Meet the Queens of Young Adult Fantasy Fiction: Cassandra Clare and Holly Black

New York Times best-selling authors Cassandra Clare and Holly Black brought magic into the stage as they embarked on a series of book signing events in the Philippines, organized by the National Book Store.

Dubbed as “The King and Queen Tour,” Clare and Black spent the weekend in SM City Cebu and SM Megamall to meet their fans and promote their latest works, The Queen of Air and Darkness and The Wicked King.

I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to sit down with the two authors and talk about their experiences in the Philippines, the inspiration behind their critically-acclaimed works, and what it means to be young adult fantasy fiction writers.

You’ve just had a successful book signing over the weekend in SM City Cebu and in Megamall—congratulations! How was it to finally meet your Filipino fans? Were there any favorite moments from the book signing?

Cassandra Clare: I think for me, it was great to finally meet all these people that I’ve been communicating with for 10 years online, and to actually be able to put faces to names in some cases. For me, my favorite part was the people who came up to me, who clearly have been reading the books for 10 years, to say, “You were a big part of my childhood. You’ve been a part of my teen years.” I really like that. It’s the first time I’ve been here so we’ve probably never had the chance to meet before so this is also the first time we’re meeting and they’re telling me that I’ve been present in their life for a long time.

Holly Black: That was true for me, too. Seeing people who had had an emotional connection with my books. People who were adults who had Spiderwick when they were kids and look for Faerie evidence. Kids who read Tithe when they were young and told me about the difference it made in their lives. It is intense in the sense that you’re there and you’re signing, and you really wish you could, at that moment, have a longer conversation. But it’s also just so nice, and on a totally fun side, it was fun to see all the cosplay.

CC: I love the cosplay!

HB: It was just really fun.

You have authored a number of well-received book series that have been read and adored by thousands. I’m curious about the writing process. In your personal experiences, what did you find harder to write: the first book where you began to weave together fictional worlds, or the following books in the series as you expanded these worlds knowing that you had to keep the fans interested?

HB: The hardest book that I ever wrote was my first book because I had no idea how to write a book. I still think even now, the first book in a series, to me, is the hardest book because you have to set everything up. It doesn’t matter how much you planned it. When you’re in it, you are still meeting those characters for the first time. You’re getting their voice right and you’re figuring out the nuances of the magic system.You’re figuring out the landscape of the world and the aesthetic and all of that. For me, there’s nothing harder than that first book.

CC: I was gonna say the same thing. The first is the hardest because you’re getting to know the [characters], who they are exactly, and they change a lot as you’re writing. I think that’s the most difficult part. Whereas the later books, you feel comfortable with those people and you know who they are, the choices they will make.

What is it about the genre that you found most captivating? What made you want to commit to young adult fantasy fiction?

CC: I think for me, it’s because those were the books that were most important to me when I was growing up. Even when I was older. I was reading YA all through my life, into my 20’s and 30’s. There was something about the fact that those were the books that I had loved the most and affected me most profoundly when I was growing up. I wanted to write those kind of books for myself and for other people as well. There’s something about reading about people, figuring out who they are and who they want to be—that is really meaningful.

HB: I stumbled into YA and I found it to be such a great place to write. Unlike in adult fiction where different genres are spread out through bookstores and through libraries, the great thing about YA is you could blend genres. You can write in somewhat different genres. You can write in extremely different genres. Your readers, because they’re experiencing this for the first time, don’t know it’s unusual. There’s no reason why you can’t mix crime fiction with romance and on a spaceship, like there’s nothing about that that says, “Oh, no, you have to pick. Where does this go?” I think that’s a really exciting thing.

Do you plan on trying your hand on a different genre, veer away from YA?

CC:  Yeah, I’ve actually, just a little while ago, sold a new series called Sword Catcher, which is adult high fantasy so it’s more like Game of Thrones. It takes place in a world that’s completely invented and the characters are all adults so I’m excited about writing that because it’s gonna be really different.

HB: I played around in middle-grade and YA. Also in comics. I, too, am gonna write an adult book. I am still messing around with it but I think it’s something I really want to try.

Who were your biggest literary influences growing up?

HB: There’s a British fantasy writer Tanath Lee, that we both read when we were young. I know we both read The Lord of the Rings.

CC: I would say The Lord of the Rings, [J.R.R.] Tolkien. C.S. Lewis, the Narnia books. Susan Cooper, who wrote The Dark is Rising books. Anne Rice, who wrote The Vampire Chronicles, which were my first urban fantasy books.

