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Rae Carson‘s debut fantasy novel The Girl of Fire and Thorns centers on Elisa, an overweight and insecure 16-year-old marked for an unknown act of service by the stone she bears in her navel. Married off to a king who hopes she will save his nation from war, Elisa is forced to leave behind everyone she knows to embark on a dark journey that risks her life.
Armed with Kleenexes and Benadryl, Carson battled an allergy attack to talk to EW about her fantasy adventure, its upcoming sequel, The Crown of Embers, and how a love of black-market hosiery can help you become a published author.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Girl of Fire and Thorns was your first book. Can you talk a little bit about the road to publication?
RAE CARSON: It was long and agonizing. I wrote this book 2005, 2006 and sent it out on submission with my agent at the time. It did not sell. The reason it did not sell — it came really close a couple times, which was heartbreaking — [was because my agent] sent it out on the adult market as a fantasy novel. And I even said to her at one point, “Don’t you think this is a coming-of-age story and maybe it’s YA?” But she felt really strongly that it was an adult fantasy novel. So I took her word for it because I was a brand-new author and I just thought those were words of wisdom. They might have been 10, 15 years ago, but the market has changed. Teenagers are expecting bigger, more complicated books now. So, for a couple years I had kind of given up and started another project. Then, I was browsing through the bookstore and [saw that] the young-adult section had just exploded. There were all these fantasy books and some of them were like mine, real doorstops. And I thought, “Shoot, I’m going to try this again.” So I went out with a new agent as a young adult novel and it sold within 24 hours to Greenwillow.
The character Elisa felt so real to me. At the start of the book, it was painful to hear her talk about herself, but that’s what made me relate to her. What was it like to write such a character?
I was a teenage girl once. I was not an overweight teenage girl, but I had really bad acne when I was 11 or 12 years old. It was heart-rending and people made fun of me. People whispered when I walked by in the hallways and I was sure they were whispering about me. My adult perspective is maybe they weren’t. But at the time it feels like the whole world is looking at your flaw. I have spent a lot of time with teenage girls and I also think we have selective retrospectives. We like to think we were more confident than maybe we were, but my experience with teenage girls is that when they’re in the moment, they all struggle. There are so many unfair standards by which we are told to hold ourselves up to from a very early age. So, I really wanted to capture the agony of coming into yourself. And I have to say, writing it was painful. It’s not a pleasant headspace to be in.
Elisa is an emotional eater. Why did you choose eating as a way for her to express herself?
Because that’s what I do. They say write what you know, and there are all sorts of reasons for people being overweight, but the one that I could relate to was being an emotional overeater. I was not an overweight person when I wrote this book, but I definitely had that thing of, “My boyfriend broke up with me, I’m going to eat two pints of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.”
I loved the pacing of the book. Every time I was about to get a handle on something, there was a twist. How did you get that right?
I wish I could tell you. It was a very instinctive process for me. The interesting thing is when I wrote the second book, I struggled a lot more with pacing. I went into it thinking, “Oh, my pacing was so great in the first one. I really have this switch.” Well, I so didn’t. I think I just got lucky. I had been living with the story in my head for a while and even though I didn’t really go to an outline, I had a lot of it worked out in my head, so it flowed onto the page a lot better. But the second book I struggled a lot more and I did a lot more heavier revisions. In the second book, there’s less traveling, especially in the first half. Traveling can give an illusion of movement.
The relationship between Elisa and her older sister Alodia is really interesting to me. Elisa thinks Alodia despises her, but she still looks to her for strength, especially in the earlier parts of the book. Can you talk to me about that sibling relationship?
Of all the characters in the book, Alodia is the one I relate to the most. I’m the bossy big sister, I’m the one who knows exactly how the lives of my siblings ought to go, and I’m the one who was exasperated by her brilliant younger sister with so much potential who just wasn’t making the right decisions for her life. So, I kind of had to get over myself and still let my sister be her own person. She’s a lot like Elisa. She grew up to be one of the strongest, smartest women that I know, and I’m really proud of her. But, I do confess to being the exasperated, bossy, know-it-all, overachieving big sister. I really felt like I could have planned her life and made it better, but she ended up doing okay on her own. [Laughs]
I know you wrote a short story from Alodia’s perspective. Why did you feel the need to write that after publishing the novel?
It was my publisher’s idea. Not necessarily the story itself, but they said, “Your e-book sales have been really good, so let’s do an e-novella.” So I tossed out some ideas and we settled on this. It’s from Alodia’s perspective and it’s the story of Alodia and Elisa traveling together to a distant part of their land to participate in a wedding as the royal delegation. But they get there and the land is suffering and it’s up to Alodia to save their people. Elisa’s kind of a side character, but she’s exasperating. You see her from Alodia’s perspective making wrong decisions. Through the course of the story, Alodia starts to change her mind about her sister. Very gradually, she starts to see her sister’s potential, and it ends with the note of her thinking, “You know, maybe I need to marry her off to someone of power because when she gets on her own and is forced to deal, she actually does a good job.” It leads into maybe why Alodia and her dad decided to ship Elisa off to a foreign country, and it’s not actually because they’re getting rid of her. It’s because they’re trying to figure out a way to unlock her potential.
