“Dani and Bryce are the Abbi and Ilana of Crescent City”: Sarah J. Maas Talks About Her Adult Debut

Sarah J. Maas did not appear at BookExpo this past weekend. There weren’t even promotions available for her new novel series, Crescent City, which publishes early next year. Fans might not even know that she was here—unless they’ve spotted her walking around with her husband and her newborn baby. In a place where book authors become rockstars, Sarah J Maas is flying under the radar this year.

Crescent City marks the NYT Bestselling author’s adult debut—something she seems fairly nonplussed about, frankly. The series follows Bryce, a young woman living in a city filled with shapeshifters, vampires, and more. It’s different from the traditional fantasy she’s done in the past, taking a decidedly modern route. Crescent City’s population may be supernatural, but they still have cellphones and nightclubs and jobs to go to in the morning. It’s a shift in her career, but Maas’ fans are ready and hungry for it, having grown up with her two massive fantasy series, Throne of Glass and A Court of Thorns and Roses. And her fans are, well, fanatic. Maas started writing the Throne of Glass series at just sixteen years old, and they’ve stuck by her the whole way.

But after working on that series for nearly half her life, it’s time for Sarah J. Maas to do something new.

 

I want to talk a little bit about the jump from YA to adult. You’ve said in the past that you’d leave the shelving location up to your publishers, but did you know as you were writing that this was different from your previous work?

Yes and No. When I got the idea for Crescent City, I was on a plane on my Heir of Fire book tour. I was listening to some music, and I saw this scene play out in my head. And it hit me—these were characters I had never met before, it was almost like shining a flashlight into this dark void, and seeing just a little bit. What I was seeing hit me so strongly, I was so overwhelmed that I began sobbing on the plane. I listened to this piece of music over and over again on this two hour flight because I was having such a strong reaction to these new characters. And I began to shine that flashlight around a little more, to see what this world is that I was seeing, who are these characters, what is the vibe of this. And by the end of that plane ride I had just met Bryce. And I just knew, in this gut way, that she was in her twenties and that this was her world and I had to write this story because I had to write this scene. it’s the climax of the book, it’s the final big moment. Getting to write that scene after so many years of daydreaming about it was very overwhelming.

So it wasn’t a conscious choice to write adult, it was just—here is this story that I’m having an extremely awesome reaction to, this is the character that walked into my head. Moving to adult now just feels like the right move, this is the story that’s been so close to my heart for so many years. This is the next thing I’m dying to publish.

 

Would you feel comfortable sharing what that piece of music was?

Have you ever seen Gravity, with Sandra Bullock? It’s one of my favorite movies of all time, and it’s a piece of music called Shenzou. It’s the piece of music that plays when she’s descending that final descent in the Chinese station and she’s like, I’m either going to burn up or have one hell of a story to tell. And it’s the most beautiful, amazing music, I’ve drawn inspiration for so many other scenes in my various books from this one piece. I listen to a lot of movie soundtracks and scores, and I think there’s an inherent storytelling in those songs, and so this one piece inspired things from A Court of Thrones and Roses books, Throne of Glass books, and it inspired that final climactic scene in Crescent City. I can’t listen to it without feeling emotional. I’ve never cried harder in a movie—except maybe Return of the King—as when I saw Gravity and I watched that whole re-entry scene. That movie is torture, just one horrible thing to the next, and George Clooney dies and you’re just like please make it back to earth, and I sobbed so hard in the movie theater. And the music played a big part of my reaction.

 

What was the editorial process like, was it different?

It’s pretty standard to what I’ve done before. At this point, I’m still in the middle of the editorial process for this book. But it’s the same as with my other books—I turn in a rough draft that is horrible, my rough drafts are always a mess. It’s more about me vomiting plot and character arcs onto the page and in the editorial rounds I very heavily re-write everything. Sometimes giant chunks of the story, or I’ll take out characters or add characters in, I do a lot of very intense revising. I really look forward to the editorial process because its that essential time for the book to become what it needs to be. It gives me time to figure out what I want this book to be. Whenever I turn in a first draft, I know that first draft is awful so I dump the book on my editors lap, and I’m like please help me make it better! But with each round of edits, I get closer and closer to my vision of what the book should be. Its almost like surgery in a way, at first I’m using a bone saw and cutting off limbs, and then I get more refined, by the end I’m doing tiny things with a scalpel.

 

You started on Throne of Glass when you were sixteen. Was it different to work on a series that hasn’t been with you for that long?

It is, you know I’ve had Crescent City in my head for years now but I worked on Throne of Glass for literally half my life, so there is a huge difference between working on that versus this. With Crescent City, I’ve really had to do a lot of planning for the second and third books. What are some of the big reveals that I can set up for in book one? With ToG and ACoTaR, I had the luxury of years of letting those books sit and figuring out what I wanted to do with them, so I could really plan the twists and turns and revelations. But with this one I don’t have all those years, I need to be smart and figure out what I really want to happen. So I’ve been heavily plotting book two and book three, and it’s actually really fun. Even if I’m not typing actual words for those books, it’s really fun to put on my headphones and daydream about what I want to happen next, and then see how I can be really sneaky in book one and put all those details in so that when something huge happens, readers can be surprised. I love writing those moments, my “mic drop” moments, and I love hearing from readers when they say “yeah, I was hoping that would happen” or “I didn’t see that coming but now I totally see that you were planting the seeds for that”. JK Rowling is the queen of that—I grew up reading Harry Potter. Chapter one of Sorcerer’s Stone, Sirius black is mentioned, his motorcycle, and then nothing of that is mentioned until book three. I loved that kind of stuff as a reader, so as a writer I try to plan things out well enough to sprinkle in those elements.

 

Crescent City is a decidedly urban setting, with modern technology alongside supernatural creatures. What was the world-building process like?

