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Leigh Bardugo: Grounded in fantasy

Think of Russia in Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” Ridiculously expensive heavy gowns of bell-like skirts, slightly puffed shoulders, and corseted bodice. Now interject it with some flesh-eating monsters, gun fights, magic… and voila!

Welcome to the Grisha World as beautifully and wickedly written by New York Times and USA Today best-selling author Leigh Bardugo.

The books of her Grisha trilogy—”Shadow and Bones,” “Siege and Storm” and “Ruin and Rising”—are among the most popular in the young adult genre. But while  it is classified as YA, the story is far from the typical teenage drama. This is an action-packed, girl-power narration of Alina Starkov in a dark and mystical kingdom. Alina was never good at anything, but when her regiment is attacked, she revealed a dormant power in her. She is then trained to be a member of magical elite that is Grisha.

As if the magical Grisha isn’t widely elaborated enough, Leigh expanded the Grisha world to the story of Kaz Brekker in another book series. Kaz is a criminal prodigy tasked to a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone. “Six of Crows,” which will be released in September, is about six dangerous outcasts teaming up to get one goal, if they don’t kill each other first. This is “Game of Thrones” meets “Ocean’s Eleven.”

Leigh shared to the Play! pool her interest in Medieval Europe, about joined forces of outcasts and misfit toys. Other than being a book author, Leigh is a member of a band and a make-up artist as well. She revealed how her own childhood fears are projected in the Grisha world she created without the slightest hint that it will be a phenomenal book hit series. (BHQ)

Leigh Bardugo (CDN PHOTO/ EDD BUENAVIAJE)

Leigh Bardugo (CDN PHOTO/ EDD BUENAVIAJE)

What was the inspiration behind “Shadow and Bones?” Making Russia as the setting, the choice of characters, how did they come to you?
In fantasy, darkness is usually metaphorical. It’s like a dark age is coming, or darkness will fall across the land, and I thought what if we took something that was metaphorical and we made it literal and gave it a physical form? What if darkness was a place and the monsters you imagined there were real, and you have to fight them on their own territory? And that led to a bunch of other questions, you know like, what would the monsters look like? Why would you even go into this dark territory in the first place? All of those things became the idea of the Shadow Fold and everything else in the series really rose from that idea.

As for Russia, I’m half Russian with the way on one side and Jewish, and half Spanish and Moroccan on the other. I think from me growing up, Russia always seemed kind of occupied this mythical space. It was the glamorous oppressor and it was the kind of place where it seemed like things both beautiful and brutal and magical and mysterious could happen.

Isn’t the setting around 1800?
Yes, the inspiration is Russia early 1800s. I love fantasy but a lot of it takes this cue from Medieval Europe, and people in England, but I really wanted to take readers someplace different. I really wanted the advent of modern warfare to be a part of the story. To be able to ask the question, what happens when you bring a gun to a magic fight? That was part of the inspiration as well.

Did you already know it’s going to be a trilogy?
You know I had never finished a book when I wrote “Shadow and Bones” so I certainly didn’t sit down and think I’m going to write three. My goal was just to get through one. It wasn’t until I was about halfway through that I thought the ending is wrong. I had a bigger story that I want to tell. I started taking notes for the second and third book. Luckily, when I spoke to Joe, my agent, she said this really feels like a trilogy when I first signed with her. I said I think so, too.

Is it the character or the setting that comes to you first when writing the book?
I think it’s somewhere in between the characters in the story. The setting for me is secondary. Well, actually with the “Six of Crows,” I have had an idea for the setting in my head the whole time I was writing it. But for me it really begins with the characters of the story.

Elena, and the Darkling, and Mal, some of the scenes I first imagined for them when I was first writing the book, they stayed there all the way from the first draft to the publication. But it changes the characters. When I wrote the first draft of “Shadow and Bones,” Elena and Mal had parents because I wanted to side step the whole orphan-with-powers thing. I thought everybody does that! (Laughs) Fantasy writers love to kill off parents. I’ll do something different…

When I started doing research, I found these stories about men who had served in the Napoleonic wars and they had changed the views of their serfs and how some of them had open hospitals and schools for the servants who served on their states, how some of them converted their country homes to orphanages and homes for war widows. It was such a compelling idea that I felt it had to belong in “Shadow and Bones,” so I killed off Mal and Elena’s parents! (Laughs).To be a refugee really became central to both of them and the way they interacted with the world.
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Is there a more difficult book to write among the three?
Gosh! I think “Siege and Storm” was the most difficult of the three to write. It was the first time I was writing on deadline. I wrote “Shadow and Bones” pretending that no one would ever see it. We all had that strong editorial critical voice that kicks in and says, everything you’re doing is crap. (Laughs). That held me back for a really long time, and the way I wrote “Shadow and Bones” was I shut it down!

