The #ICFA Interview with Holly Black

I’m at ICFA (Int’l Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts) which is a unique academic conference where they not only talk about sf/fantasy/horror literature but invite lots of authors and editors to come be guests at the conference (including me). One of this year’s guests of honor is Holly Black, who wrote one of my favorite novels ever (Tithe) and is an all-around awesome writer I’ve known for years.
I moderated a panel I’ll blog about later and then had booksigning, so I missed the first half of Jedediah Berry interviewing Holly Black, but I at least did catch the latter half, and here’s a much much edited partial transcript of the conversation:
They were in the middle of talking about Coldest Girl in Coldtown when I came in:
Holly Black: I ask myself: Would I watch a reality show set in a walled city where there were vampires and sometimes they killed someone? I am the target market for that show! How would we react to vampires in our world? Look at how things are treated: if someone was biting someone in the back there I would probably whip out my phone. Would I put it on Instagram? Probably. I came out of that understanding that I may be a sociopath! (audience laughter) And that’s a lot of where Coldtown came from.
Jed: So back after there had been a huge wave of vampire fiction, some of it very sparkly, after the vampire wave had crested…
Holly Black: …I wrote mine. Worst possible time.
Jed: But what was that moment in the genre? It felt that you were examining the genre after the explosion and how it had crested, looking at that post-Twilight world.
Holly: Well, yeah, I think it’s not hard to figure out why we might be attracted to something that might kill us. It’s not hard to figure out why we might want eternal life or eternal beauty.
Jed: Would a younger you have been one of those people who wanted to move to a coldtown?
Holly: The me who wrote Tithe would have. Heck, while I was in the middle of writing that book. The only way I was going to get the time to finish that book was move to a vampire town. Now I’m too old to go to a coldtown. Well, both too old and too young. Maybe I would go later.
Jed: I’ve heard you say the drafting process is a painful one for you, but revision is ok?
Holly: I feel like I can’t make it worse, right?
Jed: I’ve seen you working through other people’s novels, too. What was the thing with the eyeball on the back of your hand…?
Holly: It was an attempt to get Joshua Lewis to finish his book. To make him feel like The Eye is watching you? But that effort failed.
Jed: Have you found other writers readings of your work to be valuable?
Holly: Oh yes. My first critique partner and later Steve Berman were very important. In the early part of my career I didn’t keep to a schedule. At one point I had hand written someting and Steve was like I won’t read that. You need to type it. He made me get serious about what I was doing. At that time we would go to lunch and walk and talk about the books we wanted to write. And he spurred me to stick to a schedule and finish something. Having someone to be accountable to was really important. Having a critique partner made me serious and able to finish a book.
Jed: Now with Cassandra Clare you’re writing five book series, and you worked with an artist on Spiderwick, did those experiences with critique partners prepare you, has that fed into collaboration?
Holly: I think so, because when you are stuck… Steve and I both had similar problems, we both care about a sentence and a paragraph and have trouble getting to many paragraphs as a result. One time Kelly Link said to me “what is a paragraph?” And I said no! We can’t have this conversation or we’ll never get any writing done! But having crit partners helped me to learn to be collaborative.
Jed: And did it help you learn to plot?
Holly: I think you feel when it’s off and you get a feeling something should be happening here. But that doesn’t mean you know what. I had the weirdest experience with writing Darkest Part of the Forest. I knew Hazel had a secret and I didn’t know what it was. I don’t like it when people talk about their “muses,” how their characters run away with the plot. I was like my characters are lazy and would never do anything. And I hated people talking about it because it never happened to me. But writing that book, all I knew was she had a secret and I didn’t know what it was. I had to take a long time to figure it out, 75% of the way through the book I thought I figured it out, and I turned the book three different times. First it had with a different villain, then a different secret, and then a different secret and a different villain. Three different times. I was so sleep-deprived I don’t even know what’s in that book. I’d just had a newborn baby and I know how the book starts…? And that’s it.
Jed: In Tithe it takes until halfway through the book we find out about the changeling whereas in Darkest Part of the Forest it’s right in chapter one. Did you clear the way for yourself by writing Tithe first?
Holly: I love changelings. Changelings are rich in metaphor, so useful structurally, but I think when you come back and want to work with the same stuff again you have to approach it a different way. You have to make something different of it.
Jed: I wanted to ask you about comics. You’re doing the Lucifer comics, now. Are you having to think more on your feet because you have to meet a monthly deadline?
Holly: You have to make pretty detailed outlines beforehand, and they gave me enough time ahead that I pre-wrote several issues, but not we’re getting caught up. We have to revisit the thing several times, though. You see it pencilled, and they sketch in where the dialogue goes and inevitably you rewrite it. You try to write with a specific voice but then you realize it doesn’t all fit or it doesn’t make sense with the art. Then you see it again after it’s colored and you can rewrite it again, and by then you have written more of the story so you get to make more changes to match what you’ve done.
