Wouldn’t You Like to Know . . . Robin LaFevers
Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Robin Lorraine LaFevers (aka Robin LaFevers to teen fans, or R.L. LaFevers to her younger readers) grew up in the midst of seven, mostly younger, brothers and an eclectic assortment of household pets, including a baby anteater, two baby bear cubs (really!), chipmunks, goats, plus a few boring ol’ cats and dogs. All these strange creatures, both the four- and two-legged, eventually found their way into her Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist series. And those childhood impressions of someone or something lurking just out of sight, but repeatedly hearing it, was just her imagination? Those moments helped create Robin’s Theodosia series. So, perhaps it wouldn’t seem very outlandish if readers were to assume Robin has years of silent assassin training or lives in a castle filled with intrigue, right? In truth, it’s her longstanding love of classic mythology, in-depth historical research, and a solid 19th century poem that’s helped create the world of her teen series: His Fair Assassin. Being the author of three engaging and growing series should feel particularly satisfying considering the discouraging words Robin received after sharing her dream of being an author one day. The icing on top of her success? Being happily married to the former Boy Next Door (who gallantly changed a tire and found his wife!), two wonderfully grown sons, and an ever changing menagerie of her own, which has included iguanas, a boa constrictor, and an assorted selection of fowl, but currently consists solely of one cranky (or a smidge demonic, if you ask Robin) cat who provides daily inspiration for Theodosia’s friend, Isis. Are the foothills of Southern California big enough contain such LaFevers glee? So far, it looks good!
SH: When I was a teenager, people would describe me as a: (jock, band geek, popular, goth, other, none?)
RLF: You know, I was one of those invisible kids in high school, the kind who doesn’t really stand out in anything. I was probably closest to being a brainiac, but I wasn’t quite smart enough in math and science to achieve that label.
SH: The best/worst thing that happened to you in high school?
RLF: My two best friends got selected to participate in the summer foreign exchange program and I didn’t. Only the three of us applied.
SH: Favorite childhood book? Favorite food? Favorite band or album? Favorite television show?
RLF: The Chronicles of Narnia. For my teen years, The Lord of the Rings. And I was a huge fan of old 1930s black and white movies.
SH: Was there any class in high school you regret paying too little, or too much, attention?
RLF: Not that I can think of. I was actually pretty studious.
SH: If you could add one class to high schools across the country, what would be the topic?
SH: If you could spend the day with one of the characters from your books, who would you want to it be? What would you do?
RLF: It would probably be Sister Serafina, because not only would she teach me tons of cool stuff about poisons and herbs, but I suspect she knows a lot of the secrets there at the convent. If I kept refilling her wine cup, she might be tricked into sharing those with me.
SH: Do you have any favorite family traditions that might need some explanation to outsiders looking in? Do you remember how they started?
RLF: Whenever my husband comes home, he gives a funny little three note whistle. This is because when we went and saw the original Alien movie, it scared the bejeebus out of me for weeks. I was so jumpy that he often unintentionally startled me simply by stepping into the room. So, he began whistling to keep me from having unnecessary heart attacks.
SH: If you had an important secret or story to share, who would be the first person you’d turn to?
RLF: Depending on the nature of the secret, my husband or my best friend Mary Hershey.
SH: Is there a book, besides your own, of course, that you think everyone should be reading?
RLF: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. Talk about a class in empathy!
SH: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
RLF: Mean, judgmental people. They can just go away now.
SH: If you could spend a little time as a fairy tale character, which character would you want to be and in which fairy tale would we find you?
RLF: The fairy godmother, hands down. And I would be in all the fairy tales, and give everyone either a happy ending or a second chance.
Or maybe I’d be Sleeping Beauty. There are days when a hundred-year nap sounds downright appealing.
SH: When you’re done writing for the day, or taking a little “me” time, do you have a hobby or special treat you indulge in?
RLF: Um, more writing? That’s the sad honest truth. I often have hobby projects that I work on in and around my contracted projects. Although with the His Fair Assassin books, I haven’t been able to do that as they require every brain cell I possess.
Sometimes, I’ll do a sort of inspirational art project for whatever book I’m working on. You can find some pictures at Writer Unboxed where I post a monthly column. (http://writerunboxed.com/2013/03/08/the-plays-the-thing/)
SH: What three words would you use to describe yourself? What three words do you think other people would use to describe you?
RLF: Loyal, hard-working, daydreamer.
Obsessed, imaginative, hermit.
SH: One of your books has been selected to be made into a movie, which book would you want it to be and who would want in your cast?
RLF: Grave Mercy or Dark Triumph.
Sometimes when I see pictures of Eva Green, I get a certain spark of something that makes me think she’d make a good Sybella. Ismae is harder, although after seeing Silver Linings Playbook, I think Jennifer Lawrence would be able to capture her combination of toughness and vulnerability.
SH: Who was the first person who told you should be a writer?
RLF: My grandmother, who was also a librarian and who appreciated my wild imagination perhaps more than others in my family.
