INTERVIEW: Megan Whalen Turner, Author of the Queen’s Thief Series
Megan Whalen Turner’s 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.
The long-awaited fifth book in the series, Thick as Thieves, is coming out today (joint review posted here) and the earlier books in the series have been reissued with new covers, bonus content, and a map. Recently I had the opportunity to ask Turner about her characters, her writing process, and the books that have influenced her own. The result was the following interview.
Q: The Queen’s Thief series and its main character, Gen (short for Eugenides), have a devoted following. I am going to start by admitting that although the series is one of my all-time favorite series, the first time I read The Thief I didn’t immediately fall in love with it.
I remember being (in the book’s first half) exasperated with Gen, as so many of the other characters often are, and I think it was somewhere between the second half of The Queen of Attolia and The midpoint of The King of Attolia that I realized he was becoming one of my favorite characters ever. So my first question for you is, what do you think it is about him that makes readers love him so much despite his many faults?
I think it has a lot to do with the fact that you can see inside a character’s head in a way you can’t see inside a real person’s head. When we look at Gen from the outside he is shooting off his mouth, getting himself arrested for what appears to be completely stupid behavior, and calling someone he’s just met Useless the Elder. What a jerk. But when we see more of him, particularly more of what he’s thinking and feeling, okay, he might still be a jerk, but maybe a jerk you could love.
Q: There’s a scene in your last book, A Conspiracy of Kings, in which Sophos relates a conversation he had with the Magus on their journey into Attolia via the same pass they had taken once before, in The Thief. The Magus remembers that back then, Gen complained about everything but the climbing, and Sophos says, “So many things are obvious in retrospect, aren’t they?”
That line seems to me to encapsulate one of the things that make your books so magical. The first time we read, we have no idea where they are going, and then somewhere in the second half there’s usually a forehead-smacking moment of “Why didn’t I guess that before?” In later readings, we see that the clues we missed the first time were there all along, and we enjoy the books in a completely different way.
I wanted to ask you about how you construct your books with regard to these twists. Do you know, going into each book, what its twists will be, or is it something you only figure out during the process of writing? Do you plant clues to the twist from the beginning, or during revision?
I tend to have my plots worked out before I start—I’ve usually done an oral version on a live audience before I begin writing—but many of the double entendre go in during revision. These aren’t clues so much as things that mean one thing the first time you read them and something different the second time you go through. They are the reason I don’t really consider a book a success unless someone reads it twice.
Some people really enjoy picking out clues and solving a mystery, but I’ve always been the kind of person who just reads the book and appreciates a big reveal at the end. When I write, I’m not aiming to create a puzzle to test readers. The effect I am going for is more like a chain of dominoes going down. I want to give the reader a piece of information at the end that changes their interpretation of everything that’s happened before.
Q: I think it’s quite interesting that the women in the Queen’s Thief series are more comfortable with their positions of power than the men, and even the pantheon of the gods is ruled by a goddess. What was the reason you chose to create such strong female characters as Irene, Helen and Hephestia, and what were your sources of inspiration for them?
Diana Wynne Jones wrote a series of books called The Dalemark Quartet in which she had immortals she called the Undying. After reading the first book, Drowned Ammet, I asked around to see if anyone knew what religion or folktales she’d based them on. Diana was one of the most creative writers I know and she’d made them up from whole cloth, but the “whole cloth” she was working with was the product of a lifetime of reading and study, some of it with JRR Tolkien himself.
When I started writing The Thief, I wanted to do something similar, make a fiction that felt real–that incorporated some of the real world feelings of faith and spirituality in a fictional form. I also really, really wanted to have a female goddess head my pantheon, because why the hell not? What I didn’t know was whether I could have both those things at the same time.
The fact that some reviewers still talk about the “Greek gods” in my books makes me think they seem pretty real. It also makes me wonder if my sixth grade Social Studies unit on the Ancient Greeks was not as prevalent in American schools as I once thought. I mean, doesn’t everyone know the names of the Greek Gods?
Q: Eugenides and Irene have such a fascinating dynamic as a couple. She’s older, she’s taller, she’s colder, and then there’s the history between them. At first glance it seems like a pairing that shouldn’t work at all, but it works spectacularly well. How do you make them seem so well-suited to each other?
Again, I think it has a lot to do with being able to see the inside of their heads and their hearts, so that the readers know that their faith in each other is not misplaced. I mean, we all know by now that sneaking into someone’s bedroom to watch her sleep is a terrible idea. I don’t recommend amputation in real life either. But Gen and Attolia, even if they don’t play by other people’s rules, do know that they have their own set of rules and both of them will stick to those rules no matter what.
Q: As someone who deals with wrist pain on a regular basis, I have mixed feelings about the way disabilities are portrayed in some books. There’s a tendency to portray the disabled as people who never get over not being able-bodied anymore and mope instead of adjusting, which runs counter to how it works in real life.
For this reason, I quite love that moment in The Queen of Attolia when the gods tell Eugenides to stop whining, the fact that he executes some of his biggest and most daring thefts after he loses his hand, and the moments in The King of Attolia when he refers to being one-handed with matter-of-fact acceptance. There’s also this sense that having to compensate for the loss of his hand has made him more creative and also more collaborative than he was before.
Was disability something you researched in the course of writing the books? Do you ever get any reader mail from readers with disabilities?
This can be such a touchy subject because what is one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Like you, I have mixed feelings about the representation of disabilities in books, in particular with the idea that any one way is better than any other. I’m leery of anything that undermines the right of readers to decide for themselves what is best for them. So, yes, I’ve heard from readers with disabilities who were really pleased by the books and that was tremendously gratifying, but that doesn’t meant that I take it for granted that what I wrote will seem good to anyone else.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your new release, Thick as Thieves.
