On May 3, fantasy author Tamora Pierce’s latest novel, Bloodhound, debuted at number one on the New York Times Children’s Chapter Books Bestseller List — a sweet reward for the veteran author, whose first book came out in 1983.
That novel, Alanna: The First Adventure, was part one of four books in the Song of the Lioness quartet, a much-beloved series about Alanna, a girl who disguises herself as a boy to become a knight.
Ever since then, Pierce has written young adult fantasy novels with strong female characters, and her audience has grown steadily.Today, Pierce has more than two dozen novels to her name, and she has sold more than 3 million print and audio books combined. Bloodhound, her most recent, is the second in a trilogy about Beka Cooper, a young member of the Provost’s Guard, a kind of police force. The novels are set about 200 years before the time of Alanna, in the world of Tortall — a time when Lady Knights and female guards were, if not common, largely accepted.
The first novel in the trilogy, Terrier, takes Beka through her initial training to become a guard. In Bloodhound, Beka becomes embroiled in a complex investigation involving counterfeit coins and the criminal underworld.
I recently spoke with Tamora Pierce over the phone just before she set off on a monthlong book tour for Bloodhound; we talked about the inspiration for the series, gender and sexism, torture, and why she still can’t bear to look at the Alanna books.
TheTorchOnline: There’s so much young adult fantasy these days. Why do you think it’s so popular?
Tamora Pierce: Publishers discovered with Harry [Potter] that kids will read a lot of fantasy, and they’ll read big books. And rather than just publishing books like Harry, they just started to publish fantasy and take chances on unusual fantasy. So we are really having a golden age. Fairy tale retellings, urban fantasy, there are so many different kinds of things out there now. It’s absolutely wonderful.
I’m seeing so many wonderful new books coming out especially this year. Kristin Cashore has a new book coming out. Alison Goodman with her combination of China and something else for the Dragoneye books. D.M. Cornish’s Victorian [Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy]. China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun, where all of our bad stuff breaks through into this city under London. … It’s just amazing what we’ve got coming out, and the reason publishers keep publishing it is because people are buying it and reading it.
TTO: I think all this fantasy is wonderful, because there’s so much young adult fiction for girls that I feel focuses almost exclusively on boyfriends.
TP: [makes pained sound] Oh, don’t remind me.
TTO: Your books have so many wonderfully complicated characters, I’m just wondering, do you think teenage girls are just boy-crazy?
TP: No. Well, they’re also girl-crazy, it’s the whole hormone thing. You’ve gotta just sit there and go, well, maybe they’ll get past it. [sighs] I don’t know what it is. I just sort of wince and move on to the good stuff. It’s just an area that has taken off — like romance — and maybe they’ll grow up and read romance that doesn’t involve girls backbiting each other and betraying each other for a guy that they get rid of two weeks later. I certainly hope so.
TTO: What the inspiration was for the Beka Cooper series?
TP: Partly, I had gotten to thinking that I had missed an opportunity with the Provost’s Guard in the Alanna books. … My fans had been asking, in any case, for something from the time of the Lady Knights, when they were still flourishing.
So I thought to go back then and see what I might find there. Somehow the strings tying George Cooper [a character in the Song of the Lioness quartet and a thief] to the Provost’s Guards got me to the point of thinking it would be fun to do George’s ancestress, who is in fact not a thief but a Provost’s Guard herself. And it sort of rolled on from there.
TTO: You’ve said that you borrow real-world elements to create your fantasy worlds. I’m just so impressed all the slang in Bloodhound.
TP: For slang, there’s a book [I use for reference]. … I can’t function without it: Slang Through the Ages. … Slang covers body parts, it covers crime, it covers specific insults for Jews and Chinese. Different kinds of prostitute, which is always useful. … It takes a certain amount of digging to find a word, and sometimes you have to piece stuff together, and sometimes you have to go a little more forward in time than your period. … But that’s mostly where I get my words from.
TTO: It lends a lot of life to it.
TP: It also enables me to say a number of quite naughty things without people realizing I said them.
TTO: Very tricky!
TP: Oh yeah, they don’t know the word I used is an actual word, and I would get in trouble if they knew what the word was! [laughter]
TTO: I want to ask you about a somewhat more serious element of Bloodhound. There is, as you know, a scene of torture in the book, and the techniques seem very similar to water boarding.
TP: Why, yes. How strange!
TTO: Why did you decide to do that?
TP: Well, I pussyfooted all the way around it in Terrier. … I didn’t like myself prettying things up, so I knew I had to tackle it, and that particular method is used quite frequently. It’s been used for centuries, and I figured that a good look at that might show people that it was a really nasty thing to do to someone. So, it was that or the rack or the thumbscrews, and I just felt that I would be getting into gore there.
TTO: Right. Well, also this lends the book a kind of current element.