HB: Can we share Anne Rice? And then, probably Charles de Lint and Terry Windling. A lot of things that Terry Windling edited. Early elfpunk I think pushed me into the direction of writing about faeries. Probably Neil Gaiman; when I was reading The Sandman, I think really was the first time I thought about mixing horror and the first time I even considered it myself as a horror reader.

You’ve both focused on mythical and folkloric imagery for both The Shadowhunter Chronicles and The Folk of the Air series, reimagining age-old tales to create new fantastical worlds. Cassandra, you merged pagan and Judeo-Christian mythologies. Holly, you gave a fresh perspective to European folklore. What about these mythologies piqued your interest and inspired you to build your bestselling stories around them?

CC: It sounds weird, but I was always fascinated by the mythology in Paradise Lost and in Dante’s Inferno, and the whole sort of mythology of angels and demons and the story of this war in heaven—that the angels rebelled against the God who made them. I was fascinated with that all of my life, and I think when I sat down to create the Shadowhunters world, I thought, “How do I create a story, mythology that’s based on those source texts?” So [that’s where] the idea that these Shadowhunters are the offspring of angels, that basically, the source of everything is war in heaven, the creation of demons, the effect the demons have on the world and how [Shadowhunters] fight them came from.

HB: One thing that fascinates me about Faerie is, in part, is that they are not one creature but an ecosystem. They are nixies and pixies and sprites and kelpies—all of whom are different. The other thing is that, unlike vampires or werewolves, they are not human and they have never been human. They are completely other and they have another moral system. They are creatures that laugh at funerals and cry at weddings. That is really interesting to play with, and I really enjoy the moments in which you see faerie characters and you think, “Sure, they have experienced things the way humans do, and you come up against them and then they just don’t.” The last thing is I think about Faerie fruit a lot—it’s so delicious, every other food is ashes in your mouth. I think of Faerie as being a place of ruinous beauty. It’s so amazing, so lovely, so lush, that you want it but it might ruin you, might destroy you.

Young adult fantasy fiction is a very popular genre among young readers, often serving an important part in establishing their love for literature. Personally, it played an integral part in the process of realizing that I want to be a writer. That considered, what can you say to people who are still doubtful about the genre, to say the least?

CC: I think people tend to dismiss young adult fiction in general and young adult fantasy fiction because they tend to dismiss teenagers. There is an attitude of dismissal toward [them]. It’s worthwhile to write books for [children] because it’s important that they are educated and they learn. But there’s something that happens when people turn 11 or 12, and suddenly a lot of the adult world begins to dismiss them as if the idea is that they’re silly and their interests are silly. My feeling is, we were all that age and it is not true that that is an era and time in which people are less interesting, less worthwhile, less interested in that which is meaningful than when they’re younger or older. In fact, that is the time period in which people are deciding what kind of person they want to be. I think that it’s important to remember that these are books about people in a crucial time in their lives who are basically forming the human being that they are and making these big choices. And that also so many books are actually about that that aren’t classified as young adult fiction that people do read and are fascinated by. If they look back on most of the big fantasy books that they’ve ever read or many many books that are classics, books like Charles Dickens, often start with the protagonist in their teenage years. If they’ve ever read a coming-of-age book, they are basically reading YA and I guess I would say to not be afraid of something that’s just a marketing label.

HB: The thing that people are uncomfortable about YA is that often teen fiction features teenagers doing things that teenagers do that people may find a little bit uncomfortable. They’re learning how to navigate the world, relationships for the first time, and that is fraught. They’re going out on their own and making decisions on their own, and that is also fraught. When I was a kid, there was some YA, but there wasn’t very much, and most people I knew moved quickly to adult. If we don’t write books that appeal to teenagers and address the real concerns of teenagers, they’ll just go read adult books. I think that that’s why it’s so important to be realistic and to write about stuff that might be uncomfortable but is actually relevant to their lives.

Both of you had your novels be adapted into a film. First of all, I’m curious about your participation in those adaptations. Did you get to be hands-on with the screenplay? Were you consulted regularly?

CC: For me, no. I had a little bit of input into aspects of things on the movie like the casting and the set, but the screenplay was definitely strictly off-limits. There are really strict rules in Hollywood about who can work on a screenplay. You have to be part of the Writers Guild. There’s all this other stuff, and so you’re not allowed to have any involvement with it. You can give feedback, but that’s about it. I did give some feedback. With the TV show, I’ve had basically zero input or any participation at all.

HB: A lot of times people ask us “will you make this into a movie?” and my impression is that there is an idea that we can be involved. I was allowed to be an executive producer for Spiderwick. I had a great experience. I did not have control of the script. [laughs] We got to see the screenplay. We got to give our thoughts, but we had no real power. I have nothing but good things to say about the movie, but I think it’s really important that fans and readers understand that this is a multimillion-dollar industry and it is very, very, very rare for the writer to be able to control what happens.

