exciting things about writing a trilogy – you get to hear what people think about it and see how that changes the way you think about it.
Part of the challenge of writing is putting the reader out of your head and being in that world, so it’s a balancing act. You want to engage with the story and engage with the readers, but it would be terrifying to think of people when you’re writing. I don’t know that I could write if I really thought about people seeing it; I would be overcome with embarrassment!
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black is published by Hot Key Books on 2nd January 2018.