On Characters Taking the Wheel: An Interview with Kendare Blake
Critically acclaimed Young Adult writer Kendare Blake’s newest book Three Dark Crowns, hit shelves just in time to get your fall creepy on this September. The novel follows three sisters, each with their own dangerous power, who must fight to the death to earn the crown and rule their isolated island people. For years, the Poisoners have ruled the island. But the three princesses of the island are ready to be crowned, and this battle has many more twists and turns than any of them could have realized.
Like many of Blake’s previous efforts, Three Dark Crowns shows you the mesmerizingly dark side of magic and politics. It’s a wicked, sexy tale of twisted political factions in search of power and women who cross boundaries of loyalty and tradition to fulfill their darkest desires. I had the chance to talk with Kendare Blake about her fantastic new book, writing, female friendships and feminine power, and more!
Sharanya Sharma: I loved the book! I saw so many interesting themes in there about power and politics that I really enjoyed. I’d love to hear from you — what are some things you hope readers will see in this story?
Kendare Blake: Well, first and foremost I hope they get an enjoyable read. I was surprised at how much fun it was to write — all the scheming! And the different kind of city-societies. I got to immerse myself in their different cultures along with their shared culture, and all their different aims.
Yeah, totally! I was also fascinated by the three different settings you created within this one island. How did you go about developing those three different factions and those three different settings for this story?
I let the settings kind of form around the characters. I had a clearer idea of who the Poisoners were, as a culture, and who the Elementals were. I had a clear view of what their cities would be like. I mean, I’d been thinking about these characters and their societies for…full on I had the idea about two years before I started writing, but then I really started to get into it about 8 months or so before, and I started thinking about the particulars. Wolf Spring, the naturalist city, was the one that showed up first. That to me has a very English Countryside/Irish-inspired feel to it, with the waterfront and the docks, and the farms, whereas the Poisoners live in the capital, which is much fancier, and much more developed and urbanized, so that had almost like a French or Russian feel to it — when I visualize the buildings, that’s the kind of architecture and structure that I see. And the Elementals up in Rolanthe were more free. They’re by the coast. There’s a lot of waterways and lots of things moving. I wanted it to be a very bustling kind of city-center with a lot of art and vendors and artisans and craftspeople working through there.
And do you often find that your characters are the ones that inform what happens around them, or is it the other way around?
This time, that is exactly what happened. I knew that Fennbirn was an island and that it was isolated and almost kind of lost to the rest of the world at this point. But in my other books, the setting is kind of forced more on to the characters because they were real places. I have things happen in actual places. This is the first time, I would say, because it was a fantasy and because it was completely created I could allow [my characters to inform the setting]. Kind of fun!
I can imagine! Would you say one setting is more challenging than the other? Or that they’re both kind of challenging?
I mean, they both have their own sets of challenges. You might think it’s harder to come up with something from the ground up. And funnily enough, real-life settings seem to have their mystical way of kind of…working out. If you need an alley for something to happen and you’re thinking of a particular place, strangely enough, you usually find it. You usually find something workable that you can do. There’s a little less pressure, I will say, having made up something, versus trying to do justice to the place that actually exists.
So how will these settings influence the story to come?
In the first book there’s a lot of positioning and there’s a lot of jockeying for power within the cities themselves and between city to city. And in the second book, you kind of see the sisters kind of break out of that and start to realize like, “This is our fight, so we’d better get in it or figure out what’s going to happen.”
It was kind of nice in the second book to see them sort of come into their own and see them make some of their own mistakes.
I was really interested by having three different characters move the story forward. Especially these three very distinct characters that are related and yet almost have no contact with each other at first. Was it challenging to balance three different points of view as you move through the story?
It was. Because, inevitably, as a writer you know one or two characters better than you know the rest. At least, right away, before you figure out the others. So previous drafts were kind of just figuring stuff out. By the time I got to the more final drafts it had all integrated and I could see where everybody was coming from more clearly. I was worried, because we are dealing with three different settings, essentially three different main characters, three different casts of supporting characters. They each have their individual journey and I wanted to keep each one kind of compelling enough, and also related to the others, without having them cross paths because they don’t cross paths until midway through. So I felt a little pressure, like “I need to get these sisters together!” But really, that’s the way the story went. And they all needed to have that kind of pre-development so you could see the kind of lives they were living and why they would act the way that they would towards each other.
You mentioned the cast of supporting characters, who were also very enjoyable. I was particularly interested in the female friendships that you see. What role do you think friendships, and female friendships especially, play in a story like this about power and politics?
Well, since this one is set in a matriarchal society, maybe it’s slightly different. Whereas in a patriarchy the female friendships would especially precious, I think, would be bonded together in oppression. But, in this case, I loved writing the female friendships and it was very, very important to me that especially two of the characters would have this crazy unbreakable bond. One would do almost anything for the other, and the latter feels almost guilty about that. Their relationship is one that came out right away.
