An interview with Holly Black

Image: Holly Black, bestselling author of contemporary fantasy novels for teens and children.

Holly Black is the bestselling author of contemporary fantasy novels for teens and children. Holly collaborated with her long-time friend, Caldecott award winning artist, Tony DiTerlizzi, to create the bestselling Spiderwick Chronicles. The first two books, The Field Guide and The Seeing Stone were released together in 2003 by Simon & Schuster, with the next three, Lucinda's Secret (2003), The Ironwood Tree (2004) and The Wrath of Mulgarath (2004), following in rapid succession. The Spiderwick Chronicles were adapted into a film by Paramount Pictures in conjunction with Nickelodeon Films. Holly kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review’s Joshua S Hill in June 2010.

Give us a brief description of yourself (who you are, where you’re from, what you do if you’re not writing full time).

I’m from New Jersey, by the ocean. Now I live in Western Massachusetts with my husband Theo in a house with a hairless cat and a secret library.

Have you been a fantasy fan all your life? Do you read outside the genre? (I know you mention on your site some recommended reading, so feel free to point to that. But I’m hoping to just get the ones you love the most, are most attached too, etc.)

a) Who are your favourite authors in fantasy and outside of fantasy?

b) Who are those writers that have inspired and pushed you?

I have been a fantasy fan my whole life. I read outside of the genre (lately, a lot of noir), but it’s still the place I always come back to for the stuff I love the most.

I think my earliest influences were probably Tanith Lee, Ellen Kushner and Michael Moorcock. I loved high fantasy exclusively for many years. It was discovering Terri Windling, Charles de Lint, Emma Bull and Neil Gaiman that led me to realize that what I really wanted to write was contemporary fantasy.

More recently, I have been reading and re-reading a lot of noir and mystery, rediscovering the pleasures of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and Walter Mosley. I also love Richard Kadrey, Scott Lynch, China Mieville and Kelly Link.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

a. When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?

I wanted to be a writer probably from the time I was eleven or twelve. I wrote a truly terrible novel when I was perhaps thirteen or fourteen, called Knights of the Silver Sun. It contained both vampires and dragons in a medieval setting. I think the vampires were enslaved by the dragons and some half-vampire had to free them. Recently I read aloud from it at a juvenilia panel and the audience wept with laughter at its terribleness. But I actually sent out a query letter.

You are already rather popular with the ‘Spiderwick Chronicles,’ how have you dealt with the publicity that has come your way?

I think the wonderful thing about being a writer is how you can be well known in certain ways, but not at all known in other ways. But the thing I couldn’t have predicted was that the publicity for the Spiderwick movie did put me behind with all other projects. But that was a very nice problem to have.

You’re also rather prolific. A quick look at your Wikipedia page shows you have over 20 books published or about to be published. Describe a typical day for Holly Black.

It’s very kind of you to call me prolific. Most of the time I feel like my writing goes interminably slowly. I am not one of those writers who can turn out the rough draft for a story in a single sitting. The most I have ever written in a single day is probably 2,000 words and days like that come very rarely.

Usually, I get up, check my email, drink a lot of coffee, and then start working. Sometimes I will meet up with writer friends and we will talk through whatever problems are plaguing us. Sometimes we’ll just write in silence.

What I didn’t realize, before my first book came out, was how much travelling and speaking one winds up doing as a writer. So there’s that too.

Can you give us your pitch for ‘White Cat’?

I just got back from book tour in the US, so I am pretty used to saying this, actually: White Cat is set in a world like ours, except that one in a thousand people have the ability to do curse magic, magic is illegal, and as a consequence, controlled by crime families.

Cassel Sharpe is not a curse worker himself, but he comes from a family of curse workers and grifters.  He has a memory of killing his best friend, Lila, who he loved, when they were both fourteen.  When he wakes up on the roof of his dorm room with no idea how he got there, he starts to realize that maybe his memories are hiding more than they're revealing. He has to investigate his past and figure out who he really is and what he's really done.

Is ‘White Cat’ directed to an older audience than your previous books?