When this world came to me, it just kind of exploded in my head. I’m a huge fan of urban fantasy/paranormal romance and I never really planned to write a modern fantasy book, but when it hit me it was like, oh my god, this is the idea. And it was actually really fun to work in an urban setting with modern technology. If there’s an urgent message that needs to go out, I don’t need to come up with—oh, the raven carried the message across the mountains or whatever, now, they can pick up the phone. And also I can have these magical mythical creatures texting each other. I love the idea of a vampire and a shapeshifter sexting. And it just felt fresh and new to me, and it was just really fun to not have to be constrained. How can I have an old school fantasy world but give them indoor plumbing? Which, for ToG and ACoTaR—these are set in older times but they need to have toilets that run, and then I have to invent an aqueduct system for the city and explain how the water is carried, there’s a sewer network. But for Crescent City, toilet paper is a given, don’t need to explain that one.

But with having these magical creatures, how do they fit inside cars? Some of them are huge. Do they just not use them? And how was the technology invented? Are they powered by electricity or other sources of power or energy? Would magical creatures pollute the streets like we do, or are they clean? There are a whole other set of questions that I’m still chipping away at. I love those world building details, and the world of Crescent City is populated by almost every magical, mythical creature you could think of and they all exist together side by side in this very complex hierarchy. Its kind of like the Roman Empire, and it’s been fun to say, a really hot vampire guy is trolling the clubs, so I can play on some of those tropes and have fun with them. It’s been so fun to write. I still love old school fantasy worlds, but this felt like the right project at the right time.

 

And with technology, it doesn’t always work. Cellphones get stolen or lost or broken.

If someone can’t get a message on time, I have to build up on the pages before that that their battery is dying, they don’t have the charger, how does it get powered—but communication systems are throughout this world, and I need the characters to not know something, then I have to come up with an excuse for that, but then would they have magic so their phone would be immune to that? I need to think through all the technology.

And I grew up in New York City, and so getting to write a character living in a city feels like I’m home again. Bryce, my main character, works at a magical antiquities gallery, and I spent one summer in college working at an antiquities gallery. Her job is a lot more exciting than mine ever was, I mostly sat at the reception desk in the gallery waiting for people to come in and if someone did I’d say, here’s the 2000 year old bust from Crete. I would give little tours of it. Bryce has magical artifacts in her gallery that could come alive and kill her so it’s a lot more exciting that my—oh, it’s 10:00AM, time for my yogurt and six almonds. I had a very regimented schedule to keep boredom at bay, I read the New York Times cover to cover every day. It isn’t an exciting market. I loved it because I love ancient art. It was amazing to go into a space every day and sit surrounded by things that were so ancient that were really expensive too. If I break it, I will be working here for the rest of my life. But it was really cool, so I kind of drew on that experience for Bryce—and being young and in the city. Bryce does things that I could not do, but I pulled from my experiences.

 

Yesterday Leigh Bardugo, who is also making her adult debut this year, talked about how having a story rooted in reality colored the book differently. Her book is set at Yale, and with your experiences growing up in New York City and now writing about a city like New York, did you feel like that helped make it feel like a more adult novel?

Not really. I mean, being rooted in the reality and being rooted in a city, that wasn’t really it. Bryce being in her twenties was just how she walked into my head. She was just there in my head. My TOG and ACOTAR books, they aged up as the series went on, and my upcoming Court of Thorns and Roses books, those are very much adult with adult characters. Somehow in the back of my creative brain, that’s what I gravitated towards. The city setting just wound up being a part of this.

 

It’s rare to find a fantasy series built on female friendship. Was that a conscious choice, to center the relationship between Bryce and her roommate, Dani?

Yeah, I’m lucky to have the most wonderful husband in the world and I’ve been with him for 15 years now—but so I’ve had this amazing and epic love with him that’s shaped my life. But I’ve also had my life shaped by the friendships I’ve had at different stages in my life. Growing up, I didn’t see enough examples of those friendships taking as big of a slice of the pie as the romance, and I was just as shaped by my friendships as I’ve been by any romance as I’ve had. I feel like one of the shows that dealt with friendships was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and that left a huge mark on me. I think that’s why I wanted to have that element in my books, because there was Buffy, and Sailor Moon as well. I’m a huge Sailor Moon fan. I wish there were more of them, and I think there are probably more of them now, but with my books I wanted to have female friendships represented in a way where readers can go yes, I know what that feels like, I have my bestie too. I wanted that to be a part of Bryce’s life because it’s been a part of my life and the life of every woman that I know. My parents are awesome and my mom has had multiple female friends that have had a huge part in her life and are still a big part of her life. Every woman that I know has their friend, and it’s wonderful to see female friendships being portrayed. Broad City is one of my favorite shows ever—Dani and Bryce are the Abbi and Ilana of Crescent City. I love Broad City because it finally felt like I was seeing a female friendship like mine, where they’re getting into fights about going to Bed, Bath and Beyond without a coupon. And just doing weird stuff and normal stuff. Broad City brought me so much joy—and the new show that I’m obsessed with, PEN15. If you like Broad City, you have to watch it. Female friendships at its best. It made me cringe and laugh and sob by the end of it. The two girls in that are like Dani and Bryce, too.

 

Finally, what advice would you give your fourteen-year-old self?

Freshman year of high school is going to be one of the hardest years of your life, but you’ll get through it. And it will suck at times, but it will make you the person you are today. And keep being that weirdo who watches anime and reads fantasy. 14 years old—freshman year of high school was rough. I’d just say, hang in there, the writing thing will take you farther than you could ever dream. And you’re gonna go through high school and never go on a single date, but then you’ll find the guy of your dreams literally the first day of college and you’ll be with him for the rest of your life, and have an awesome little baby.

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