Leigh Bardugo on Noncompliance, Tropes, and The Language of Thorns

Leigh Bardugo on Noncompliance, Tropes, and The Language of Thorns

It’s the season of Leigh Bardugo here at Bookish. We kicked off the fall with an interview with Bardugo about Wonder Woman: Warbringer and feminism, and now we’re back again to talk with her about The Language of Thorns. This is a beautifully illustrated short story collection of fables set in Bardugo’s Grishaverse, a Russian-inspired fantasy world where her Six of Crows and Shadow and Bone series take place. Here, we chat with Bardugo about fairytales, her least favorite trope, and staying noncompliant.

Bookish: Sara Kipin’s illustrations are absolutely stunning. Each story begins with a small illustration that builds around the border with each turn of the page. They’re like little breadcrumbs that hint at what’s to come. Did you work closely with Sara on these?

Leigh Bardugo: Didn’t they do a beautiful job on the cover? The idea for the way the art would change with every page came from Erin Stein, my editor, and Natalie Sousa, who is the art director. In terms of the actual art, yes I got to weigh in and work with Sara on it.

Bookish: Do you have a favorite final piece?

LB: Oh, that’s so hard! It changes, honestly. There’s a story in the book called “When Water Sang Fire.” It’s a mermaid story that sort of centers on a female friendship, and it’s very special to me for a lot of reasons. Seeing those characters on the page was really thrilling. Also, mermaids are fun to see illustrated.

Bookish: A common theme in the tales is that appearances are deceiving. What drew you to that topic and made you want to explore it in this way?

LB: I used to work in makeup and special effects. I grew up in Los Angeles, which is a very image conscious town, and I think I’ve always been pretty keenly aware of beauty as a commodity. I also think in fairytales you see beauty working as this very peculiar kind of currency. On the one hand, it’s the only thing that can elevate you from your class—Cinderella is supposed to be good and kind, but she isn’t noticed because she’s good and kind. She’s noticed because she’s beautiful. And beauty is frequently equated with goodness. I started by asking what the implications of that are, if you’ve been raised on that and if you’ve learned to invest so much worth in that for yourself and for others. For me, the potential repercussions of that was an interesting theme to play out in a lot of different ways.

Bookish: You’ve said that your folktales are deliberate subversions of fairytale tropes. If you could rid the world of one of those tropes, what would it be and why?

LB: Oh, gosh… That witches are evil. That female voices aren’t to be trusted. This is a weird theme we see played out again and again, and there are reasons for it. I read a ton of folktales and fairytales in the lead up to writing the final stories for The Language of Thorns, and one of the most common themes is the evil stepmother. It’s easy to just ascribe this to misogyny, but it was also because women died in childbirth so frequently that women were often raising other people’s children. They were cautionary tales, like “be nice to your stepkid or else.” But I think the lasting effect of these stories is a little bit different. Our mistrust of women alone, older women, different women, is something we see played out in those stories. So if I could make people less afraid of women with power that would be my dream.

Bookish: In “The Too-Clever Fox,” Koja believes that if he has words, he has hope. Is there a quote or book that restores your hope when you need it?

LB: I have a tattoo on my arm. It’s the noncompliant tattoo from a graphic novel called Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro. I went to get this tattoo with my friend who I’ve been friends with since we were 11. We got it on our birthdays a year ago. And for me, especially given some of the things that are going on right now, I put it on my writing hand, my signing hand, for a reason. It’s to remind me to stay noncompliant. Bitch Planet takes place in a dystopian future where women who are different are sent to a prison planet because they’re deemed noncompliant. They may be genderqueer or fat or disabled or they simply like to mouth off. They’re just not doing what men want them to do; they are not tools of the patriarchy. I want to be reminded of that every day. When I see or meet women with this tattoo, I feel like we’re in the same club and I love it. It doesn’t just give me hope, it gives me fire.

Bookish: Are there any characters or places we see in these stories that you’d like to expand into a novel?

LB: Oh interesting. Hmm… In terms of characters, not really because these are characters that may or may not have ever existed, with one notable exception who readers will recognize. But for the most part these are the stories that the characters from my books would’ve heard growing up. They’re the myths and legends that in part made them who they are. The stories we tell our children shape them and shape their ideas of what heroism is, what goodness is, what evil is. So I don’t know if I would revisit the characters.

I can say that I would love to write more stories for each country for sure. The first three tales are set in Ravka. Of the other three, one is in Zemeni, one is Fjerdan, one is Kerch, just outside of Ketterdam. In some ways, I’m visiting places I’ve already been. I’m definitely places that I want to go again or want to explore further.

Bookish: You’ve said that you learn a lot about a world by the legends that are told there. What will readers learn about the Grisha-verse from this collection?

LB: I think there’s a difference between understanding what message the story wants to send as opposed to what message you intend to deliver. I try not to think too much about what lesson my book is sending because I really think people may come to a story looking for a lot of different things. Most of the time what I want is to just offer a reader what I was most desperate for in books, which was a place of refuge. So I hope that when they read these stories they’ll get to feel like they’re going deeper into these places that they’ve been before. Some things will seem familiar; there are certainly little Easter eggs for readers of either the Shadow and Bone or Six of Crows. I hope that they’ll feel immersed in the Grishaverse again and that it’ll make them want to come back and maybe revisit other stories and see what they might’ve missed.

Leigh Bardugo is a #1 New York Times–bestselling author of fantasy novels and the creator of the Grishaverse. With over one million copies sold, her Grishaverse spans the Shadow and Bone trilogy, the Six of Crows duology, and The Language of Thorns—with more to come. Her short stories can be found in multiple anthologies, including Some of the Best from Tor.com and The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy. Her other works include Wonder Woman: Warbringer and the forthcoming Ninth House. Leigh was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from Yale University, and has worked in advertising, journalism, and even makeup and special effects. These days, she lives and writes in Hollywood, where she can occasionally be heard singing with her band.

Kelly Gallucci
Kelly Gallucci is the Executive Editor of Bookish.com, where she oversees Bookish's editorial content, offers book recommendations, and interviews authors like Leigh Bardugo, V.E. Schwab, and Sabaa Tahir. She's just coming off of moderating an author panel at New York Comic Con. When she's not working, Kelly can be found color coordinating her bookshelves, eating Chipotle, and binging Netflix with her pitbull. She is a Gryffindor.


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