Tamora Pierce has not only fired the imaginations of three generations of teenage and young-adult fans with her diverse fantastical worlds, she is also, in real life, super nice. For example: ‘People put kittens out on our front porch and we take them in and domesticate them and try to find them homes!’ (Oh Tammy, we are dying.)
Tammy is, perhaps, the reason that holdfast magazine exists. When I was nine, I laughed, gasped, and cried my way through Alanna: The First Adventure – first book in The Song of the Lioness quartet – in two days, and emerged a fantasy fan. Because of Tammy, when I went out to find my next fantasy fix, I sought out books written by women, ideally featuring a female protagonist, not because I thought it was the right thing to do, but because it simply seemed natural to me. In Alanna, I’d been captivated by a girl who was powerful, who was chosen, who would save the world, all whilst dealing with getting her period and the drama of first love, and second love...and third love. She was bad tempered and unglamorous and ultimately flawed; she was real. Because of her I went on to read Atwood and Wynne Jones and Le Guin, a road that eventually led me to ask co-editor Lucy Smee to found holdfast with me. I could go on about why I love Tammy’s writing (and I have, here) but the really exciting thing is that I actually got to tell her all of this, and ask her all the questions that have fizzed around my head for so long.
In this issue, Laurel interviews her real life, actual hero, YA fantasy author Tamora Pierce.
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Tammy has written twenty-eight novels, which form The Song of the Lioness quartet, The Immortals quartet, The Circle of Magic quartet, The Protector of the Small quartet, The Circle Opens quartet, the Trickster series and the Beka Cooper series, all of which draw inspiration from Medieval history, reimagining a world where electricity is replaced with magic, and guns with swords. This isn’t surprising when you consider what sorts of interests Tammy had as a child.
‘[W]hen I was five, there was a British television show on in the morning opposite my sister's favourite, Captain Kangaroo; Robin Hood. As soon as I learned to read I read the stories. We had a multi-volume encyclopaedia, and I looked up Robin Hood, and at the end of this article it said, “see also Richard the Lion Hearted,” and at the end of that article it said, “see also The Crusades,” and at the end of that article it said, “see also Medieval life and times.” From the time I was five or so until I was ten, I read anything I could find – fiction or non-fiction – about that period. I was like a duckling, I kind of imprinted.’
Tammy was first supported to write by her father, who heard her telling stories to herself as she washed dishes. ‘Instead of saying, “Tammy people will think you’re out of your mind if you talk to yourself,” he suggested that I write a book.’
Thinking this a reasonable request, Tammy was given the subject of ‘travels through time’ and the high honour of using her dad’s hallowed typewriter. ‘My dad wasn't an overtly emotional man. The thing that made me realise how important this was to him was he said I could use his typewriter. Now up to that moment, if I had laid a hand on that typewriter I would be missing it today. He wrote his union newsletter on it and it was death to touch the typewriter. So I knew if he said I could use it to write this book that it was a really big deal.’
With this endorsement, Tammy sat down to write her first book set in the period of the Trojan Wars. ‘Little geekazoid that I was I sat down and I started to write...over a hundred pages and a year later I stopped – not cause I'd finished a book, because I'd run out of ideas. But I was hooked on writing, especially historical adventures.’
Tammy’s instinct was to seek out female characters, and write what she wanted to read. ‘I wanted fantasy that had something at the time that was very hard to find, which was fantasy with female heroes. I'd grown up in the 1960s and I read a lot of adventure books, but the girls didn't get to go!’
Apart from Edgar Rice Burrows’s Tarzan and Mars books, Tammy felt the lack of women in fantasy. ‘They had women fighting and running the country in the Mars books. Burrows wrote a lot of strong strange women, very unusual for his time. ‘Finding female heroes – real world heroes – in that time period was really hard to do. They were few and far between. It was almost like they were being hidden away. So, I started writing what I wanted to read. And that was books with teenage girl sword-slingers.’
'I wanted fantasy that had something at the time that was very hard to find, which was fantasy with female heroes.'
When Tammy was first starting out, Alanna was originally written for adults. ‘I wrote it originally as a single adult book for adults and there was sex and drugs and alcohol use and harsh language [ed.: Oh God how I want to read this version!]. I had it turned down by two adult publishers, and then I started work in a literary agency and one of the agents looked at it and said, “turn this into four books for teenagers.”’
As I wrote in issue#1’s Letter to..., I really appreciate the realistic nature of Alanna’s relationships. Alanna has different lovers, turns down marrying the handsome prince and ends up with someone who lets her be herself, on her terms. It’s a refreshing change from the kiss at the end and the happy ever after.
