Author Susan Dennard believes in consequences. It sometimes gets her in a little trouble.
Her first series, “Something Strange and Deadly,” found its home with 13- to 14-year-old fans, but that did not stop her from letting her characters be hurt, maimed and even killed, much to the chagrin of those young fans.
“My publisher was not onboard with that. . . . They said, ‘You’re going to lose readers,’ ” Dennard said. “But that’s okay because one thing that I feel strongly about is that I believe in consequences. You can’t have everyone get out of this crap alive.”
Dennard is referring to all of the magic and action of her newest series, “The Witchlands.” It follows best friends and witches Safiya and Iseult after a robbery gone wrong kicks off a race to save the world. The latest in the series, “Windwitch,” comes out in January.
The series features diverse characters of different skin tones and racial backgrounds, something Dennard has made a point to improve from previous books.
“In my first series, I didn’t think about it. I just did it, and I don’t like that I didn’t put more thought into it,” she said.
Dennard chatted with The Washington Post in a live video about how fear makes it hard to be creative, breaking down tropes and her take on diversity in young-adult fiction.
This interview is part of “It’s Lit,” a digital Q-and-A series about women who write books. It has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
How do you write antagonistic female relationships so well without being too catty to the “mean girl” character?
It’s easy to get really two-dimensional . . . to write the sort of cardboard character that we all identify immediately. They say, “Write what you know,” and that applies most to how you develop characters. All the interactions you’ve had in your life come to feed what you know. It’s also a matter of perception. Sometimes I wonder: Is it a mean girl or is that how you perceive it with your own issues? It’s all about how your main character relates to the [antagonist], not necessarily how they act or treat them but how the main character sees it and interprets it.
What is your take on diversity in YA literature?
We need more of it. In my first series, I didn’t think about it. I just did it, and I don’t like that I didn’t put more thought into it. I didn’t draw attention to it as much as I would’ve liked to. The climate in publishing is very different [now]. I am a more educated writer. When I was writing “Truthwitch,” I took a workshop on diversity, so that’s something I really think about now.
You’re right, the conversation on diversity in general has changed rapidly. Do you fear backlash for trying and not meeting everyone’s expectations for diversity?
Look, I’m going to do it wrong. But it’s better that I tried, so I have to deal with the fact that I may get it wrong. I have sensitive readers who can help me and say, “Handle this better,” and even then it’s not going to resonate with someone else. I have to deal with the fact that I may get some flak.
Were there things you thought you had to rectify in your second series?
My first series was definitely aimed at a younger audience. It’s a simpler story in the end, and [the new series] is so much bigger, so I was able to get a lot more nuance — specifically in my bad guys. That’s something I wish I had the space for in the first series: to make my bad guy more of a multifaceted character, not just an evil dude. I decided to set out and write no villains [in “Witchlands”]. You think people are bad, and then you’re going to learn maybe not.
How did publishing your first book affect your writing process?
You’re working under a whole new level of pressure. I think the hardest thing for me has been that “Truthwitch” took off and my readership has exploded in a way that I was never expecting, so I feel this very crippling pressure to do justice to the stories and that the readers like it. . . . I don’t want to let them down. But whenever you’re scared, it’s hard to write. It’s hard to be creative when you’re afraid.
What are some fantasy tropes that you love or hate?
If I have to see anymore elf-type creatures, I’m going to kill somebody!
I think tropes are great because in some ways they give you a framework that you can then spin on its head. As an example, a few days ago I was writing a scene . . . and there was going to be a pirate captain. And when I say a pirate captain, chances are it’s going to be a dude. So when I sat down to write it, I said: “No! We’re going to make this a kick-a-- black woman!” Every decision you make, think about it. Can you do it differently? What is your automatic assumption? Now, don’t do that.
Everdeen Mason is an audience editor at The Washington Post and a Book World contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @EvMason.
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