Today, we’re joined by Sarah Rees Brennan, the acclaimed author of the YA Demon’s Lexicon trilogy, and co-author (with Justine Larbalestier) of Team Human, published earlier this summer. I confess, I started following Rees Brennan’s career because I heard that she, too, hailed from Ireland – and I have enough residual nationalistic feelings to pay attention to things like that.
Rees Brennan’s most recent book, Unspoken, the first in a new trilogy, came out this September. Warm fuzzy feelings aside, I have to tell you, it caused me to giggle like a fool, before it put the screws on and made me care. (Not your mother’s gothic novel, and all the better for it.)
But enough prelude. Let’s hear from the woman herself!
To begin with, let me invite you to share your thoughts on the relationship between YA, fantasy, and gender. I’ve heard YA dismissed for “catering to the fantasies of teenage girls” as though that was a bad thing – what’s your experience been like?
SRB: I have heard such dismissals many times! I will never forget being on a panel where I said “People love Twilight” and an unwary guy piped up “GIRLS love Twilight.” At which point I about dived over the table at him, snarling “GIRLS ARE PEOPLE.”
People are very uncomfortable with teenage girls making something popular, and uncomfortable with girls having fantasies… the intersection of the two makes for a lot of panic! You see it everywhere: girl stuff, girls with their romance cooties, girl genre, they shouldn’t do that, she shouldn’t have written it… (for more along the lines of People’s Reaction to Lady Stuff Being Popular, I kind of have a lot here.)
This is not to say that there aren’t books in the YA genre—and indeed in every genre—where the romance strikes me as utterly yuk, whether it be because one partner is consistently awful to the other or because the characters strike me as blank-faced dolls bashed together at random. But that doesn’t mean such books should not be written, or once written should be totally condemned or dismissed: that means such books should be talked about, thoughtfully.
I’m a girl, so I’ve experienced dismissal because I was a girl or because I write about girls: my book with a guy protagonist is treated as more literary and worthy than my other books with girl protagonists. I’m not the only author I know who’s experienced this: in the last three years, there have only been two Printz winners (including honor books) that didn’t feature male protagonists. Books written by boys are given very different treatment to those written by girls: they’re even given very different covers. People also expect, in this YA-booming world, girls to be less experimental than boys: girls are achieving a lot of success, but they’re confined. People want a very specific kind of romance, and will be judging a girl’s book by their expectations: deciding it is something it isn’t, or that it’s a failure because it’s not something it was never meant to be.
However, the enormous success of YA does mean there are more writers writing YA, and that means more opportunities all around. It’s been wonderful to see articles like this one I found, about the sheer joy of so many more books existing by and for girls.
It’s been fascinating for me to see how gender, fantasy and YA can play out, combined. Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover is about a girl re-making herself into a witch, but that’s not all it’s about. It’s about physically and mentally coming of age: about a romance with a boy who, being a boy, is not meant to be a witch: about the decision of whether or not to give mercy to those who do not deserve it, about love and gender and death and cruelty. Holly Black’s Red Glove, about a girl bespelled to love a boy—told from the point of view of said boy—is about snarled issues of consent and having to make a difficult choice to be either noble and suffer, or monstrous.
SARAH: I’ve seen quite a few books where people are psychically linked and I was thinking I would write one!
UK EDITOR: Yes, good, sounds very romantic!
SARAH: I was thinking about how it WOULDN’T be very romantic.
UK EDITOR: You were thinking about how your romance… wouldn’t be very romantic…
SARAH: Well, what if someone was thinking terrible things about you, and you could hear them? Sometimes we all think terrible things!
UK EDITOR: Are you thinking terrible things about me right now? Are you?
SARAH: See? It’s ruining our relationship already.
UK EDITOR: You are cold and dead inside.
SARAH: Sure, but taking that as a given, don’t you think this will be cool?
Fantasy let me talk, in Unspoken, about physicality, sexuality, codependence and the lure and terror combined therein.
We’re constrained and judged, but we’re constrained and judged to a lesser extent than we were: we go on writing, and the world changes with our words.
Second question: Unspoken has this amateur-investigating thing going on there, and so does Team Human, as I remember. What’s the appeal of the youthful girl investigator?
SRB: I just have mysteries in all my books, I think, whether it’s a boy investigating or a girl. I have an enduring fascination with mysteries of all kinds. I used to read Agatha Christie books, stop halfway through the book and describe the plot, and my whole family would lay bets on who the murderer was, and the one who guessed right won the whole pot. I’m also a huge, huge fan of Dorothy L Sayers, but I never bet on her because my family would not listen to me raving about how dreamy her detective was and then add “Oh, I think the murder was done with arsenic?” Shame on you, little Sarah. Eye on the prize! It did really make me think about how to set up and pay out a satisfying mystery: enough but not too many clues, misdirection but not cheating. So in Team Human and the Demon’s Lexicon series as well, there were always mysteries and secrets, and personal drives to uncover them.
