STARBURST: How did the writing process for Crooked Kingdom compare to that of Six of Crows? You didn’t have a big heist to plan this time around but the plot is still very complex and interwoven.
Leigh Bardugo: Crooked Kingdom was in some ways much tougher to write because it’s not one heist, it’s a whole bunch of small heists and cons and scams. And where Six of Crows follows a very traditional heist structure I wanted to really give the reader a sense of claustrophobia in Crooked Kingdom, so you have them trapped in their own town. Instead of breaking into someplace, they’re actually trying to break out. I wanted the heist and the plans to almost become like a Russian nesting doll where the reader felt more and more the walls closing in around them as things started to go wrong.
Kaz, Inej and the rest of the gang have such vibrant personalities. Were you always in control of them or did they ever develop in ways you weren’t expecting?
People always ask that question differently; they say ‘what do you do when your character takes over’ and I always think, oh come on, I wish they would take over and that I could feel out of control with them.
But the way you’ve phrased this is really interesting. I think that all the characters surprised me a little bit because when I build a story I structure the plot: I outline the plot but I don’t know very much about the characters early on.
The process of writing them is an uncomfortable one of getting to know them and getting to the emotional places I want to take them, but none of those things feel earned early on, they feel incredibly awkward. I knew Kaz had experienced a trauma, but I didn’t know the specifics of that trauma. And I knew what Inej’s past was but I needed to do a lot of research into the emotional implications of that past.
So honestly, they all surprised me because those are the spaces I leave in the story to keep it interesting for me as I write – the histories of these characters change the way they interact.
It’s hard not to love these characters, even though they – well, mainly Kaz – do some pretty nasty things. What do you think is the key to creating anti-heroes that readers can still get behind?
I think the key is competence. I think we’ll forgive a character a great deal if they are very good at what they do. And Kaz is very good at what he does. We love to watch people outsmart others, we love to see them use skills that we do not have. So all of the characters in Six of Crows are very skillful and even Wylan comes into his particular skillset. I think with an anti-hero, the moments when you start to see their competence decrease are when you start to see their vulnerability increase.
Particularly in Kaz there is tremendous tension, as he has built this myth around himself, but he has also bought into a lot of myths about himself. And a lot of the skills that he has that enable him to survive, in the long term are the kinds of things that will destroy you. The inability to have legitimate quality relationships with people is a really hard way to live. And you see a lot of this play out over the course of Six of Crows and then in Crooked Kingdom in a really big way.
Cards on the table time. Was there one character in particular – or perhaps a pairing of characters – that you enjoyed writing for the most?
I loved writing the romance between Wylan and Jesper because they are at the beginning; they are falling in love and I think that that is always an exciting point in a relationship to write.
Kaz and Inej was the hardest relationship to write because they are both carrying so much trauma with them and they both deserve a lot of love – and have a lot of it to give. They both have incredibly obstructed access to those emotions and ways of speaking about how they feel. For me, that level of restraint and damage is really powerful to write, but it is also so difficult.
These books deal with some serious real-world issues as well e.g. rape, human trafficking and PTSD. Were you ever worried that these subjects would be too much for a YA novel? Or were you deliberately trying to push the boundaries?
You know, I don’t think I really pushed the boundaries, and I don’t think there is a lot to be gained from pushing the boundaries for the sake of being edgy or gritty. I never want my readers to leave a book without any sense of hope. And I also wanted my readers from the Grisha trilogy to be able to follow me to this world, without feeling like they had been betrayed by the content, essentially.
That said, I don’t think you can talk about things like sexual slavery or forced labour, or PTSD and not do it honestly with them, so I was always walking a line. It was more important to me to deal with those subjects in a way that was respectful of the fact that these are still real world issues that people are dealing with every day, and to deal with them in a way that felt emotionally honest and that didn’t feel like it was just plot fodder.
No matter how respectful you are of a subject, on some level, you are exploiting it and I think you have to be very conscious about that. I really hate stories where you see trauma or emotional disability dealt with in an unrealistic way.
You have written a Wonder Woman novel for DC, slated to hit shelves next summer. Can you tell us how that came about? And also, how did you approach writing for such an iconic character?
I think that a big part of the reason that I got the Wonder Woman job was because I had written an essay on Wonder Woman and my love for her - but my love hate relationship with superhero comics. That essay is in a book called Last Night A Superhero Saved My Life.
As far as the approach to writing her? There were certain things that I had to keep in mind because DC wanted me to adhere to cannon, but luckily they gave me quite a lot of room to play. So my goal was to try to tell a good story for a character who is important to a lot of people, some who have really never even picked up a comic book, or maybe don’t even know that much about her background, but know that she is unique among heroes. Not only is she incredibly strong and powerful, she is also very kind and empathetic. I wanted to keep all of those things intact.
And finally, you have previously said that you plan to take a break from the Grishaverse for a while. So can you give us any teasers about what is next for you after Wonder Woman?
I'll be writing my first adult series, a new fantasy called Ninth House set in the world of Yale's secret societies. It's a story that's been haunting me for years.
The latest in the Crooked Kingdom books is out now.