The pink-haired Laini Taylor made her young adult debut with “Daughter of Smoke and Bone.” Laini has written several graphic novels and children’s novels and lives in Portland, Oregon.
Her next novel in the series is set to debut in April 2014.
Teenlink: How did you create the backdrop for both novels in both worlds?
Laini Taylor: Well, I had been to Prague a while back in 2004 with my husband to research a different book. We were going to do a graphic novel about vampires. It would have been our second graphic novel. This was pre-Twilight, when vampires weren’t such a thing, I mean they’re always a thing, but not such a thing. So we went and we spent a couple days in Prague researching this other book and we didn’t end up doing it. When I got around to writing later, writing “Daughter of Smoke and Bone,” it just clicked perfectly. It was as if all this stuff I hadn’t used in the other book had just been waiting around all these years perfectly. It’s a real contemporary city where teenagers are having their normal lives, yet it has this aspect of a gothic fairy tale. It was the perfect setting for the book. I had a bit of an obsession with Morocco at the time, so that is why I included Morocco. When I did finish the book, I ended up going to Morocco so that is where the setting for “Days of Blood and Starlight” came, from having gone to southern Morocco and gone to Kasbah. As for the other world, that just really grew out of the writing and figuring out with the story. It was early on, there was this door in Brimstone’s shop, and I didn’t know where it went until Karou opened it at first. But once I figured it out, the world sort of grew through the doorway.
Teenlink: How did it feel to not know where your writing was headed from the beginning?
LT: It sort of began as just a writing exercise. It was a day of cheating on another book that I was supposed to be writing that wasn’t fun. At the beginning, it was a process of just free-writing for fun and just seeing if I can get my brain into this sort of mental free-writing space. Something happens when you turn off your internal editor, and I think this is where a muse comes from, when your mind can go to that place. When it comes from you, it’s this sort of magical thing and it doesn’t happen to me all the time, and I’m happy when I can get in that place. I was sort of worried at first and once I realized I had the inkling of a story from a few things that happened in that first writing, that Brimstone is wearing a wishbone that Karou wasn’t allowed to touch, and I wanted to know why, and what he did with all his teeth. Once these questions started coming to me, I started gathering them together and figuring out the answers to them, then the plot started to come together. I don’t think there was a time where I was ever afraid. I had an over-arching sense of where it was going. I used to be much more fearful as a writer if I didn’t know where it was going but I think I have gotten to enjoy the writing and mystery a little bit more. I like to be able to have discoveries along the way, and I feel like if I know exactly what is going to happen every step of the way, then why bother, it’s boring. I knew that there were scenes, especially in the second book that I was working toward. It was like the carrot, I had to get to that scene. In “Days of Blood and Starlight” it was close to the end, the deception. It was the idea that really clicked that made the plot start to take shape, so I was working toward that the whole time.
Teenlink: Why blue hair (for the main character)?
LT: I don’t know. That day that I was free writing, she (Karou) appeared with blue hair, was named Karou, was covered with tattoos, and was raised by a monster named Brimstone. She just appeared that way. That hadn’t really happened to me with characters before. I heard of authors saying that characters just appear and take over the story, and I hadn’t really experienced that so much to that degree. Some a little bit with my earlier novels, but never that dramatically. She was different. She was a more troubled teenager in the very first day of writing; she was more troublesome and rebellious. But I pulled back on that once I started really working on the story. I gave her and Brimstone a sweeter relationship and had her be a little more grounded.
Teenlink: How did you discover or create the names for both your characters and for the book?
LT: Karou’s name is, I guess, sort of a funny one. My best friend has an aunt and uncle who, when they got married in the 70s, were kind of hippies and did not like either of their last names, so they invented a new last name and it was Karou. I just always liked it. Again, when she was born on that day, that was the name that she came with because I had had it in mind, but it just happened that way. The Czech characters have Czech names like Zuzanna and Mik and Kasimir, and some of the characters have Moroccan names, and the Seraphim have names that are Hebrew and inspired by Hebrew. I was trying to create a cohesive sense of culture, and that was what I chose. I think with world building, it’s important to create a sense of culture even if it is just a fantasy, and the best way to do that is to look at a real human culture and see what makes it cohesive.
Teenlink: How much research did all of this require?
LT: I wouldn’t say there was a lot a lot of research involved. I’ve spent a long time reading folklore, so there is a lot of that in there, but there wasn’t a lot of research that I really had to do. At a certain point, I did start looking at some human wars that had been running a long time to see what that would be like. Of course, there aren’t many human wars that have gone on as long as this war, but some ran a fairly long time. In “Days of Blood and Starlight,” I was looking at Carthage and the fall of Carthage and how the Romans completely obliterated the city, destroying it and killing everyone, so that was the basis there. It’s not like I did any in-depth research.
Teenlink: Why teeth? Why make that the basis of the story?
LT: It’s that muse that slipped out of my brain in free writing. In an exercise I had done the year before, I had started a writing prompt website. When I first started blogging in 2006, I had read another blogger and we started The Sunday Scribblies and we would put up a prompt and everyone would participate and we would put up links and everyone wrote about the same thing. All my stories came out in the prompts, and I have a lot that I never published that came out of prompts. One of them was about wishes, wishes was the prompt, and one of the vignettes was a seller of wishes and his currency was teeth not money. It was in Venezuela and his name wasn’t Brimstone. When I wrote that day, Brimstone manifested this element from this piece I had written before. I love natural history museums, this weird detritus of nature, the teeth and bones. My sister is a biologist, and when she was in college she was the curator at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley. It’s such a funky place to walk through, and it is just filled with the remains of animals of all kinds. It’s a really rich and cool and creamy setting, and I think that is how it came about.
Teenlink: What would you say was your favorite scene and the hardest scene to write?
LT: The one I usually do at readings, especially at high schools, is I believe chapter three of “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” where Karou’s ex-boyfriend shows up to be the model in her life-drawing class. That is a fun scene to read. It’s hard to find random places because they are spoiler-free. In “Days,” there were a number of scenes in the climax that I had been looking forward to writing. The scene where Karou and Akiva are faced with each other at the end of the second book in the Kasbah and all the things are happening, I had been looking forward to writing that for a long time. It all came together, was really exciting. Writing Zuzanna and Karou is always really fun because the dialogue just comes really easily, so it is kind of a rest in all the hurt and sadness.
Teenlink: What character do you feel that you relate to the most?
LT: Probably Karou. There was a character in my previous book called “Lips Touch,” and her name was Kizzy and she was my teenage self in a much more direct way. I wasn’t like her in a lot of ways, but emotionally she was all the big dreams that I had for my life. When you’re 17 and you’re living a very provincial life, and kind of trapped in a suburban town in California, and dreaming of having a big exciting life, that’s Kizzy. Karou was much more the answer to what Kizzy wanted to be and who I wanted to be to have this big exciting life. I wouldn’t say that any character in this book is really me, but that would be the character I wanted to be or the character I would have loved to read at that age. It’s more wish fulfillment then her actually being like me. I also wanted to give her a real emotional life as well, so she has the loneliness and the things that you don’t envy and don’t want because she can’t be this perfect perfect character that has no problems.
Teenlink: What advice would you give to any young adult writer?