Tessa Gratton has wanted to be a paleontologist or a wizard since she was seven. Alas, she turned out too impatient to hunt dinosaurs, but is still searching for a someone to teach her magic. After traveling the world with her military family, she acquired a BA (and the important parts of an MA) in Gender Studies, then settled down in Kansas to tell stories about monsters, magic, and teenagers. She’s the author of the Blood Journals Series and Gods of New Asgard Series, as well as dozens of short stories available in anthologies and on merryfates.com. With her critique partners, she authored The Curiosities and The Anatomy of Curiosity, both about writing YA. Her current projects include Season 2 of “Tremontaine” at Serial Box Publishing, and an adult fantasy novel. Visit her at tessagratton.com, @tessagratton, tessagratton.tumblr.com.
Today I’m talking with Tessa about “Desert Canticle” which appears in her latest anthology (written with Maggie Stiefvater and Brenna Yovanoff) The Anatomy of Curiosity and her writing process.
Miss Print (MP): In your introduction to “Desert Canticle” you mention that this novella was inspired in part by IEDs and news out of the middle east. Can you talk about the kind of research involved as you started building the world in this story?
Tessa Gratton (TG): US participation in (and causing) wars in the Middle East has been an interest of mine for most of my life (my dad has twice been sent to Iraq for two different wars), so in a way it’s unfair to talk about how I researched this book: I’ve kind of been doing it since 1992. I’ve read piles of books about the Iraq war, both fiction and NF, written by soldiers, Marines, corespondents, and native Iraqis. But when I sat down to start developing the world/story itself, though I already had a lot of background information, I did develop a list of topics I needed to know more about specifically in order to tell my story. I dug deeper into IEDs themselves (how they’re frequently made, how hidden, if hidden, how they’re dismantled, how they’re set off on purpose in a controlled detonation), and into different kinds of military set-ups for the groups of soldiers who usually are searching for them. I also did some extra reading about insurgent groups in a variety of cultures, and looked up details about the desert I chose for my setting.
MP: One of the interesting things in your notes on process during “Desert Canticle” was when you highlighted an argument made by one of the characters that would not have been possible without your own knowledge of women’s studies. Does your personal history often inform how you tell your stories and the shapes of your characters? What do you do if your personal history is in conflict with the direction you need a story (or character) to take?
TG: My personal history is all I have – it’s all any writer has. We’re bound to our perspectives, prejudices, and subjectivities, because that’s how humans work. I do think it’s possible to push past ourselves, but only with great effort. My background in gender studies informs everything I do, but especially my writing. I want my writing to be expanding the conversations of literature and culture and society, and I believe feminism is one of the best ways to do that.
I don’t think I could write a story in conflict with who I am. Of course characters can be (should be) different from the writer, but I don’t have any interest in a narrative that is not part of my philosophy and outlook. What I mean is, yes I can write a character who is sexist or racist, but the narrative of the story itself would be meant to point out, condemn, and/or complicate those aspects of the character, not collude with or accept them without problematizing them. Rafel struggles with transphobia, and that’s part of how I’m using the story/characters to explore the subject, but the story itself definitely condemns transphobia.
MP: Since The Anatomy of Curiosity is a book about writing, it seems appropriate to ask about where you write. Do you work best alone? With a writing group? What is your ideal writing space and is it your current space?
TG: I greatly prefer working alone, and group work is the death of me. Even a project like ANATOMY is mostly worked on alone, though Maggie and Brenna and I were in contact frequently and made sure to be together 2-3 times during the course of the project. I love my office, which has a large L shaped desk and my books and art on the walls. I wish it had a better window, but my living room has a massive one, so when I need more light I can take my laptop up there.
MP: Do you have a specific routine for when you write during the day or how you go about building a story? What does one of your typical writing sessions look like?
TG: Those are different questions for me. I go about building a story over the course of years, usually. My world building is a very intricate process that takes time, and I build stories from world, so it’s a very long time from idea to sitting down to write. That said, when I AM writing, a usual day would be: up at 5:30 am, coffee, exercise, shower, read the news (and tumblr, ok), then write 2500 words. When I’m drafting 2000-2500 a day is my best pace. It gets me moving, but doesn’t overwhelm me so that I’m burned out the next day. After that, I do emails, interviews, house chores, or whatever else is on my plate at the time.
MP: You write novellas, short stories, and novels. Do you ever write poetry? When you sit down to flesh out an idea do you know right away if it will be a novel or the start of a series or something else?
TG: I do not write poetry. I adore reading it, memorizing it, performing it, but writing it just doesn’t do anything for me. I prefer prose, possibly because I’m long-winded and not at all musically inclined. ;)
I almost always know if I’m working on a novel or shorter, and I have a sense if it’s going to be a series or not. I love novels best, and especially stand-alone novels, but the thrill of starting a new series is a pretty heady one.
MP: Do you have any go-to authors and poets that you find yourself returning to when you read in your free time? If you could recommend one book, poet, or poem to readers, what would they be?
TG: I most often turn to June Jordan myself, because her poetry is so beautiful and so overly political, especially in the collection “Some of Us Did Not Die.” She inspires me. As for recommendations, the poetry I most often give away or force on people is Gloria Anzaldua’s. She is amazing, passionate, policital, and liminal.
MP: Can you share any details about your next project?
TG: Ah! Not really, not yet. Very soon I hope. I can tell you it’s an adult fantasy novel, codename #bastardbook on Twitter.
Thank you again to Tessa for this great interview.
If you’d like to learn more about Tessa and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://tessagratton.com