SH: What is one (or more!) of your favorite features about yourself? It can be anything from an impeccable sense of style to your sense of humor to crazy long toes that can pick up a variety of objects.
RLF: My imagination–because I love the places it takes me to.
SH: A series of choices: Comedy or Drama? Appetizers or Dessert? Hot or Cold? Five Star Hotel or Rustic Camping? Morning or night? Spend or Save?
RLF: A comedy that also makes me cry.
Five Star Hotel
Saving and then spending
SH: Any advice for teens, something you wish you had known? Or wish you had done? Or wish you had not done? And why. (Or maybe: Best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten, at any age?
RLF: It’s hard to narrow the advice down to just one thing! But I guess, if I had to pick only one, it would be this: We need to question authority. And yes, I know that sounds very radical 60’s feminist, but the thing is, when we give someone authority, we give them power over us.
Some authorities are non-negotiable, the state, law enforcement, etc. But there are many areas of life where we get to choose who we give power—and authority—to. Our friends, peers, the media, and—after we reach a certain age—even our parents. You don’t have to listen to people if what they want or tell you goes against your core truths or beliefs or desires. You get to choose whom you let into your life that way. It also, or maybe even especially, applies to life’s Big Questions. We owe it to ourselves to wrestle with our own concepts of love and faith and honor and duty. We get to decide for ourselves what those mean, and don’t have to swallow whole the concepts handed to us by others.
His Fair Assassin Trilogy
His Grave Mercy
SH: Ismae is one of those characters you can’t help but love and root for, even though she’s a Handmaiden of Death who goes around killing people! How did you do that?
RLF: I think I was able to achieve that because I simply thought of her as a girl, a downtrodden girl who suddenly found this astonishing avenue to personal empowerment. And not just in breaking away from those who’d treated her so poorly like her family had, but she also learned how to empower herself around those to whom she felt she owed something, and that can be much, much harder.
I also allowed her to be vulnerable, mostly because writing—or reading—about an invulnerable character holds little interest for me. I am much more fascinated by people who are able to be strong in spite of their vulnerabilities, rather than those who possess none in the first place.
SH: Where did you find inspiration for all those different poisons with such complicated names and ways of being delivered to a victim? How close are any of them to being real assassin tools?
RLF: Ah, those were fun! I probably spent waaay more time on them than their actual screen time warranted.
I researched real life poisons, primarily those that were known back in that time period or in that geographical area, and while I didn’t use their true names, their methods of delivery and the ways they acted on the body were lifted from actual poisons. So there really are poisons that can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, although they aren’t called Arduinna’s snare.
And the names just sort of came to me as I was trying to envision all the different instances in which the convent might administer or provide a poison. I also wanted the names to have some heft behind them, to invoke a sense of the history of poison usage itself.
SH: Being dedicated to a one of your pagan nine gods at birth could be a blessing or a curse, providing either a clear direction or forcing uncomfortable attributes onto a person. If you had been dedicated at birth, who do you think your parents would have chosen for you? Would they have been right?
RLF: My parents would have (rightly!) dedicated me to Brigantia and the quest for knowledge, because I am a big fan of acquiring as much knowledge as one can. But when I grew old enough to decide for myself, I would have chosen to serve the Dark Mother, even if it meant stepping outside of the sanctioned Nine.
SH: Once they are able to move away from the intrigue of Anne’s royal court, what do you think Ismae and Duval will do with their free time: play chess, go on picnics, hang out in secret castle corridors, or something else entirely?
RLF: Definitely play chess. Ismae is not going to rest until she can beat Duval in at least half their games. They will also undoubtedly go on lots of picnics, just to get away from the oppressive court politics that are always present. In the evenings, Duval will read to Ismae, for although she is able to read, it doesn’t come easily to her. Besides, it gives her a legitimate excuse to just sit and listen to his voice and watch him without having to make up excuses as to why she’s doing so. I also suspect that Ismae will cajole Duval into sparring with her so she can see if she is truly better than him in hand to hand combat. If she’s not, you can bet she’ll start increasing her practice time.
SH: Ismae hasn’t made a definite choice to join or renounce the Abbey of St. Mortain. What do you think will be the deciding factor(s) for either option?
RLF: I think for Ismae, it will ultimately come down to whether or not she can understand what is driving the abbess’s motivations, and the entire convent’s, and whether or not she feels it is in keeping with what she herself knows of Mortain.
SH: When we first met her in Grave Mercy, Sybella’s grasp on sanity was pretty tenuous but readers can’t help but root for her right away. What is it about her do you think makes that possible?
RLF: I think it’s because it’s obvious that Sybella has suffered horribly, and no matter what she might have done in the past, no fourteen-year-old girl deserves to have endured the horrors that clearly haunt her. But secondly, or maybe more importantly, I think we root for her because no matter how much she’s endured, she refuses to be a passive victim. She is actively looking for ways to turn her circumstance around, even if some of those ways seem extreme to us.
SH: How far back in Sybella’s creation did you know what you wanted her backstory to be? Were you worried about how hard it might be to share all her secrets? Any concerns over what feedback you might get?