I think so – although Cassel is young, he’s got some pretty adult problems.

You mention several books at the end of White Cat that helped you with the con-artistry in the book. How was the research for that? Did you enjoy it? Had it been an interest for long or just as a means to White Cat?

I had done some of the research already because I have been interested in grifters and cons for a long time. For example, I read Son of a Grifter – a book that made me think about what it might be like to grow up in a family of criminals - many years ago. But I think writers often have these weird obsessions and indulge ourselves and then maybe somewhere down the line that stuff becomes a book. Sometimes it never does.

The dedication in the book is “For all the fictional cats I’ve killed in other books.” How many cats have you killed off?

Well, it’s not like I killed them. The goblins in Spiderwick were responsible for some cat murder as was Lolli, the Never addict in Valiant. But sometimes readers blame me.

a. Are you a cat person? Dog? Other?

I like cats. I have four! I even have a rubbery hairless cat who is currently sitting on my shoulder as I type.

You let Cassel ramble a lot, letting a little of his stream-of-conscious come through: letting him branch off into tangents. Do you like that storytelling method?

a. Is it representative of your own thinking patterns?

One of the things that I deliberately tried to do with White Cat was change the way I wrote and, as a consequence, challenge myself to try different methods of storytelling. This is the first book I’ve written in first person and one of the things that point of view allows for is a little rambling and stream of consciousness.

It’s a lot like how I think.

Did you know when you set out writing ‘White Cat’ that there would be comparisons drawn between it and the Harry Potter series?

a. Do you agree with these comparisons (“the Sopranos meets Harry Potter”, etc)?

I think for a lot of people, Harry Potter is the only fantasy book that they’ve read, so that invites comparison between it and other fantasy books. It’s an almost universal touchstone.

I think “the Sopranos meets Harry Potter” is a kind of hilarious description of White Cat, but I also think it paints a pretty clear picture of what to expect from the book for people who aren’t familiar with noir, no less fantasy noir.

b. Was there pressure when you wrote ‘White Cat’ to ensure it didn’t turn into a Potter clone? Or did you not allow that to infect your writing?

Actually, when I started writing the Curse Worker books, I did think about the fact that any teen book about anything like magicians was going to have to be wildly different from Harry Potter. But between the organized crime and the con artistry, I’m not worried about White Cat being too much like Potter.

How many books are likely to follow ‘White Cat’?

My current plan is for there to be at least two more – ‘Red Glove’ and ‘Black Heart’. After that, we shall see.

Will we see more of Cassel and Lila, Sam and Daneca? Or will we be seeing other aspects of this world you have created?

‘Red Glove’ is a direct sequel – same point of view and same characters. It takes place about six months later, after Cassel has spent the summer with his mother in Atlantic City. That goes about as well as expected. And it goes downhill from there.

‘White Cat’ finishes with a bit of a downer for us romantics. Are you anti-happily-ever-after? Or is there a long plan awaiting Cassel and Lila?

There are two more books, so I can’t say much. But Cassel and Lila are both in the next book, still working out the consequences of what occurred in this one. Their relationship isn’t over.

What was it like growing up in a “decrepit Victorian house”? Did this house spawn the idea for Cassel’s house?

The house I grew up was a big influence on Cassel’s house. Like Cassel’s, mine was often a mess – full of old books and vintage servingware and paints and ancient moth-eaten garments – but all piled on top of each other and covered in dust. Growing up in a house like that was at times stifling and at other times, really magical.

Given the opportunity to tell one person from any time and place in history, what would you tell them?

As a long time fan of science fiction, I think that either this would create a terrifying paradox or wouldn’t work despite my best efforts. What I do think about a lot is what it would be like to re-live my life – with all I know now. But, again, science fiction teaches us that our failures are as important as our success in terms of getting us to where we are.

The White Cat (Curse Workers, Book 1)
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Gollancz (17 Jun 2010)
ISBN-10: 0575096713

Holly Black books reviewed

Professional Reader 10 Book Reviews