In Ask a Prophet, we use our alien probes on the brains of sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction writers.
This week, we spoke with award-winning author Sarah Beth Durst, who writes adult, teen, and middle grade fantasy novels like The Girl Who Could Not Dream and Ice. Her most recent title is the first in an intriguing new series, The Queen of Blood, which came out on Tuesday.
When you’re beginning a novel, what usually comes to you first: the world or the characters?
It really does vary from book to book, but in this case it was definitely the world. I actually remember the exact moment that I had the idea for this book. I was at this writing retreat out in the woods and I was looking up at the tall trees and marveling, “Oh they’re so pretty!” and I tripped and fell flat on my face. I cut my lip and I was tasting blood and looking at the trees, and I thought, “Aha! Bloodthirsty nature spirits.” And so that’s where it all began, this world filled with nature spirits, but not your frolicking, pastoral sprites. Nature spirits that want to kill all the humans.
Do you typically do research for the mythology of your books?
I’ve sort of been doing research my entire life, because I’ve always loved mythology and folklore and all of that. My bookshelf is filled with all sorts of legends and folklore, there’s such wonderful tools for a writer to play with.
I think everything every writer has read and experienced is always going to flow into your work. You’re always going to filter it through your worldview. I do love doing research and playing with the old tales. Writing this novel was probably the best writing experience that I’ve ever had in my life; it was really immersive. Every time I sat down at my keyboard, it felt like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia, except the trees kind of want to eat you.
You’ve dabbled in writing for every age group: middle grade, YA, and adult.
Honestly, my love is fantasy. I love anything with something impossible in it. I love books that when you close it, it makes you feel like the world is a little bit more magical, a bit bigger than it felt before — and you feel a little stronger and a little bit more magical yourself. I’m not wedded to a particular age group, I just go where the story goes.
How have you seen the fantasy genre evolve during your time in it?
It’s been so great, especially since I do read middle grade, YA, and adult. If you read across all of the age groups, there’s so much great fantasy out there. Pretty much ever since Harry Potter came along, I’ve been able to find stuff I love all over the place.
What are some books you’ve enjoyed recently?
Uprooted by Naomi Novik. That was wonderful. She managed to capture the classic folklore feel while creating her own new fairy tale essentially. My all-time favorite writer is Tamora Pierce. I reread her books all the time. I actually read Alanna first when I was 10 and deciding I wanted to be a writer, and I distinctly remember thinking if Alanna can become a knight, I can become a writer. I’ve also been rereading Terry Brooks’ Shannara books because I adore those. Those are some books that shaped my view of what fantasy is and took me on so many adventures when I was a kid. It’s fun to re-experience the adventure again.
Since fantasy is becoming more popular on TV as well, do you watch any of the fantasy shows?
I watch the Shannara series which I think is what prompted me to go back and reread all the books. I thought it was so much fun. I don’t have HBO, so I haven’t watched Game of Thrones although I have watched every single scene with Daenerys on YouTube. And then I also love the Marvel stuff. I watch Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
What to you is the main allure of fantasy?
I find that fantasy is really a literature of hope. It’s empowering. I love the themes of little guy conquers a massive evil, love conquers all, friendship wins out. I love the way it makes you feel when you close the book, because the world is more magical than it was before. I love the way it can comfort you when things aren’t good in your life. The best letters that I’ve received, the ones I treasure the most from people, are when they tell me they read my book while they were sitting in the hospital or while they were going through something really difficult in their life and it helped them through it. It took them away from whatever was hurting them and gave them comfort and strength and joy. For me, that’s it: fantasy brings me joy and that’s why I write it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.