Every time that voice kicked in, I’d say, you know what you’re right. It’s terrible but guess what, no one’s ever going to get to see it. So I’m going to keep working and doing my thing.

Well, once you have an editor, and you’ve been handed a pay check, and you have a deadline, you can’t do that anymore. You have to find a new strategy for dealing with that. “Siege and Storm” was the first time I was dealing with that. I mean, the world got much bigger, more characters, more politics at play.

Was it also the longest to write?
I’m trying to remember. Yeah, I think “Siege and Storm” took me the longest to write. I don’t know, it’s a different process. The process changes from book to book.

Other than your editor, whom do you share your ideas with?
I tend to keep my ideas pretty close. I will pitch ideas to my agent if I’m not sure about them. I feel like the more you tell the story before you write it, the magic leaves out of it. If I have an idea for something, nobody sees it until I really put it on the page. I have many friends who work with critique partners and they will send very rough drafts to them. My draft has to be really far long before I show it to anybody. It’s just the way I’ve always worked.

We heard that’s being optioned for a movie. How is it progressing so far?
I can’t really share very much but I can tell you that I got to meet with David Heyman who’s our producer. He made the “Harry Potter” films and “Gravity.” Obviously, he’s amazing working with authors and I can just say that it’s always scary to think about having your work adopted— excited but also nerve-wracking. I feel I’m in very good hands with him. He asked me how much I want to be involved and I said, as much as you let me. We’ll see how it goes.
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The “Six of Crows” is also in Grisha. Tell us more about that.
Yes, it is set in the same world as the Grisha Trilogy but different cast of characters, different country. So you don’t have to read the trilogy to read it. But if you’ve read the trilogy and you want more of that kind of magic and adventure, then it’s the expanded Grisha world we’re calling it. We always talk about it as “Ocean’s Eleven” meets “Game of Thrones.” It’s a heist story about six criminals trying to pull off but it’s essentially an extension.

Teamed up and the likes.
Exactly! I love those stories. I love red tag bandamous stories.

“The Breakfast Club”?
“The Breakfast Club,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Ocean’s Eleven,” “The Dirty Dozen.” Yeah, put them all together, exactly my favorite kind of story! (Laughs)

How much research did you do for “Six of Crows”?
Quite a lot but unfortunately I don’t get to visit many of the countries that served as the inspiration. I researched everything from con man. How criminals ran cons back in the day, to gambling houses, to the history of Amsterdam, to canal digging. I have a friend who worked for the CIA and consulted with me on security measures, like the use of the White House and the nuclear power plants. So when I built this impenetrable fortress, I wanted to have all the defenses laid out, all the ways they kept the bad people out be grounded in reality. I also have a friend who’s a doctor whom I consulted on knife wounds. Oh I also have a friend who’s a magician! There’s a character in “Six of Crows” who’s a master of hand and he’s like a lock pick. So yeah, even when it is in a world where magic exists; it would feel more real when you ground it in things that have meaning in our lives.

Is there going to be a second book for “Six of Crows”?
Yes, it’s going to be a two-book series, and then I’m going to take a little break from the Grisha stories for a while.

Was there a point you can relate to your make-believe characters and came out biased?
That’s interesting. I never thought about that.

I think there’s a little of me in all of them, even the really bad ones. I think Ana meant a lot to me—her story. She starts out as fairy godmother, sassy best friend, she’s doing you a makeover and shows you the rope, but she has more to her and has this journey that she goes on in the course of the books that for me was really important.

Does the Shadow Fold you created somehow reflect your own fears like the dark or something?
I’m not afraid of the dark. I’m afraid of running into things in the dark which I do regularly. You know, it’s funny you asked that now I think about it. I grew up with my grandparents when I was a kid and they had this house where the kitchen was here, and there was this long hallway, and the bedrooms where over on this side. It was a long flat house and I remember sometime I would go to this side of the house to watch cartoons and then it would get dark. I would have to go to the other side for dinner, but there was this long hallway—long hallway I had to pass through! I would ran as fast as I could and I would slow down right before I got to the living room so nobody would know I was scared of the dark. I was always sure that there was something right behind me that was ready to grab the back of my nightgown and trip my foot and sink its teeth in.

