While I was at BEA, I got a chance to meet and interview the fabulous Leigh Bardugo author of The Grisha Trilogy, Six of Crows, and the forthcoming Crooked Kingdom. Six of Crows is one of my top 5 favorite books, and I was so excited to be able to meet and interview her that I was basically spacing out for the whole interview! We talked about the world building around how sexuality is perceived in the Grisha verse, negative (& positive!) reactions to queer characters, what we can expect from Crooked Kingdom re: Wylan and Jesper and more!
— Leigh Bardugo (@LBardugo) May 15, 2016
Vee: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us, it’s so great to have you here!
Leigh: My pleasure! It’s so nice to be here.
Vee: So my first question is, so you have queer characters in both the series and I was wondering, did you go into them planning on making them queer? Or did they just (pun slightly intended) come out that way?
Leigh: I have a pretty varied peer group. Like… in terms of everything so it would’ve been weird to write teams or groups of people that didn’t reflect that. So it was a pretty natural thing. I felt coming out of the Grisha Trilogy that I actually could’ve done a better job with representation in terms of, well, everything. The Grisha Trilogy is a very white, very straight series of books. So I wanted to move away from that. And Six of Crows is also set in this city and, you know, Ravka is very isolated, it’s very old world, Ketterdam is kind of the anti Ravka. It’s cosmopolitan, it’s wealthy, people come from all over the world to be there, to work there, to have fun there, so it was this opportunity to present this very different kind of crew without having to go through and kind of weird somersaults to get there.
Vee: Yeah. Cool, that’s awesome. So it seems like the publishing world is getting more and more steadily okay with including queer characters, but there still seems to be some push back sometimes? So I wondered if you had any negative reactions to your queer characters.
Leigh: I have had very few, for one thing my publisher has sort of let me do whatever, like when I originally pitched Six of Crows I was like there’s no way! There’s gambling, there’s drugs, there’s all kinds… there’s pleasure houses like c’mon, they’re never going to let me do this and then they were like “good! Thumbs up!” They never pushed back for me on any of that stuff. Now, I had the advantage of having a fairly successful first series, so I imagine there are people who’ve had different experiences trying to get their first book published.
I will say that overwhelmingly the response from readers has been positive but there’s always a few people who are somehow shocked there could be gay people in a fantasy world, it just blows their mind! So yeah, I’ve gotten a few, I’ve had some very weird emails, a few angry reviews, but I think or hope that not only publishing but culture is changing so I think a least people know that there’s no point in yelling to me about it, like clearly I’m not gonna agree with you.
Vee: Yeah, I saw that “unnecessary lesbianism” anon, that was–
Leigh: Yeah, that was one of the most… But that’s the thing that’s utterly– ‘cause you would never ever say “why do you have these unnecessary hetero people in your book?” Yeah, I’ve had a few… I had somebody tell me they would never recommend my books because I had ruined my series with queer relationships– or, they did not use those terms, but that they felt that people might go to hell if they read my books.
Vee: Wow! That’s…
Leigh: And they were saving people by not recommending them and that she felt sorry for Tamir and Nadia because they were…
Vee: Oh my
Leigh: And she, her exact metaphor was, if you saw a friend walking into traffic, wouldn’t you stop them? And I was like, I got some bad news for you, but we all seem to be walking into traffic together, sooo…hey
Vee: Oh my goodness
Leigh: But again, I think it’s important for people… I worry sometimes that the negative stuff gets blown up and that that can do a lot of damage to, and that a majority of the reader love these characters and in fact I would say Jesper and Wylan are two of the most popular characters from Six of Crows, so.
Vee: Yeah, sure. Cool. I was really curious about how sexuality is perceived in the Grisha verse. There didn’t seem to be like any homophobia, but there did seem to be some heteronormativity, and characters assuming other characters were straight. So I was wondering what the world building around that was.