The female friendships that Mirabella has surprised me! In the beginning she was a little bit more isolated, just the priestesses and her, you know, being groomed to take over. And then Bree showed up, her foster-sister, and then Elizabeth showed up. In the first couple of drafts Elizabeth was very minor, but she kept on kind of horning her way in, and before I knew it Mirabella had this set of very good best friends. It’s tough, when you have side characters like that, because you really like them, you really want to give them more page time, but it’s non-essential, so you have to do what you can with just a few lines between them.
Do you find that characters often end up taking over in terms of where the story ends up going and things like that?
Absolutely. I think that more often than not character motivation will dictate where the story ends up going. For example, in Anna Dressed in Blood I have a character named Carmel, and she’s a Queen Bee and she’s very popular, and I thought she was going to die in chapter seven, and instead she lives and becomes a main character through the entire two-book series, and that was certainly unexpected. I like it when things like that happen. It feels more like an adventure for me as a writer. It feels like I’m not so much creating as I’m turning these people loose and following them around where they go.
Have you ever encountered any challenges with that, though? Where you’ve thought, oh, no, that’s not where this should be going! Have you tried to turn it around, and what does that look like?
I did. In my second series, Cassandra of Troy was one of the main characters, and if you’re familiar with Cassandra of Troy’s backstory, she was a Princess of Troy. Everybody thought she was crazy because she was cursed by the gods and she ends up getting murdered on foreign shores by the wife of the man who had turned into a concubine and a slave. So not a great story for her. And then I come along and I put her in this other story, and I don’t know if it was because of my knowledge of her and what she would be like, but she was very hard to work with. She didn’t want to be in this book at all. But she’s the other protagonist, she’s half the book, and I had to write it over and over again because she just didn’t feel like she wanted to be there, which…also sounds weird. It means that the characters are very real, and there’s more going on with the characters than what’s just in your head that doesn’t fit on the page. So Cassandra was my big problem child. I really like her, but at the same time I hope I don’t have to work with her again because she’s just too tough.
So which characters do you relate to most in Three Dark Crowns, and why?
I think I relate to them all on a certain level. I can certainly understand where they’re all coming from. It would be easy to kind of paint the Poisoners as the villains just because they’ve been in power so long. But really they’re not…well, some of them are wicked, but as a culture and I don’t think Natalia in particular, is necessarily wicked. I just think that she thinks that things are going very well for the island under their rule, and why change it. Nobody else can do it as well as they can. Everybody else is going to mess it up, and they need to stay where they are.
I think of the three queens I can understand Arsinoe’s position the most. I tend to relate more to the underdogs. Katerina’s also an underdog but she’s still victimized. While I can see her position, luckily I can’t relate to it. But Arsinoe, she’s got all those defense mechanisms. She’s pretty sure she’s going to die but she still doesn’t want to. Even though she’s going to fight it off, she doesn’t really want to get her hopes up too high. I relate to that a lot. She was the one who wasn’t raised with her eye on the prize. The naturalists kind of…gave her a happy childhood.
You mentioned too how there isn’t one villain in this story, it’s really just about these three different factions living within the system. How did that idea come about?
Exactly. If there’s a villain, it’s the situation. It’s not any particular person, although the way that they deal with the situation does bring out villainous qualities in some way.
The whole idea kind of sparked from one thing. I was at a book event in Oregon, and it was indoor/outdoor, so we had a hot-dog truck out back, and there were kids playing music, and there was this bee-ball in a tree, this swarm of bees.
And everybody was scared like, “Oh, the kids are going to get stung, everybody’s going to get stung, it’s gonna be chaos.”
But a beekeeper was there, and she was like, “Don’t worry, that’s a swarm, they’re actively swarming, and they’re only concerned about protecting the queen, and she’s like, right in the middle of the ball. So as long as you don’t like, poke the ball, they won’t even get out of that tree. They’re just going to stay there.”
So I got to chatting with the beekeeper, like, “Okay so what are they doing? Why are they all moving the queen right now?”
And she said, “Well, the queen must have wanted to leave the hive for whatever reason — either she’s about to die or she just wants a new hive. So at her old hive she laid three or four queen eggs, and when those daughters hatch out, they fight or one kills the other ones before they can hatch and takes over the hive.”
And I thought, “Neat!”
As I was driving home I kept thinking about those bees. And I’ve always loved that story about Queen Elizabeth and the poisoned dress, and the very royal tradition of poisoning in that insidious manner, so I had this idea that I wanted to work with poison, poisoned clothes and this and that. And slowly the two ideas came together, and that’s where it came from.
Wow!! That’s a fantastic way to start a story. So as we know, Three Dark Crowns is a Young Adult book, as were many of your previous books. Is there anything in particular that draws you to that genre?
