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Interview: September 13, 2018

A retelling of the star-crossed legend of Tristan and Iseult, author Kristina Pérez's debut novel SWEET BLACK WAVES hit shelves in June. Informed by Pérez's own work as a scholar of medieval literature, the novel is a feminist fantastical adventure about Branwen, a lady-in-waiting who becomes the heroine of her own story. We spoke with Kristina about legends and retellings, the best YA "ships" and teasers about the sequel, WILD SAVAGE STARS, out next August. Check out our interview for all the details! Your book, SWEET BLACK WAVES, is based on an old Celtic legend. What inspired you to retell the tale of Tristan and Isolde for a teen audience? Additionally, what made you decide to focus on Branwen instead of Eseult as the protagonist?

Kristina Pérez: Branwen has always been the character that most intrigued me. In the medieval versions, she plays a pivotal role in the tragedy but is kept very much on the sidelines. I wanted to give her a voice and tell the legend from her perspective. At its core, my retelling is a coming of age story: Branwen is figuring out who she is, what she wants from life, what the “right fight” is for her and I think that is what YA as a category is all about.

TRC: What was the greatest challenge you faced in adapting the story? Given that the original legend didn’t provide an abundance of information on Branwen’s role specifically, do you feel you had more of a creative license in the development of her character?

KP: For me, the greatest challenge was actually writing the character of Eseult. She is Branwen’s best friend but also her foil. Branwen is ruled by duty and Eseult is ruled by her heart, but it is also Eseult who will actually have to marry a man she’s never met. She often acts in selfish and self-destructive ways but, given her context, I tried to make her as sympathetic as possible. It was also definitely an advantage that Branwen’s role in the original legend is not very fleshed out so that I could write her the way I wanted.

TRC: Because this story was a retelling, how much of the plot was purely based on legend, and how much of it came from your own imagination? Were there any elements of your own life that inspired parts of the story?

KP: When I first approached the retelling, I looked at both the Celtic source material and the more well-known medieval versions of the legend which were written in Old French and German. Then I made a chart of which episodes recurred the most frequently and whether they were derived from the source material or not. I know this sounds very nerdy, but I have a PhD in medieval literature so it’s what I consider fun!

Once I did that, I thought about how the major recurring episodes would have impacted Branwen and how my version of her would have viewed them. Without revealing any spoilers, a lot of what happens on the sea voyage came from my imagination --- although the Otherworld beings that Branwen encounters are based loosely on Celtic mythology.

In terms of my own life, I think that it’s probably more in the characterisation than the plot and often as a writer you don’t realize it until somebody points it out!

TRC: The themes of love and betrayal are extremely prominent in your novel. Given that this is your first teen novel, what parts of developing the love stories specifically were most fun for you? Do you have a favorite YA “ship” of your own?

KP: Oh gosh, I am a huge romantic so I “ship” lots of YA couples. Two of my favorites are Kestrel and Arin from Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse series, and Kaede and Taisin from Malinda Lo’s HUNTRESS. In terms of my own writing, SWEET BLACK WAVES is a first love story which is always overwhelming and all-consuming --- a crucible from which you emerge a different person than you were before, and that’s tremendously satisfying to explore.

TRC: Have you always been intrigued by old legends? Which culture’s myths and stories are your favorite?

KP: My mother’s family is from Norway so I was brought up with stories of trolls as well as Thor and Odin. I also remember a beautiful leather-bound collection of Greek myths that I was given for Christmas when I was kid that I just adored. But the Arthurian legends are definitely my favorite which is why I ended up writing my PhD on Morgan la Fey!

TRC: If there was one character from your novel you could hang out with in real life, which one would it be and why? Would you hang out in our world or theirs?

KP: I can’t live without coffee so it would have to be in this world! As for who I would hang out with, I think I would ask Tristan to serenade me. ;-)

TRC: The ending to SWEET BLACK WAVES was a massive cliffhanger, and an emotional one at that. What sort of surprises and developments can we expect in future installments of this trilogy?

KP: Ah, well it wouldn’t be a surprise if I told you! But suffice it to say, Branwen is in a pretty dark place at the end of SWEET BLACK WAVES and she’s about to make landfall in the kingdom of her enemies so...expect lots of drama --- and magic --- in WILD SAVAGE STARS

TRC: Lots of our readers are aspiring authors themselves. Could you provide some insight on what inspired you to start writing? What elements of your writing process are the most difficult for you? Which parts are the most natural?

KP: Like many people, I had always thought about writing a novel but it wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I got serious about it. I challenged myself to actually finish one for once and it was hard --- and the novel was terrible. But knowing that I could finish an entire novel made writing the next one easier. I started taking online writing classes and met my first critique partners. Three years later, I signed with my current agent and sold my first novel when I was 35.

I love doing research and I love outlining --- again, huge nerd! So that is probably the most natural part of the process for me. The writing itself can be more mercurial. Some days it flows and some days it doesn’t.

TRC: Lastly, what books sparked your love for literature when you were younger? Is there anything you’re particularly excited about creating in the future?

KP: The first novels that I truly fell in love with when I was a kid were Tamora Pierce’s ALANNA: The First Adventure and Avi’s THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE. I actually named Branwen’s mother Alana as my own personal tribute to one of my all-time favorite characters.

As for the future, I’m excited to keep retelling medieval legends from a feminist perspective!