TP: I took a chance with it, but I figured it was something that really had to be done, because they would have applied it automatically to anyone that had information that they wanted in centuries past. … And the fact that I chose waterboarding was just me being mad.
TTO: This brings me to the issue of historical accuracy in fantasy novels. At The Enchanted Inkpot, there was recently a discussion about gender in fantasy. We were debating whether it’s necessary to include gender discrimination in fantasy novels set in historical time periods. You’ve just said that in Beka Cooper’s time, they would have used torture — however, unlike the Middle Ages, I was really surprised by how equal men and women were in Bloodhound.
TP: In that case, the universe I’ve built is one where there is a certain amount of equality. This particular time is more equal, actually, than the time that my other books are set in. …
But the thing that makes my world different from the real world — and the thing that I think makes a lot of it possible — is you have the equalizing effect of magic. It’s really hard to keep an entire sex down when they can turn around and do all kinds of nasty things to you with magic. … If it were the real world I wouldn’t be able to get away with it, but this is a world where women as well as men can apply magic, so that tends to even the playing field.
Also, this is a world where the gods are very much present. There is a kind of monotheism on the other side of the world that I cover in a couple of stories … but by and large it’s a pagan world, and it will stay pagan because the gods are very much present and very much part of people’s lives. So you don’t get this thing of people turning to the idea of a single masculine god. That’s never going to happen because the real gods are going to come in and put their feet down.
We partly turned into a sex discriminatory society because the pagans decided to concentrate the bulk of muscle power in a male god, and as many of the world’s religions turned into monotheism, the embodiment was usually a male god. So it made it easier to say women are second-class citizens, because if they weren’t, we would be following a female god.
I don’t do monotheism well. I don’t like it; I’m ham-handed when I try to write it, so I don’t.
TTO: I was really struck by why you just said about the equalizing effect of magic. There are so many other fantasy novels with magic in them in which women are less than equal to men.
TP: I don’t see how they worked out that equation. The only way it works is if women acquiesce into being second-class citizens. And frankly, all it takes is one pissed-off 10-year-old with a lightning bolt in her hand to overcome it. … The only way, with [magic] in the equation, that you [could] have an entire sex being oppressed is if they consent to the oppression. Actually, the only way it ever happens is when people consent to that oppression.
TTO: Over the years you’ve included gay and lesbian characters in your books. With each successive character, he or she has been more out than the last. You said in an interview that in earlier years, you were sort of afraid to do this.
TP: I was afraid I wouldn’t do it right — I’d screw up somewhere.
It was in either First Test or Page … Joren says to Neal, “So you can have her anytime you want,” or to Seaver, “She helps you with your homework, does that mean you can have her whenever you want?” And Neal says, “Vinson, Joren’s so pretty, does that mean do you have him anytime you want?” And Joren tries to break Neal’s head for him. And Kel stops Neal and she says, “You know, in the Yamani islands, nobody cares if you go with someone of your own sex,” and Neal says, “It’s very different here.”
People started coming up to me at my appearances and saying to me, “When I read that, I realized you were all right with people being gay, and I just wanted to tell you that really meant something to me,” and some of them would actually start crying. And I’m there [thinking], “Of course I don’t care if you’re gay or not!”
I realized if they take that much comfort from that teeny tiny line, then I owe it to them to try, whether I think that I’ll fall on my butt or not. I owe them better than one line. And that’s when I began to try and stretch a little — not try and write the gay experience, but have people there who [are gay].
TTO: In Bloodhound, I’m pretty sure that the character Okha is one of the first — if not the first — transgender character I’ve ever encountered in young adult fantasy. In the book, you use the male pronoun to describe Okha. Is that right?
TP: I couldn’t really say “she” because that’s an artifact of our time. However Okha feels about it, Beka is still going to refer to him as “he,” because that’s what she sees. Okha knows that she’s a she, but Beka doesn’t.
So I had to look at it and go, OK, there are things I have to do to fit the time and the characters, but as far as Okha is concerned, the Trickster messed her up when she was born, and she’s female. And yeah, as far as I know, I can’t recall any other transgender characters in fantasy.
TTO: There are so few transgender or gay characters in general. I’m kind of curious, do you have any opinion on why this is so?
TP: I have no idea. I guess cause we’re kinda like turtles, we only stick our necks out of the shell when it’s safe. …
I think those of us to whom it’s a real issue tend to write contemporary, where it’ll have the most effect and the most impact. We want to get the biggest audience possible. Very few of us in fantasy are addressing that as our primary issue.
Other than that, I don’t know. I just know that I have friends and I have fans, and I try to depict as much of the world as I can. So I don’t know why other writers don’t [write gay or trans characters], but I’m sure they will, because the generation that’s coming up now is a lot more accepting and a lot more “Yeah, that’s part of life” than mine.
TTO: You’ve been writing for a long time, and it’s been 26 years since the Alanna books were first published. Has your writing process changed over those 26 years?
