Friday, March 7, 2014

Event Recap: Kristin Cashore and Marie Rutkoski author conversation
Secrets, Power and Love in Imagined Worlds

image source*
I couldn't believe my luck when my good friend Heather @ The Flyleaf Review informed me that two of the most beloved YA fantasy writers - one whose been present in the genre for years, and the other experiencing well deserved notice and praise for her new release - were going to be at the Harvard Book Store this week. Of course I had to be there to meet Kristin Cashore and Marie Rutkoski for myself. 

The title of their chat was Secrets, Power and Love in Imagined Worlds, a perfect representation of both authors' works. Marie and Kristin began the evening by briefly describing their most recent books and then reading passages from them. 

As it was the release day for The Winner's Curse, Marie Rutkoski spoke first. She described the concept of a "winner's curse" - when someone wins an auction by paying too much for the item they won - and explained how she wanted the item her character bought to cost a steep emotional price. That led her to the question: "what if that item was a person instead of a thing?" And a story was born. 

Marie read from a passage in The Winner's Curse when Arin confronts Kestrel about her grief over her nurse Enai's death. You can watch a portion of her reading below (I apologize for poor audio in both videos, I took this with my phone)

Kristin Cashore spoke about her third Graceling Realm book, Bitterblue, which is named after the main character. Bitterblue is queen of a land that had been previously ruled by a man who had the ability to make everyone believe his lies as truth. After being lied to for 35 years, this nation is having trouble seeing what's true. Kristin also pondered "what if leaders in our world had the power to make us believe everything they say. For instance if Putin said it and we all believed." That would be scary indeed. 

Kristin read a passage from Bitterbluewhich complimented the scene that Marie chose to read. It takes place when Bitterblue is confronted in her room about dressing as a boy and sneaking out of the castle at night. The section I recorded is fairly far into the reading: 

After reading and speaking about their books, the authors began their conversation. Kristin Cashore asked Marie Rutkoski the first question.

PLEASE READ THIS before you go further! The information below is based on my notes and accurate to the best of my knowledge. I used "I" when I typed the authors' answers for style reasons. Think of it as me telling you the story of the evening in first person. However, these are paraphrases of their actual words. Everything they said was far more eloquently stated than I make it sound here. I apologize if I represented anything an author  said incorrectly.

Kristin: The power dynamic is one of my favorite aspects of The Winner's Curse. At first, one person clearly has power over another, but then you blow it apart. How did you think about power in you story? Also, how did you choose the viewpoints in which to tell your story? 

Marie: This book is a romance, and when I started writing the story, I thought about the idea: when you have asymmetry of power between two people it poisons what is between them. There are different forms of power at play in this story. The more obvious ones - owning a person or conquering a nation - but also other forms such as education, power over the heart through love, friendship or family, and the power of secrets. 

As for viewpoints, I think of this as Kestrel's book, though I do have some moments from Arin's perspective. But because he didn't want anyone in his head, those sections are short. He reveals information very begrudgingly. 

Kristin: Despite that, there is a scene where Arin sits down with his cousin and tells her everything that has happened. In that scene you learn a great deal about his character. Especially that he's capable of opening up. I like that you included that moment.

Marie: Thank you.

Marie: You are the master of building intricate worlds in your stories, even including architecture. But you also pay attention to customs, like the kissing holiday you created in Bitterblue, and details such as the inclusion of sea bane as a contraceptive. Would you talk about your process in world building? 

Kristin: I'm going to explore this question through the reference to the 'kissing holiday.' A lot to traditions have been lost to Bitterblue's kingdom because of her father Leck's rule. Bitterblue now has to read historical books to find out about them. But there is also a group people in the population who are still celebrating these holidays.

With every scene I write, I'm trying to accomplish 7 - 8 things. For instance, I created this kissing holiday because I wanted a believable reason for Bitterblue and Saf to kiss each other for the first time. It is an interim level between their later kissing. But they get a little carried away in the moment, which leads to a fist fight between Saf and another guy. This was important because I wanted to identify Saf as bisexual. The guy who initiates the fight sees the kiss and is jealous. There's also a sense of general separation that I wanted to portray between the book culture and the one in America where I grew up through their traditions and holidays. 

Unfortunately, I don't have a good conclusion statement to this answer. 

Marie: Kissing is good in books and in life. That's a good concluding thought. 

At this point, questions were opened up to the audience. The first person asked Marie and Kristin to switch and answer the opposite questions that they'd just asked each other. 

