Author Leigh Bardugo speaks to Hypable about her beautiful new short story collection, The Language of Thorns.
Drawing from the Bardugo’s sumptuous Grishaverse — the Shadow and Bone trilogy, Six of Crows duology, and the forthcoming King of Scars — The Language of Thorns pulls readers into the fabric of her invented world. With new stories and familiar tales, this new collection will intrigue, awe, frighten, and inspire both stalwart fans and new readers looking for a heady spoonful of fantasy.
Interview with Leigh Bardugo
How did The Language of Thorns come about?
I guess it really started way back when we were promoting Shadow and Bone. I was lucky enough to get asked to write a short story for Tor.com, and instead of writing a prequel or a companion story, I decided to do a fairytale that would be the kind of thing my characters had heard growing up.
So that was really where the first Grishaverse folktale began, and it was inspired by Hansel and Gretel, because that was probably the story I was most disturbed by as a kid! [laughs] And not because of the cannibal witch, but because I always thought it was really weird that they went back to their dad at the end of the story, who had let them be lured into the woods not once, but twice.
Yeah, I read “The Witch of Duva” last night–
I hope you enjoyed the gingerbread holocaust!
I wasn’t expecting that to happen! So aside from existing in-world, do the stories in The Language of Thorns weave into the Grishaverse in any other ways?
The stories are really sperate from the Grisha world, and you don’t need to have read any of the Grisha books to read them. That said, in one of the new stories there is a cameo from a character in the Grisha world, and you’ll recognize the countries that they’re set in, and probably some of the things about the culture. I mean, the stories that we tell and that we choose to tell, the way that we define heroism, the way that we talk about love, the way that we talk about moral good, really is, I think, shown in these kinds of stories that we tell children.
And admittedly, these are much darker than what you would ordinarily tell children!
Well, Russian-analog children. Their tolerance might be higher!
Russian-analog, but also, there’s a story Fjerda, a story from Kerch, a story from Novyi Zem. So you’re going to see different corners of the Grisha world, and different ways of thinking.
So what was it like shifting from novels to the very different format of the folktale?
It’s funny, over the course of writing the Shadow and Bone trilogy, I was writing these folktales. I wrote one for each of the books, “The Witch of Duva,” “The Too-Clever Fox,” and “Little Knife,” and then there are three new stories in the new book.
But I’ve also contributed to a couple of anthologies, and I have to say, I find writing short stories incredibly challenging. I think it flexes a very different muscle than writing novels does, but I also feel like — I mean, maybe I’m deluding myself! — but I feel like I improved as a writer because of these short stories. I think it forces you to think in very short, very specific terms, and that you’re really working at the sentence level. So I think it changed the way that I thought about my own prose.
I think Megan Whalen Turner once described short stories as a little present from your muse.
I think my muse is maybe a little stingy! Like, my muse didn’t get the memo that she was my Secret Santa, because I find the short stories don’t really arrive in that way. But I will say that the process is very different too. When I write novels, I outline them extensively.
When I write short stories, I really sit down and I tell them to myself. Sometimes it’s when I’m driving, sometimes it’s in my bathtub… but it’s really the act of immersing myself into that storyteller voice, and finding the story that way.
There’s an omnicience to fairytales. You have the sense that these stories have been told many, many times. And the presence of the narrator is, in some ways, closer to [an] old-school fantasy voice. And I think you can see it actually in the prologue and epilogue that are in each of the Shadow and Bone books, so I think that voice is there, but that’s definitely what I’m trying to access. And also, that narrator carries different biases depending on the story that they’re telling.
Did you do any research into the folktales and stories of the cultures analagous to those in the Grisha world?
For me, those cultures are not direct analogues, they’ve always been points of departure. That said, I read a lot of fairytales, myth, local legends, and also I try very hard to think about things like food. Even the way people relate to their geography, the way they relate to their religion. That is present in these stories, even in very small details. And again, because they’re short stories, you have less space to build a world in, and I don’t want you to have to pick up Six of Crows to understand Fjerda, or to understand Kerch. I want you to be able to start the first page of this story and understand where you are and what’s important in this world.
Was there a story that was particularly challenging for you to write?
Yes! There is a story called “When Water Sang Fire” that I think I can best describe as my sea-witch origin story. There’s Hans Christian Anderson, but there’s definitely some Ursula in there too. It’s the longest of the stories, and I think in some ways it really wanted to be a book or a novella, and so I really had to shape it and re-shape it to get it where I wanted it to be.
Whip that story into shape!
Would you call “When Water Sang Fire” the centerpiece story The Language of Thorns? Is there one?
Well, the book opens with a story called “Ayama and the Thorn Wood” which is a kind of mishmash of Beauty and the Beast and A Thousand and One Nights, and Aridne and the Minataur, and it’s really very much about stories themselves, and the idea of what truths are found in that. So I think that that, in some ways sets the stage for the rest of the book.
I was trying to think of other writers who are able to publish a book of in-world short stories like The Language of Thorns, and I came up with J.K. Rowling, and that was it. So you’re in pretty vaunted company now!
[Laughs] I mean, it’s not like she’s sending me an invitation to her castle to hang out!
I’m surprised that there aren’t more people who have done this. I suspect their must be, and I’m just not thinking of them. I mean, even when you’re reading fantasy — you mentioned Megan Whalen Turner, I’m thinking specifically of [the Queen’s Thief…] there are multiple levels of story within the stories we read. There’s the story that you’re reading on the page, then there are the stories that the characters tell each other about themselves, and then there’s another layer of story in terms of what they’ve internalized — whether that’s stories that are religious parables or myths of heroes that they grew up with.
So those things are already built into these books. And I think that they really sort of speak to the question of truth, and what the charachters believe is real and what isn’t real. I mean, that’s something that you see opperating with the Tower of Joy story in Game of Thrones. And what is real about their world, and what is real about the morality of their world, I think you see that more in something like the Attolia books.
So I may have pulled them out, but I feel like that’s always present in fantasy.