Jed: How did the Lucifer gig come about?
Holly: I signed 5000 tip in sheets for the magisterium books and Siobhan called me to say do you remember that proposal you sent us that we rejected, do you want to write it now? And I was like no, I’m way too busy…and then she says or you could write Lucifer. I said yes. Yes yes. Then I went back to reread it in preparation and the series had closed off the ending, tied up every thread, and I had to figure out how to unpick those threads.
Q from audience: You talked about the multiple drafting process, do you have a typical number?
Holly: I don’t have a specific number of drafts. What will happen is usually I will go back. I write chapter one, and then it’s while writing chapter two where I realize I need to rewrite chapter one and then go back to that. And then you write chapter three and you realize you have to go back to rewrite chapter one and chapter two. And on it goes where every time I get stuck I go back and rework the preceding chapters…and the result is you have this manuscript that descends into chaos. I gave a book to a critique partner recently and I said “but the end is really bad.” And they read it and were like, wow, you were right, the end is really bad!
I have figured out how to draft slightly faster. If your process is to make a mess when you draft and then go back and fix it, the idea is to draft faster. I’ve started using (software program) Freedom to turn off the Internet and what I thought I would do is make myself not go on the Internet, but the value of it is that I only have to write for 20 minutes. You can do anything painful for a set period of time. I can draft much faster knowing that it is only for a set period of time.
Q from audience: So The Spiderwick Chronicles. How do you do a book that is about a book? A story about a story?
Holly: Tony wanted to do a book that was a bestiary of fairies. I told him “I’ll write the little one paragraph things for you.” We shared an editor at that time. I had just finished Tithe. Our editor said how about you write some stories about this guy? I said I don’t really want to do that, let me write about these kids who find the book. I remember being a kid and my mother did something for St. Patrick’s Day, where you followed notes from the fairies around the yard and at the end we got some stale golden coins, some gelt, but I was so excited, it seemed real, it seemed true. It wasn’t about the chocolate coins. Part of me knew it was this fake thing but part of me was convinced I had found the evidence that fairies existed. So I wanted to capture that feeling. Within the game, within the book, it all has to feel true.
Q: So do you write at a certain time of day or night? exercise first, or what?
Holly: Because I end up doing an enormous amount of work on the road I try not to have a ritual. Teresa Niesen Hayden said whatever you do don’t drink or smoke when you write because later you won’t be able to stop. So it became a larger thing for me that was don’t have any particular place or way to write. I do have playlists. They are helpful for getting you back into the space of that novel. And a great way to waste some time. I will go sit in coffee shops with friends to write.
Q: You mentioned the numinous (in the GOH opening session), how do you create that in language?
Holly: Cristina (Bacchilega, the scholar GOH) was talking about how the numinous has to have fear in it. I think that’s true. You have to evoke awe and discomfort. There’s that juxtaposition and looking at the moments where you’ve felt that way, that the world is bigger and stranger than your experience of it and what made you feel that. The things that I really find evoke it is strangeness where you don’t expect it. I was writing Valiant in New York, and I decided to walk it and research everywhere the book would go. I went under the Manhattan Bridge and there is a tree stump! It’s actually there! Why is it there? Finding that, seeing that, I had that feeling of dislocation from time or space. Like thinking about this glass coffin with this prince in the forest with the kids going out and partying around him and beer cans all around it. It’s like the giant chair or the giant wheel of cheese that people go and see it and take their pictures with it. That’s how we react to these artifacts. They are everywhere in America. A really big axe! A giant pistachio! They’re all over the place! Who pays for these things?
Jed: Did you spend time in Springfield, Massachusetts, when you were writing Coldtown?
Holly: It was going to be Holyoke actually, but I couldn’t get around the water access issue. So I changed it to Springfield.
Jed: You’re writing on a new trilogy that returns to fairy stuff now, right?
Holly: I’m reading from it tonight. I was interested in trying high fantasy; I’d never written high fantasy. So I decided to set the entire book inside Faerie, and people can go to the mortal world which is now, but most people don’t. So how do you have a constantly numinous setting? Numinous money, numinous transport, it’s a weird experience. It’s a story of this girl growing up in our world, she’s seven-ish, she has a twin sister and an older sister with weird cat eyes that people talk about. One day a guy comes to the door, an odd-looking guy, he has an argument with her mother that she overhears…(the rest redacted for spoilers).
(I’ll blog more from the rest of the conference when I get a chance! Saw some great papers on goth subculture, fashion, and music, on recurring Victorian attitudes in Harry Potter, and more!)

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