Historical fiction is an unbelievably fun genre: It allows readers to travel to a particular place and time and watch reimagined historical events unfold. Nowhere is this more true than in Kiersten White’s new novel, And I Darken, which features a female protagonist named Lada who is based on Vlad the Impaler. Here, White talks with Bookish about writing historical fiction, truly evil female villains, and the importance of fighting prejudice.
Bookish: The book is inspired by the infamous Vlad the Impaler. What were some elements of Vlad III’s history that you immediately decided to keep in your series? What are some that you knew you’d do away with?
Kiersten White: Well, I got rid of his Y chromosome right off the bat! I wanted to explore that almost pathological nationalism, that brutality in pursuing a (justifiable?) goal. But it wasn’t a story for me until I decided to make Vlad into Lada. As far as the history, I kept as much as I possibly could. The biggest change was the compression of the timeline. I didn’t really think a YA editor would sign off on taking the characters into their forties by the end of the trilogy.
Bookish: There are so few female characters who come across as genuinely evil. They’re often scorned or bent on revenge for a past injustice; rarely are they unapologetically cruel and mean in the way Lada is. Have you noticed this trend, and if so, how did you decide to go in another direction?
KW: Oftentimes these girls wear prickly armor, but just need the right person to slip past their defenses and reveal their inner chocolate core. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what I wanted to do. Beneath Lada’s armor is more armor, and beneath that armor is fire. It was important to me that her ambition was as much a part of her soul as anything else. Her brutal nature isn’t a reaction to anything else—it is who she is.
So often girls are told there are certain ways we are not allowed to be, certain things we are not allowed to feel. I wrote Lada to defy that. If I can get readers to like my unlikeable main character and to root for someone as angry and vicious as Lada, I hope that chips away just a little at the structures of “acceptable behavior” that are built around girls from birth.
Bookish: What other villains (from history or literature) would you like to see recast as women?
KW: The other day I was thinking how great it would be to see Genghis Khan as a girl—but since according to geneticists every 1 in 200 men alive today is a descendent of his, that would alter the makeup of the world pretty significantly.
But seriously, I think as long as there’s a storytelling reason to gender-swap, anyone is fair game! It’s a great way to recast history and play with what-ifs.
Bookish: The events in the book follow the real events in Vlad III’s life pretty closely. Should readers expect the next two books to follow history? And perhaps avoid reading up on the past if they want to avoid spoilers?
KW: Book two stays very close to Mehmed the Conqueror’s history with Radu experiencing the siege of Constantinople. But Lada’s storyline takes the next twenty-five years of Vlad’s life and compresses them into just a couple of years. So you can safely assume that some of the highlights will be there, but nothing is guaranteed! Book three departs from the historical timeline. So you’re welcome to research. I would never discourage someone from reading up on the history. I think it will make the series even more fun.
Bookish: Islamophobia is a growing problem around the world, making positive representations of Muslim characters more important than ever. Was this something you were thinking about when writing about Radu’s conversion to Islam?
KW: Absolutely. The prejudices that negative portrayals encourage don’t directly threaten my physical safety like they do our Muslim brothers and sisters, but anyone who practices a faith—or even just has something they love so much that it fills them—should be disgusted by bigoted, lazy, and deeply disrespectful storytelling in any medium.
I have a tremendous amount of love and respect for Islam and its incredible history. I wanted to Radu’s Muslim faith to be a nourishing, healing, powerful thing, just as it is in the lives of so many across the globe and across time. I hope I did it justice.
Bookish: What was one challenge of the research process that you weren’t expecting?
KW: The bigger picture history things were pretty easy. But it was the little parts that tripped me up. Would a house in the Transylvanian countryside have windows? What about windows that could be opened? How much access to printed books would a relatively wealthy minor nobleman have? What would a normal person in the Ottoman Empire have eaten for lunch? What did women use when they were on their periods? Things like that would come up and send me on a research binge.
Bookish: Though Lada doesn’t often acknowledge it, the other women in this book prove that there are many ways to wield power. For example, there’s inherent power in being a woman which Huma embraces. Lada ends the book as she begins it, surrounded by men. Will she find female allies in the next books?
KW: Yes! It was important to me to show women being powerful in a variety of ways. Which was a challenge, because history likes to ignore the ways in which women affect change. Lada’s strength is very direct and forceful, but there are so many different kinds. In book two, Nazira plays a much larger role in Radu’s narrative (I love her so much!), and Lada finds surprising help among the peasants of her own people. There is a significant hole in her life without close female friends and allies, and that becomes increasingly obvious to her.
Bookish: On your blog, you hinted that this book has accomplished something that none of your other books have. Can you share with us what that is?
KW: Oh, yes! So far And I Darken has received two professionally starred reviews, from Booklist and School Library Journal! The most any of my others books have received is one. It’s deeply gratifying to work so hard on a book and see it get some early recognition.
Bookish: If you were sultan of a court, which literary characters would you want as your vizier, your partner, and the captain of your guard?
KW: Ooh, what a fantastic question! For my vizier, I’d take clever Kestrel from Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse. For my partner, my crush and ultimate warrior Helene from Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. And for captain of my guard, slightly evil Adelina from Marie Lu’s The Young Elites. With those girls on my side, I’m pretty sure we could take over the world.
Bookish: What are you most excited for readers to experience in the sequel?
KW: I feel like there’s more of everything—more action, more intrigue, more romance—as these characters get closer to what they think they want. There is one scene that begins with a slit cut into the side of a tent that I’m more than a little curious to see the reactions to…
Kiersten White is the New York Times bestselling author of the Paranormalcy trilogy; the dark thrillers Mind Games and Perfect Lies; The Chaos of Stars; and Illusions of Fate. She also coauthored In the Shadows with Jim Di Bartolo. She lives with her family near the ocean in San Diego, which, in spite of its perfection, spurs her to dream of faraway places and even further away times.