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An Interview with R.L. LaFevers

Photobucket [1]Today’s interview of author and WU contributor Robin LaFevers [2] was born out of fan-girl love by WU contributor and author Ann Aguirre [3]. It’s fun, freewheeling, and packed with writerly insights.

Robin was raised on a steady diet of fairy tales, Bulfinch’s mythology, and 19th century poetry. It is not surprising she grew up to be a hopeless romantic. She has also spent a large portion of her life being told she was making up things that weren’t there, which only proves she was destined to write fiction. She is the author of fourteen books for young readers. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY [4], is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. Her books have received numerous state awards and have sold in over nine countries. Though she has never trained as an assassin or joined a convent, she has been on a search for answers to life’s mysteries for as long as she can remember.

Robin also co-founded the popular Shrinking Violets blog [5], a marketing resource and support group for introverted authors.


Ann: Hi Robin! I’m allowed to call you Robin, right? We’re totally besties since we met for 45 seconds (I was timing it) at RWA, and I have successfully wrangled the second book in your amazing Assassin series. I regret nothing. I’ll allow our readers to groan and gnash their teeth for a few seconds. Now then… onward to the juicy stuff.

Robin: (Introverts—let this be a lesson to you. Introducing myself to Ann was a total ‘outside my social comfort zone’ moment—but I recognized her name from WU and was trying to convince myself that part of the point of going to conferences is making an effort to meet new people. Not only did she not bite, but she was charming and gracious. Lucky me!)

Ann: You write the most amazing books. I know that’s not a question, but I can only do interviews fan-girl style. So for the sake of clarity, imagine I’m bouncing up and down because I love your books that much. That said, I was particularly captivated by the gritty realism and the historical detail in your world. How much of that did you draw from actual historical precedent?

Robin: Nearly all of the historical details in the book were factual or based on historical events. Well, except for the convent that serves the patron saint of Death, but even that had an historical precedent in that many of the early pagan gods or goddesses were co-opted by the early church in order to make their new religion more familiar and comfortable for the local populations.

All of the treachery and double crossing were based on actual events as well. In fact, I reduced by at least half the number of conflicting claims to the throne and the political conspiracies because the sheer weight of all that threatened to sink the more personal story I was trying to tell.

As for the details, well, I’ve been fascinated by that historical period for a long time and have done a lot of research over the years, just to feed my own curiosity. Disease, war, cruel overlords, high mortality rates—as melodramatic or cliché as they might sound, they were also the reality of the time.

Plus any time the power goes out for more than a day I become aware of just how much their lives were tied to the natural world and just how inconvenient and time consuming that can be. :-)

Ann: Did you learn anything that surprised you about the medieval lifestyle? If so, what? (It doesn’t matter if it made it into the book.)

Robin: One of the things I had not realized was how young medieval society was. One book estimated the number of people under twenty-one in the late 14th century at fifty percent! Once I read that, it explained a great deal as to why the time period was so impetuous and dramatic, with lofty romantic ideals existing alongside raw, four-year-old power grabs and tantrums. It was, essentially, an adolescent society with teens and very young adults wielding a fair amount of power.

Another tidbit I learned was so surprising to me that it became a seed for the idea behind Grave Mercy [4]. Some medieval women preferred to enter a convent rather than become a wife or mother because nuns were allowed much more independence and relative autonomy than the more traditional societal roles. That was a huge eye opener for me as to just how powerless women were back then.

The third thing that I was continually surprised by was just how much free rein was granted the noble classes, especially the ruling class. They could do whatever they liked—especially if it didn’t affect other nobles’ power or territory—and there was very little recourse for the common man. I think that’s especially hard to wrap our modern minds around—that total lack of protection afforded them by the societal structure. In Book Two, a number of the cruelties attributed to one of the characters were lifted directly from actual historical figures such as Pedro the Cruel [6].