I don’t know! You know, before Anna Dressed in Blood I never really thought of it as a category. Mostly I think it’s just the age of the protagonists, I guess? My first first novel was contemporary, and it’s published with a small press out of Georgia, and I never thought of it as being Young Adult, but when they published it they were like, “This is kind of Young Adult.” And that’s when I perked up and was like, “What’s Young Adult?” So I guess I’ve kind of always been writing it and not known it. So I don’t know, I don’t know what in particular…I never know what in particular draws me to write a story over the years that I’ve been writing. You know, it’s just…worked out that way so far!
You mentioned earlier that this story in your mind was set in a matriarchal society. Can you tell me more about about how that happened, and why?
I don’t know, in my mind it was always a matriarchal society. Maybe because of the beehive, beehives being a very matriarchal society, you know, with the female workers and every once in awhile they let a drone in, then they boot him back out again. That’s probably why it came to be that way. But I really enjoyed it! I really enjoyed crafting a situation in a society where women are empowered and have always been in power, not only in the government but in religion. So it was interesting to me, to have the counterpoint from the boys who come to port from the mainland, and that patriarchal sense of “This is all really weird!” and “This could never fly back at home,” and have it kind of juxtaposed and come up against the girls that they’re there to hopefully court.
Right, to see that realization of “Oh, I have to take a backseat, here!” As opposed to being the one to act, the boys have to sit back and watch. Did you find that, because we live in a mostly patriarchal society, that switching into that way of thinking was kind of hard? Did you find yourself challenged at times writing that?
I did find myself slipping into some things. Like, I had Peter, who’s an Arron, I gave him the wrong last name, because he’s Natalia’s brother’s son, but he would have his mother’s name, so that’s why he’s not called Peter Arron. But for the first several drafts he was Peter Arron, and I didn’t catch it until much later on. I called fishers “fishermen” for a really long time, before I realized, you know, half these fishers are women out on the boats and they wouldn’t have that. And I had to be careful to trace estates through the female line, and things like that.
I’d like to think I caught myself, mostly, but then I almost, like, went too far, because I got a letter from my editor, where she said, “So…can you give the boys some hopes and dreams? Because they’re kind of just…arm candy at this point.”
And I was like, “OH, yeah, the boys, I did want to do something for them.”
Peter and Billy and Joseph are the three main boys and I appreciate them as well. They are, you know, people! And in this situation they’re mostly supporting of the females but that’s because I think they should take a backseat to this kind of conflict. They’re not the ones that are going to have to be in it.
So what did you find most challenging about writing this book?
The actual writing of it! I’d been writing contemporary stories set in our world for a really long time. I was really used to peppering things with pop-culture references and a lot of slang and sarcasm and I couldn’t do that on an island. So it took me a really long time to get the voice and the tone down. Lots and lots of drafts. Even up to the very last minute, I looked at it one more time and was like, “This is not right,” so I completely rewrote it from top to tail, completely rewrote it in the voice that it is now.
Yeah, that was hard. It was hard to get into it. And now that I’m in it, and working on the sequel, I’m like, God don’t lose it! It’s really hard to hold that voice when it’s not your natural voice.
Do you feel like the tone shifts between the different settings, and that made it challenging too?
I do! That smoothed out a little bit as I got to know them. For example, the Wolf Spring characters are a little bit more loosy-goosy. They’ll use contractions, and their mannerisms are a lot less formal. They’re country folk, they’re not city folk. Whereas in Indrid Down and in Rolanthe, at least among the Priestess class, they are very, very proper.
Elizabeth the Priestess comes from Kenora, which is closer to Wolf Spring, and you will notice that her speech patterns and her mannerisms are kind of…shushed upon by the rest of the Priestess class. She’s not like them. But that kind of helps with keeping the characterizations, those differences, when we move from city to city. It helps to ground me, as a writer, as I make those shifts.
That definitely makes sense! So one thing I really enjoy about your writing is that it’s dark, but it’s a darkness that reveals a lot about people. Can you talk about what influences your writing?
You know, I don’t know if I have an excuse for the darkness! I mean, my parents are lovely people and I had a lovely childhood. But I’ve always been drawn to dark things, as far as my reading taste. I prefer dark things over fluffy things. I do like fluffy things though, I will not lie about that. But…for instance, the first things that I read were Stephen King, Anne Rice…just dark, creepy, and sometimes really brutal things. So maybe that just stuck with me? I don’t know! I like what you said though, that darkness does illuminate things about the human condition in a way that maybe light doesn’t, always, and maybe I’m just drawn to that!
Yeah, I definitely saw a lot of that in your novel. Each faction was so ruthless in what they wanted that they brought out a lot of themselves onto the page.
Yeah, it was fun, especially with the Priestesses! I was expecting the Poisoners to play dirty, that’s what I thought. So I was actually quite pleasantly thrilled when the priestesses were like, “Yeah we have all these high-minded ideals but screw that!” I really like that. They’re fun to write.