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Interview: October 2009

October 2009's Usha Reynolds recently spoke with author and artist Laini Taylor, whose latest release, LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES, is an illustrated collection of three fantasy short stories about love and romance, each of which share a common theme --- a transformative and sometimes dangerous first kiss.
In this interview, Taylor explains the book's origins as an online writing exercise and discusses the stories' various sources of inspiration, such as mythology, world religions and 19th-century poetry. She also recalls the experience of collaborating with her husband, illustrator Jim Di Bartolo, sheds light on the stories' recurring themes, and lists some of her old and new favorite books and authors. Your previous works include the full-length novels BLACKBRINGER and SILKSINGER. What prompted the foray into short stories with LIPS TOUCH? Did you originally consider making any of these tales into full-length novels, or were they always conceived as short stories?
Laini Taylor: LIPS TOUCH was actually written between the two. I’d spent more than two years writing BLACKBRINGER, and after it was done I had a real craving to write some short pieces just for fun. Kind of like sorbet in between courses! I’d just started blogging, and along with a new blog friend (who lives in England), I co-founded a writing prompt site called “Sunday Scribblings,” where we post a new writing prompt each week and anyone can join in. All three of the LIPS TOUCH stories started life as short exercises on my blog. When a kissing theme emerged (unplanned!), it was my husband who had the idea that they could be a book. At that point I developed them into the longer stories they are now.
TRC: You craft such beautiful sentences that I wanted to linger on each word and sentence. What is your writing strategy? Do you plow through and write several chapters first before polishing the sentences, or do you work on smaller sections until the writing is to your liking?
LT: Thank you! I love playing with language. I see writing as composed of two equally important elements: the storytelling and the actual prose-craft, and I do have a tendency to obsess about the latter. I could spend all day working on a single paragraph! I read everything out loud many times to get the rhythm just right. I revise constantly as I go. In fact, revising is my favorite part of the writing process. I have to coax myself forward with first drafts --- that’s the hardest part for me. Last year for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I set myself the challenge of writing a fast first draft all the way through without revising, and I did it, but the process (torture!) killed my interest in that particular book. For now it’s just languishing in my hard drive, and I haven’t even peeked at it since the day I typed “the end” at the end. Maybe some day I’ll get up the courage to take a look at it.
TRC: The artwork fits the stories so well, and is gorgeous and striking. The illustrator, Jim Di Bartolo, is your husband. How did your collaboration work? Did you come up with the vision for the illustrations together, or did he do the illustrations separately after you had already written the stories?
LT: I know! The art is fabulous. I like to tell writers they should marry illustrators! Jim and I met on the first day of art school --- we parked next to each other, so he was literally the first person I set eyes on that first day of school. What’s more, we were in the same class that morning, and were randomly assigned to draw each other. I think it’s a meeting worthy of a romance novel! Maybe I’ll use it some day in a book.
We’ve wanted to collaborate on illustrated novels for a long time. We did discuss what the illustrations would be in order to best tell the “prequel stories” (the art tells, in each case, a separate story that prefigures that of the story told by the text), but from there, the development was all Jim.
TRC: Was there any lead character in these stories with whom you particularly identified? Are you most like Kizzy, Anamique, or Esme?
LT: I definitely identify most with Kizzy. Though I don’t have her interesting background and crazy family (I’ve never had to behead a swan, for example!), her powerful yearning comes straight from my own teen years. The wanting to be special, to have a fascinating life, to be singled out. The whole litany of her over-the-top daydreams is the kind of thing I wrote poetry about in high school.
“Goblin Fruit” was my first go at writing for contemporary teens, and I enjoyed it so much. Kizzy’s yearning really did come from a very visceral place, straight from my memories of high school.
TRC: You mention in the epilogue that your stories in LIPS TOUCH draw their inspiration from such diverse sources as the works of 19th-century poet Christina Rossetti, Hindu mythology and the days of the British Raj, and the Zorastrian religion. How did you become interested in each of these?
LT: I love the weird paths that research can take. I can’t recall how I first got interested in these things, except for Zoroastrianism. That I remember well. It was my 9th grade World History class, taught by Mrs. Crandall at the Brussels American School in Belgium. Zoroastrianism is an ancient Persian religion, and I remember being fascinated by the “towers of silence” upon which the dead are exposed to the elements (and vultures), instead of being buried. The other thing I thought was really cool was the notion (and I can’t vouch that this is an accurate representation of the religion) that when one goes to Hell, it’s not forever. It’s more like a prison sentence. That’s so different from the Christian eternal damnation.
As for the Raj, it was probably E.M. Forster’s A PASSAGE TO INDIA that first got me interested. Just imagine what it would have been like to be a Victorian Englishwoman, prim and proper, and to go to live in that exotic land with all its heat and color, so different from dainty England.
I can’t say I really know anything about Hinduism --- it’s so incredibly complex. It was specifically how near-death experiences differ from one religion to the next that was the jumping-off point for my vision of Hell. Rather than telling of “going towards the light” as we’re familiar with here, many people in India had described being greeted by little demon bureaucrats, and even discovering that a clerical error had been made and they weren’t supposed to be dead --- it was supposed to be someone with the same name! I lifted the name Vasudev directly from one of these “true stories.” Lastly, I’ve been fascinated with Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” for years. The idea that this was ostensibly “for children,” and yet was so gruesome and so sexual, despite being written in buttoned-up proper Victorian England by a religious poet… it intrigues me.
TRC: As someone of Indian origin, I found your tale set in India, “Spicy Little Curses,” to be quite well researched and believable (if such a term can be used for a fantasy novel!). How did you conduct the research required for setting a story in a time and place not your own?
LT: It’s so nice of you to say that! Never having been to India --- and never having been to 1918 --- I have my concerns! I stand in awe of writers of historical fiction who can bring us wholly back to these other times and places. It’s daunting!
After I wrote the first draft of “Spicy” (it being a writing-prompt exercise, it unspooled out of thin air, and the Raj setting was a surprise), I started reading about the era and getting more and more interested in it. Luckily for me, there are a lot of sources available. Those Englishwomen were astonishing letter writers, and one doesn’t have to imagine their daily lives. They wrote it all out in detail to their mothers and sisters back home. For a while I collected every book I could find on the Raj --- I have a whole shelf full --- and I read novels set there too. It got so I’d find a detail in someone’s novel and recognize it as an anecdote pilfered from one of the nonfiction books! Sometimes the same anecdote would appear in several novels.
It’s funny how the kind of nonfiction reading that kind of bored me when it was homework completely sets my mind on fire when it’s research for fiction!
I do wish I were a “real researcher” --- someday maybe I will be. Years from now I see myself writing a whole novel set in Raj-era India. Only by that time, I’ll have traveled in India many times (I hope!), and sat up to my elbows in yellowed letters in archives in both India and England, reading hundreds of letters and journals. I’ll have ridden elephants and slept in hotels that were once Magistrates’ Residences. Someday!
TRC: You based the language in the third and longest story, “Hatchling,” on the now-rarely spoken Avestan language. How did you go about crafting those phrases and sentences?
LT: Well. I just found an Avestan glossary online and wrote lists of interesting words (and their meanings) in my writing notebook. Avestan is the language of the Zoroastrian scriptures, and the words are so cool, cooler than what I could have come up with on my own, and being from a real language, they lend a realistic linguistic depth. That’s great for the sound alone, but I also tried to use words whose meanings fit with the occasion. “Ayaozhdya,” for example, which Mab screams when she first sees Esme’s eye, means “defilement, pollution, uncleanness.” I used the word “uthem” later in her screaming, which means “matter excreted from a dead body,” just because it’s so grim and seems like a fitting curse.

