Portlander Laini Taylor writes your usual teenaged “boy meets girl” stories—if your boy is a militaristic angel with wings made of feathery fire and your girl has blue hair, speaks more languages than a U.N. translator, and collects teeth for her father…who lives in an alternate dimension. And has horns.
Wildly imaginative and surprisingly affecting, the Chico, California–born Navy brat’s Romeo and Juliet-ish saga of a monster-like chimera and a power-hungry cherubim struck a chord when she debuted her YA novel Daughter of Smoke & Bone in 2011. And the plaudits, media buzz, and obsessive fanbase grew when she followed it up with a stark, war-torn sequel (Days of Blood & Starlight) that focused as much on the ravages of intolerance as swoony romance.
The NYT bestselling author returns next week with a reading at Powell’s to introduce the final installment of the trilogy, Dreams of Gods & Monsters. Before her appearance, she chatted with PoMo about the importance of Harry Potter and Portland, as well as dropped hints about her fantastical creatures’ next job: movie stars.
You’ve got bright pink hair, you write about alternate universes, and live in a city where keeping it weird is a commandment. Did you always know you wanted to write fantasy novels?
I love the color of fantasy. Reality is so mundane, so it’s when people don’t love it that I’m baffled. I always wanted to be a writer, but after college I didn’t have any luck finding what I wanted to write about—so I stopped. You know, in college you read the books you’re supposed to read and you love the books you’re supposed to love, and you forget what made you become a reader in the first place.
After college, I found my way back to fantasy through Harry Potter and books like the Golden Compass trilogy. They made me want to write again. They were like the books that I loved so much when I was younger.
Some of the ideas in this trilogy are wild—tattoos that blast awful feelings, surrogate snake moms, body-swapping. What sparked these ideas?
I was actually writing a different book: a crazy science fiction book with ballet on another planet, colonization, and religious themes. But I couldn’t make it come alive. I didn’t want the book to defeat me so I worked at it for a few months and every day was painful. One day I just said, “Enough, I’m going to write something fun.”
You know, when other writers talk about having characters just appear and start talking to them, I would get sour grapes, like, “Whatever, sure, that happens.” But that day it did. It was a once in a lifetime writing thing for me: suddenly there was this blue-haired teenage girl and her non-human foster father and they were arguing about teeth and a wishbone. I had no idea what any of it was but it was so exciting.
How does living and writing in Portland inform this book series?
Well, it informs the writing process. Someone once gave me some writing advice: “Move somewhere cheap.” Well, my husband, illustrator Jim Di Bartolo [who has an illustrated novel, In the Shadow, coming out on April 29], and I moved here 13 years ago from the Bay Area, just out of art school. Portland may not be so cheap anymore, but it’s a city where you have the time and a place to work on your writing—and to be surrounded by bookstores and theater companies and a creative melting pot.
Does writing for a YA audience come with responsibilities you don’t have to deal with writing books for adults?
I don’t feel responsible… But I think it’s important for teens to read about sex in a non-preachy way. There’s this terrible anecdote: An author was showing a book to a librarian at a recent YA book convention and trade show. The librarian said, “If there’s sex in the book, we can’t buy it for the library.” The author replied, “Well there is some sex—it’s rape.” And the librarian immediately said, “Oh well, that’s okay.” That says so much about the culture we live in. I really support depictions of healthy sexual relationships for young people (so they don’t think it’s all rape), but at the same time I also don’t agree with teen versions of the romance novels that have their own completely unrealistic depictions of sex. I don’t try to push a message, but I do like to play with different themes.
What are the broad themes for this series?
Hmmm…tolerance and forgiveness and the effect of terrible cycles of violence.
Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing
April 16 at 7
Daughter of Smoke and Bone is slated to become a feature film from Universal Pictures...
Yes! I was able to work closely with the first screenwriter and did a polish on the first draft. It was a really cool education in screenwriting. From the beginning, there was a sense it would be a hard adaptation because Smoke & Bone has an unorthodox book structure with lots of flashbacks. That’s been a challenge. But in terms of the tone, nobody had any crazy ideas that I didn’t agree with. Now, the director, Michael Gracey, is adapting the initial script to his vision, and we should see that any day. I have a lot of amazing concept art up on my wall.
What’s your dream casting for your teen heroine Karou and her angel lover Akiva?
An amazing actress and with great energy—maybe like a young Keira Knightley? Not that she’s old. Nobody is my perfect Akiva (laughs). He’s gotta be physically imposing, powerful, beautiful—darker-skinned, maybe Polynesian? It’s terrible to be über-critical of handsome actors but he is an angel after all.
What’s next for you?
I’ve been tossing around a couple ideas for my next book. It’s actually sci-fi…but there are no ballerinas in it this time. That one is in a drawer forever.