Laini Taylor discusses her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy and the latest novel in the series, Dreams of Gods and Monsters, which releases April 8.
Daughter of Smoke & Bone is an incredibly original blend of mythologies; how did you come up with Karou’s world? How long did it take you to solidify all of the elaborate details?
Thank you! I think that Daughter of Smoke & Bone marked a shift for me in process, or maybe just a natural evolution. With my previous books, I very conscientiously thought out the world in advance. I have notebooks filled with details of my faerie world of Dreamdark, for example. And even before that, when I was a young writer, this was my favorite thing: the world-building. Most of what I called “writing” was actually world-building, with very little actual storytelling happening! But by the time I began Daughter of Smoke & Bone, I’d been experimenting with prompt writing and a freer and more natural approach to writing (which is how I wrote my third book Lips Touch), and its beginnings were in a day of pure free writing. In this case, I let the narrative lead, and interesting clues would crop up—like Brimstone’s wishbone, for example — and I’d examine them, and that was how the world began to develop — as I went along. I never said, at the outset: this is going to be a book about a war between angels and devils. I had no idea. All I knew was this blue-haired girl and this horned “father” and something funky about teeth. Everything else arose organically out of those early seeds.
That said, once it did begin to take shape, I would do bits of research here and there to flesh it out, and a great deal of brainstorming on how to make the most of it.
Sections of Daughter of Smoke & Bone at times act as a retelling of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ but ‘Days of Blood & Starlight’ has no evident Shakespearian parallels. Was the process of crafting the two novels different because of this?
In Days of Blood & Starlight, Karou explains the Akiva situation to Zuzana by way of a Romeo & Juliet reference. Basically, she says: imagine Juliet wakes up in the crypt and Romeo is still alive. (Yay!) Oh. But wait. It turns out he’s killed her entire family. (Un-yay!) That, to me, is how Romeo & Juliet continues to influence the series after the end of DoSaB, as a “what if.” What if Romeo didn’t commit suicide but sought vengeance instead? How terrible would it be for the lovers to be reunited after that? Can something like that ever be forgiven? That was my set-up. I should say, that was what I set myself up for, and at the beginning of writing Days of Blood & Starlight, I was shaking my fist at myself. I’d given myself this impossible challenge!
I have fear, as a writer, because of my process, which involves a lot of faith in my future self. (“Future-me will figure this out. Just leave it to Future-me.”) But the alternative—plotting it all out in advance—has just never worked for me, so this is what I do.
Your characters are all deeply layered, brimming with conflicts and flaws. How do you approach crafting them? Do you tackle villains differently from your heroes? Do you have a favorite to write? Is there one that changed or surprised as you were writing him/her?
Oops. I sort of answered this in #4 so I’ll avoid repetition and focus on:
Villains versus heroes. I don’t consciously do anything differently. In all cases, I’m trying to understand what drives the characters, what they want, what they fear, what shaped them, etc. Villains are fun, though. One of my favorite movie lines of all time is from Wings of Desire, when one angel says to another, with true longing, “Just once, to enthuse for evil!”
Favorite to write: different favorites in different ways. Zuzana and Mik are always a ray of light for me, both because they’re fun and because something about Zuzana’s voice comes with such relative ease. I think she’s my brave tiny alter ego!
Characters who surprised me: all the time! I feel like if they don’t surprise me, I’m probably doing something wrong. Most recently, the new major character who appears in Dreams, Eliza, didn’t end up being who I thought she was. I’ll say no more ☺
Peripheral characters in Daughter of Smoke & Bone (like Hazael and especially Liraz) receive much more attention and development in ‘Days of Blood & Starlight.’ Did you have to do more exploration of these characters as you wrote, or were their perspectives already clear to you?
With character development, as with world-building, I took an organic approach throughout the writing of this series. Characters developed when the narrative demanded them to. I had ideas about Liraz and Hazael, for example, but I didn’t try to figure them out too concretely until I was able to do so in the writing of scenes. I find that it’s in writing scenes — not in brainstorming or note-making — that the important things come to light, and often they’re surprising, nothing I could have planned, so I’m always striving to create the conditions for that to happen.
For me, there’s no place that a book is more alive than when characters are talking to each other. Dialogue and interaction are where they become who they are, and where we as writers and readers discover who they are. And though in theory I know I’m the one creating these dialogues and interactions, the thing I’m always chasing as a writer is the moment that characters and narrative “come alive” and “take on life of their own,” where it doesn’t feel I’m strictly in charge anymore. It’s magical and mysterious and thrilling. I could point to a hundred things in this series that happened spontaneously in the loose writing of a scene and then became critically important. I kind of think this is where the idea of a muse comes from, because when this happens, there is a feeling of some obscure guiding hand of inspiration.
The Stelians represent a force of extreme power, but their goals are shrouded in mystery. Can you tell us anything about how they may influence the tide of the Seraph/Chimaera war?
Ah, the Stelians. My last answer really applies to them. I was content in the writing of Daughter and Days to let the Stelians remain shadowy, even to myself. It wasn’t until they took the stage, so to speak, in Dreams (chapters 8 and 39 in particular), that I started to see who they were. It was deeply thrilling — in the case of both chapters, the kind of stand – out memorable writing moment I live for. In the case of Chapter 39, I was sure that I would write a spin-off about one particular character. Now that the initial high has worn off? It’s still a possibility.
About Laini Taylor
Laini Taylor is the author of the National Book Award Finalist Lips Touch: Three Times, as well as the novels Blackbringer and Silksinger. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, illustrator Jim Di Bartolo, and their daughter.
The Dreams of Gods and Monsters releases on April 8 and can be purchased through the Hachette website.