Can I tell you first about Rosemary Sutcliff? She was a British author whose books I read while I was growing up. She suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and as an adult, she wrote the kind of fiction that she’d wanted to read during the long hospital stays of her youth. In her day, all the boys got the adventure books and the girls got the housekeeping books and she had to rely on sympathetic nurses to bring her things to read from the boys’ ward.
One of my favorite books her The Eagle of the Ninth, in which a newly minted young centurion is injured in his first battle and has to face the fact that his leg is never going to heal enough to allow him to fight again. Trying to find a new purpose for his life, he sets off to recover the Eagle, emblem of Rome’s lost Ninth Legion. He takes a slave with him and of course, by the end of their quest both are free men.
No one had coined the phrase plot armor yet, but I knew that Sutcliff had positively destroyed a storytelling convention in the very first chapter of her book. It made me wonder for the first time just who gets to be the main character in an adventure story. I knew when I wrote The King of Attolia that I wanted to revisit Sutcliff’s story and that I wanted Kamet to be at the center of the narrative. Kamet’s story didn’t fit in The King of Attolia, so I wrote Thick as Thieves.
Q: You have an extras page on your site which includes a link to a list of your favorite classic children’s books but I wonder if you could talk for a moment about your favorite novels for adults and which of them, if any, have influenced the writing of the Queen’s Thief series?
Is he in Heaven, or is he in Hell,
That damned elusive Pimpernel?
Gen is an amalgam of so many tricksters, I don’t think I could list them all. Same with all my other influences–I’m sure if I try to make a list I’ll forget someone obvious.
There’s Josephine Tey and Georgette Heyer, Patricia McKillip, and Andre Norton. I inhaled every Alistair MacLean book published while I was growing up. I was just amazed by Catherine the Great in the biography of her by Robert Massie. If it were fiction, you’d dismiss it as entirely unrealistic. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry is great for setting a mood. I love Michael Palmer’s imagist poetry. I took a writing class with Eleanor Wilner and if Hephestia lives it’s because of her book of poetry, Shekhinah. And I almost forgot Dorothy Dunnett. I didn’t meet Lymond until after I was finished writing The King of Attolia, but he’s definitely had an influence ever since. Then there are all the really old books. I love Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, Lattimore’s Illiad because it’s the first one I read, and the translations in Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts by early 20th Century academics who look so stuffy in old photographs and who were such artists at heart.
In most of my books there are, I don’t know what to call them, shout-outs? Easter Eggs? Intertextual allusions? I lifted an entire sentence from a Diana Wynne Jones book and slipped it into The Thief. I stuck in a ring and a cloak pin from Sutcliff’s Roman Britain. I don’t know if anyone ever gets those references, but I put them in as a link to some of the writing that influenced mine.
Q: The series is written in such a way that the books build on each other. How far in advance is that planned? Do you think one book ahead, two books ahead, or more? For example, when you introduced Kamet as a minor character in The Queen of Attolia, did you know that he would be the protagonist of Thick as Thieves?
As I said, the story in Thick as Thieves was supposed to be the second half of The King of Attolia, but the whole thing wouldn’t fit in one book. Then, when I’d finished The King of Attolia, I worried that I’d left Sophos languishing for too long already and went back to write more about him before getting back to Kamet.
I’d originally thought that Sophos would do his growing up offstage: Sophos would disappear and “Sounis” would return in his place, but then I worried that it was a transformation people might need to see to believe in and I wrote A Conspiracy of Kings. So, yes, I know a lot of the events in the story ahead of time, but plans change while I am writing things down. Once I got back to Kamet, I was glad I hadn’t added his story to The King of Attolia. KOA was in third person and by then, I realized Thick As Thieves needed to be in first.
Q: What kind of research did you do in preparation for writing about Mede culture and mythology in Thick as Thieves?
Using the word “research” makes it sound so purposeful and organized! When I am learning a new thing, I often have no idea what I’ll do with it. When I was plowing through A History of Greece to 322 BC, it was because I’d picked the biggest book with the tiniest type I could find to keep me occupied during a ten week long trip. The first time I read The Epic of Gilgamesh it wasn’t research, it was just reading. Sometimes, a specific question arises as I work, but it’s a very haphazard business. My writing is often more about past experiences than anything as directed as “research.”
I think it’s important that we keep learning for our whole lives, and I think our experiences inform our work, but I’m not sure I believe that doing research is any guarantee that you’ll get a good book. I agree with Linda Sue Park. When asked about research, at Yallwest last month, she said she’s learned to give research the side eye—always asking who wrote it? When did they write it? And what was their agenda?
Q: Will there be any more books in the Queen’s Thief series after Thick as Thieves? If so, how many?
I am working on another book now and that’s the last for this world. In spite of the fact that Gitta Kingsdaughter has just leapt onto the stage with a full blown backstory like Athena from Zeus’s head, I am not, not, not going to write a whole book about her. Really. Honest. Definitely not doing it.
Q: What would you like to write once the Queen’s Thief series is completed? Do you see yourself switching to a different genre of YA, writing for adults, or staying in the YA fantasy genre? Do you have any interest in writing about the three kingdoms of Sounis, Eddis and Attolia at a different time in their history?
Seriously, I am not writing that book about Gitta. As much as I’ve enjoyed telling Gen’s story, I don’t think I want to keep writing stories set in this world. I have an idea for a new world and I am looking forward to exploring it.