I got the chance to meet Sarah Beth Durst at the Brooklyn Book Festival earlier this year where she was doing a panel with Robert Jackson Bennett and N. K. Jemisin. After reading her fantastic new YA book (review here), The Queen of Blood, Sarah was kind enough to field some of my many questions about her writing process for the book and the future of the story. The transcript is below, enjoy:
I loved your decision to both give women something special, and keep men equally important in your story. What was your thought process when handling gender differences?
Creating a world is all about making decisions. You choose the fabric of your society. More than that, you choose the threads that comprise the fabric — the threads that determine the color and strength of the weave. One of the earliest decisions I made for the world of Renthia — one of the threads that I chose — was to make men and women equal. It was a very deliberate choice. I wanted to create a kind of utopia… if you ignore all the bloodthirsty nature spirits who want to kill everyone.
The Queen of Blood focuses on the importance of hard work in a word full of the naturally talented, what influenced you to make your protagonist a hard worker instead of inherently gifted?
I didn’t want to write a Chosen One story. Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely love Chosen One stories. I’ve seen every episode of Buffy, read Harry Potter at least five times, and am still waiting for Merriman Lyon to show up and tell me I’m one of the Old Ones. But for THE QUEEN OF BLOOD, I wanted to write about the one who isn’t picked to save the world, the one who isn’t qualified to be a hero, the mediocre student who has to work hard to even be on the same playing field as her peers. Daleina lacks the innate skill and talent necessary to be a queen, but she is determined to protect her family and save her world.
I wanted to write a story about someone whose true magic is her determination.
What is your favorite kind of spirit and why?
Overlooking the fact that they would want me dead… I like the air spirits. Daleina flies on the back of one that looks like an oversize ermine with bat wings (think Falcor but more vicious), and I loved writing those scenes. Granted, I would almost certainly be sick if I were flying on one — I can’t even handle roller coasters — but I enjoy imagining it sans the nausea.
I loved seeing tree villages of the protagonists homeland, but will we get the chance to explore the other countries in your world and do they differ significantly in how they live with the spirits?
Yes! We’ll definitely see some other lands in future books (especially book three).
The relationship between spirits and humans is the same across Renthia: the spirits want to kill the humans, and the humans don’t want to die. But there’s variation in what type of spirit is dominant in each country. Aratay is filled with mostly tree spirits, who have created massive forests of trees the size of skyscrapers. To the north, Semo has a lot of earth spirits so it’s a land with sky-piercingly huge mountains. In the east, Elhim is dominated by enormous glaciers. And so forth. Renthia is a world of extreme natural beauty, thanks to the spirits.
Were there any books you drew from as inspiration when writing The Queen of Blood? In particular when crafting your magical school?
One of the coolest things about writing fantasy is that you can build on all the literature that has come before. You can take the tropes (such as the Chosen One or the magic school) and really play with reader expectation by either using or subverting those traditions. So while I didn’t craft my world based on any other book in particular, I did shape it with the knowledge of Hogwarts and Pern and Narnia and Tortall and Valdemar and other worlds.
I think all books are written in conversation with all other books. So I’d have to say my inspiration was everything I’ve ever read.
Did you intentionally make friendship a key theme of the book and if so why?
Nope. That arose naturally. I knew from the beginning that Daleina (the idealistic student) and Ven (the banished warrior) would have a student-mentor kind of friendship, rather than a romantic relationship, and I knew that Daleina would have classmates, but I never specifically sat down and said, “Let’s write about friendship.” It evolved on its own. I think it’s important to leave enough space in the creative process for that to happen.
Do you read fantasy and Science Fiction yourself and what are some of your favorite books?
It’s pretty much all I read. I know, I know, it would be good for me to read more broadly, but I love fantasy and science fiction so much! As it is, my to-read stack is so tall that if it fell, it could crush a small mammal.
Some of my favorites are Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce, The Belgariad by David Eddings, The Martian by Andy Weir, The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson, and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley.
What are you hoping to bring to the book in the sequel? How will it expand on the story so far?
Book two, THE RELUCTANT QUEEN, adds a new point-of-view character, Naelin, a middle-age woman with immense power who doesn’t want to use it because she’s afraid that if she does, she’ll die, and she doesn’t want to leave her children motherless. At their heart, these books are about power: who has it, who wants it, what you do with it, and what it does to you.