INTERVIEW: Megan Whalen Turner is Back, and So is Eugenides
Readers please note: the following interview contains SPOILERS for books 1-3 in Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series.
As I mentioned the last time I interviewed Megan Whalen Turner, her Queen’s Thief series is one of my favorite YA series, novels filled with high-stakes intrigue and deception, loyal friendships, dangerous missions, and a couple of touching romantic relationships, too. Their author has won several accolades, including an LA Times Book Award, a Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor, a Mythopoeic Award and a Newbery Honor.Return of the Thief, the final book in the series, was published yesterday. Tomorrow Jennie and I will review it. I was happy to have the opportunity to ask the author about her writing and the series. Here is the resulting interview. –Janine
Q: Most readers’ favorite character in the series is Gen. Is he yours, too?
A: I’m not sure what “favorite” means, but I think the answer is no. There’s not one I like writing more than the others, not one I’m more proud of than the others. I do feel more protective of some of them, cuddling Costis and Kamet and Sophos while I’m pitching Gen into the fire, but I don’t think that’s because I love Gen less. It’s just, you know, we destroy the things we love, right? Right? Is it just me?
Q: Eugenides is a fascinating character both because of the way he has grown and changed over the course of the series, as well as the way the different viewpoint characters have seen him differently. Was his journey from daring boy to a sometimes-ruthless king an outgrowth of the POV choices and the twists in the books’ plots, or did the POV choices and plot twists come about because you wanted to show his many facets?
A: You may be familiar with Horatio Hornblower, the main character in a series C. S. Forester wrote in the 1950’s. There was an ITV series made with Ioan Gruffudd. I was going to say “recently made” but I just looked it up and saw that it came out in 2002 and suddenly I feel really old. Anyway, the first book was from Hornblower’s point of view and he berates himself all the way through it. He is just a bundle of anxiety and self-loathing. In the second book, we see Horatio through the eyes of a fellow sailor, Mr. Bush, and in Mr. Bush’s eyes Hornblower is a genius, nearly a god. There’s no inconsistency, though, because we know that our Hornblower is still in there carefully maintaining a façade of equanimity while vibrating with self-induced misery. I loved the way Forester used this to show Horatio first from the inside and then from the outside, so the reader can savor the difference.
When I wrote King of Attolia, I very much had Horatio in mind and I do think the change in POV was necessary to show different facets of Gen—and of Attolia, too.
Q: Irene is also a riveting figure and has gone through a journey of her own. When we first encounter her, she is described in Gen’s POV as a fiend from hell, and then in their second encounter, she does this horrible thing to him. But after that, she is gradually reframed, so that by the third time they meet, we’re not entirely without sympathy for her. But even after we come around, she carries an aura of danger.
There’s a scene in Costis’s POV in The King of Attolia where it says, “In the flickering light, the queen seemed to swell with rage, seemed to burn with it like flame.” In another scene in the same book, Gen has a precarious moment with the court of Attolia and to leaven it, the queen offers him her wine cup. It relaxes the court, but has the opposite effect on the reader, because we are immediately reminded that oh yeah, this woman poisoned her first husband. What led you to write her in this way, as opposed to the many female characters in other books who are defanged once they fall in love?
A: Defang Attolia? Perish the thought. I wouldn’t know how if I’d wanted to. All I can imagine is staggering away from my laptop with my hair on fire if I’d tried.
Q: LOL! Certain themes, motifs and images repeat from book to book in this series. For example, Gen’s grumbling about the Magus’s failure to bring a cart on their journey in The Thief gets turns into a little joke in The Queen of Attolia. The invocation of the Great Goddess serves as Gen’s plea to the gods in Queen, and in King, it is given to Costis verbatim, to use so that the queen might pardon Teleus. And in A Conspiracy of Kings, Gen’s love for his boots, first mentioned in The Thief, is contrasted by Ion to the way the king feels about his attendants.
These are but a few examples out of many. Obviously, any author writing a series carries over some things from book to book. But with your books, there are a lot of smaller details that carry over, and not just the major things. Is that kind of detail planned in advance, is it something that comes to you spontaneously as you are writing, or do you add it in during revisions? How do you decide on how much to include, especially when it comes to these small details that a reader may not pick up on the first time they read?
A: Some repetition is planned in advance, some is more spontaneous as I go back and pick up a detail to knit it into the next book. I try to slot in as many as I can get to fit, and most of that happens during revisions. I don’t really consider a book a success if someone only reads it once, so I’m not only not expecting my readers to notice every detail, I’m hoping they won’t—that way there will be more to find when they reread. What matters to me most is that the story works–in the sense that it is satisfying—even if the reader misses some bits, and that it still works—in the sense that it is entertaining—even when the reader knows what’s coming.
Q: One of the recurring threads in the series is about kindness. In The Thief, Gen tells Attolia that he can’t serve her because he is already devoted to another, who is less beautiful but more kind. In book three, Irene asks Gen what Helen saw in Sophos and Gen says, “He was kind.” Irene asks, “And you’re not?” and Gen shakes his head.
