Rachel Hartman is the author Seraphina, a clever and original story about dragons, mystery, music and a ton of other things besides. Seraphina has also gotten a fair bit of critical acclaim including being selected as the winner of the 2013 Morris Award and the 2012 Cybils. Rachel Hartman is on the blog today to answer some questions about her wonderful debut novel.
Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?
Rachel Harman (RH): You might say I took the scenic route. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, but it took me until about age thirty to decide that writing should be my career. Then it was another ten years before the book was published. I know that sounds appallingly slow, but I have no regrets. I’m a deliberator and a contemplator; I absorb and synthesize things as I go. The time is never wasted.
MP: What was the inspiration for Seraphina?
RH: The book had many inspirations. The very first idea I had for it, however, came to me when my parents got divorced. I was an adult, with a life and spouse of my own, and yet I found myself shocked and hurt and grieving, no less than if I were a kid. I had a lot of processing to do, and in the course of all that a question kept coming to me: what if you married someone with a terrible secret, and you didn’t learn what it was until your spouse was dead? That’s Claude Dombegh’s dilemma in a nutshell when Seraphina’s mother dies in childbirth; he’s got all these questions that can never be answered. Early drafts focused more intently on Seraphina’s relationship with her father; that’s still in the book, but is much more in the background now.
MP: Seraphina is rich with details of the history of Goredd and its relation with the neighboring dragons including complex political matters and a whole draconian language (not to mention unique dragon sensibilities). With so many details to explain and expand Seraphina’s world, where did you start? What was it like creating all of the corresponding languages and histories for the backdrop of this story?
RH: Goredd has been with me since the seventh grade, in fact. My English teacher asked us to write a narrative poem, and I – always the overachiever on creative writing assignments – came up with this long, silly poem called “The First Adventure of Sir Amy.” Sir Amy was a little girl knight who saved the king from an evil witch. Her country was called Goredd because that rhymed with Fred, the name of her horse. There was also a dragon who played cello (which rhymed with jello), which was the origin of dragons in Goredd.
All through high school, I set various stories in Goredd. When I was in my twenties I wrote and illustrated a minicomic called “Amy Unbounded” about Amy from the poem, now only a knight in her imagination. That solidified the world for me, and is a wonderful visual reference to have.
Making up histories is fun and easy; they’re just stories, after all (I almost majored in history in college, until I realized I was really only interested in it as narrative). I cheat egregiously at languages, though. I’m not Tolkien; I’m not writing up whole lexicons. I just want languages to evoke a particular flavour. If they’re doing that, I’m satisfied.
MP: The dragons in Seraphina are quite unique with their ability to take on human form. What inspired your interpretation of dragons in this story? Do you have a favorite detail about your dragons?
RH: This dates back to my comic book days. I had always intended there to be dragons in Goredd; they were there in the poem, so it was a given for me. However, when it came time to draw dragons in the comic, I discovered that dragons are difficult to draw. I could have practiced and gotten better, of course, but I just wasn’t that interested. Instead, I hit upon a brilliant idea: what if dragons could take human form? Then I could draw humans! So what began as laziness (if I’m being honest) turned out to be an enormous wellspring of ideas. Because if dragons could take human form, the implications of that were rather staggering. Anyone could be a dragon. How were the Goreddis (and the dragons) going to cope? They would surely need some rules.
Readers often marvel at how alien my dragons are, but I don’t quite agree with that. They’re very familiar to me, even if they’re looking at the world from an unaccustomed angle. I love how they let me ask obvious but not-quite-answerable questions. For example: what are emotions for? That’s not a question most people usually bother asking; feeling comes as naturally as breathing and that’s just how it is. I know from raising a child, however, that emotions are not something we’re born knowing what to do with. We have to be taught not to hit when we’re angry, socialized into appropriate behaviours. What if you were only just experiencing emotions for the first time as an adult? My emotions sometimes bowl me over, and I have forty years of practice dealing with them. How are dragons going to respond, process, interpret their inner lives? How do they stay true to themselves under such unaccustomed pressures? What does that tell us more emotional types about the nature of our own emotions? What part of me is dragon, when I look underneath the emotional detritus? I could ask questions all day; I love this stuff.
MP: Seraphina’s musical talents and her love of music are continuing threads throughout the story. Did you always know music would be such a big part of Seraphina’s character? Is her love of music inspired by your own experiences?
RH: I played cello from fourth grade through college. I found performing, especially with a good orchestra, to be one of the most transcendent experiences of my early life. It’s something I’ve always wanted to convey in writing, what it’s like to be in music in exactly that way. Where does it begin and where does it end? My mind to your ears. No other art is as visceral and immediate, and it’s such a challenge to write about! But then, I really like a challenge.
MP: One of my favorite things about Seraphina is the strong ensemble cast with so many well-developed and entertaining characters. Did you have any character that was a favorite to write about? Was any character harder to write?
RH: It’s hard to say if any were difficult. Over nine years, I rewrote the entire book three times with an entirely new plot. The characters were the same people, but run through different mazes. The result is that I got to know them all very, very well. I don’t really remember if I struggled with any of them; by the last go-round, I felt like a director who’s been privileged to work with the same actors for many years. I knew everybody’s capabilities.
I don’t like to pick favourites, but Orma is a constant delight to write. He comes to me very naturally; we’re a lot alike, as counterintuitive as that may sound.
[MP: Orma is a constant delight to read as well!]
MP: Much of this novel focuses on solving a murder and unraveling a conspiracy at court as Seraphina investigates. As a writer, how did you go about pacing this aspect of the story and deciding what to reveal when?
RH: I confess that plot is probably the part of writing that comes least naturally to me. I’m so wrapped up in setting, characters, and what-if questions that I just don’t have a lot of room left in my tiny brain. Here’s where a good editor is invaluable. For this final iteration of the book, I started out by sending my editor plot outlines. He sent them back with every plot hole and logic fail pointed out in excrutiating detail. I answered his questions and fixed things until he found the outline sufficiently airtight. Then I wrote the book and there were still holes and infodumps and red herrings that were way too red. We tossed the book back and forth many times, smoothing all that stuff out. I am so, so grateful for his eagle eye.
With the sequel, he approved my plot outline right away, so I believe I may have learned something from all that earlier process. The old dog has room for a few new tricks after all.
MP: Seraphina is the first book in a series. Do you have a set arc for Seraphina’s story or know how many books will be in the series?
RH: The second book will wrap up Seraphina’s story, I believe. After that I hope to write more books set in the same world, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.
MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
RH: I am just awful about spoilers. I say things that I think aren’t spoilers, but then my husband informs me they are. Of course, he’s got deductive skills like Sherlock Holmes, so maybe I needn’t worry too much in general. I think it’s safe to say there will be more Abdo, and that we’ll be meeting a lot of new characters. That’s been fun, and challenging. I was used to having the same cast over and over, so it has taken some time and effort to get to know everyone. I think it’s been worth it, though.
MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?
RH: Love writing, because sometimes the work will have to be its own reward. Also, don’t panic if it takes a long time. The world likes to tell us we’re washed-up if we’re not brilliant before we’re thirty. That’s nonsense. There’s lots of time.