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Interview with Hilari Bell, Author of Trickster's Girl

Hilari Bell is the author of four trilogies—with the Goblin Wood books awaiting their third entry—and five standalone upper MG fantasy novels. Trickster's Girl is her newest book, the first in a planned duet. Hilari was born in 1958 and worked as a reference librarian until she quit in 2005 to write full time in her home in Denver, Colorado. You may be familiar with her Farsala trilogy: Flame (Fall of a Kingdom), Rise of a Hero, and Forging the Sword, or with her Knight and Rogue series. Or maybe you've read Goblin Wood and its sequel, Goblin Gate, which came out in October 2010. While Bell mostly writes fantasy, she occasionally writes science fiction, e.g., one of my personal favorites, A Matter of Profit.

What I've noticed in reading Bell's books, and what other reviewers have commented on, as well, is that Bell is interested in shades of gray when it comes to human behavior and motivations. This gives her books a depth that is sometimes missing in sci-fi/fantasy, a genre in which good and evil are often painted in strong contrast. For me, the phrase that comes to mind in describing Hilari Bell's work is intelligent fantasy.

I'm about to give you plenty of Bell quotes, but I thought you might appreciate this one from her bio at the HarperCollins website: "Her favorite activity is camping, where she spends all her time reading and hiking. Hilari says, 'Camping is the only time I can get in enough reading. Well, I take that back—when it comes to reading, there's no such thing as enough.'" Which, fellow readers, you must admit is true!

Now, let's hear from Hilari about her new book, Trickster's Girl, with a few hints about the upcoming sequel, Traitor's Son.

A lot of YA books these days start with a hunky supernatural boy who shows up and takes an interest in a seemingly ordinary human girl. While Trickster's Girl does begin this way, your books are never predictable. What are your thoughts on that trope, and how do you address it in this novel?

The thing with Trickster's Girl--and some reviewers have complained about it!--is that it isn't a romance. It was never intended to be a romance, because as both a reader and a writer, romance isn't my primary interest in fiction. I'm more, "Yeah, OK, when do the sword fights start? Who's plotting to destroy whatever? Get on with it!" So the reason this book takes a different path is because I don't care if the guy gets the girl in the end!

Kelsa is kind of prickly, especially when it comes to her mother. Of course, she's also grieving for her father. Tell us more about creating this character.

The real reason Kelsa's father dies, and she fights with her mother about it, is because I needed to give her a sufficient reason to run away from home--and stay away for the better part of a month, not to mention traveling from Utah to Alaska! It's something most people won't do without a strong, personal motive--and saving the world is too impersonal. However, getting back at your mother...that will make otherwise sane people do the craziest things.

 

Kelsa winds up taking a road trip to Alaska, and you've mentioned that your own road trip to Alaska was a real inspiration for the book. Can you give us some scoop about your trip and tell us how it influenced Trickster's Girl?

The trip actually created the novel. My own mother had wanted to go to Alaska all her life, and when we finally made up our minds to go I wanted to find some way to turn the trip into research so I could write it off on my taxes. (I know, I know, an artist's inspiration is supposed to be mystical and pure! What can I say. I'm corruptible.) Most of my books are set in other worlds, and I thought it would be all but impossible to figure out a fantasy or SF story that would take me on the roads I wanted to travel. But then this Kelsa girl started talking in my head, and she was tough and kind of punk (she morphed a bit as the story grew) and she'd been drafted by this crazy Trickster who was telling her she had to heal the world with magic--and she had to go to Alaska to do it. And the whole thing just took fire in my head. By the time I was ready to start the trip, I was more excited about writing the novel than the trip itself. And doing my plotting on the road was a fantastic experience. I'd drive down the road muttering, "This is where they have the big fight! This is where he misleads her. This is where she heals the glacier, not in Alaska!" It was one of the best writing experiences I've ever had.

This book has a fairly strong message about the environment. How do you go about balancing the classic Aristotelian injunction to both "delight" and "teach" as you tell the story? Is environmentalism a cause that comes up elsewhere in your life?

For me, it's not so much that I want to "teach" the reader anything, but that a story has to be "about" something. There has to be something at stake, something threatened, and it has to be something that matters. None of my characters are me, but some parts of them are a little closer to who I am than other parts. Kelsa's love of nature, of the beauty and peace and of the open places is very much from me--and being able to describe what I saw on my trip with that love was something I really enjoyed. And then I got to Alaska, which is fabulously wild and gorgeous, and the POV character who takes over the story there is a city boy who hates nature and cares more about his car than anything else. It drove me crazy not to be able to do Alaska justice, but Jase just doesn't see nature with the same eyes Kelsa did. So I couldn't do it.