Ann: Your male characters ring so true, which makes them even hotter. Sometimes as I’m reading, I think the hero is too good to be true; a male would never say or do that, no matter how much we wish he would. How did you come by your understanding of the male psyche? In your mind, what’s the key to writing a hero for whom readers will swoon? (Both Gavriel & Beast qualify for different reasons. But Gavriel Duval? Even his name is delicious. Readers, her heroes are so tasty.)

Photobucket [4]Robin: Oh how I wish I could arch one eyebrow mysteriously and say in a sultry voice, “Why experience, dahling. Surely those sixty-seven lovers I’ve had taught me something!” But alas, the truth is much more mundane. In a word—brothers.

I grew up with seven brothers. Two of them were my full brothers but five of them came into my life when I was about ten or eleven so I ended up entering puberty—and becoming aware of males in an entirely different way—with three boys who were only a year or two ahead of me in the puberty department. We were all painfully and uncomfortably aware of each other in exceptionally awkward ways. But, as they say, it’s all fodder, and I learned a lot about the male species.

I also have two sons and spent years hosting all their friends. Our house was always the go-to place for paintball, lizard catching, snake charming, archery practice, and all the general mayhem most other houses didn’t allow. If you watch that many guys grow from boys into men, you can’t help but learn something about their psyche. Also? As my brothers and sons and husband can attest to, I make them all talk to me about ALL THE THINGS—often under duress. :-)

Ann: I could ramble on for hours about how amazing I find your heroines. They embody strength in so many ways, and I adore your treatment of Sybella in book two. But I’ll focus on Ismae (love that name, too) for the sake of readers who are dying inside because I’ve read book two and they haven’t. Otherwise, this interview would just be cruel. So tell me about Ismae; how did she come to life for you?

Robin: Ismae’s voice came to me pretty much as it appeared in the book. One day she just began talking to me, telling me her story, beginning with that first line in the book.

I bear a deep red stain that runs from my left shoulder down to my right hip, a trail left by the herbwitch’s poison that my mother used to try to expel me from her womb.

Of course, she spoke only long enough to intrigue me, so then I had to discover who this girl was.

For each book one of the first things I do is start a character journal for the protagonist. I jot down snippets and bits of what I think I know about them, then expound on that. For Ismae, I had a really strong sense of her strengths and weaknesses, what her emotional scars were and how those scars influenced how she interacted with the world. I spent a lot of time trying to really understand what her worldview would be like. What sort of lens does a 15th century turnip farmer’s daughter view life through? What would her points of reference be, what influences would color her thinking? One of the reasons I write so many drafts is because after a certain point, the only way I can learn those things about a character is to plop them in the story and see how they react to story events and other characters.

After about three notebooks worth of journaling and three or four exploratory drafts, she was finally real to me, but I was having a hard time getting her to be as vibrant on the page as she was in my head. There were so many huge personalities and so many dramas going on in the story, it was easy for her to get lost. This was made even trickier because due to her station in life, she was not particularly well educated or self aware so things that another protagonist might observe about herself had to come through Ismae’s actions rather than her narrative.

I switched from 3rd person POV to 1st, and that helped some but I was still having trouble. So I returned to character journaling. The problem was, I already knew all the meaty juicy stuff I needed to know about her past, so I tried writing journal entries as if she was journaling each day’s dramatic events and tried to be her as I moved through those events and then recount it in a stream of consciousness type way—which is what brought me to present tense. Everything clicked from that point on, which was frustrating for two reasons. One, I never particularly planned on using present tense, and two, I was already on the seventh or eighth draft of the story. So my sheer relief that I’d found the key was tempered somewhat by all the head thumping I was doing at the thought of such a major rewrite.

Ann: The Fair Assassin books are so meticulously researched, so beautifully written that I’m awed, seriously. They are the perfect blend of action and emotional intensity with an epic feel, but they don’t ever seem bloated. Everything that happens, needs to, and I’m so impressed by your work. Do you plot extensively? Tell me a little about your process. I saw on Twitter that you recently made an Office Depot run to buy supplies for multiple collages. Paint a picture as to what that’s about for our readers, okay?

