Richelle Mead Interview by Malcolm Hillgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Richelle Mead. Richelle is the #1 New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of the Vampire Academy and Bloodlines young adult series. Richelle’s urban fantasy adult and teen novels are international bestsellers as well and have received honors from the American Library Association. She also has multiple degrees from several universities, including a liberal arts degree, an MA in Comparative Religion, and a Master in Teaching. Richelle’s latest novel is Gameboard of the Gods, the first book in her Age of X adult series. Penguin Group US is publishing the audio version of Gameboard of the Gods, narrated by Emily Shaffer, simultaneously with the hardcover on June 4, 2013. Welcome Richelle. Thanks so much for joining us today.
RICHELLE MEAD: Thanks so much for talking to me.
MH: Congratulations on your latest novel, Gameboard of the Gods. What can you tell us about the storyline?
RM: Gameboard of the Gods, I call it paranormal, futuristic, for lack of a better genre yet. It takes place a hundred years in the future in a world that’s had a few disasters that they blame on religion among other things. So what’s notable about this is that they have a very harsh view of the supernatural—anything like that—because they just see it as a vain of society. If you want to practice a religion, you actually have to get a license for it to prove you’re not a threat. This ideology comes into question when unexplained things start happening within their society, and the characters who the story follows are charged with investigating these unexplained phenomena.
MH: That’s an amazing mix of hot- button issues. I know most of your books have been for YA (young adult) audiences. What prompted you to write this one for an adult audience, or start this series? Because it’s part of the series Age of X.
RM: Before I actually wrote young adult, I was writing adult series. I have two other urban fantasy series, one about demons and the other a fairy-based series, and those wrapped up a couple years ago. I really enjoy YA, but I just wanted to get back into a little edgier things you can do with adult fiction. With the weightiness of this series, I wouldn’t say it’s really dense or hard, but when you’re dealing with some of these social issues, it lends itself a little bit better to an adult genre. It just played out that way.
MH: Let’s talk a little more about the challenges of going back and forth between YA and adult literature and work. What’s that like? What are the things that come up in terms of dealing with the themes from either perspective?
RM: The basic things are there. You’ve got to keep an eye on the differences in your sex and language content between the age groups. That isn’t to say there isn’t sex and bad language in teen books because that would be unrealistic if it didn’t exist there, but the content, the explicity of it are all kind of watched. A lot of times with the content I’ve been surprised to find I don’t tone things down too much as far as the emotional impact, the hurt, the love, those kinds of things, between teens and adults. I think you do a disservice to teens if you assume they can’t handle something that’s going to hurt. You don’t always need to dumb things down for them. So while I’m always watching the parameters I’m operating in between the two ages, I often find there’s really not a huge amount of difference sometimes in writing between the two.
MH: Your books are usually fantasy-based in terms of genre. What made you get interested in writing fantasy-based literature?
RM: It’s hard to say. I’ve just been a fantasy lover my whole life. I grew up with older brothers—they’re about ten years older than me—and for them babysitting me while our parents were gone would be putting on Star Wars or Flash Gordon, so from an early age I developed this love of sci-fi and fantasy. That’s what I went on to read. When I wanted to start getting serious about writing novels, that became the natural genre for me to work in. I find it’s a lot of fun, and I especially love this cross between the real world mixed with fantasy elements because I get to pull from both sides of it. Fantasy and sci-fi, you can make up some things, you can pull in your own rules, and that’s a lot of fun, but at the same time it’s nice to have the familiar to ground yourself with. Even in a setting that’s a hundred years in the future, there’s still things that are familiar to us, and that’s nice too, to be able to play with both, versus if I was to write true, Tolkien, high fantasy, where you have to create the world from the ground up. You can cheat a little bit if you’ve still got the real world mixed in there. Then, you can fall back on that, which I like a lot.
MH: When you’re creating fantasy worlds, which comes first to you? Do you get the conception of a character in a certain situation and then sort of build a world around it, or do you start with the world construct and the characters emerge from it?
RM: Usually it’s the characters that come to me first. Especially with my teen series, I think of some interaction between people or some development, what is the journey I want this person to go on. Then I build this fantastic world around them. For Gameboard it was actually a mix of different things. I had these personality types that my main characters have that I wanted to write about. I was kind of fascinated by that, and the world was just something I had also been interested in. I have a background in religion and mythology, and I just love the diversity and the way it weaves itself into our society. I was interested in what would happen if you were in a world that tried to strip that away. Would it come back and how would that look? So for Gameboard it was kind of a meshing of those two things. I said, “Here’s the social concept I want to play with and here’s these characters I’ve had in my head. Let’s make them work together.”
