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Cinda Williams Chima Interview

Cinda Williams Chima is a YA high fantasy writer from Ohio, America. A New York Times bestselling author, Chima comes from a long line of fortune-tellers, musicians and spinners of tales. She began writing romance novels in middle school, which were often confiscated by her teachers.(Goodreads) Chima’s books have received starred reviews in Kirkus and VOYA, among others. They have been named Booksense and Indie Next picks, an International Reading Association Young Adult Choice, a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, to the Kirkus Best YA list, and the VOYA Editors’ Choice, Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, and Perfect Tens lists. Her books also appear on numerous state awards lists. Both series are New York Times bestsellers.(CindaChima.com) Despite the YA praise, Chima’s books, especially her latest offering—The Seven Realms series—definitely cross the border between YA and adult high fantasy, easily and effortlessly catering for both audiences.

1. For starters, for readers new to your work, and those who might not know much about you beyond your novels, who is “Cinda Williams Chima”? And what’s she all about?

Cinda Williams Chima - Photo (closeup)When people ask me what job I would choose if I couldn’t be a writer, my answer is, I’ve already had them. Although I’ve been a writer since third grade, it took me a long time to figure out how to make a living at it. I have degrees in philosophy and nutrition. When I couldn’t get a job as a philosopher, I found a job as a nutritionist.

I am totally uncredentialed as a writer. I’ve learned most of what I know through ravenous reading, critical feedback, attending conferences and practice, practice, practice. These days I tell lies for a living; I left my day job as a college professor five years ago.

2. Cinda Williams Chima is a pretty new name—in the UK at least, despite having a pretty nifty publication history. Right now you’ve got two series on the go: The Heir Chronicles, for which you just signed a deal to write two more books, and the Seven Realms series, the third of which drops in the UK in February, and the fourth Autumn 2012 in the US (so likely the following February in the UK, if the penultimate is any indication).

Tackling each series separately—and to introduce new readers—what flavour of fantasy is your work, and what are both series about? Are there any common themes between the two or any influences that overlap and show through in both worlds?

The Warrior's Heir (cover)The Heir Chronicles are a contemporary fantasy series set in present-day U.S. The magical system involves five magical guilds—Warriors, Wizards, Seers, Sorcerers, and Enchanters. I love the notion of bringing magic into the real world—the idea that some people have powers and abilities that others don’t.

The Seven Realms series is set in a world I created for an adult high fantasy series (The Star-Marked Warder) that I never finished. I’d been reading George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series back in the 90s and I loved what he did with character. None of his characters were villains or heroes—they were all complex, flawed human beings—inhabiting fantasy worlds! And I thought—I want to write characters like that.

After my Heir Chronicles series sold, I decided to try my hand at writing high fantasy for teens. I realized that in SMW I already had a world, a magical system, characters that I loved, juicy conflicts between flatlanders, clans, and wizards. I took some of my SMW characters back to when they were teenagers—and that became The Seven Realms Series. All of my books seem to be about wizards behaving badly.

3. The penultimate novel in the Seven Realms series releases shortly in the UK (February 2nd 2012). The Gray Wolf Throne follows on from The Demon King and The Exiled Queen. Without giving too much away for readers who’ve not had the pleasure of the first two novels, how would you describe the latest release in order to entice new readers to explore your beautifully crafted world? What’s The Gray Wolf Throne got to offer, and how does it compare and relate to the previous two Seven Realms books?

The Seven Realms is a true tetralogy—one story over four books. I thought it was three but it turned out to be four books. Some of my readers are thrilled; others are saying, “What? You mean I have to wait another year?”

In The Demon King and The Exiled Queen, the two viewpoint characters, Han Alister and Raisa ana’Marianna, spend most of their time apart, colliding only now and then. In The Gray Wolf Throne, they come together for good, and sparks fly. There are so many scenes in this book that I couldn’t wait to write! Some mysteries are resolved, and other surface.

4. Your work is generally marketed as YA fantasy, and is published by Hyperion in the US. However, in the UK at least—especially your latest series, the Seven Realms—your work sits right beside the wider spectrum of fiction aimed at just about anyone and everyone. Blake Charlton, author of the Spell series (Spellwright, Spellbound) has experienced the opposite: his work has been marketed here and there as YA, but is more generally accepted as regular adult fantasy. Following this he talks about YA-crossunder, asking if it exists. I think, as a reader of the Seven Realms from the adult side (and having been quite surprised to find it marketed as YA most of the time elsewhere), I can understand Charlton’s point. What’s your take on the notion of YA crossover and crossunder?

I love that term—crossunder! I began reading fantasy in a simpler time–when, except for children’s books, all fantasy was sold as adult literature. It just happened to be a genre of literature that teens (including me) devoured. I read David Eddings, Mercedes Lackey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Tad Williams, Tolkien, and on and on.

Now we have this huge body of literature marketed directly to teens. Some of the classics are being reissued as YA books. It’s always a judgment call, where a given book fits. Sometimes it depends on how robust YA publishing is in a given market. I do believe that adults are less likely to go to the teen section to find books they love than vice-versa. But it is changing.