Yeah. You are afraid of the dark.
Yeah, I suppose so!(Laughs). I’m also scared of sharks though. Although the Volcra can smell blood from two miles away which was something I got from sharks because I’m terrified of them.

Let’s talk about your band and you also do make-up. What can you NOT do?
Oh, Math! Basic math. (Laughs). So yeah, I used to sing with a band.

Not anymore?
We’re probably going to go to the studio this year. We wanted to go in January, but the thing is, we’re all grown-ups. Our lead guitarist has a kid, our drummer runs his own business, I have my dream job traveling the world. So it has gotten harder and harder for us to make time to get together. I love them. My bandmates are my family.

What music do you do?
I always describe it as geek rock! But that really made, Josh, our guitarist mad. He hated that description. (Laughs). On a good day, we had people who compared us to the New Pornographers, and the Pixies. That’s my favorite band, by the way.

Do you have to set that aside to be a book author?
The nice thing is that when “Siege and Storm” came out, we actually released a song that I wrote based on “Shadow and Bones” called Winter Prayer. It was with a guy who used to be in a band but he left kind of early on and his wife, Laura, who used to sing in a band as well. We made it with all of our friends. We recorded it in the living room and if you listen to it, it sounds like we have a choir of a hundred people singing on this, but it’s literally Lauren, her friend, and me looping our voices again and again. That was really wonderful. I’ve actually written a couple of songs about “Six of Crows.” There’s actually a point in “Six of Crows” where I referenced lyrics from an old song that I did in my band. I don’t know if we’ll get a chance to record them. We’ll see what happens.

Hopefully, for the soundtrack when it’s turned to a movie.
There you go. I would like to write the song and have somebody else record it.

And we came to know you’re also a make-up artist.
Yeah! I used to be a make-up artist. I think there’s a lot of not me in her but sort of parts of my life and stories in her. I also really came to love Zoya. She’s the mean girl of the books but I just adored her. I loved writing her. I got a new car recently and I named it Zoya! (Laughs).
Also, in the new book Nina who’s the Grisha member of the team and she sort of spent her whole life with people telling her that she’s too much, too big, too loud, she too this and too that, but it doesn’t stop her. That’s the way I want to be. In some ways she’s aspirational character for me.

Do you wait for inspiration or you have a detailed timeline to follow?
It’s a combination. You can’t really wait for inspiration when you’re on deadline. You have to get your fingers moving on the page. One of the pieces of advice to people who are struggling with writer’s block as they say, if you can’t seem to get the scene started, just start writing a conversation with yourself and ask what this scene is supposed to be. This is the scene where the hero and heroine meet but I don’t know how it’s going to work. Get your fingers moving on the keyboard. That’s breaks something. It loosens you up. It allows you to overcome this mental block that exist in your head.

That said, there’s a lot to be said for letting ideas prepalate. Sometimes I got some ideas and I’ll write down some notes for it, and then I let it sit for a little bit while I’m working on something else. I don’t tend to do a lot of work while on tour. I let that work on the subconscious so when I sit down to work on the idea, there’s more there than I expected.

Is there anyone in the family who is also into writing?
Well, my grandfather was a huge influence on me. He wasn’t a writer but he was a big reader. He was the one who made me fall in love with language. My mom was a musician, she sings with the choir, and before she was a lawyer, she wrote educational songs for kids. So adorable! And I do have a cousin who’s a very established poet. She’s a poet laureate for Massachusetts. I seem to be the weird one out though. I’m the one that’s like, yeah! That’s good! But also dragons! (Laughs).

What was the last movie you saw?
Oh, I just saw “Kingsman” and I really loved it.

That was a bit old.
Well, I don’t see a lot of movies. I saw it on the plane but you asked the last one! (Laughs). The last movie I watched in the theater was “Mad Max Fury Road.”

I loved it! If I had seen it when I was 14, it would have changed my life. That was fantastic.

How’s your Philippine tour so far?
It’s great! It’s humid! (Laughs). My first book signing is today so I haven’t met my readers yet we have a wonderful time. I did a morning show on the radio and it’s been fantastic.

What have you heard about our country from other authors who already came here?
I heard that the signings are crazy, that the readers are unbelievably enthusiastic, and that everyone wants to hug you. So I’m going to be hurt if no one wants to hug me! (Laughs).

TAGS: authors, Leigh Bardugo, Young Adult
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