CC: I think people focus on the very rare instances where the writer is involved. Famously, J.K. Rowling was involved with the Harry Potter movies. Suzanne Collins, I believe, was somewhat involved, George R. R. Martin has had some involvement, though it’s important to remember that George R. R. Martin and Suzanne Collins began as screenwriters and they were in the Writers Guild, so that’s a big part of why they were involved. J.K. was the biggest writer in the world, so they couldn’t not involve her. But those are the exceptions, not the rule. Usually, people are not involved.

I understand that fans are often quite critical about movie adaptations giving justice to the original literary text. Personally, what do you think about movie adaptations of novels in general? And as a follow-up, what are your thoughts on the movie adaptations of your own novels?

HB: I think the movie adaptations can be great. Certainly, they bring a bigger audience to whatever it is. Sometimes they’re great, sometimes they’re not great, right? [laughs] In terms of, again, the Spiderwick movie, I think they did a really good job. I think that what I look for both as a fan and for myself is I hope that they stay true to the characters. I hope they stay true to the feeling. I hope they stay true to the folklore. And I hope it’s good, more than anything else. 

CC: If they make a good movie, then at least you’re somehow responsible for inspiring a good movie I guess. There are definitely movie adaptations of books that I’ve loved. I loved The Lord of the Rings adaptation. They gave me the feelings I had when I read the books and I think that’s what you’re looking for: something that gives you the feeling you had when you read the books and renders those moments and images. The Mortal Instruments movie was fun and I enjoyed it, and it definitely diverged a lot from the books but I think they were trying to capture the spirit of the characters. I would say that the TV show is not an adaptation of the books at all. It just really didn’t have anything to do with them.

What can you advise to the younger writers who are still trying to find their own voices, and looking up to the two of you as their own literary inspirations?

HB: I like that you used “trying to find their own voices” because I think that’s such an important thing, like figuring out “what do I sound like?” I think that the only way to do that is to write a lot and to revise a lot. Not everybody wants to do this, and not everyone’s comfortable with it, but for me, I think having a critique partner made an enormous difference. Having somebody looked over my work and told me when it was working when it wasn’t working, who kept me accountable to the schedule I set myself and knew when I was slacking. Also just being a reader of their work, that’s why I say a partner, not an editor, but like a partner who’s passing you their work because the better a reader you are of someone else’s work, the better able you are to be a good reader of your own work.

CC: And I would say, just to an on to “finding your own voice”, try to think about what it is that is unique about your vision and your voice. What is it that you have to say that nobody else could say? Focus on that and how you can bring that out in your work because that’s we want to do: to contribute that thing that’s unique about you.

Over the weekend, I also asked fans via social media if they have any questions that they would like me to ask the two of you. I selected two for you to answer:

From Twitter user @B_Alley: The two of you have constructed such brilliant fantasy worldbuilding in your series, so my question would be how do you create a coherent explanation for your fantasy worlds without accidentally creating plot holes?

HB: It’s interesting because, not only have we created our own worlds, but we had to create a world together.

CC: Exactly.

HB: I think you have to poke holes in it, right? You create a thing. I always think about the magic a little bit aesthetically, like what is a magic system that thematically would go along with this story we’re trying to tell, and then, how do we now poke holes in it to fix it?

CC: One of the things that I do is I have friends who are—it’s gonna sound weird—but they [do] role-playing games, and so I’ll give them the world and say “can you run a game through this world?” So they’ll play set in a world and a lot of times that will reveal if there are plot holes or things that don’t work.

From Debby via Twitter user @KANicasio: What were your inspirations when you wrote your books?

CC: I think, with Shadowhunters, I started off with Paradise Lost and with Dante’s Inferno. The most recent books are inspired by and based a bit on the poems of Edgar Allan Poe. The first book is based on “Annabel Lee”. What I loved about that poem is that it starts off as being very seems like a very sweet love poem and then as you go through the poem you realize he’s writing about a girl who is dead and it’s actually a really dark poem and that, I think, is reflected in the story.

HB: Sometimes I’m inspired by a picture, an image. It gives me a particular feeling and that’s the thematic feeling that I’m talking about. Actually, with The Folk of the Air series, there was a specific idea which basically became the prologue. There were these three girls and a guy came and argued with their mom. [He] then winds up getting into a fight with [their] mom and dad and killing both [parents], and [he takes] the three girls to Faerie land and [raises] them there. That was basically the whole idea.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

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