Sarah Beth Durst is one of my long-time favorite authors to read. She is also one of my favorite authors to interview here on the blog. Today Sarah is talking with me about her latest novel, The Queen of Blood which starts her adult fantasy trilogy, The Queens of Renthia.
The Queen of Blood is a fascinating high fantasy novel set in a world filled with nature spirits who control everything from the change of the seasons to the wind and rain. They also hate humans setting up a dangerous and uneasy balance between these spirits and humanity–particularly the women who use their magic to bind and control the spirits as Queens of Renthia’s various lands.
Miss Print (MP): What was the inspiration for The Queen of Blood?
Sarah Beth Durst (SBD): I fell over at a writing retreat.
Seriously, that was it. I can trace the moment that this book was born to a single moment of supreme klutziness. I’d just arrived at a writing retreat and was walking up to an adorable little cabin in the woods, where I’d be writing for the weekend, and I was looking up at the trees (and not down at my feet) and I tripped and fell on my face. Cut my lip. When I sat down to brainstorm an idea for my next novel, I looked out at the trees, tasted a bit of blood, and… boom, inspiration! Bloodthirsty nature spirits.
THE QUEEN OF BLOOD is the first book in an epic fantasy series from Harper Voyager called THE QUEENS OF RENTHIA, and it’s set in a world filled with bloodthirsty nature spirits. Only certain women–queens–can control them and keep them from killing all humans.
MP: The Queen of Blood is the start of your Queens of Renthia trilogy. In your acknowledgments you mentioned that your editor is the person who initially suggested that Daleina’s story start the trilogy. Can you talk a bit about that? How did you go about plotting the series? Did you know the arc of all of the books before you began?
SBD: After that somewhat-painful brainstorming session, I wrote about 90 pages of a novel about a queen in danger and a woodswoman with immense power who doesn’t want to use it, for fear she’ll die an early death and leave her children motherless. (A very reasonable fear in Renthia!) I sent it to my agent, who sent it to David Pomerico at Harper Voyager. He said, “This is great, but I have a question… Can this be book two?” And I said, “Sure!”
I am so grateful to him for that idea, because now that THE QUEEN OF BLOOD is written, I can’t imagine the series starting any other way.
Because I’d already written such a large chunk of book two, I had a very clear idea of where I wanted book one to go. The best part of this was that it made the writing process very smooth. The worst part was that since I knew the fate of all the characters, I ended up falling in love with characters that I knew couldn’t survive!
MP: Renthia is home to a few lands. The Queen of Blood focuses on Aratay where locals live in trees grown and shaped by their Queen with help from the spirits. What kind of research went into bringing Aratay to life? Where did you begin imagining this part of Renthia?
SBD: Renthia is a world filled with the extremes of nature: towering trees, endless glaciers, sky-piercing mountains. THE QUEEN OF BLOOD is set in the forests of Aratay, which is a land filled with massive taller-than-Sequoia trees. The people live in houses grown from the trees themselves, halfway up the trunks. Villages are connected by bridges and ziplines.
Writing this world was such an immersive experience. Every day when I sat down at my laptop, it felt like stepping through a portal.
I love worldbuilding. Always have. As a kid, I used to spend hours drawing maps of imaginary lands. The key is to start with a single decision (in this case, to populate the world with a plethora of very powerful and very active nature spirits) and then follow it through until you’ve played out all the logical implications. It will often cascade into a series of decisions that build on one another until you suddenly have a brand new world, ready to explore.
MP: This book plays out on a grand scale with a story that spans years and a stage the encompasses much of Aratay. How did you go about planning for so many moving parts? How did you decide where and when key plot points should occur?
SBD: I always outline. I don’t always follow the outline, but I do always outline. And for these novels, I’ve actually been color-coding my outlines to make sure that all the storylines are balanced and progressing forward. I also always do one late-stage revision that’s purely technical, making sure all the information is seeded at appropriate intervals and making sure there aren’t any continuity issues.
Revising a novel is a bit like playing with a tapestry–you tug on one string and then see how it all weaves together. It’s actually one of my favorite parts of the whole writing process.
MP: Daleina is a great heroine. I really love that she has to work for everything in this story. She isn’t always the strongest or the most powerful but she makes up for it with ingenuity and heart. Daleina knows early on that her road to becoming Queen will not be as easy as it is for others, but she still has the requisite ambition to want to become an Heir or even Queen. How did you go about balancing these aspects of Daleina’s personality?
SBD: I wanted a hero who wasn’t a Chosen One. It’s not Daleina’s destiny to be a hero. She should be living a quiet life in a village, most likely as the local hedgewitch. But she wants to do more than that–she wants to protect her family and save her world. Noble goals, even though she doesn’t have the innate talent or skill to back it up. She has to work and work hard to even be on the same playing field as others.
I wanted to write a character whose true “magic” is her determination. She’s an ordinary person who tries to do extraordinary things.
MP: A big part of becoming a Candidate (and eventually an Heir or even Queen) is being able to control spirits. During her training, Daleina has to learn how to control all types of spirits though she seems to have the most fun with an ermine-like Air Spirit. If you were in Renthia, which type of spirit would be your favorite? Which would you least want to meet?
SBD: Definitely Daleina’s air spirit! I picture him as looking like Falcor from The Neverending Story. Except this Falcor would most likely try to kill me . . .
MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
SBD: The next twelve months will be the busiest of my writing life! In April, I have the release of my next kids book, JOURNEY ACROSS THE HIDDEN ISLANDS, about two princesses, a winged lion, and a whole lot of monsters. In June, my very first picture book comes out. It’s called ROAR AND SPARKLES GO TO SCHOOL, and it’s about dragons on the first day of school. And in July, the second book in THE QUEENS OF RENTHIA series, THE RELUCTANT QUEEN, comes out — this is the book I mentioned earlier, the one I started writing before THE QUEEN OF BLOOD, about a queen in danger and a woodswoman with immense power. Also in early 2017, my YA novel DRINK SLAY LOVE will premiere as a TV movie on Lifetime! I’m ridiculously excited about all of this! And I’m not expecting to sleep very much… :)
Thanks so much for interviewing me!
Thanks to Sarah for taking the time to answer my questions!