So what’s the difference between my Star Marked Warder series and The Seven Realms series? When it comes to language and complexity of the story, there are few differences. SMW has more explicit naughty bits and more of a focus on adult characters, although, as in many mainstream fantasy stories, the protagonists are teenagers. All of my stories are about transformation, and transformation is, of course, the business of adolescence.

5. Let’s talk more about the unfinished Star Marked Warder series. You said you took some of the characters back to their teens, and set the Seven Realms series in the same world; does this mean there’s a chance of an evolution of the same characters and world, through to a more adult-targeted high fantasy series? Is it something you’ve thought about, or is it not on the agenda at all? Will the story ever be written?

My agent and I have discussed this, and it’s certainly a possibility. I have 500,000 words written already (laughing.) We’ll need to do a good read-through when I’ve met my current contractual obligations (two more Heir Chronicles books) and decide where to go from there.

6. Do you think the technique of taking adult characters back to their teens is a good way for writers unused to—but interested in—writing YA fantasy to start to get to grips with the process? What are the pros and cons of writing a YA fantasy series like this?

Certainly, it’s a tenet of young adult fiction that the focus is on teen characters. They must be the ones who create conflict, they must be the movers of story (no adults coming to the rescue.) But that’s not uncommon in mainstream fantasy—many of the classics of mainstream fantasy involve young characters as protagonists. If I were writing Arthurian legend from a YA perspective, I might focus on Merlin as a rebellious teenager, or adolescent Arthur coming into his own, but I would not spend days travelling around in old Merlin’s head.

I think you also have to consider whether important things were happening when your character was a teenager. Was there conflict? Did your character grow and change as a result of that? If your adult character spent his teenage years as a rich and sheltered scholar, you probably don’t want to go there.

7. When speaking about the differences between Star Marked Warder and the Seven Realms you comment that the language and complexity changed, even if there were only a few minor points; do you think it’s always necessary to “convert” a story from YA to adult, and vice versa? Or, is it mainly the themes that make a YA fantasy different to an adult high fantasy?

The Gray Wolf Throne (cover)The language and complexity of the story did not change much. Teen audiences can be compared to mainstream adult audiences in that they tend to read widely, in a number of different genres. So they are not seeking out the same reading experience as, say, the committed adult fantasy reader. They are less patient with writers showing off. As my then-teenage son once said, “A hundred pages and all they did was go down the road.”

Teen readers can be among the most challenging audiences to write for. It’s less about the length of the manuscript or the complexity of the story—it’s more about execution. Teens demand story, they demand plot, they want characters that they can identify with, and they tend to seek out spare, pacy, vivid prose. And they are very willing to put a book down if they don’t find it in the first ten pages. They will not hack their way through a thicket of prose to get to the good part.

If you do write for teens, you must consider content when it comes to potentially limiting your market. In America, at least, violence doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue (!), but explicit sex can rouse the gatekeepers who can keep your work out of the hands of teens. Include it if it is key to your story, but realize that it can narrow your market.

The biggest mistakes that I see writers of adult fiction make when they decide to try their hands at writing for teens are a) they think that YA fiction is dumbed-down adult fiction b) they don’t know any teens and they cannot remember what it was like to be a teen, c) they think they have to incorporate some kind of lesson or moral in their story, and d) they think it must be easier than writing fiction for adults.

8. At what point does a writer decide to which age-group their work is aimed? Does it happen at all? Did you set out to write YA fantasy, or did you write the stories exactly as they were in your head, and they happen to simply be YA? How much of a factor is target audience when writing a novel?

The Way of the Wizard (cover)You’ll have a lot less revision if you decide up front who it is you’re writing for. With my first novel, The Warrior Heir, I set out to write a YA novel. But I didn’t really know how to do that, and I kept reading all of these outdated rules about YA lit, e.g. they can’t be longer than 60,000 words, etc. I ended up with a bit of a hybrid. My agent shopped it to both adult and teen imprints; I got feedback from some adult publishers that they thought it was YA and from YA publishers that it was adult. It eventually sold as YA, and I had to edit out some scenes that focused on the adult characters. (Ironically, one of those scenes ended up as a short story, and was published in an anthology, The Way of the Wizard, edited by John Joseph Adams.)

I don’t recommend this route, though. Getting published is difficult enough these days without giving publishers an excuse to decline.

9. For adult readers wishing to appreciate YA fantasy more—especially after reading your work, and seeing how they easily cross between age tiers—what further reading might you suggest in regards to high fantasy novels—both standalone and series?

Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and Fire are fabulous, complex YA high fantasy. Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorn, Franny Billingsley’s Chime (that’s not exactly high fantasy, but close enough) and one that debuts this spring in the US, Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone.

The third book of The Seven Realms series, The Gray Wolf Throne, is avalible now.  Visit Cinda Williams Chima’s website for more details.

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