Tamora Pierce on 'Twilight,' Girl Heroes, and Fantasy Birth Control

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A conversation with the legendary young adult fantasy writer

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Atheneum

Tamora Pierce has written 26 young adult novels set in two universes, helped found a pioneering online discussion board about female heroes, and along the way, set new standards for feminist fantasy literature. From Alanna, the girl determined to become a knight in Pierce's Song of the Lioness quartet, to Beka Cooper, the tough young detective in her Provost's Dog trilogy, due to be completed in October, to Sandry, Tris, Daja, and Briar, the four young wizards of the Circle of Magic novels, Pierce's characters are determined to break barriers to do the work they love. And they're by turns persistent and stubbornly resistant when it comes to their own hearts and desires. We caught up with Pierce to discuss methods of fictional birth control, the importance of the families you choose as well as those you're born into, relationships between fathers and daughters, and her first series with a male protagonist.


In your novels, the families your characters choose are often more important than the families they're born into, sometimes because their relatives are dead or emotionally unavailable. Do you think biological families are more fragile than chosen ones?

I am a firm believer in the family you choose. Daine [the heroine of Pierce's Immortals series] has no choice. Her family is dead. She doesn't realize that at first that her parents are alive, they're gods. With Aly [the daughter of Lady Alanna, and the main character in the Trickster books], it's her line of work that forces her away from her family. She would be very happy to go back to them. But she is a spymaster, and spies don't have the freedom to go home the way normal people do because they hold national confidence and national secrets. Their leaders are going to be really unhappy if they take them home for visits. There are circumstances where you can walk away—I'm thinking of another Aly book—but they're not pleasant ones.

What happens to each of my female heroes, certainly, is they find something bigger than themselves that they are honored to serve. It's not giving up your family.

Your characters also seem to have to make compromises in different parts of their life. Alanna, for example, is a great knight, but she doesn't seem to have been such a good mother to Aly.

If we just allowed women and men more leeway in our culture and more acceptance, I think they would be able to make better compromises. Instead of forcing women to work eight hours and go home and care for a family, if we educate men and women to another format where men don't feel it's unmanly to stay at home, and we allow women to work from home...

I'm of the Samuel Goldwyn school of writing: If you need to send a message, call Western Union. Any messages people take away from my books are the ones they see in them. So far, [my characters have] been fortunate in finding partners who are accepting of them exactly as they are, which I've learned from my own experience is the best way for me, and I think for a lot of people.

We're filled to the gills with this sappy, sugary, true love myth that I think is hurtful in the long term....I don't believe in happiness as a consistent lifestyle...You need something a lot more stable than true love. True love will get you laid for a couple of years and all of a sudden you're looking at someone and thinking, "What do I see in this person?" Your chemicals wear off....True love sets us up to hate ourselves in the long run.

Now I'm sort of afraid to ask you about the Twilight books, but I want to know what you think of them.

The honest reply, which is what I give my fans, including fans who are fans of Twilight: I was only able to get through the first 50 pages of the first book, and I tried it twice. It wasn't because of the book per se. It was because I had overdosed on clothing changes in another writer's series, and now whenever I read too many clothing changes, I hear jungle drums, and lights flash, and I can't read any more....I don't know if the books are garbage or not, but what I hear from my fans is they're simply appalling.

What influenced your designs for the gods in your novels, since you've got two different sets of them?

When I was in a kid, I was in fourth grade, I read the Iliad and the Odyssey, and in fifth grade, it was the Egyptian gods and Robert Graves. By college, I was looking at world myth and legend and reading the abridged Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, where he points out the links between different kinds of gods and legends. For example, nearly every culture has a flood myth. If it's not a direct steal, like Mithros, who is Mithra [a Zorastrian divinity], or the great mother goddess, who is worshipped in the Mediterranean.

Have you read Neil Gaiman's Sandman books?

And Bill Willingham's Fables. But Neil Gaiman's Sandman just rocked my world in the late '80s and early '90s. I couldn't read them fast enough. My favorite is the "Dream of a Thousand Cats."

One thing that's struck me in your novels is that most of your characters are sexually active at some point in their late teens, and you're very creative about making sure they have access to birth control.

One of the things I strive for is realism. I need to be as real as possible in the dilemmas my characters face. The difference between their world and our world, both in the case of the Circle and Tortall, is magic makes people more aware of how things work. If you canoodle at the common on Beltane and you get a big belly nine months later, we know what's going on...If everyone knows how this works, they know how it can be prevented...If my characters are going to have sex, they're going to do their utmost to be responsible about it. They are going to be thinking about the kids that might result.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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