RLF: As soon as Sybella appeared on the page, I knew she had a horrifying, tragic story to tell. But she was so layered and closed up, that it took me quite a while to peel back her many layers and learn the true extent of what she’d suffered. And yes, sharing those secrets was hard—absolutely some of the hardest stuff I’ve ever written. But it’s only in talking about those types of secrets that we begin to loosen their stranglehold on us, so it was necessary, if uncomfortable.
And yes again, I was (am) absolutely concerned over reader’s reactions. Not everyone is drawn to such a dark story, but I also believe with all my heart that not all heroines have led shiny, flawless lives, and I wanted to write about someone who had to fight to reclaim herself from those that would shame her for what was never her fault to begin with.
SH: For such a prickly, tortured character, Sybella also has a good sense of humor and tons of compassion. Where does that ability to care for others come from?
RLF: You know what’s funny? I never once thought of her as even having a sense of humor. I think of her as being more wry and ironic, simply to keep herself from descending into true madness with all the heaviness going on around her.
As for the ability to care for others, that came from those few moments in her childhood when someone was kind to her or cared for her. She saw that, recognized that it was something good and worth fighting for. Ironically, many of those moments involved Julian when he was younger.
SH: Is the cat’s cradle string game a particular favorite in your house? From your childhood? How difficult was it to actually describe the game so it was instantly recognizable?
RLF: Yes! We loved to play cat’s cradle when I was young. It was fairly easy to describe actually, mostly because I wasn’t concerned if someone recognized it or not; simply that it worked for the scene.
SH: Will Monsieur Crow ever get his own story? Maybe a short story on your website, or a longer story as a bonus feature in the last book in this trilogy?
RLF: Ha! That big a fan, are you? I can honestly say that I have never considered giving Monsieur Crow his own story. However, his story is very interwoven with Sybella’s time at the convent, so maybe there will be a story about that someday.
SH: Benebic, the Beast of Waroch, goes from the extremes of battle lust to tender compassion in no time at all. Which extreme do you think Sybella values more? When this book ends, would you expect them to be spending more time fighting with each other or fighting a common enemy? Or not fighting at all?
RLF: I think Sybella values that very duality itself, for it so closely resembles the similar extremes she holds within herself. They would never truly fight each other, except as a way of letting off steam, so it would definitely be a common enemy. But I think that after they have done that for a while, both of them will look forward to being able to focus on their less destructive sides. I know Beast in particular looks forward to the day when he can use his hands to grow or build things, rather than destroy them.
SH: I love the additional sayings on your His Fair Assassin book covers—“Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?” and “Vengeance is Divine.” Where did those come from and how did you pick one for each book?
RLF: Each of those sort of evolved from the stories themselves. With—“Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?”—we were discussing cover copy and brainstorming ways to convey being the hunter rather than the prey in medieval-speak, and that just sort of popped into my head. My brilliant editor came up with “Vengeance is Divine.” after she’d read the first draft of Dark Triumph.
SH: Is there anything you’d be willing to reveal about Annith’s story? Have you chosen the additional saying planned for her cover?
RLF: Sadly, no. Annith is the one I know the least about, as she has had the least amount of screen time. Sybella showed up a few times in Grave Mercy, so I had to create some of her story as I was writing that book. But not so Annith. She has been a secretive little minx, so much so that I am only now discovering how many secrets she’s kept from both Ismae and Sybella.
SH: What did you buy with your first paycheck as An Author? Was it a planned or an impulse purchase?
RLF: I have no idea! I should though, shouldn’t I?
SH: When you sit down to write, what do you need around you? Do you prefer a certain time of day or is it more spontaneous? How do you approach the creative process?
RLF: You know, I used to write only in the morning, first thing as I was waking up. And I still do that sometimes, but I also find myself having creative bursts of productivity in the afternoon as well, so that’s a good thing. I need quiet, a space free from distractions. I’m not one of those writers who can write in a crowded coffee shop. Preferably, a space that does not have Internet connectivity. I actually do most of my writing longhand in big spiral notebooks, or on an old laptop that is not connected to the Internet. I have a lovely big screen iMac, but I can’t write first drafts on it—I mostly use it for editing or inputting revisions. Revisions, I might add, that I make with pen on a hard copy.
I don’t write every day. I know that is something some writers swear by, but not me. I find if I do that, I do more damage than good by simply getting words—any words—on the page to make a daily word count. It’s much better for me to take a few days and do the necessary research, brainstorming, or story journaling to find the right words, and then move forward.
I’m very lucky in that since I write full time and my kids are grown, the creative process gets to take center stage in my life. After so many years of fitting it in between soccer practices and naps, I really cherish that luxury.
YA Books by Robin LaFevers
Grave Mercy. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 549p. $16.99. 978-0-5476-2834-9. VOYA February 2012. 4Q 4P S A/YA
Dark Triumph. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 387p. $17.99. 978-0-5476-2838-7. VOYA April 2013. 4Q 4P S
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