Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Interview with Sarah Beth Durst

Sarah Beth Durst has been a favorite of mine ever since my exchange student from Iceland ran off with my copy of Drink, Slay, Love (2011)and didn't want to give it back! Her newest book, the middle grade fantasy Odd and Even, is out today. 

Once you read her new book, make sure that you pick up a copy of Pierce's Alanna, so that you are fully prepared to join me and Ms. Durst when we go to live in Tortall. Such a great tale of female empowerment, and a book that is still popular with my fantasy readers!

It was such fun to interview her!

Who were you as a middle grade reader? What were some of your favorite books?

I love all the same kinds of books that I loved when I was a middle-grade reader.  Anything with a unicorn, dragon, talking animal, or magical whatever -- count me in! 

Some of my favorites then and now:

ALANNA by Tamora Pierce

HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE by Diana Wynne Jones

DEEP WIZARDRY by Diane Duane


BEAUTY by Robin McKinley

THE DARK IS RISING by Susan Cooper

A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L'Engle

I love books that make you feel as if the impossible is possible.

When I was ten years, I decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.  Problem was: I'd never met anyone who was a writer.  As far as I knew, it wasn't a thing that one could aspire to become.  It seemed impossible.  During that time, I first read ALANNA by Tamora Pierce, and I distinctly remember thinking to myself as I closed that book, "If Alanna can become a knight, I can become a writer."

Years later, I met and became friends with Tamora Pierce, and she is every bit as fantastic, inspiring, and supportive as you'd imagine she is!

You’ve written many books for a variety of ages and have said that when you write from characters’ perspectives, it’s fairly easy to change levels, but what themes or interests do you think are particular to middle grade readers?

I love writing for a variety of ages.  They each have their particular joys.  When you write for adults, for example, you're writing for readers who bring a wealth of cultural, historical, and emotional baggage to the reading experience -- in other words, they come with expectations that you can choose to either fulfill or subvert.

But the joy of writing for middle grade readers is that they don't bring those expectations.  They're newer to the rhythms, tropes, and traditions of stories.  So you're often writing about first adventures -- the first taste of independence, freedom, and agency.

With my newest book, EVEN AND ODD, that's especially true.  Even, a twelve-year-old girl who shares magic with her sister Odd, wants to be a hero.  But she thinks she needs to wait to complete her training -- and finish growing up -- before she can do something important.  She learns that you don't have to wait to make a difference in the world.

I think that's always been a theme of particular interest to middle-grade readers: that kids can be heroes too.

Quasi-medieval settings have always been a favorite for fantasy writers, and you’ve set several of your books in a world of that sort. What is so appealing about this setting? Dragons? Capes? Absence of technology? Cooking things over open fires?

When I was a kid, I had these beautiful illustrated collections of fairy tales -- The World of Fairy Tales, The Big Book of Classic Fairy Tales, The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales -- that I'd pour over.  Still, when I look through their pages, I feel that same shiver of familiar magic.

As a reader, I love the quasi-medieval setting because it taps into my soul-deep memory of first reading Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and Rose Red, The Tinder Box, Rapunzel, East of the Sun and West of the Moon...  I am convinced that the words "Once upon a time" are among the most magical in the English language.  Right up there with "I love you" and "Free pizza."

As a writer...  Setting is a tool.  Sometimes your story is best served with a brand-new setting.  (I love creating new worlds!)  But other times you want to use a familiar setting or a familiar set of tropes because you intend to either expand on them or twist them.

If everyone already knows what a unicorn is, then you can go ahead and name yours Jeremy.

Your newest book, Odd and Even, starts in the modern world and involves a similarly modern fantasy world. I loved that you treated the problems with magic as ecological problems. Why did you approach it that way? Would you like to see more books with environmental messages?

There is a strong environmental theme that pops up in a lot of my books (especially in EVEN AND ODD, SPARK, and in my epic fantasy series for adults, THE QUEENS OF RENTHIA, which is about out-of-control nature spirits).  The things you care about do have a way of appearing in your fiction.

It just feels logical and right to me that magic would of course have an impact not just on people's lives but on the world around them.

I suppose it's no coincidence that THE LORAX is my favorite Dr. Seuss book...

Stand alone fantasy novels are my favorite thing! Aside from Into the Wild and Out of the Wild, your middle grade novels have been stand alones. What motivates you to stick to this format? Has your publisher ever wanted you to continue a story you considered done?

I love standalones because you get a complete journey in one sitting.  Like a three-course meal where the server brings out the soup, the steak, and the ice cream all at once.  There's no waiting.  No cliffhangers.  No "Ahh, I need to know what happens, but the sequel doesn't exist yet!"  You hold the entire tale in your hands.

Happily, my publisher loves standalones too.  I'm currently writing a new standalone fantasy adventure called THE SHELTERLINGS, which will be out in 2022.  It has a lot of talking animals (so very, very many!), and I'm loving writing it!

Since 2014, it’s been great to see more multicultural fantasies, like the Rick Riordan Presents books. Are there other trends in fantasy writing that you’ve seen lately? (Or would like to start?)

Every time I look to see what's new, my to-read list increases by a ridiculous amount.  There are so many wonderful stories out there!  I don't really watch trends, but I can tell you that I'm finding more and more books that I adore.

In particular, I'm drawn to optimistic fantasy -- "hopepunk," I've heard it called.  I love books with hope, humor, and adventure.  Also doesn't hurt if they have a few talking animals...

A few favorite recent MG-fantasy reads:

THE RAVEN HEIR by Stephanie Burgis


RIVER MAGIC by Ellen Booream


What magic power would you like to have? What literary fantasy world would be your choice to inhabit?

I think I'd choose telekinesis.  It's definitely my favorite magic power to write about.  One of the most fun scenes to write in EVEN AND ODD was the breakfast scene -- Even decides to make pancakes using magic.  She hasn't quite mastered cracking eggs with her mind, though.  At least this time there's no egg goo on the ceiling...

Re my choice of literary fantasy world, I'd want to live in Tortall.  Or Valdemar.  Maybe Narnia, but it would depend on the time period.  Really, I think the best magic power of all is a portal that allows one to visit every magic world (and then return safely home)...  in other words, a book!

Thanks so much for interviewing me!

1 comment:

  1. What a great interview, thank you! I can see that I like Sarah's books because I love the same books she loves. Immediately adding those books she mentioned to my TBR, plus there are books of hers I still haven't read. Exciting!