Leigh: Successfully or unsuccessfully, my goal was to present queer relationships as totally normal. Like, I feel like you have a lot of options in a fantasy world, and there’s a lot of prejudice in the Grisha world in a lot of ways… sometimes in terms of magical powers, sometimes in terms of skin color, but I wanted to create a fantasy world that was not as f**ked up– sorry– as ours. And from moment one that was like “yeah, sure” you know? I think in some ways it’s good to just see a positive, healthy, happy couple.
Vee: Yeah, no, absolutely.
Leigh: One thing that was interesting to me though too was that a lot of people who originally read the Grisha trilogy– like one reviewer was like “I did not appreciate the plot twist with Jesper’s sexuality”
Vee: [laughs] What?!
Leigh: And I was like– and even people who love that relationship, like, unless you are reading from a very heteronormative place, like, it is clear that Jesper has a thing for Kaz to begin with.
Vee: Yeah, that’s totally clear.
Leigh: And it’s clear that he and Wylan are like flirting all over the place, like very conspicuously. So I think it’s interesting that even people who embrace those relationships are like, is this a thing? Is this okay for this to be at thing? Like people come at me all the time to be like “is this canon?” and I’m like “hell yeah it’s canon” like. Wait for book two.
Vee: I remember, there was this series called the Wicked Lovely series?
Leigh: Oh yeah!
Vee: And there were two, well, a few queer characters in there, and it was canon and pretty clear, but people who still be like, like they’d go on this forum and be like “guys, I think these two might have a thing for each other” and it was like “yeees?”
Leigh: That’s the thing that frustrates me too, like, plenty of people are like “can’t they just be friends?” and like yeah they can but so can you know, anybody. Like in that crew of six people there’s a lot of different relationship dynamics, so. Some of them are romantic, some of them are not romantic, some of them are sexual some of them are not sexual, so.
Vee: Yeah, for sure! So, my last question is… So, Six of Crows is like, probably one of my top five favorite books of all time.
Leigh: Are you serious? Thank you!
Vee: Yeah, I just totally loved it. And one of my favorite things was Wylan and Jesper and the fact that there were six main characters and two of them were queer and they had a romantic subplot, and it was just like the coolest thing, and yeah! So I’m really looking forward to what’ll happen with them in Crooked Kingdom and I was wondering if you could share anything about what that might have in store for them.
Leigh: Hmm. Okay, here’s what I can tell you… okay. I can tell you Wylan gets his own chapters
Vee: Yay! [laughs]
Leigh: You’re going to learn a lot more about his past. You’re going to learn a lot more about Jesper’s past too, he didn’t really get an extended flashback in the first book, so like, there’s a shift I think in focus towards them. The both have some pretty serious stuff to overcome. I will also tell you that there are three and a half kissing scenes in Crooked Kingdom, but I will not tell you who they are
Vee: Three and a half? [laughs] That is very specific.
Leigh: Yeah… and they may not be who you expect! But I enjoyed writing them immensely. I’m actually a little worried because I really love romance in books but people often will us the love stories to undermine the validity of a work, like, if it’s romance than it’s not… in the same way they undermine YA. And relationships are very much at the forefront of this, because the first book is very much like a lot of tension, a lot of longing glances, everyone is super repressed. And it’s mainly because they’re about to die, like it’s totally okay to shelve your emotions if you are in the middle of a prison break. But uh, in the second book the stakes are just as high but they’re also in their home town. So in a way it’s as if the town has become a prison because they’re being hunted in their own city, so it provided me with some different moments for a lot of different relationships. A lot of parent relationships too. Like basically everybody’s demons are coming home to roost, so..
Vee: Ah, I’m so excited!
Leigh: I hope you like it! It’s also crazy long, it’s a very long book.
Vee: That sounds like a good thing [laughs]. Well, that’s all the questions I have…
Leigh: Great questions!
Vee: Thank you so much again.
Leigh: My pleasure!
So uh, if you’re at all like me, you NEED Crooked Kingdom like ASAP, right? Pre-order it here!