A conversation with the legendary young adult fantasy writer
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.
In Kel's case, when Kel says "I'm not going to," her mother says, "Just in case you do, and rather than scramble, and get caught, and have to come to decisions about abortions or birth, maybe you should take care of it before." In my world, it's also convenient that at an age where we're saying they're teenagers, they're adults, and have to worry about adult responsibility. Saying they'll do what we tell them to is so contrary to my experience with teenagers that I thought it was really important that I have this taken care of. Here it is, take your orange juice and take the pregnancy charm.
That seems like unusually good parenting in Kel's case. Most of your characters don't have that kind of parental figure, at least for most of their adventures.
I come from a dysfunctional family, so my views of parents and parenting used to be highly mixed. My agent told me I should stretch sometime and write a functional mother, and I finally did that with Kel. I'm always having to battle that issue with Kel. Not everybody comes from a dysfunctional family. There are good families out there.
The exception is fathers and daughters. Lots of your female heroines have wonderful father figures.
My dad was the one who got me started writing, and encouraged me to write. He shared a lot of his books with me when I was a kid and we were growing up. I still think my dad walks on water. My interest in military history is due to him, my interest in the American past is due to him. He was just very influential in my life. Mothers and daughters, I think, is an interesting relationship. I could only touch on it with Kel. Beka Cooper's mother dies very young and she never knew her father...I need to work on my relationship with mothers because there is a lot of good to be had there. My mother inspired my intellectual curiosity. We would talk about history and music and things like that. Even though she was a very disturbed woman in a lot of ways, that had an effect on me. Especially if you're going to have a daughter who is going to push her way forward, there's nothing more important than a father.
You mentioned that your father encouraged a lot of your early reading. What else did you read growing up?
I was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs [author of the Tarzan and John Carter books] in third grade. He had these amazingly strong women in his books. Then when I went on to read The Three Musketeers, and books about pirates, and Sir Edmund Hillary, and Ian Fleming, and Zane Gray. Zane Gray's women are okay. But I was looking for more strong female heroes. At the end of Lord of the Rings, which was my first exposure to named fantasy, Eowyn gives up her sword, which I thought was this tremendous betrayal....So many of the female superheroes were superheroes because of magic. None of them was a superhero because she could hit a bad guy. I was tremendously frustrated. I wanted to see female sword-slingers most of all. By the time I got to college, Marion Zimmer Bradley and the women of first-wave fantasy, most of the heroes were celibate and gay, and I was neither...[Comic book characters] Colleen Wing and Misty Knight were the first women who could kick ass and had good ... conflicted relationships with men. In Anne McCaffrey I discovered a female hero who got along with men. And from there, it started to improve.
Well, it seems like your heroines tend to find satisfying personal relationships by pursuing professional equity with men.
Mine basically grow up in a male-centered universe, or a male-centered profession. Their view of men tends to be different. Also, the men who are closest to them are men who can accept them on their own terms. The hitch is if you can't, too bad for you. The women will continue on their own terms if you are with them or not. Certainly that is not true in the real world, and that is not true in a lot of fantasy. Men will ignore or discard women who attempt to compete on the same level. All you can do is continue to pursue your own goals and hope there are men who aren't threatened and can see the value of what you contribute. Kids are not being taught these days at home to start, and then in school, that equality matters. Standing around saying girls are stupid is a prophecy that can only go badly wrong, and saying boys are too rough and nasty can only be self-defeating.
Do we need different kinds of books for boys?
There was a recent study done...the majority of boys have male heroes. Even if the characters are animals, they're male. Girl heroes are by far the minority in children's literature, which is absolutely infuriating to me, because this was the status quo when I started, and the numbers have not changed that much...That said, the next book I'm working on in the Circle of Magic series features Briar [the only boy among the four main characters in that series]. After that, I'm embarking on two books about Numair [the male character in the Immortals series] that are set in Carthak when his relationship with Ozorne [the villain in that same series] started to go south. That will be my first starring male character. For all I know, it'll be a breakout series for me, because it's Numair, and he's a guy. I know that there are plenty of guys who like my books. My female heroes are surrounded by guys. It's not that I have anything against boys. I just see a need for girl heroes.
Read all the posts in our Young Adult Fiction series.