Rachel Hartman discusses grounding a journey of loss and self-discovery in a brilliant fantasy setting through her new novel, Tess of the Road.
Hartman is the acclaimed author of Seraphina and Shadow Scale, a duology set in the medieval kingdom of Goredd. Strictly religious, deeply hierarchical, and clumsily incorporating dragon-kind into their society, Goredd is also the setting for Hartman’s spinoff novel, Tess of the Road.
Tess of the Road follows Seraphina’s younger half-sister, who finds herself wandering the world after traumatic events drive her from her home. Along with an old friend from childhood, Tess gradually finds purpose in her journey, and uncovers both an unexpected world and the girl whom she had though lost behind trauma and tragedy.
Interview with Rachel Hartman
What inspired you to write Tess of the Road?
As always, I can’t point to just one thing. My very first inspiration was an article I read about the dearth of buddy comedy road-trip books featuring female protagonists. I thought, “Hey, I could do that! Something light and fluffy and a little bit picaresque.” I was pretty burned out after Shadow Scale, so this was supposed to be a fun, easy, quick book.
Unfortunately, I seem to be constitutionally incapable of keeping it light and fluffy. I soon realized that I had some very specific things I needed to say about misogyny, sexual assault, and coming back from trauma. I think it made for a much more interesting book, but I do kind of lament the light comedy that might have been. Someday!
What was it like to return to a similar origin point as Seraphina, but take Tess in a very different direction?
I have created this very large and complicated world, and the whole point is that there’s room in it for any kind of story I want to tell. It was great having a different viewpoint character, who will notice and understand events differently; I learn a lot of new things about my own world that way. Seeing Seraphina through Tess’s eyes was especially fun for me because Tess is not in awe of her and doesn’t hesitate to be critical. No one sees all your flaws and warts like a sister — or loves you harder in spite of them. Readers who already know Seraphina, however, and have seen her inner life in a way Tess can’t, will understand where Tess is wrong, and I think that adds a poignancy to some of their interactions.
Was the experience of or your process for writing Tess of the Road different than for Seraphina?
Every book is different. I believe it was Neil Gaiman who said, “You never learn to write a novel; you only learn to write this novel.” Tess was emotional where Seraphina was logical, and the big challenge was connecting all those emotional dots so readers could follow them. With Seraphina, there was always the danger of being too aloof; Tess, on the other hand, sometimes burned so brightly that she was hard to look at.
Tess of the Road tackles incredibly important social issues — sexual education and consent, teenage pregnancy, trauma and depression, and gender identity are just a few. How did you approach synthesizing these subjects into your fiction?
I let Tess lead the way. She was very vivid and real to me right from the beginning. She’d been hurt so badly, and she demanded absolute honesty, no hedging, no euphemisms, no ducking the hard questions. She was hurt in exactly the same way so many women have been hurt — by the people who were supposed to love and protect her, by her faith, by the very stories she’d grown up with. Her hurt was part the fabric of who she was; I didn’t have to particularly work at synthesizing it. It was going to follow her around until she dealt with it.
One thing I do want to add, however, is that the next time I write about these kinds of subjects, I’m going to engage in better self-care. I got so wrapped up in helping Tess face her traumas that my own kind of crept up on me without my noticing and camped out in my life again. Taking breaks, talking to friends, singing, exercise — these are my go-to strategies. Sometimes you have to put up some boundaries between yourself and your own work if it’s getting really intense!
What was it like to tackle these very real-world ideas in the context of a fantasy world?
Fantasy is a great place for exploring these kinds of issues. This, to me, is what fantasy is for: to mythologize our experiences and help us get at the truth through metaphor. Going off in search of a giant serpent is not, literally, the solution to anyone’s trauma, but it’s open to interpretation. What is the World Serpent to you? What is the thing that puts your pain in perspective, gives you new understandings, or lets you finally forgive yourself? Fantasy isn’t so much intended to give definitive answers as explore questions deeply and from a variety of angles. I like to show that there are always more alternatives.
What was the most challenging part of writing Tess of the Road?
Taking criticism from my editor. I wrote this book in 3rd person so that I could have a bit more emotional distance from it, but even that wasn’t enough when it came time to read my editor’s comments. We had trouble communicating about Tess’s emotional trajectory, which just wasn’t making sense to him. I was honestly worried that I’d written a book only women could understand. My very helpful beta readers disabused me of this notion, and talking to my editor on the phone helped reassure me that he wasn’t out to get me, he just couldn’t connect all the emotional dots. We finally agreed that when he couldn’t understand why Tess was feeling the way she was feeling, he should treat it like a math problem and say, “Rachel, could you show your work in a bit more detail, so I can see how you arrived at this answer?” That was an extremely helpful way of reframing it, which allowed me to settle down and fix the actual problems.
How did the book change most between your first draft and finished novel?
The ending was originally a lot grimmer. It had Tess’s ex-boyfriend reappearing at the last second and sending Tess back into a downward spiral, which was very upsetting and kind of a cliff-hanger. Everyone told me it was like being punched in the gut, but I am evidently a very mean person and wouldn’t listen to their pleas.
Finally it was my agent, Dan Lazar, who found the way to persuade me. He said, “If he comes back, then the story becomes all about the boy. Couldn’t we have Tess go out on a high note? Then it’s entirely her story, beginning to end.” I realized he was right, and finally relented. Sometimes when an idea has been with you from the very beginning, and it’s very dramatic, it’s hard to let go of it.
Tess of the Road reads very episodically, as Tess comes across new experiences and adventures. What was that like to write, and were you inspired by other sojourn-style novels?
I like to think of this as a Bildungsroman in the classic sense: a novel about growth. And I think the episodic format reflects how this really happens for most people. We try, fall, get up again, keep moving. The journey — both literal and internal — is what matters most. The biggest challenge was getting all the parts in the right order, so that Tess’s growth was really clear. There were a few parts that I knew had to be there, but it took a long time to really understand why because they were in the wrong place, or I was using them wrong. Griss, for example, initially seemed to be some kind of King Lear figure, but I couldn’t make that work at all.
Super hard question coming at you! Who did you like writing more: Tess or Seraphina?
Tess was more cathartic, certainly, but catharsis does not always equal fun. I liked both of them, but for different reasons. With Seraphina, I took great joy in writing about music; I could really pull out all the poetic stops and make it beautiful. Tess, on the other hand, has such a big heart. Once she started defusing some of her anger, it was wonderful experiencing other flavors of transcendence with her.
Finally, would you rather be a book, a computer, or a dragon?
A dragon, without question. In fact, do we really have any proof that I’m not one already?
Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman is available on Feb. 27 everywhere books are sold.