One time Sarah Rees Brennan wrote a story over a few months on her Livejournal, about Elliott, a bisexual red-headed irritant who loves books, who went to magic school in a magic world and immediately had a lot of bones to pick with the rules. Now that story is expanded for print as In Other Lands, and is available now for all your bickering found family, awkward slow crushes, and elven warrior matriarchy needs!
Today, we have the lovely Sarah Rees Brennan here to talk mermaids, friendships, and the importance of storytelling.
Moog (for Binge on Books): Hi Sarah! Thanks so much for being here. I read Turn of the Story while it was on your LJ and am delighted to get to hold Elliot and Serene and Luke in my hands. The new cover is gorgeous – and the mermaid is a (great!) surprise. Did you plan to add in mermaids when you were reworking the story for print or did she emerge organically?
Sarah Rees Brennan: Aw, I’m delighted you read it on my journal! Writing a book on my blog was an odd thing for me to do but whenever anyone tells me they read it I am so happy.
The mermaid was a surprise to me too (Surprised by Mermaids is a fun title, actually–it could be followed with Dumbfounded by Dragons), but I agree with you the art is absolutely great! Carolyn Nowak has done some truly fabulous illustrations which will be found in the book, of both the characters from age 13 to 17, and other denizens of fantasy land–harpies, unicorns and mermaids! I’d seen the illustrations and approved them wholeheartedly, but when the cover came I was a bit worried people would think that a mermaid was the main character, and that a legion of mermaid enthusiasts would feel betrayed and turn me into tuna.
However, my protagonist Elliot is a huge nerd, so when he arrives in a magical world he immediately asks ‘Show me the mermaids!’ rather than ‘Explain to me this strange word… magic…’ and mermaids are for him a shorthand for him wanting to behold the many wonders on offer in a magic land–in other words, harpies, unicorns and mermaids, oh my. He then keeps asking about the mermaids, having lessons about them, researching them, getting different answers about mermaids from different people, until he finally does meet one–with consequences I will not spoil for those who do not yet know!
Basically, it’s like with the elves, when Elliot first meets his elf friend Serene, one of the few warrior women, presumes she’s an anomaly (from Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings to Black Widow in the Avengers, the sole woman fighting in a fantastical crowd of guys) and perhaps feeling uncertain of her place, and then instantly finds out elves do things differently and she’s confused about all the men in war training. I was aware I was doing a thing with the mermaids, as I was with the elves, but both things turned out to have far more repercussions and far more scope than I had foreseen initially, and I built on it as I went. (Much in the way I built the book itself. I always planned for this bungalow–tower–bijou castle!)
When kids enter a magical land, they often seem to be engaging in tourism: unlike with the motel California, you always leave Oz/your magic school/faerieland. I wanted to present the other land as a choice–is Elliot going to be a foreign exchange student or an immigrant? Once you’ve seen the mermaids, do you go back?
The mermaids are a SYMBOL. But they are also literal mermaids. You can trust me, mermaid enthusiasts. You are my people.
Moog: Both the symbolic and literal mermaids sound great. And I can’t wait to see the illustrations! On the topic of building on things as you went, did you already know what you wanted to expand when you first approached turning the story (… sorry) from its online form to In Other Worlds or did things take you by surprise as you were writing?
SRB: Adding things to the story is always something I am fighting against, because I am a talkative wench in all forms. Editing ‘Turn of the Story’ into ‘In Other Lands’ was a different experience from editing any of my other work, since generally editing my work involves frantic, ruthless cutting. Yet the early version of this book was up on the internet, and I do think once you’ve shared a book it’s no longer just yours. I wasn’t going to cut anyone’s favourite bit, so any cutting was very careful, and instead what I tried to do was make every scene count and tie into each other and make more sense.
One thing I already knew people would want was a romantic resolution for the hero, from the hero’s point of view. However, the fabulous Kelly Link suggested other additions, which surprised me but struck me as a really good idea. A lot of the story works from the fact that the hero Elliot starts out as a loner, who makes his first friends in the fantasy land and thus is fairly awkward about and deeply invested in said friendships. Now the book opens with us seeing him in the human world, aged thirteen and obnoxious, seeing why he doesn’t have friends there. (A sample: ‘Elliot objected because after an hour in a moving vehicle he would be violently sick. The other kids objected because after an hour in a moving vehicle, they would be violently sick of Elliot.’) We also see him actively trying to make friends, as well as falling into other friendships.
What I was most surprised at was how the things that surprised me ended up working in a way that suggested I’d meant that all along. The last line of In Other Lands came to me on the day I wrote it, and astonished me by seeming like something I’d set up.
Moog: Elliot making friends fills my tiny heart with joy every time I think about it. Precious little cranky ginger nerd *_______*
SRB: I am very glad you like the idea of finding friends in fantasy land. That’s what we all do when we find friends who like the same books as we do, isn’t it? In a way, all stories are love stories. You go out and find friends to form a found family, working toward a somewhat terrifying intimacy–you reach the point where you get terrified, and still move forward. You go home and find the links to family you thought you were entirely separated from. And the world is always wider and stranger than you think, with more stories to be told in it. I do have an idea for the future and Elliot and a noble heir to a dwarf throne in the In Other Lands world, but we’ll see! The world is mostly untold stories, and I feel both wonder and privileged when I have a new story, and I get to hold it in my hands and hear it back from the people who were told it. That’s making fantasy real indeed.
Thank you so much! It’s been the best to get to talk fantasy stories and finding places with you. To wind us up, here are three quick questions:
1. MAGICAL WORLD DANCE FIGHT. Who would win: harpies or mermaids?
I imagine this fight happening under the sea, in which harpies win due to widespread aquatic social media (twetter) hilarity over the soggy feathers dance, but mermaid contestant gets extra point for saving harpy contestant from drowning. (Then they fall in love.)
2. What’s your favourite mug you own?
I’M SO HAPPY YOU ASKED ME THAT AND I RESPOND WITH THE ATTACHED PICTURE OF SELF AND MUG.
3. What are you currently reading? Or, if you’re not reading anything right now, what’s the next book you’re excited to pick up?
I’m currently reading Georgette Heyer’s Behold! There’s Poison–I thought all her mysteries were sub par, but turns out I was wrong and what I needed was a snaky disreputable hero in a fabulous dressing gown. I’m excited to read S. Jae-Jones’s Wintersong, which I bought the minute it came out but have been saving for when I felt better. As you can all see, I love a tale smartly twisted, so what better than Labyrinth meets fantastical Phantom of the Opera?
About Sarah Rees Brennan:
Sarah Rees Brennan is the author of the Demon’s Lexicon trilogy and the co-author, with Justine Larbalestier, of Team Human, and the Lynburn Legacy series which begins with Unspoken, a romantic Gothic mystery about a girl named Kami Glass, who discovers her imaginary friend is a real boy. Sarah’s very latest book is the tale of a boy, his soulless double, and the girl who can only save one of them… Her latest book, In Other Lands, is out now.
Connect with Sarah: Author Site.
Moog Florin is a writer, blogger, and lacker of balance. She lives in London with her wife (lovely) and an octopus (stuffed), and can be found blogging into the void about books, stickers, and queer romance at MM Florin Writes.
You can also find Moog on Twitter: @MM_Florin