I would have a meltdown if I were shipped off to marry someone who doesn’t even want me, and yet Elisa is strongest when she’s alone. Why does it take her being cut off from everyone for her to become this new person?
I see her as being a little bit pampered. Her handmaidens, Lady Ximena and Lady Aneaxi, are kind of enablers, and Ximena — we explore her a lot more in the second book — is also kind of controlling. She has her own idea about Elisa’s potential and destiny. And Elisa has been controlled by her father and sister. She’s been so cloistered that she doesn’t even know about the Godstone in her own body. She had to get away because no one was going to let her prove herself on her own. She had to be cut off from those relationships in order to finally shine. So I see her as kind of cloistered, maybe a little bit spoiled, but when she is out on her own, she really starts to shine. She has to dig down to find within herself her own strength.
I grew up in Argentina, and I was intrigued by the book’s Spanish influences. Why was that language the foundation for your fantasy world?
I was learning Spanish at the time [I wrote the book]. I worked at a job where 90 percent of my coworkers were Spanish-speaking and some of them were only Spanish-speaking. My rule was if someone came into the office needing something — I worked in HR at the time — they had to bring a Spanish word to teach me. That was the deal. So I watched the telenovelas and I listened to Spanish music and I basically taught myself Spanish. You see a lot of medieval worlds in fantasy and you see a lot of Western European-based medieval worlds and I just decided I wanted to do something different. It’s not exactly Spanish. It’s like what Spanish might look like a thousand years from now. My Italian publisher sent an email to my agent at one point saying, “You know, some of the Spanish words in this book are wrong, so we went ahead and corrected those.” [Laughs]
I guess in Italian the morphing doesn’t translate well.
What did you do? Did you get it fixed?
Yeah, my editor said, “No, no, no, we meant all of those.” So it’s not quite Spanish, but it’s definitely Spanish-inspired. I also knew I wanted to [write about] a desert. I’ve had a love affair with the desert ever since I can remember. No matter what I wrote — contemporary romance, spy thriller, high fantasy — it was going to have a desert in it. So if you combine those, there’s actually a place in the world that’s like that: Spanish Morocco, the northern tip of Africa. I used that a lot for inspiration.
Are we going to get a look at more of this world in The Crown of Embers?
Definitely. Another one of my great loves is tropical locations, so I stick [Elisa] on a tropical island.
That must have been great to write. Did you get to do any research for it?
I totally did. I wrote off a trip to the Mexican Caribbean. Because it’s Spanish and tropical put together. It was a writing retreat. I went to Akumal on the Mayan Riviera. I stayed there for 10 days, I wrote 30,000 words, and did a little bit of research. Best job ever.
Religion is a big part of this book. Elisa has the same doubts that anyone would have even though she’s the Chosen One. How did you go about sprinkling these doubts into a character who’s a figurehead for her religion?
I grew up in a very religious household. I am not religious anymore. A lot of people assume because I write about religion, I am a person of religion myself, which is really interesting. I decide to take that as a compliment that I managed to make it convincing. Growing up religious as a teenager was actually really hard. It’s hard because there’s a different church on every corner of your town. Who’s right? They all believe different things. How do you navigate that as a teenager? It is a quagmire and I have so much respect for teenagers who face it full-on and are not afraid to ask questions. If there’s any message in this, it would be that I want teens to know it’s okay to ask questions, that if you have doubts, know you’re not alone. You’re not an idiot for asking. It’s not a lack of faith.
Can you tell us a bit about the sequel?
In the second book, [Elisa]’s queen and she’s a war hero and she’s the Chosen One, so she’s like, “I’ve got this, life is good.” Well, it turns out she’s still 17 years old, she’s still a foreigner, and people are hurting from war. And when we’re afraid, we take it out on our leaders. So it’s actually a really tough position and she’s being manipulated at every turn. It starts off with an assassination attempt [and] things go downhill from there. So she goes on this journey that’s going to take her to the ultimate source of the Godstone’s power and hopefully this is going to solve all of her problems once and for all.
You’re planning a new series, right? Would you like to tell us anything about that?
It’s also epic fantasy. It just happens to take place in one of the most epic times in American history, the California gold rush. It’s a about a 16-year-old girl who has the magical ability to find gold. When her parents are killed and a greedy uncle tries to take over her claim and control her life, she flees West in a covered wagon to stake her own claim. This could either solve all of her problems — it could make her rich beyond her wildest dreams because she has this magic power, or it could be the most dangerous thing in the world because everyone wants what she has. So it’s kind of like Little House on the Prairie on meth. I’m also really interested in concepts of found family. In times of trouble when the death toll is high, people find each other [and] form communities. So she’s going to find her friends, a band of misfit teens, and they’re going to form their own town on the banks of the American River in California.
When should we expect this new series?
The first one is tentatively scheduled for fall 2014. So, the year after the third book in [the Fire and Thorns] trilogy comes out. Sounds like they’re going to keep me on a one-a-year schedule for a while.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Yeah, I do, especially young-adult authors. What’s really big in young adult seems to be fantasy and dystopian [novels]. For both of those, world-building is so important. My advice is to fly your geek flag high and find what interests you. If you have an interest in black-market hosiery, just indulge that interest, go down the Wikipedia spiral [and] learn everything you can about it.
The Crown of Embers is out Sept. 18.