Leigh Bardugo on bringing her Grisha YA trilogy to a close

Los Angeles TimesJune 28, 2014 

Leigh Bardugo created a darkly magic world inspired by Tsarist Russia for her debut book, the YA novel "Shadow and Bone," entrancing enough to be optioned by DreamWorks. It and its sequel, "Siege and Storm," were best-sellers, and now Bardugo brings her Grisha trilogy to a close with "Ruin and Rising" (Henry Holt and Co., $18.99).

Bardugo was born in Jerusalem, attended Yale and lives in Los Angeles, where she has worked doing film makeup and performed in a band. These days, she mostly writes.

She chatted with us by phone to tell us more about her process and creating Ravka, the mystical world in which the trilogy is set. The series follows Alina Starkov, who has been trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite. In the third book, with Ravka ruled by the mysterious Darkling, it is up to a weakened Alina to forge alliances to find the firebird -- the one thing standing between Ravka and destruction.

How did your experience writing the final book of the trilogy compare to writing the first two books?

I thought the third book would be the easiest to do because I outlined extensively -- I've basically known where this book was going for years. But I discovered that wasn't the case.

The third book seemed to be about closing doors, whereas one and two were all about opening them. It wasn't as easy as I had expected and it was surprisingly emotional. I've always kind of smirked at authors who said they cried when they killed off a character or when they wrote something difficult into their books -- I'm really going to eat my hat on that one since I definitely when through that with my third book.

Had you mapped out the way you were going to close the trilogy when you were writing the first book?

Not when I wrote the first book. "Shadow and Bone" was my first book and my only goal when I started writing it was to finish it, because I had started a lot of books and they really hadn't gotten past the first or second chapter.

The idea of completing a trilogy was not anywhere in my thoughts. But about halfway through, I realized that this was not meant to be a one-book story and I could see a much broader picture. But I didn't know if anybody would even want the first book so I just kept notes for the second and third books and had my fingers crossed.

You've mentioned in the past that while Ravka is not Russia, you turned to Russian cultural influences to build the world. Can you tell me a little bit about that process?

I love fantasies with a medieval, European inspiration. Some of my favorite books take their inspiration from medieval Europe, medieval England in particular. But I knew I wanted to take readers some place a little bit different with this story. And I also knew that I wanted modern warfare to play a part.

Going in, I knew I wanted to explore some place that would be new to me. And Russia was a very natural fit. There were already dynamics emerging in the story -- a desire to industrialize, a largely conscripted army, a huge gap in wealth and resources between the rich and the poor.

I also think that people who don't know anything about Russia still have very strong associations with it. And they tend to have associations that are both very beautiful (the winter palace, Faberge eggs and the Bolshoi Ballet), and also very brutal (the Gulag, bread lines and mass graves). So, in a way, it lends itself very powerfully already to a fantasy world that would be both familiar and, I hope, transporting.

What did you find the challenges to be when building the Ravkan language system?

To be fair, I didn't create an entire language. And I used to have a lot of misgivings about that until I heard a number of fantasy authors I really respect say they did not take the Tolkien approach and build a whole language first, and then write the book.

I built what I needed. Russian can be incredibly impenetrable if you don't have any knowledge of it. In some cases I wanted to use Latinate roots, with a word like "Corporalki" or "Poliznaya," that would have an instant, resonance for a Western reader. But then I would use a Russian cognate to finish it or build it out.

Science fiction and fantasy novels played a huge role helping you through a difficult juncture in your life during junior high. What was it about the genre that helped you so much, and often helps other YA readers going through similar experiences?

I think that there's this tendency to look at genre fiction, science fiction and fantasy, as escapist. But really, all reading is escapist in one way or another, even if it's nonfiction.

But I think the thing that was different for me was that science fiction and fantasy were expansive. They include new worlds that were so much bigger and more exciting than mine. Worlds where the things that were important were being prepared, being diplomatic, being political, being strong -- all of those things came into play in a way that they just don't when you're in junior high and high school. What matters when you're in school is being pretty or being popular or being great at a sport, and I was none of those things.

So these were worlds where being smart and clever were valued and would get you through hard times. We sometimes live in a world that doesn't value or achievements or talents very much, and in YA having your potential recognized is a big thing.

You've already received a two-book deal for your next project, "The Dregs," set in the same universe as this trilogy. What prompted that decision as opposed to creating an entirely new world?

If you see a map in "Siege and Storm," you'll see that there are a lot of countries I didn't get to go to or explore that much in the trilogy, and Kerch was a big one for me. Ravka is this nation that has really been kept in a stranglehold by this swath of darkness called the Shadow Fold. They've been cut off from the ports and harbors, and from free trade with the outside world. And I wanted to set something in a country that was the opposite of that. And Kerch is very much that: It's this hyper-capitalist place and is the hub of all legal and illegal trade in this world.

One of the fun things for me is creating a magical system, and then findings ways to twist it this way and that. What happens when you break the rules? What kind of technological developments will occur when you have those rules? That was something I got to keep doing by keeping it in the same universe. That said, there are some times when I say, "why can't I just throw some new magic? It would make it so much easier!"

To close, I wanted to ask a few rapid-fire questions. If you were a member of the Grisha, what would you want your magical power to be?

I would really like to be a Corporalnik -- I'd love to be a Heartrender. If I was in a boring conversation with somebody, I could slowly make them fall into a low-grade coma.

But in my heart I know I don't have the guts to be a Corporalnik, so I think would probably be a Fabrikator (the "lab geeks" of the Grisha Order).

When the zombie apocalypse hits, what tools and methods would you use to ward off the zombies?

Oh honey, I'm just going to open up all of the booze and all of the bags of potato chips and tell them to make it quick! I don't have any illusions about my abilities to fight. I'm going to enjoy my last few days, invite some friends over for drinks and then let the zombies have their way.

What is the one book you would take with you if ever stranded on a deserted island?

This one is always such a killer. Alright, I would either go with "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" or "A Clash of Kings" by George R.R. Martin. It's a tough one. But the nice thing about "Harry Potter" is that it's so comforting, which is not something you get from George R.R. Martin. So maybe I'll go with "Harry Potter."

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