Kami is new for me, though, because as well as having a personal drive to uncover secrets, she’s determined to tell the truth, solve the crime and run a newspaper: I like a lady with a mission! And others do too, hence the popularity of Nancy Drew and Lois Lane. Back in the 1930s and before, reporting or trying to solve personal mysteries were one of the few ways women got to be active, and feisty, and smart: the popularity of those heroines has an echo from that day to this.
Kami also has an urge to tell stories. It was fun to write something I know so well, the urge to change the world with words.
Okay, third question. There’s been a bit of talk lately in the SFF fan community about that community’s relationship with Young Adult books (and the attendant community), with the recent narrowly-defeated move to add a YA category to the Hugo ballot. Do you have any thoughts about the relationship between SFF and YA? About science fictional and fantastic elements in Young Adult literature?
SRB: I definitely think there should be a YA category on the Hugo ballot!
I talked a little above about people looking down on fiction for teenage girls, and I do think there’s an element of that going on with some adult SFF fans, which is ridiculous. Ender’s Game, if published today, would be YA (so would Catcher in the Rye): there’s certainly bad YA out there, but there’s just as certainly bad SFF. Looking down on romance or YA or any other category is silly— so are “literary” people looking down on SFF. Ninety per cent of everything is rubbish, of course, but that means ten per cent of everything has a shot at transcendence.
Teenage girls invented science fiction, I say! (Though my friend Robin Wasserman just yelled at me that it was Johannes Kepler and I am an uneducated swine). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was certainly a powerful influence on the genre: teenagers, and fiction for teenagers, have been important from the start of both genres.
SFF and fantastical elements have been used to talk about the human condition, then, for hundreds of years. Growing up and discovering who you are—and indeed, discovering romantic love for the first time, being betrayed by a friend for the first time, part of the reason why YA is, to me, such a compelling genre is that we all remember how the first time felt and how deep it cut—all these things can and should be examined through the filter of genre elements, just like adult experiences. It’s not like anyone hands you a card when you turn eighteen or twenty-one and says, well, now your experiences are valid: now you can be interesting. There are interesting stories to be told about people of any age.
Naturally, science fiction and fantasy elements are sometimes handled badly or shallowly in YA… but again, that goes for adult SFF, too.
Question four: Teenage girls invented science fiction, you say! What appealed to you as a teenager? Or, to give the question a less personal slant, what would you recommend in terms of YA SFF for teenage girls today?
SRB: Well, there’s so much to choose from: in terms of high fantasy, I’ve been a fan of Tamora Pierce for years and years since I was a wee Sarah, and about fainted when she blurbed Unspoken. Kristin Cashore and Cinda Williams Chima are two new amazing high fantasy authors.
If I had to pick, at gunpoint, just one recent urban fantasy YA series people absolutely have to read (dear Jesus put the gun down I admire your dedication to fine works of young adult fiction but there’s such a thing as taking it too far!) it would be The Curse Workers series by Holly Black, which is an alternate universe where magic was banned during Prohibition and the mob are all magical.
I would like to see more YA SF, but I admit, the only science fiction I’ve ever really loved is Lois McMaster Bujold and Karin Lowachee. Both of which I would recommend to teenage girls, too! Because I recommend they read everything, like I did – books they’ll love, and books they’ll hate, which will still be valuable!
On to question five! According to a recent study, 78% of the time, adults buying YA are buying for their own consumption (PW report). What do you think this means for the YA market?
SRB: I wasn’t super surprised that 78% of the 55% of YA books purchased by adults (which comprise 28% of total sales I think, though these are not my maths, I may be wrong!) are read by adults. It makes sense to me: YA has become such a crossover market, and as I’ve said, my feeling is the best way to read is widely and across genres. I think more people are going to continue reading YA as well as reading other books, because they have learned that they can find books there which they will truly love: a teenage protagonist is close enough to adult so readers of whichever age can sympathise and empathise with them. A lot of the writers I know today talk about reading Robin McKinley and Diana Wynne Jones when they were younger. They still read tons of YA. I hope the writers of the future will do that, too: expand their reading list as they grow up, rather than excluding anything from that list.
And one last wrap-up question: now that Unspoken’s out, what should we expect to see from you in the near and medium future?
SRB: Well I am delighted you asked. A standalone novel from HarperCollins that’s a retelling, but I can SAY NO MORE about that because things are not finalised! And Untold and Unbroken, the two sequels to Unspoken. I love a trilogy: the setup of all trilogies is book one: set up, book two: make out, book three: defeat evil. All trilogies, including The Lord of the Rings (hello sexy maids of Rohan and the romantic complications thereof!) conform to these rules.
Thank you so much for having me!
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
Ladies, gentlemen, honourable others: Sarah Rees Brennan.
Liz Bourke is buried under a pile of books. Perhaps one day she will re-emerge.