MH: Most of your work is in fantasy both adult and teen, but it’s in fantasy, fantastic worlds. Have you ever written in a more realistic milieu or thought about doing it? Or is there something about writing fantasy that is liberating?
RM: Before I really settled down to write my first novel, I experimented with a lot of different genres. I like realistic fiction. My interest’s in fantasy, I like having that anything-goes creativity. Also, when you get an audience and that’s what people are excited about, you start writing that rush. I want to keep giving those people these fantastic stories that they love from me. That’s not to say maybe they wouldn’t jump on with me if I said I’m suddenly going to start writing Scottish historical. I hope my readers would go with me wherever I go, but for now we’ll stick with this.
MH: Describe a little bit the process of when you actually create your world. What sort of research do you do to sort of flesh out the world? Do you have a template of rules that you feel you have to follow if you’re going to invent a world in the future or just a fantasy environment that’s not based in our reality?
RM: I kind of follow the iceberg rule, where the readers are only seeing a tip of the research you do, but you end up with much, much more beneath the surface than anyone sees. For Gameboard I have pages and pages of just the history of this world—what caused the catastrophes that have triggered the reactions to religion, background that we never see in the book on the characters, all sorts of things like that, so much so that it was actually overwhelming when I first sent it to my editor. Just like, “Here it is.” That’s really to inform me so that I know what I’m talking about as I write the book, to keep me on track for later because you don’t want to plot out something and have it come bite you later if there’s a contradiction or some other problem. As far as the kind of research I do, it depends on the book itself. Since my things are fantasy, mythology, religion, I mean that’s just what I’m researching. I’m hitting the books, be it my own leftover ones from school, the library if need be, and of course the Internet age is much different now writing than when I first started ten years ago. There’s so much you can get to on the web. When I was writing Blood Promise, which is one of my young adult books, the character travels through Siberia on the Siberian Express. They have a website and a virtual train that you can go on and you can walk the halls of it and actually look at the curtains and things. So the kind of detail you can glean just from detail like that is just incredible.
MH: You’ve talked about as a kid you were reading a lot of fantasy books. What were some of the books that really inspired you or provoked you to develop an interest in that particular genre, or writers?
RM: One of my all-time favorite books is The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which is historical fantasy for lack of a better word. It’s a retelling of the King Arthur stories, but it also delves into a lot of philosophical looks on religions and how they influence us and what we believe. I read that when I was sixteen, and I’d never encountered anything like that. It just blew my mind and I just love that. I still go back and reread that sometimes. Another one, which is a carryover from my brothers, is the Dragonlance series by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, who worked with the original Dungeons and Dragons creators. These books were originally written to kind of help push the game, but they turned into their own thing and launched their own writing career. What really just drove me were the characters in these and how they just grabbed you and you could live and die for these characters. People ask “What are your goals as a writer? What’s most important to you?” And for me, it is the character, and I know that was a huge influence. I want people to feel about my characters the way I felt about some of these, and so that’s always made a strong impression on me.
MH: Let’s talk a bit about the challenge of writing a series. I know that Gameboard of the Gods is the first in the Age of X series. When you come to write a series, describe that process, how far out you’re thinking ahead in terms of the number of books in the series, or is it open-ended? Because it’s got to be different than writing essentially a self-contained, single novel.
RM: I would imagine so. I’ve never written a self-contained novel, so for me I think big. I think of big, epic, overarching stories, so when I sit down I know it’s going to be a story that’s going to span multiple books. It usually takes me a couple of books before I can say how long that series is going to be. It’s usually by the second book in a series, maybe the third, I can say, “Okay, it’s going to take a total of six to tell this.” I think in big moments. I say, “Here’s where we start, the beginning, the problem, the situation we’re walking into, and I know the ultimate outcome, and here’s let’s say five big things that happen along the way.” Often those things form the key conflicts and resolutions of the books in the middle there. That’s my basic structure right there. Then, a lot of the details and your subplots get filled in book by book. I can’t tell you right now if Age of X goes to six books. I can’t tell you what the details of book six are. I know how book six will end because I know how that series would have to end if that’s how long it is, but once I do sit down to write each individual book, then they do get drafted out. I do a pretty thorough outlining process, chapter by chapter, everything that goes into it. It kind of makes it fun because I have a roadmap as I go into a series, but there’s still spontaneity along the way. The series can evolve, and when I actually sit down at a later book, things may have happened that I didn’t see coming, even if ultimately the outcome is the same.
MH: How long does it take you to come up with that roadmap? Each story has a general outline in terms of its major thrust and particularly the way it fits into the overarching story, so how long does it take to come up with the whole conceptual approach to a series?