Kristin on power dynamics: Power is something I'm never not thinking about. On the forest level and the trees level. My books, especially Graceling, have lots of gender power dynamics. I've also noticed that all of my books are about lies and trust. All my villains lie. All power dynamics between good people are because they are lying out of necessity. In stories, I love that point in a relationship when a secret out of necessity becomes a lie because two people begin to trust each other. 

Marie: When lies that happen between two people in a relationship begin as secrets, its much more benign. It's not necessarily a bad thing to have secrets. We all have them. But it doesn't make it less devastating when the secret is revealed. 

Kristin: I like to play with the dynamic of two people who have to keep secrets, who fall in love, and what happens as a result. It's a satisfying theme to write or read about. But I don't like it in real life!

Marie on world building: The Winner's Curse is realistic fantasy. There are no magic or dragons in the world, and it's based a lot on historical cultures, though it's it's own creation. When building a world, I think things have to be familiar and also not. A dynamic between elements that we know, like Western Civilization - the Greek and Roman influences - versus elements we don't know about, such as the green storms that are part of this nation's seasons. 

The one big element that I completely made up was the game Bite and Sting. Kestrel is very good at the game. She would likely take all your money if you attempted to play her at it. But this game was also a way to get Kestrel and Arin to talk to each other. I chose a game, because my family plays a lot of games together and it's a time when we are able to share time, hang out and be a family. Kestrel finally meets her Bite and Sting match in Arin, and it's also while playing the game that they have their first real conversation. 

Kristin: You know, both Kestrel and Arin and Bitterblue and Saf play the honesty game. I love the idea of making two people have to tell the truth to each other. Of course you have to be careful not to have them ask anything they aren't supposed to know yet in the plot. 

Marie: Has anyone read Sarah Dessen's The Truth About Forever? Those characters also play the honesty game, but what I love is the moment when one of them lies. 

Audience Question: What is your day to day schedule like? How do you fit writing into your life?

Marie:  I have two young children and a nanny during the week. I teach full time, but I only have to be there two days a week. I write on the other three days. On the weekends I give my older son the iPad while the toddler sleeps and tell him to "have at it," so that I'm able to write. 

(I'm glad I'm not the only one who does things like this!)

Kristin: I dont' have kids, which makes it much easier. Writing is also my only job. I'm able to manage writing every day. 

Audience Question: How much is what you're writing planned or there already when you start, and how much is it you forcing yourself to fit the pieces of your story together. 

Kristin: 5% of what I write is there when I start. 95% is forcing myself to fit together the story as as I go. But that 5% is the heart of the book. Knowing what it could be. The rest is the gradual process of getting there. 

Marie: I outlined the first 1/3 of The Winner's Curse, and usually when I write a book I can visualize the ending like a distant monument. However, with this book I wasn't able to see it. I couldn't visual the end, and then I realized I was actually writing the wrong end. At first I thought the book would be a standalone, but realized I was forcing it, and that it was actually a trilogy. 

I'm surprising myself all the time while I'm writing. One example was Cheat, whom I liked a lot when I first started writing him, and didn't expect at all what he would turn into. I felt like a spectator watching his character unfold. 

Audience Question: The characters in both of your stories are privileged to begin with. How is writing about people already in power, different than starting with someone more at the bottom of the social ladder? 

Kristin: I'm actually tired of writing about people with vast power. It's tricky, because their position of privilege is something my characters don't really notice. Bitterblue, is actually the first person who befriends a low class person. She even has a conversation with Po where she asks him if she's wealthy, and he tells her that her wealth vastly exceeds anything she could fathom. But it's not something she's ever thought about. 

Now I'm writing about people from a more lowly perspective. I actually found a bit of safety in writing about characters from a lofty point of view, which is opposite from my background. There's something a little too familiar and close about someone who comes from the lower side of things. But I'm more than ready to face that now.

(Note: this is the only hint Kristin gave about what she is currently working on)

Marie: When I was writing Kestrel's character I thought a lot about Jane Austen's Emma. Although Emma is much more of a comedy than The Winner's Curse (here we debated whether TWC was a comedy, and decided it has some funny moments), Emma and Kestrel are both intelligent girls who just don't get it. Mr. Knightley is always saying, "Badly done, Emma!" Although Arin is not a Mr. Knightley, he does open Kestrel's eyes about the world around her. 

Audience Question: As this talk also has the word "love" in the title, I'd like to know what it's like for you writing about love. 

Kristin: First, I don't write for an audience, I always write for myself. As for writing about love, or really every one of my YA characters' experiences, I like that they are encountering every problem adults encounter, but for the first time. There's a freshness and purity to their reactions that is delightful. 