‘It sends the wrong message! That the first one's going to be Mr Right. That doesn't happen! I don't want to lie to readers. It doesn't work like that! You have the good ones and the bad ones, and sometimes you're the bad one. I actually thought the original draft – the last third – was kind of clumsy and awkward and I realised the problem with it when I was re-writing The Woman Who Rides Like a Man and Lioness Rampant [books three and four in the quartet] was that Alanna didn't want to marry Jonathon. She saw the problems and I didn't! And I was stopped dead at that point. She says, “you can either be stupid and do it your way, or you can be reasonable and do it my way. I want the person that when he's in the room with me I'm at home. And that's not my king. My king is my boss! And that's a guy that hates the part of me that I feel mixed about...But here is one person [George] who's just like whatever you want dear, I will support you.” And then I just continued to try and do it with all my characters.’
Another thing I love about Tammy’s books is her attention to detail, writing people living lives that include eating regularly, going to the toilet, and washing. You see the minutiae of their daily lives, which brings you closer into their world, making you feel as though you could step in and live there yourself.
‘I thought for a great deal of time about what I wanted from a fantasy novel. I noticed that there were no bathrooms in Tolkien’s world, and there was virtually no sense of humour. Of course Dianna Wynn Jones with the Tough Guide to Fantasyland laid out the other problems like – why are they never hunting anything? Why are there no farmers and people except in the Shire?
‘I wanted it as real as humanly possible, so that I could just imagine myself right into it, and [readers] could just imagine themselves right into it. These would be her friends, his enemies, the world he understood with things like mud and sewage and all sorts of stuff.’
Friendship also features in all of Tammy’s books – and not just one sidekick friend, but a whole, realistic network of people that love and support each other. This is most evident in The Circle books, where four outcast children are bound by their unusual magic and support each other through the ins and outs of adolescence whilst repeatedly battling evil with their combined powers.
[The Immortals‘Friendship has always been one of my most valued parts of life. I think your friends really get you through some ugly stuff. And I wanted to include that. I wanted to include someone – more than one person – with a sense of humour, because people are like that! People, even in the worst moments, will say something, and you can't help but laugh to let out some of the pain.’
After ‘imprinting’ on Medieval Europe, Tammy began to realise that something other than just women was missing in the fantasy she was reading. ‘I lived in New York City and it's an international city, people from different countries, and I really love that mix of humanity.’ In order to write a world more representative of the one around her, Tammy had to expand her field of interest. ‘I decided [to] get away from white Europe. I still remained in [the] Medieval type era but now I was looking at the time of the Silk Road. To cross the land that is formed by the Mediterranean, the Caspian and the Persian Gulf. Looking at that and the...trade routes to Asia, and that mix of people that it brought together.’
But there are dangers in just blindly drawing inspiration from cultures you are unfamiliar with, including those of misrepresentation and misappropriation, which can only be battled with solid research and careful thought. ‘I was doing the Trickster books [a series that focuses on Alanna’s daughter] and...I had started making the Copper Isles [where the books are set] a sort of dumping ground for South American wildlife – like the marmoset in the Daine books [The Immortals series] comes from the Copper Isles. I realised when it came time to write the Trickster books that South America as far as I knew at that point didn't have a palace culture (they've found one since in the jungle in Brazil that is clay and they worked out the surface map and everything but that wasn't known at that time.) So I just figured that I'd go straight across the map on that same line and find the next available palace culture – and I finished up in Indonesia. I said, “OK, I'll start looking up names” because I always need them on store, and the system kept telling me there are no baby names for Indonesia – three days later I thought, “this is crazy!” ...and then I discovered that Indonesia has fifty different cultures with fifty different languages!’
Fantasy, whilst drawing on our past, creates a space for us to examine the present. ‘YA fantasy is really good at that...we've got people who are talking about friendship – we've got JK Rowling talking about justice...talking about these deep issues, and the kids are allowed to absorb them, turn them over in their minds, think about it as adults, decide if they value that or not, and it goes into their memory banks. You can talk about all kinds of things in fantasy that the readers will take away...People can think about them without getting all wound up.’
As a woman that forged a path for other female YA fantasy writers, and inspired girls all over the world to question the world around them and consider their place in it, Tammy says that women need to have confidence in their abilities. ‘Self-esteem for writers, and belief in their work – the guys seem to have more of an angle on that than we do (sometimes with less cause). The motto that I took sometime in the 80s was from a Weird Al Yankovic song called “Dare to be Stupid.” You are always going to be your own worst critic. You have to learn to factor that in. If someone is telling you that they love what you write then maybe they're telling you the truth.’
‘I gave myself a week to be depressed when a book manuscript was turned down, and a day to be depressed when an article or short story was turned down, and then it went back out again.
Fans of the Immortals series will be excited to hear that there is a Numair book on the cards, due in the spring of 2017.
‘The first [Numair] book is titled The Gift of Power. I wrote it originally as a single book and then my editor said, “this needs to be two books, and there needs to be more of his youth.” So it starts when he's ten at the university in Carthak, and he meets new friends named Osorn and Varise, and it goes up to a really crucial point. And the next book is his first great work of magic.’
Before we finish the interview, I tell Tammy that I’m still searching for my George, ‘They’re out there!’ she tells me. Thanks, Tammy, you’ve given me hope, yet again!
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