TP: Oh, yeah. It used to be that I would write five to six pages a day to start, and seven or so a day in the middle, and 14 to 20 in the end. With this last book, I’m happy if I can get three pages a day. It’s moving slowly.
TTO: The sequel to Bloodhound?
TP: Mastiff, yeah. Also … when I neared the end of a manuscript I’d print it out and go over it by hand, and then if I had time I’d read it aloud to catch the things I missed by hand and on the screen. These days my friend Bruce Coville — My Teacher Is an Alien, Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, Dark Whispers — we have readings; he’ll come over here and we’ll each read five pages of our current project and give each other notes and commentary, and that’s how I do my drafts.
TTO: So this three pages a day, is this unusual, do you think?
TP: Highly unusual. I don’t know why I’m dragging along. Bruce says that we reinvent how we write each book we do. I also hope that it’s just that I’m struggling to get a lot of very complex ducks in a row.
TTO: With the plot?
TP: Yeah, and that once I get everybody on the road and out there in the middle of the countryside dealing with things like wildlife and camping grounds —
TTO: Oh, they’re going camping?
TP: Oh, yeah.
TTO: That’s exciting.
TP: [dryly] Beka’s going to be ever so thrilled. They’ll be in way houses a lot, but yeah, they’re going up into the mountains. She’s going to really, really love that.
TTO: Another crime to investigate — another hunt?
TP: Yep, this is gonna be a big one.
TTO: Sounds very exciting. I won’t ask you to reveal any spoilers. [laughs]
TP: That’s OK, I’m good at not giving spoilers. It’s a big one. Terrier was because when she gets her teeth in something she won’t let go. Bloodhound is you can’t throw her off the scent. And Mastiff is when she brings down the really big game.
TTO: So I have to ask you — do you have a single favorite character out of the all those you’ve created?
TP: [thoughtful sigh] I don’t really, or if I do, it’s an affection that lasts only for a minute. I mean, anybody who’s [taken up] more than a couple of lines, I have to love them, because I put some portion of me — everybody does — into that character.
It’s obvious that I love my heroes, or I couldn’t have written entire books about them. And what I’ll say in schools is: If I absolutely have to pick, my choices are Kel [Keladry of Mindelan, from the Protector of the Small quartet], my second knight, because she’s so calm and easygoing and wonderful to work with. Or there’s Tris [Trisana Chandler, from The Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens quartets], who looks and sounds very much like me. I can’t do the lightning thing, but that’s not for lack of trying.
There are also characters like the darkings, who are just plain cute and pop up in the darnedest situations. There’s one little guy, Secret, who gets caught in things and then tries to lie its way out of them, even though it doesn’t really lie very well.
But there’s also the pygmy marmoset, Zek, from Emperor Mage, and Daine’s dog Jump, and the sparrows from the Kel books, or there’s someone like Neal, Kel’s friend who just cannot help himself from saying something that he shouldn’t.
TTO: Wow, you need an encyclopedia.
TP: [laughs] Actually —
TTO: Do you have one in the works?
TP: Well, yeah, my editor’s talked to me about a companion volume, and what I said was [anguished squeal]. But they said somebody else could work on it, so I’ve got some people talking to my editors now about working on a companion volume.
TTO: Oh, that’s great.
TP: Yeah. All my fans will be happy.
TTO: So maybe this will be in the encyclopedia — I’ll ask you here: What happened between Beka Cooper’s time and Song of the Lioness to make the Lady Knights disappear?
TP: Remember those allusions to the Cult of the Gentle Mother [in Bloodhound]?
TTO: Yes, I was wondering if that is what happens.
TP: Yeah, the Cult of the Gentle Mother digs in. You’ll see more of it in Mastiff. Partly it’s that the realm is coming into a peaceful period, and they have more knights than they can reasonably employ. … So it’s partly a function of, you know, here’s this belief that says that women are delicate, they should be nurtured and kept safe, and if it’s not put on the women themselves, certainly their daughters.
A lot of women go along with this because they want their daughters to be safe. And slowly it becomes a more and more overpowering force, and within 100 years, there will be no more Lady Knights or female sailors or female Provost’s Guards.
TTO: Until Alanna.
TP: Until Alanna starts the whole game over again.
TTO: Wow. So I remember reading in an interview that you can’t bear to look at those books — the first four books.
TP: Oh, yeah.
TTO: Is that still the case?
TP: Let me ask you: Have you looked at stuff you’ve written recently, even the book you’ve got coming out?
TTO: The book I have coming out [Ash, coming in September] I have looked at, because I have to correct things in it. [laughs]
TP: And you’ve been doing a lot of corrections where you thought you were tired of it and it was perfect as it was, right?
TTO: Oh, yes.
TP: Well, it’s the same thing, only if I tried to correct anything in those first four books, my fans would have me for dinner. Because they love each and every word as it is. So I would never dare mess with it.
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For more on Tamora Pierce, visit her official website.
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