I've read some of your other books, e.g., Goblin's Wood, The Wizard Test, and A Matter of Profit, and one thing I've noticed is that you aren't afraid to wrestle with complexity and ambiguity, perhaps more so than in other books for young people. Basically, I feel it's "No black-and-white answers for Hilari!" What's your take on that as a writer?

Several people in my writers group claim that my work is allegorical, and that it's full of symbols and deep messages--and as I said, stories do need to be about something. But the fact is that instead of trying to push some particular message, I try to make my fantasy and SF stories as true to real life as I can. I make my characters--including my villains--real people, with real motives for what they do. I try to make the politics, and the compromises, and the difficulties my protagonists face things that would happen if this world and the people in it really existed. And when you're shooting for reality, there's not much room for "black and white."

Reading Trickster's Girl reminded me a bit of reading Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaus trilogy in the sense that I found myself wondering whether Stroud's genie was the main character, or the boy, Nathaniel. So now I'm curious: would you say this is the trickster's book, or Kelsa's?

It's Kelsa's book, and the next book is Jase's, even though Raven (and the other shapeshifters) are the characters that travel from one book to the next. But you'll notice that it's Kelsa and Jase who save the day, not Raven. And it's Kelsa and Jase who grow and change the most. And it's Kelsa and Jase who pay the price for their ultimate victory. That's why it's their book--even though Raven is an incredibly charming rascal, if I say so myself.

Could you give us a little insight about the myths and legends you reference in Trickster's Girl? How much research did you do?

I did read a fair number of the Raven myths, and culled a few of the other shapeshifter characters from those stories. But I really only use those stories as the springboard for Trickster's Girl, in which all those mythological figures are really beings from a neighboring dimension. And they didn't just show themselves to the Native Americans, either. Raven was also Leprechaun, and one of the Greek Gods, and a lot of other mythological characters as well. In fact, all of those shapeshifters have been messing with us humans for a very long time. I love mixing SF and fantasy! It's so much fun.

You allow room at the end of Trickster's Girl for a second book. Are you actually planning a sequel with your publisher at this point, or is that more of a door you've left open?

Allow room heck, I stopped right in the middle of the story! I'm just about to reread my final revision of Traitor's Son and get it back to my editor before the end of the year. And Houghton Mifflin plans to bring it out in April of 2012.

Speaking of which, what are you working on now? Also, I know The Goblin Gate came out a few months back, and now Trickster's Girl, but what other books will we see from you soon?

The next book out will be The Goblin War, which will come out in the fall of 2011--it's the last of the Goblin books, in which Tobin, Makenna and Jeriah (with assorted Goblin allies) have to stop the barbarian invasion which is the root cause of all the trouble in the first two books. Then in April of 2012, the second and last of the Raven books--yes, it's just two books in that universe, not a trilogy. Hence the series title, The Raven Duet. And the book I want to start writing soon is a gypsy steam punk novel, tentatively titled The Fixer. But that one's not even sold yet, so no promises about when/if you'll see it.

How about if we end with you telling us some unusual detail about you or your life experience?

Hmm. The sad truth is I'm not all that unusual. One thing about me is that I'm very tall for a woman, almost 6 feet. Hard to find feminine shoes, or dance partners, but very useful for reaching high shelves. I once went on a school visit, and I was talking with the kids in the front row while the others trickled into the room. After a while, one boy said, "You're not what I expected." "In what way." "I thought you'd be..I don't know...taller." I burst out laughing and stood up. "I'm almost six feet! How tall do you want me to be?" "I don't know. You're just not what I expected."

I think he meant he expected me to be more imposing, or intimidating, and it came out as "taller." So I guess that's me--tall, but nicer than you think.

Thanks, Hilari! I can't wait for the gypsy steampunk book, let alone the sequel to Trickster's Girl! The latter, Traitor's Son, is due out in Spring 2012. If you can't wait that long for a Bell book, watch for the third and final Goblin Wood book, Goblin Wars, to be published Fall 2011.

Want to know more? This Bell biography is from Answers.com. Try also this brief interview at the HarperCollins website. For the writers among you, check out Hilari Bell's excellent array of writing tips. They're posted at her website, where you can also find this nice list of her books with jacket art included. And finally, here's a link to my review of Trickster's Girl, which I posted on Book Aunt last weekend by way of a prequel to today's interview.

Tags: hilari bell, interview, kate coombs, trickster's girl
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