RM: It varies per series. I’d say a few months for me is probably the longest I’ve taken on these. That’s partially just because of where I’m at in my career with contracts. If you’ve got deadlines they want it by, you expedite it. I know people who take probably years to develop this stuff, but I need a few months of just sitting in front of a whiteboard even. You just start by freethinking, throwing out words and concepts that are appealing, and then they slowly become more and more solidified into my A, B, C, D subplots. My characters, their motivations, it eventually gets fine-tuned. And then I’d say a few months after that I can sit down and write that outline and synopsis, which is going to dictate where I’m going.
MH: Did you always want to become a writer? I noticed in your bio you have multiple degrees. You also taught English and writing as well, but was it always a goal somewhere down underneath to become a writer?
RM: I always did love stories and writing stories. Even from a very young age, in elementary school, my parents had a home office and I used to sneak in and take their letterhead and convert it into picture books about mermaids and unicorns and things like that. Those were my very early attempts, and I played around with short stories and maybe the first chapter of a novel throughout adolescence and in college, but I really didn’t have the discipline, so that was kind of why I strayed into other careers. I thought I would go an academic route in studying religion, and then I ended up settling on teaching English to junior high school students. It wasn’t until, I guess, my late twenties that I just really—I think you need, for me at least, life experience and self-discipline just to be able to outline and conceive of a book and then sit down and do it from start to finish. That was when it became serious for me.
MH: Your books have been translated into two dozen languages, they’ve been turned into graphic novels, and Vampire Academy is currently in production to become a film. You clearly have found stories that strike a chord in a broad swath of readers. Why do you think that’s so?
RM: I like to think that it goes back to what I said before that what influences my writing is I’m just so big into characters and emotions and I strive so hard to make people feel the things that I do when I’m writing these. I think it works. I think people have connected with my characters based on the emails by people who are inspired by them, or want to be them, or are just rooting for them, who tell me, “I don’t know how I can wait the next eight months for the next book,” because they’re so into these people because I try to make these realistic flawed characters so that you care about their triumphs and their loves and their downs. I know for me for the stories and the movies I love, when I connect, as I said, I’ll follow them anywhere. So I hope that’s what I’ve achieved with my readers. I hope they’re feeling these things and that they’re loving the characters, that that’s what’s keeping them with me.
MH: Are you involved at all in any of these adaptations? For instance, Vampire Academy is in production to become a movie, are you perhaps working on the screenplay as well, or are you leaving that separate just for the movie people?
RM: That’s handled by them. They control ultimately the final calls on the adaptation. I’m very fortunate in that the team working on this, actually they do talk to me and consult with me, which is wonderful because you hear terrible stories about authors who never know what’s going on until they buy a ticket to their movie and then don’t recognize it. This production team is wonderful. I just had an email from the director today asking for clarification on a point. So it’s really great because they’ve asked my opinions on certain character appearances or certain parts of the storyline. So even though, again like I said, I don’t have the ultimate say on things, they’re conscious of what I conceived and my thoughts on it. I’m very flattered and very excited to have that role and that they’ve put so much care into it. Every decision they make is just spot on. It’s wonderful.
MH: So you’ve launched the Age of X series. What are you working on now?
RM: Age of X two. (laughs)
MH: And will that be your focus until you complete the series or will you be bouncing back between other projects?
RM: I guess I should say I’m working on Age of X two and then simultaneously I have a YA series out right now, Bloodlines. Its fourth book comes out this fall. It’s called The Fiery Heart, and I’ll be working on the fifth book in that series this summer as well. So I’ll be doing double duty with it and Age of X number two, both of which will come out next year.
MH: Well, thanks so much for giving us a glimpse into your writing life and these marvelous worlds that you’re creating. We’re really excited about the audio release of Gameboard of the Gods, and thanks again for joining us today.
RM: Thank you so much. It’s great talking to you.
MH: Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Richelle Mead. You can find Gameboard of the Gods, many more of Richelle’s other titles, and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in May 2013.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
Gameboard of the Gods
In a futuristic world nearly destroyed by religious extremists, Justin March lives in exile after failing in his job as an investigator of religious groups and supernatural claims. But Justin is given a second chance when Mae Koskinen comes to bring him back to the Republic of United North America (RUNA). Raised in an aristocratic caste, Mae is now a member of the military’s most elite and terrifying tier, a soldier with enhanced reflexes and skills.
When Justin and Mae are assigned to work together to solve a string of ritualistic murders, they soon realize that their discoveries have exposed them to terrible danger. As their investigation races forward, unknown enemies and powers greater than they can imagine are gathering in the shadows, ready to reclaim the world in which humans are merely game pieces on their board.