Laini Taylor dives deep into the craft and development of her breathtaking new fantasy novel, Strange the Dreamer.
Laini Taylor on ‘Strange the Dreamer’
Strange the Dreamer is set in a world with an incredibly rich mythology, both personal and historical. Which element of the story came to you first, and how did the rest of the story develop from there?
The starting point was a character: the Muse of Nightmares. She’d been in my head for years (possibly twenty years, or more) as this nocturnal young woman who lives in a tower high above a city, and is responsible for sending nightmares to the citizens below. Years ago I tried to write a story about her but didn’t get anywhere. At some point this other idea came into play, about the surviving children of murdered gods, and it began to take on a vague story shape.
From there, it was a matter of dreaming up everything — the characters, the conflict, the world, the history. Whew! It’s a lot. It reminds me of the Carl Sagan quote: “If you want to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Writing the sequel now, it’s nice to have most of that stuff already invented. I’d like to think I can pretty much just bake my pie now, except that there are whole new things to be invented for this part of the story.
What was the most challenging part of the story for you to write? Was it the plotting process, the world building, or something else?
You know, I had a particularly hard time finding my way into this one. I started with a premise and a main character, and I wrote like thirty different opening chapters or groups of chapters, discarding all of them. Nothing felt quite right. A lot of writers are able to blaze through this stage and come back to it later when they know more, and that sounds incredibly sane and wonderful, but I have to build the foundation for the story or I’m not going to get anywhere. Sometimes writing a book feels like being lost in a labyrinth of choices. Every few steps there’s a new choice to make, and you wander around getting lost and hitting dead ends and backtracking and second-guessing everything.
It was frustrating and scary, because time was ticking by and the story was just eluding me, though most of those discarded chapters gave me little pieces of world or character to hang onto in my next attempt. Lazlo even lived in a crypt in one version, with its front door barricaded by dozens of statue heads that a lonely queen had had hewed off of sculptures to keep her company in the afterlife!
Finally, through sheer cussedness (and cussingness), I had some breakthroughs and managed to get the first act written. (Though I should add that, a few months later, after having written Act 2, I scrapped Act 1 and wrote it from scratch again!)
The romance of Strange the Dreamer plays out in a really unique way. Can you talk about how you decided to construct and develop that relationship?
Well, it’s a natural consequence of the logic of the story. The two main characters, Lazlo and Sarai, aren’t in the same place: he’s in the city and she’s in the citadel. But since Sarai’s magical ability enables her to enter and manipulate dreams, they meet that way.
I want to say that I was hesitant about this, because I myself am easily annoyed by dream sequences in books and movies, so I took care to avoid my own pet peeves. Basically, these scenes play out like real encounters, except that both characters can manipulate their environment. They aren’t crazy hallucinatory sequences or anything; they’re just more fun than reality — which is one of the things I love most about fantasy: you can do stuff you can’t in life, and it’s just more fun.
I mean, imagine you were going on a first date, and it could be anything you could dream up, instead of what happens to be around you. Lazlo gets to do that (and he does a fantastic job.) So much about this book is a love letter to fantasy and fantasy readers.
I found it really interesting that Strange the Dreamer has several antagonists, but no traditional villain. How did you approach writing these antagonists, and the overall conflict, given this choice?
When I started out writing this story, I assumed I’d cook up a villain along with the plot. This is usually important in a fantasy/adventure story, as it is most often the villain’s agenda that drives the plot, giving the protagonist something to thwart. But as I worked out my central conflict, I was experiencing a spell of fatigue with the ultra-baddie villain trope. The bar for bad guys is so high nowadays, you have to dream up some really nasty stuff to make a villain villainous — and I just didn’t want to. That’s not where I wanted to spend my time and imagination.
