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Author Robin Wasserman MAG
Robin Wasserman is an American young adult novelist. She grew up near Philadelphia and went on to become a Harvard graduate. She has written many popular teen fiction series, including the Seven Deadly Sins series, the Chasing Yesterday series, and the Skinned Trilogy, as well as many other books. Here she discusses her newest book, a novel of mystery and history set in Prague, called The Book of Blood and Shadow.
When and why did you begin writing? Was it always your goal to be a writer?
It's been my goal to be a writer ever since I was old enough to have a goal (any goal beyond, “I want a cookie,” that is). I decided I was going to be a writer long before I ever got around to actually writing anything. That's because for most of my childhood I was far too busy reading other people's stories to bother making up my own. I was one of those kids who read constantly – under my desk, under the blankets, in the bathtub. I read while I was eating breakfast, walking down the stairs, watching TV, brushing my teeth, crossing the street – as far as I was concerned, there was no activity that couldn't be improved by the addition of a book. (I even tried reading while bike riding. That's, um, not recommended.) So when people started asking me what I wanted to be, the answer seemed obvious. Books were the only things that mattered to me, so what better way to spend my life than making some of my own?
How did you get the initial idea for The Book of Blood and Shadow?
Several years ago, in grad school, I gave a presentation on a book about secret societies of the Renaissance. I was terrified of my professor, who had a habit of interrogating and humiliating students when they couldn't come up with an answer, so I had read this book about a hundred times and practically had it memorized. I was ready for anything. Except for my professor cutting off my presentation after five minutes, waving his hand, and saying, “Eh, that's a terrible book. I never should have assigned it. Let's move on.”
After all that work, I wasn't ready to move on. (Although I didn't argue with him – like I said, he was terrifying.) I couldn't stop thinking about this whole Renaissance world of magic and alchemy and secrets, and how much I would love to turn it into a novel one day. After that, it was just a matter of waiting until I had my chance.
Deception is a theme throughout The Book of Blood and Shadow. Why did you decide to make it so important? What inspired or influenced you to do so?
At its heart, this book is a story about the things and people we choose to believe in. And one of the most difficult things about that choice is the realization that you don't have all the information you need to make it. That there are things you can never know, or things you thought you knew that turn out to be mistakes and lies.
I wanted (because we authors love to torture our characters) my protagonist to be uncertain about who she could trust, what relationships to invest in, what was happening to her, and what was possible, and that's why there are so many layers of deception – over and over again, everything she believes is solid melts away.
In a lot of ways, this is how I felt when I was a teenager – that my world was governed by these rules that I couldn't quite understand, that I couldn't trust anything at face value, that there were hidden layers to everything. You don't have to be at the center of a centuries-old global conspiracy to feel like you're at the whim of forces you don't understand and can't control. I wanted to capture that terror – and give my characters a chance to overcome it. To realize that even without knowing everything, they could make choices. They could find someone to trust, and something to believe in.
Why do you think your book will be well-suited to teenage readers?
You're asking the wrong person! I'm the writer, which means I'm contractually obligated to worry that my book is well suited to nothing but being torn up and used as birdcage liner. (Wait, I probably wasn't supposed to say that out loud.)
On my more optimistic days, though, I hope that teen readers will enjoy it not only because it has mysteries and romance and secret societies and explosions, but also because it's about fighting back against everyone and everything trying to push you around and decide what your life should be. It's about striking out on your own and choosing for yourself, and I hope that resonates as much with readers as it would have with teen me. (But also: Making out and explosions!)
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
There are a ton of codes and ciphers and puzzles in this book, not all in English, and working out the logistics of those was far from easy … but it was a nice break from actually having to fill the pages with words.
For me, the hardest part of any book is just forcing myself to finish it – there's always a point in the middle where you want to throw up your hands (and your computer) and slap yourself silly for being so foolish as to think you could write a book. It seems impossible that the words you're typing make any sense, that the story will ever come together, that anyone will want to read it. The only way through the terror is to just sit down at the computer every day and keep typing, no matter what, so that's what I did. No one's more surprised than I am that it actually worked.
What made you choose the Czech Republic as your setting? It's certainly an unusual setting. Do you have a personal tie to it?
When I started plotting out the book, I knew I needed a setting that had a history rich in violence, religion, magic, and mystery, especially when it came to the Renaissance, and it took me little time to settle on Prague. We're talking about a city that was founded by a witch and – in the 16th century – ruled by a paranoid, deranged, secretive emperor obsessed with alchemy and mysticism.
Once I discovered that court alchemist (and convict and con man), Edward Kelley, had a teenage daughter – an unusually educated and outspoken girl who grew up to be one of the most famous poets of her time – I knew I'd found both my setting and my characters. I'd never been to the Czech Republic, but as soon as I got the chance, I bought a guidebook, a camera, and a plane ticket, and set off.
What is your favorite book? What book are you reading right now?
My favorite book tends to change every six months, but I will say that the book I've loved the most, for the longest, is Stephen King's It. I reread that one almost once a month in junior high, and it's probably the only way I survived those darkest of days. Right now I'm in the middle of Sarah Rees Brennan's upcoming book, Unspoken, and I'm insanely jealous that I didn't write it myself.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
Keep writing. Whatever happens, whatever you do, keep writing. It sounds cheesy, but the only thing that can stop you from being a writer is you. The only thing that will end your writing career before it starts is you giving up. (Also, more practically, I recommend establishing a system of rewards. When I have a good writing morning, I give myself a cookie. A big one.)
Your dialogue is remarkably smooth, funny, and realistic. How did you learn to write like that? Do you listen to teenage dialogue a lot? Or is this just a natural talent?
First of all, thank you!
And no, I don't listen to teenage dialogue a lot, unless you count all the hours I've spent shamefully watching “Make It or Break It” and “Degrassi: The Next Generation” (which, admittedly, is a lot of hours). I think I just have a good ear for the way other people speak – I can replay conversations in my mind, so when I'm writing, I can, in a sense, “hear” how people sound and try to capture that. I'm not sure how I developed it, but I did find it useful to practice writing in someone else's voice – writing like a romance novelist, or a hardboiled mystery writer, or even (as you do in fan fiction) favorite characters.
Writing good, believable dialogue means figuring out how to write in a voice that's not your own. And I think practicing that, just as much as eavesdropping on the subway, can help you flex the muscles and let you channel what your characters might say.