Robin: Oh my writing process! It is such a right brain/left brain, intuitively structured mess of a process. But it is mine and I’m stuck with it. I do plot extensively, but usually after doing a lot of raw character journaling and other such ‘feed the muse’ type activities.

I make collage boards, Photobucket [7]I draw floor plans and maps and create wardrobes and accessories for my characters. I know a lot of people consider those types of activities to be procrastination, but for my process at least, they are most assuredly not. All of those help me build the world and the characters and make it absolutely three dimensional and real inside my head. Until it is real to me, I can’t make it real to the readers. Plus, creativity and play are closely related and when I allow myself to play like that, I find the writing comes more freely and with less pain. Of course, I can also write without it, but I find the benefits far outweigh the procrastination potential. Also, when I play like that I find my subconscious leaves me some awesome breadcrumbs—those intriguing bits that seem like throwaway lines until revision and then you recognize they were critical touchstones you just didn’t realize you needed yet. Hm, it just occurred to me–maybe it’s a sort of focused creative meditation. Yeah, let’s call it that, shall we? :-)

Regardless of what we call it, I do all that either before or while I’m writing the beginning of the book. For me, the first act of the book is about nailing the voice and casting the storytelling net out far and wide and discovering all the different plot layers going on. Also during this time I often figure out what the major turning points are going to be as well as the All is Lost moment and final resolution—mostly because they are organic to the character.

Then after about a hundred pages I get panicky and wonder if all this stuff will actually support an entire book, so I stop and pull out the big plotting guns, my Save The Cat template, my colored index cards, my color coded spreadsheets, and the collage gives way to a storyboard. Thus reassured that this is not a sprawling mess, I slog on for another hundred pages then do it all over again because once I hit the midpoint I have to begin weaving all those threads together in an increasingly suspenseful and emotionally charged way, winding that spring tighter and tighter.

Photobucket [8]For Grave Mercy in particular, I had so many different subplots and characters scheming that I made charts, noting the beats of action they would take—and when.

For book two, Dark Triumph [9], I had fewer spreadsheets and plotting issues and more uncomfortable emotional dumpster diving. Each book has its own unique birthing pains.

(Also? This is why I am so IN AWE of you and how many books you can write and juggle without going insane.)

Ann: What’s the last book you read that totally rocked your world and why?

Robin: That’s one of the (very few!) downsides to being a writer—the longer I’m at this, the harder it is to find books that truly rock my world. It’s harder and harder to find books that are so good that they shut up the writer/editor part of my brain, and to cross over into rock my world territory? Extremely rare. That usually happens when a book completely opens my eyes to a new way of telling stories or showing me that writers are ‘allowed’ to do something that I hadn’t really thought about before. Three books that did this (relatively) recently are:

THE LOST CONSPIRACY by Francis Hardinge – just for it’s sheer verve in storytelling and brilliant plotting and complexity. Plus she drew on what felt like a completely new mythology, so it totally worked for me.

INCARCERON by Catherine Fisher – I was astounded at the sheer audacity of the storytelling in this one, how she bravely pulled together such different tones and worlds and made them work brilliantly. The book reminded me to take risks.

And LIPS TOUCH by Laini Taylor – I was struck by the gorgeousness of Laini’s prose and by her sheer genius at dramatic details. But also, I was so impressed by her use of omniscient POV. I think omniscient is SO HARD to pull off and can often be the default of beginning writers, but this book showed how it could be done masterfully.

Thanks so much for chatting with me today, Robin! I’m waiting with great excitement for your third book. Readers, you can learn more about Robin and her novels on her website [2], and by following her on Twitter [10].

Do you have questions for Ms. LaFevers? Ask them in comments!

About Ann Aguirre [11]

Ann Aguirre [3] is a bestselling, multi-published author with a degree in English Literature. She is a prolific writer, with nine releases [12] planned for 2011 alone. She writes romantic science fiction and urban fantasy under her own name. As Ava Gray [13], she writes high-octane romances. She also writes "hot paranormal apocalyptic action" with fellow author Carrie Lofty [14] under the pseudonymn Ellen Connor [15]. Follow her on Twitter [16].