Tamora Pierce is a prolific author of fantasy books, most of which feature young women as protagonists and many of which are set in her fictional land of Tortall. With Tortall: A Spy’s Guide out earlier this month, io9 spoke with the writer about details left out of the book, diversity in genre fiction, and what happens when you make a commitment to being realistic about growing up.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
io9: Let’s start with the new book, Tortall: A Spy’s Guide. Why do this kind of in-world expansion/set of information?
Tamora Pierce: People are always asking me—and if not me, friends of mine who know the universe well—details that don’t normally get included in the books, or details of story that haven’t come out yet. I was talking with my editor at Random House about just a basic dictionary or travel guide, or something of the sort that would have just bits and pieces that people would like that was pretty much insider information. I’d seen that there were several books of that kind that had come out at that point and I thought, “Yeah, we can do this.” That was my first mistake.
io9: What were the challenges in doing that kind of book versus a regular, plot-driven story?
Pierce: Well, for one thing, when you know a whole lot about your universe, it’s a question of what you’re going to talk about. The first run through that we did was just from all over the map. We had maps, we had name guides, the list of households, double households and who was in them, we had descriptions of weapons.
And what we had when we turned in the first draft some five years ago, I think, was just an unholy mess. There was no center to it. No reason for it to exist. We kind of thought along the lines of an encyclopedia. But... that was huge. It would have been extremely expensive. The number of pictures that would have been required would have been even more expensive. The editor we had just basically abandoned the project.
So my original editor took a look and noticed the amount of material we had put together by my husband, Tim, about the structure of the spy service. And she said, “Let’s do this—let’s center it around the spies.” And we all saw where we could use that as founding materials for everything else we wanted to put in. And so we did the shorter, less expensive, less headache-y version that we have now.
io9: Was there a bit that you were particularly sad you had to cut?
Pierce: Well, we had a number of descriptions of immortals and we had to cut a great many of them, which broke my heart and Julie’s heart—Julie Holderman, who’s not only our in-house editor but created a few immortals of her own. We were both very disappointed, which is why we both had to get stuff online we had to cut from this edition. We had some real beauteous critters coming up there.
io9: There’s this burgeoning conversation about representation in media, especially in genre—which is actually a conversation people have been having forever, just no one ever paid attention. Your books have always been great about it. Has that been a conscious decision, or was that just because that’s how the world of Tortall looks to you?
Pierce: It was there all the time, just as it was in our world. I just needed to lean more on showing it. I mean, there were the Bazhir [nomadic tribes] in the original books, and then I realized that if I were to be effective, especially with my fans when they were writing and say, “Well don’t you have so and so here?” I would have to be more upfront with it. And also, my fans were saying, “I’m so and so and I really don’t see anybody like me in your books,” and I’m like, “Well, I’m going to fix that.” Because it was just important to me that I’d be able—I haven’t done it yet, but [to] continue to work on having readers be able to find themselves in my work. It matters to me they’re able to see themselves. That they don’t feel outcasted in any way. And it benefits the world. It makes the world feel more real. To have people of all kinds in it.
io9: Your fans didn’t appear to react as negatively to that as some have.
Pierce: Well, I think... there has been a bit. When the Trickster books came out, there was a bit of uproar over—at a panel at this convention I was at—with “What These People Need Is a Honky.” Even though I explained that Aly’s part of the rebellion was only what took place in spy work in the palace. And the capitol. And his people did intelligence throughout the rest of the islands. There were people who were just stunned I did white appropriation. And that was my first encounter with white appropriation.
io9: Are you more careful now?
Pierce: I do extra research. I’m more careful, but I’m also doing more characters who aren’t mainstream white people. Because I am more convinced than ever it is important to have more people who are not that, that appear in books. And I do my absolute best. I figure if I get it wrong, my fans will tell me. And they’re very good at that, which is helpful, although after the fact.
But I worked really hard at trying my best to be inclusive. And I know there will always be people who feel that, because I’m not part of the group, that I have no right to try and represent it. But somebody has to. And until we get publishing to open up their halls to writers of color and writers of different abilities and so forth, then somebody’s got to say, “Look at the world. Look at how varied it is.” We’re not representing the people we want to have read our work. I would much rather we have people who are different represented in publishing. So hopefully, if people yell enough about the way I’m doing it, publishers will hire more writers who are representing those audiences.
io9: I remember growing up and reading your books and being so grateful for how frankly you would tackle certain things like periods and sex—things that, as a young adult, no one talks about frankly or truthfully. A lot of books would just skip that whole discussion. Why did you include it?
Pierce: Well, when you’re a girl disguised as a boy in order to become a knight, or if you’re a girl who is openly going for her knighthood, your body changes really make for a big source of stress. And you have to cope with them. They’re there. You have to face them.
And in Alanna’s case, they’re a source of alarm. Because a) she didn’t know what the hell was going on, and b) she had to cover it all. And with Kel, it was like, “The guys are going to come in and they’re going to give me a hard time about this.” It was a normal part of their lives so there was no excuse to try and avoid them. So I just wrote it as real as I could, because I’m not good at doing pretty, dainty things. I don’t live in that world. I never did. I was in the real world. So there I was. And I went, “okay, I’ll do it.”
And then I figured if someone objected they’d tell me and my editor didn’t object. And I figured if I started with it, we might as well go on. This is the Be Careful What You Wish For Department. When I was working on the second book after Tempest and Slaughter, when Arram is in his early teens, and he starts to mature, I went, “Ohhh my goood, If I did it for the girls, I have to do it for the boy” so I went to my husband, he says, “Don’t come asking me that, that was a long time ago! I don’t remember!” So I had to go to my writing buddy Bruce Cobble, the guy who brought you Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher. And I said, “Bruce, you gotta help me out here.” He laughed his ass off. He had so much fun at my expense. But he did help me with those things that happen to boys when their bodies start to change.
io9: I think it is a perpetuated myth that girls will read books about boys but boys won’t read books about girls. What do you think of that idea?
Pierce: Well... it’s a problem. It’s a problem that begins at home. Lots of times it’s a problem that begins with dad. Mom is the reader, does the bedtime reading, dad wants the boys to go out and play sports and not sit around reading—which is changing a little now? But it needs to change more. It needs to change in schools where boys make fun of other boys who read. The arrival of the iPad actually helped with that. Or the iPhone. Because boys could read on those and girls could read non-pretty girl books, because no one could see what they were reading. But they have to be made a fun thing. And I notice on Facebook, a lot of mothers say, “I just bring my son in, and at first they’ll pretend they’re not interested. But then you’ll notice they’re listening.” Reading at home helps a lot. For me, I get mail from fans when their teenage and college-aged girlfriends thrust my books on them.
io9: How is it that we are still having a conversation about the need for female heroes? Why has that not been resolved, in the most obvious manner? When I was growing up, books were at least better than trying to find it in television and movies.
Pierce: Well unfortunately, the mass media and television, it’s still pretty girls in dresses. I mean, at least in books you have people like Leigh Bardugo [and] Laura Beth Durst; she’s not super well-known, but she writes really unusual female characters. Maggie Stiefvater, my god... there are just so many unusual female heroes out there. But there are also girls with the dresses and the boyfriends and choosing between two boyfriends—I am so tired of that one. We are far, far, far further along than when I started, but we still need more. And it would be nice to see more in the contemporary. Fantasy seems to be doing okay, but contemporary? We need more female heroes.
Tortall: A Spy’s Guide is out now.