I mean, there were really bad guys in Weep, but they’re dead now, so the story is informed by prior violence, but I didn’t have to dramatize it. I wanted to look at how people pick up the pieces and carry on after trauma, and to what extent it’s possible to leave hatred behind. I also wanted to look at antagonists who aren’t villains to kill or defeat, but damaged people who are in need of saving too. I’m not saying I’ll never write another ultra-baddie, just that I wasn’t in that headspace for this story.
Strange the Dreamer is planned as a duology. Can you talk about that structural choice? Is the process of writing a duology different than writing a trilogy?
Oh, yeah, I totally planned it out that way from the beginning, ha ha, no I didn’t. Actually, this was meant to be a standalone. I was about eight months into it when I acknowledged the voice in my head that was whispering, “This story is kinda big,” and “Um, this is going to be a thousand-page book,” and finally talked to my agent and publisher about the possibility of splitting it in two. Luckily, they were totally down with it. Since I’m still in the first half of the second book, I’m not sure how it’s going to be different from writing a trilogy. But since the middle book tends to be the most challenging to plot, I’m hoping that having no middle book will make it easier!
The fallout from societal and personal trauma is a central theme in Strange the Dreamer, as it was in The Daughter of Smoke and Bone. What inspires your interest in this theme? What do you think can be gained from studying this in a fantasy setting?
One of the fascinations of writing for me is seeing the themes that emerge unconsciously. I find myself setting up these impossible situations that involve long-term multigenerational war and fear and hatred. (And then I’m like, thanks, me, now I have to figure out how to resolve this!) The challenge is: can people come through this and leave it behind to build something better, or are they bound to perpetuate it?
I look at situations in the world that seem utterly hopeless, and at the current political situation in the US, and the future of humanity seems pretty bleak. I guess it’s therapeutic for me to create characters who can, through will and loyalty and love and sacrifice, break the destructive patterns of hate, retaliation, greed, oppression, and persecution. And it happens that fantasy is the perfect medium for doing this. When we unhook these very familiar issues from all the baggage we bring to well-known human conflicts, we can look at them in a new way.
It’s especially crucial to see the humanity on both sides of a conflict, and to understand what happens when someone’s (or an entire people’s) psyche is shaped by trauma. Fiction in general is crucial for this, but it’s fantasy that has the ability to universalize human experience, even when the characters aren’t “human.”
Looking forward, there is a lot of mystery still left undiscovered when the book ends. What can we look forward to learning in the sequel? Will subjects like the origins of the Mesarthim come up, or will you focus on the more personal mysteries?
Yes, there is a lot of mystery still to uncover! In the sequel we’ll find out a lot more about the Mesarthim and where they came from—and why—and what happened to all the other godspawn who were born in the citadel over all those years. We’ll also, of course, pick up the conflict from the end of book 1 and see if there’s any way of resolving that…(Again, me and my impossible situations!)
I was really surprised to see the hints at links between Lazlo’s world and the world of The Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Is there further mystery to be uncovered there? Will the overlap in these epic stories become clearer in the future?
I was surprised too! That actually wasn’t in the original plan. I seem to be painting a picture of myself as a total pantser who knows nothing about her books in advance, but that’s only sort of true. I try to know as much as I can before I ever put Chapter One at the top of the page. But it’s only in the actual writing that the story and characters and world reveal themselves to me.
In the early days when Strange the Dreamer was a standalone, there was no connection with the Daughter of Smoke and Bone multiverse, but the more I discovered, the more a certain link made sense. I don’t want to give anything away, but to be clear: This duology is set in a totally different world from The Daughter of Smoke and Bone without any character crossover.
Finally — would you rather be a book or a computer?
Ha, what a question! Neither! A book though, I guess. I appreciate computers, but I also sort of hate them, and in the long term I’d much rather be a book on the shelf of a library than a pile of obsolete components in a junk heap. Books never become obsolete. I’ve been won over to e-reading this past year or two, only because the house is at maximum book capacity, but when I love a book, or strongly expect to love it, I buy a physical copy. I like for the things I love to have physical presence in the world :-)