Leigh Bardugo: Diversity, Relationships, and Her New Adult Series
Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling Six of Crows series defies expectations. Its pages are filled with female empowerment, complicated anti-hero protagonists, dangerous heists and cons, and witty dialogue. The series follows six main characters — Kaz, Inej, Nina, Jesper, Matthias, and Wylan — through a deadly heist, a mission to recover one of their own, and a final con that will secure each of their futures if it goes right or leave them for dead (or worse) if it doesn’t.
Bardugo is a mastermind in her own right, and her careful plotting of every twist and turn will leave readers breathless. Even better than the plot, though, are the characters who are so central to this story, and whose lives are nuanced, diverse, heart-wrenching, and absolutely real.
Her next book, Wonder Woman: Warbringer, which is undoubtedly going to be just as chock full of female empowerment, is set to release in August 2017. She’s also working on an adult series set at Yale University, filled with intrigue and mystery about secret societies and the occult.
What inspired you to include more point-of-view from Wylan in Crooked Kingdom?
Actually, Wylan almost had a POV in Six of Crows, but it just didn’t fit, probably because he really wasn’t a member of the crew yet. But he has his own fight to wage in Crooked Kingdom, so there was never any question that he’d get his own chapters.
Was it hard writing a character like him amongst the more hardened protagonists like Kaz?
No, I loved writing Wylan’s chapters precisely because he’s so different. He had a rotten childhood, but it was so much more sheltered than the way the other members of the crew grew up. He’s kind of the closest thing in the book to our modern idea of a teen, and I liked the change of being in his head.
You’ve often said that Inej is the heart of the series. Since her experience is rooted in a real and very serious issue, what kind of research did you have to do to make sure you were portraying it right?
Before I say anything, I need to stress that if you’re thinking about writing on this issue, many trafficking survivors are living in fear, so access to them is highly restricted. And that’s how it should be. It’s not fair for us to play tourist in their lives. I was lucky enough to talk to women who were no longer in danger and who were willing to speak to me under very specific conditions. I did my best to be respectful of their stories and to reflect their strength in Inej. I don’t know. It’s a difficult thing. On some level, no matter how hard you try not to treat this kind of pain as plot fodder, you’re still engaging in some level of exploitation.
(Bardugo also donated 10% of her Crooked Kingdom tour sales to GEMS, an organization that works with survivors of trafficking.)
A lot of readers seem to attach the characters’ symptoms to something larger, like Jesper having ADHD or Kaz having PTSD. Did you plan for this? Were these purposeful decisions you were making while writing?
Yes, but I was writing to the symptoms not the diagnoses because this isn’t a world where something like ADHD or PTSD is recognized or understood. The way we approach education and therapy and even the basics of trauma are just so different.
There’s a lot of great diversity in both books of the series. How much of that came from your lived experience, and how much of it was researched?
I mean, I have a disability, and without getting too personal, I don’t live in a straight, white world; but even so, I think it’s really easy to let damaging ideas creep into your work. I’ve done it. I really don’t want to do it again. So I spent a lot of time on Writing with Color and on N.K. Jemisin’s blog, I had readers I felt I could trust to be frank with me about what I’d blundered into something damaging or false, and in general, I try to make sure I’m reading LGBT authors and authors of color. I get a lot of cookies for diversity, but there are authors out there writing far more diverse worlds — Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince, Alex London’s Proxy, Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch are just a few I wish were on more readers’ TBR lists.
You’ve said before that it was important to you that your cast be diverse, and that you were working on the way Kaz’s disability was portrayed in the second book. Why is that so important to you as an author?
My first book, Shadow and Bone, is a very straight, very white book, and I think that’s because I was a new author echoing a lot of the fantasy I’d read. But when we write books populated only with straight, white, cisgendered, able-bodied characters, we’re doing actual damage. We’re reinforcing the idea that adventure and romance and revolution only belong to a very specific group of people, and that’s not something I want to be a part of.
What decisions went into making choices about the way the world would view these diverse characters? For example, it seems like no big deal in their world that Jesper and Wylan are queer. There’s no coming out affair. How did you make that kind of decision, whether homophobia was at play in Ketterdam or not?
My fictional world is dangerous and often ugly, but it doesn’t have to be ugly in all the ways our world is. At the end of the Grisha trilogy, when I was writing about Nadia and Tamar, I just consciously made a decision that homophobia wasn’t going to be a thing in the Grishaverse. So Jesper and Wylan get to fall in love without being shamed or persecuted for it. And there was no way either of them was taking a bullet.
A lot of your characters deal with accepting the darker parts of themselves and of the people they love. Why was this an important theme for you to explore?
I never really thought about it that way. We’re all carrying around damage, but most of the time we don’t have to deal with that damage until we’re in a relationship — romantic, professional, platonic. That’s where we learn. That’s when the thorny, messy stuff starts to show. In Crooked Kingdom, Kaz says that shame eats men whole. Shame messes with you and your ability to love someone or accept love. So all of my characters have to deal with the tension between their desire to be seen truly and their terror at that prospect.
What inspired you to branch into your new contemporary adult series?
I can’t quite get used to the term “contemporary adult.” It sounds like a bad radio station. Honestly, this story has been cooking for years, but the timing was never right. I’ve always loved the feeling that there’s a secret world lurking beneath the surface of ordinary life, and that there are places where magic, sometimes very bad magic, seeps in. So Ninth House is definitely still fantasy; it’s just fantasy set in New Haven, Connecticut.