Marie: Although I read it after The Winner's Curse so cannot label it as an influence, I love how Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell shows us that hand holding can have such erotic appeal. I also like that in Jane Austen's books a slight gesture is as good as a feast.  

Eleanor and Park is a great example of the fact that love doesn't happen in a vacuum. Both characters are always aware of their families and their relationship fits into that. In The Winner's Curse I wanted to portray characters coming into love through the background of how they have been raised, including their families and all the other relationships they have. 

THANK YOU, Kristin Cashore and Marie Rutkoski for an engaging and insightful discussion!

*I usually take pictures of the bookstores I visit, but in my excitement I forgot to get one of the delightful Harvard Book Store, which is directly across from the school it's named after. This is a photo from the website. 


  1. Ooh, lucky you!! Two of my favorite authors together! Kristin is certainly playing it close to the vest with her next book, isn't she? At least she's writing. Who knows what about; who knows how long it will take (considering how hard Bitterblue was for her) but I'll be there when she's done! I actually can imagine Arin saying, "Badly done, Kestrel!" Heh.

  2. LAUREN!!!!! You lucky girl you! You have had the best tours come by you lately, I'm envious! I keep watching as Fierce Reads unlocks the next cities their tours are stopping in, but sadly, Ohio is not yet on that list. I can't really complain though because they came through twice last year, but still. I'm greedy:)

    I would have loved to attend this event, but since you take such extraordinary notes, I feel like I was a part of it anyway. Thank you for the amazing recap!

  3. What an awesome event, Lauren! I loved Graceling and Fire (still haven't picked up Bitterblue) and I've heard wonderful things about Winner's Curse! I'm always so starstruck at author events it's hard to piece everything together at the end so I fully understand the paraphrasing. I usually record the whole thing on my phone through the voice recording option and then I use that to type up a recap. You've done a wonderful job here!

    This bookstore looks quaint and cozy and there was quite a showing.

    Thanks for the recap you lucky girl! :)

  4. I hate hate hate you. Hih, just kidding. <3 But I am beyond jealous. Truly. I LOVE Kristin Cashore more than anything. <3 Graceling & Fire are the best books. And I also adored Bitterblue a whole lot. Sigh. And Marie Rutkoski! The Winner's Curse is also very high on my best books of all time. Gah. And she's so adorable! So yeah, I'm really jealous that you got to meet them both :) Sigh. Living in Norway sucks :p Anyway. I LOVED this recap. Thank you so so so much for sharing. You are amazing :)

  5. Lucky you! I love that it was just the two authors conversing about their series. There are a lot of great little tidbits of information in there.

  6. Wow -- I enjoyed reading this so much. Wish I could have been there, but I almost feel like I was!
    Jen @ YA Romantics

  7. This is such a brilliant recap Lauren! I'm so glad that Heather was able to inform you about this event, as with the amount of fantasy books I've been reading lately, this would definitely be one event that I wouldn't want to miss out on! I also love Marie's description of how her characters are formed. I really can't wait to read more from these ladies already!

  8. I would be lying if I said I wasn't at least a little jealous of you having such an awesome event held nearby. (Well, perhaps more than a little jealous...)
    BUT I did really enjoy reading your recap, Lauren! I love Cashore's Graceling Realm books and I just devoured The Winner's Curse this past weekend. It would have been so interesting to see Cashore and Rutkoski interact with one another and discuss their books.
    I'd definitely agree that The Winner's Curse is Kestrel's story. But by saying that, I wonder if Rutkoski is planning on having Arin take the lead in a future installment?
    I look forward to reading the second book in The Winner's Curse and Cashore's next work. Hopefully neither takes too long to get published! :)

  9. This is such an awesome recap. I loved that it was just these two ladies so they really got to talk a lot about their books, their writing methods, etc. I loved that they each took turns answering similar questions too! Things that stood out to me were that Cashore only knows about 5% of the story she wants to tell beforehand, and then the other 95% comes as she's writing. I also love that Rutkoski totally made up Bite and Sting--and the point was made about characters playing "Honesty Games" in books--I love books that feature that.

    And I'm a little freaked out that Rutkoski doesn't quite know how this series will end--that worries me because I am such an HEA type girl and I already have doubts about this love story can end well! I'm biting my nails even harder than before!

    I liked what Marie said about Cheat developing into a wholly different character than she first envisioned. Again, that always reminds me of Froi, Lauren. I think its fascinating that this happens to writers all the time. I think I need to write a discussion post on this subject sometime...

    Another great job highlighting an event.You are so good at this, L. Thanks for sharing:))

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