So I cherry-picked words like that and strung them together with invented articles to make them sound like sentences. It was fun!

TRC: All of the stories have this common theme of love being so fraught with risk and danger. Is that your view of teen love, or just the process of falling in love in general?
LT: It’s not love that I think is fraught with risk and danger. Love --- real love --- is the safest thing there is. If it’s dangerous, it’s probably not love, or at least not reciprocated love! It’s sexual desire that’s fraught, and I do think this is at its most intense for teenagers. It’s new, it’s overpowering --- it so easily can eclipse reason and sense! I hate reading moralizing tales of teens making the safe choice. For me, the goblin fruit itself is a metaphor for the irresistible wrong choice, the tantalizing, delicious danger. That is so much more interesting!
TRC: I know you have a new baby…congratulations! How has it been juggling your writing with the responsibilities of being a new mom?
LT: Thank you! We’re still figuring out how to get work time back into our schedules. Luckily, Jim and I both work at home so we can be really flexible and take turns. Maybe later we’ll be able to settle into a routine, but for now (Clementine is 7 weeks today), we’re taking each hour as it comes, and pouncing on any block of time to write and draw. Clementine is a dream baby, so we are getting work done, though a lot of the time I just want to hold her and look at her, even when she’s asleep!
TRC: What are your favorite children’s and young adult books? Are there any classics or new writers you’d like to recommend to our teen readers?
LT: I hope this isn’t too many!
YA fantasy:
Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter Duet
D.M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo series
Meghan Whalen Turner’s Attolia books
Anything by Shannon Hale, especially BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS
THE EXPLOSIONIST by Jenny Davidson
THE ORDER OF ODD-FISH by James Kennedy
Adult fantasy:
THE NAME OF THE WIND by Patrick Rothfuss
Sweet comfort food:
Jane Austen
COMPANY OF SWANS by Eva Ibbotson
THE RABBI'S CAT, a fabulous French graphic novel by Joann Sfar
Short stories of Kelly Link and Margo Lanagan
A favorite book that no one has ever heard of is THE CARPET MAKERS by Andreas Eschbach; it’s sci-fi, translated from German, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. Seriously. Check it out.
Thank you so much for these terrific questions!