Eugenides has a number of marvelous attributes including courage, loyalty, cunning, mischievousness and a capacity to forgive. Whether he is kind is a question that is for each reader to answer, I feel, but I wonder if the books are saying that kindness, while valuable, isn’t necessarily always the highest virtue in a person? Oddly, I’m reminded of Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, a book that gives children permission to be less than on their best behavior. Was it your intention to give your readers this kind of release?
A: I’m afraid we’re running up against the Not-Telling Policy here. I can’t answer this question without giving my interpretation of what I’ve written and I feel like interpretation, at this time, is really the reader’s prerogative.
Q: Late in The Thief, Gen acquires a feather-shaped scar on his cheek, which is similar to that of the Eugenides he is named after, the god of thieves. This made me think about Cain. Christianity takes a different view of the Cain and Abel story, but in the Hebrew Bible, Cain is portrayed as a kind of trickster, and the mark God gives him is as much a mark of favor as a punishment. There are trickster figures like this in other mythologies, too—for example, among his dozen tasks, Hercules steals the mares of Diomedes and the golden apples of the Hesperides, eventually winning immortality. Were you influenced by these sources when creating Gen?
A: One thing I’ve learned is that it’s impossible to ever know all your influences. Cain and Hercules were probably rattling around in the back of my head with Anansi and Coyote. There were other influences a little closer to the front of my mind, though: the Wizard Howl, Philippe Gaston, Dido Twite, John Robie. I have always loved a clever thief.
Q: Most of the Queen’s Thief novels contain at least one and often more than one story within the story, myths and folktales that the characters tell each other, or ask to be told. I suspect you have a fondness for the story-within-a-story as a literary device. What are some books you’ve read that you feel employ this device well?
A: The two I love best are L. M. Boston’s books and Sam Nicholson’s. Boston set all of her books in the medieval English manor house Green Knowe, which she owned. In The Children of Green Knowe, a boy visits for the first time and his great grandmother tells him stories, introducing the other characters, with the reader guessing long before the little boy does that all of the children he subsequently meets are ghosts.
The Light Bearer, by Sam Nicholson, is almost impossible to find now. It’s adult science fiction, published in the 70’s or 80’s. I’ve seen it described as “Medieval Futurism”—a distant world living through a medieval sort of time period is being observed from orbit by a technologically advanced society. A young prince, who has been away for years being educated on the space ship, returns to the planet, where a charming young pirate maiden tells him the creation stories of her culture. The changing viewpoints between the medieval and the high tech societies show the best and worst of both.
Q: One relationship that I love in the book but that I don’t see discussed much is Gen’s relationship to the gods. Clearly, the pantheon have their eyes on him, and there’s this tension there—on the one hand, they favor him, but on the other, he’s not always comfortable with that. Moira, the messenger goddess, carries the message “Be careful. Do not offend the gods.” Irene says that the great goddess of Eddis isn’t known for her mercy. But even after the gods cost him his right hand, Gen still had the nerve to demand answers of them. It’s like it’s in his nature to push the envelope. Is this mad courage? Is it going to cost him more at some point? Is he going to go too far with them, or do they favor him so much that this is not something he can do?
A: “Push the envelope,” is exactly the phrase I had in mind when I wrote The Queen of Attolia. When I wrote The Thief, I thought it would be a standalone. I left out anything about the world and the characters that didn’t serve that first narrative. Then The Thief got a Newbery Honor and someone suggested a sequel. I jumped at the chance to tell more of Gen’s story. I thought about writing a series of ever more hair-raising escapades, but before I even sat down to sketch them out I realized that the next significant event in Gen’s story would be when he got caught. Because that had to happen. Because he would go on pushing the envelope until it eventually did.
Is it mad courage? Maybe. Or maybe faith. Or poor impulse control? Again I have to leave that evaluation up to my readers. And I can’t say if Gen will go too far. Every time I hint about what’s in an upcoming book, I regret it. So, I’m sticking with Not Telling.
Q: What can you tell us about Return of the Thief?
A: It’s huge. It makes the earlier books look like novellas. It is in fact two books in one, The Books of Pheris, Volume 1 and Volume 2.
Q: You’ve been working on the series for over two decades. Is it hard to say goodbye to these characters after all this time?
A: I’m really deeply happy to have reached the end of this narrative arc that’s been filling up my head for twenty years. It may be more “Au Revoir,” than “Good-bye,” though. There are still threads to pursue at the end of Return of the Thief and there are spaces left throughout the series for more elaboration, mine or my readers’.
Q: Now that the Queen’s Thief series is complete, what’s next on your writing horizon?
A: I’m reading more than writing right now. There are so many books I’ve set aside over the years to read “later” when I have “more time.” Laini Taylor’s Muse of Nightmares (Strange the Dreamer, book two), Catherine Fisher’s Sapphique (Incarceron), the rest of Melina Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles. I have an idea for my next big project, but I’m hoping that if I give my writing brain a rest a few short story ideas might percolate up.
Q: I know this is the final book in the Queen’s Thief series, but is there any chance that someday you’ll write Gitta’s story?
A: Never say never, but it’s not in my forseeable future. I’m really looking forward to exploring some place entirely new.