An Interview with Laini Taylor, Author of Strange the Dreamer

In her beloved, indispensable Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, a portal fantasy spanning Earth and the angel- and chimaera-populated land of Eretz, Laini Taylor established her bona fides as a creator of rich, expansive worlds, author of impossible love stories, and spinner of narrative spells. In Strange the Dreamer, the first in a planned duology that’s out tomorrow, she introduces a less likely hero: Lazlo Strange, an orphan-turned-librarian whose obsession with the lost city of Weep leads him, finally, to its borders. Years ago Weep’s hero, known as the Godslayer, killed the supernatural beings that held their city in thrall, but they left a dark legacy behind that he’s battling to erase. Meanwhile, a blue-skinned goddess girl and her supernaturally gifted companions walk the halls of an empty citadel, surviving on plums and rainwater. When the girl and Lazlo meet inside a dream, it’s the beginning of one of those lush, long-shot love stories Taylor excels at, between two characters on opposite sides of a seemingly unbreachable divide. In true Taylor style, it’s heady, achingly romantic, and stuffed with gorgeous prose.

We talked with Taylor about her process, her reading list, and her fictional obsessions.

Across Strange the Dreamer‘s wild world of Zosma, Weep, and beyond, what bit came to you first? A character, an image, a line?

The starting point was this little shard of an idea that had been in my head for years: it was “the muse of nightmares,” a nocturnal girl who lives in a high tower and whose job it is to send nightmares to the sleeping citizens below. That bumped into this other idea, about the unwanted, half-caste children of bad gods, and a story started to take shape.

Do you read, watch, or listen while you’re working—and if so, what did you read/watch/listen to while working on Strange the Dreamer?

Do you mean actively during writing? My answer to this is boring. I’ve listened with fascination to other authors’ processes of putting together amazing playlists, but I prefer silence. When I was writing Daughter of Smoke & Bone and Days of Blood & Starlight, my daughter was a baby/toddler, so I had to leave the house if I wanted to get work done. Writing at cafés, I had to have noise-canceling headphones, which I hadn’t known before aren’t exactly silence machines. They work best if you’re playing music, so I did have music chosen to be as undistracting as possible, while also hopefully moody and inspiring. My music of choice was Niyaz and Vas, which are these two Iranian Canadian groups who play “mystical modern” music with Middle Eastern overtones. It’s gorgeous, but steady enough that it wouldn’t peak and grab my attention away from my story. Since Clementine’s gotten old enough for me to work at home (though she *did* just wander into my office with her whole face Scotch taped shut…), I prefer quiet.

Lazlo dreams of one day traveling to Weep, and what he finds there is stranger than he could have imagined. As a kid were there fictional cities you dreamt of with that level of passion—or did you create any of your own?

As a kid, what I called “writing” mainly consisted of dreaming up fantasy countries, making maps of them, labeling every castle and forest and witch’s cottage, creating genealogies of kings, lists of gods and magical powers, etc., etc. I never actually wrote the stories that would take place in them, ha ha. I was obsessed with worldbuilding. So this is pretty much my happy place. Mysterious, lost, and forgotten cities will always be at the top of my “things that light my mind on fire” list. Can’t you just imagine being part of such a delegation? Ahhh, here’s where “RDWR syndrome” really kicks in. That’s Reader’s Dissatisfaction with Reality syndrome. There are no dragons and no lost cities and no wingsmiths at the market and it’s just NOT FAIR.

You kept a wonderful website, Not for Robots, full of fabulous writerly tricks and tips (such as Attic Notebook, which I love and have adopted). One of the exercises was to free write a list of inspiring favorite things. What might your “favorite things” list look like for the writing of Strange the Dreamer?

Thank you! I’m thrilled to hear you’ve tried the Attic Notebook exercise. It’s so fun! I haven’t done it in a long time, but now I’m thinking I should.

And the “favorite things” list. For readers: I’ve found that when I get deep into writing a book, the things about it that at first seemed imaginative and fascinating to me, don’t anymore. The novelty wears off and it’s hard to recapture my own sense of wonder. So I started making a list, early on, that I could refer to as kind of proof that they did once seem cool, and hopefully still will to readers who are coming to the story fresh. It’s a way of keeping faith with the story at the darkest part of the writing process.

This inspired me to look up the “cool things” list for my second book, Silksinger (which was the first book I did one for), and this is how it started: weird fruit, hidden kingdoms, vanishings, secret names, mystery. Ha! I could have been talking about Strange.

The Strange list might include:

–Mythic lost cities
–Fabulous libraries
–Strange alphabets
–Nose broken by fairy tales
–Shared dreaming
–Strange blue children
–Sarai’s bizarre gift (I don’t want to spoil how it works)
–Walking ghosts on leashes
–Imaginary cake
–The god-making mist
–The wingsmiths
–Blood candy
–Scorpions whose venom imparts superhuman strength

Did you jump straight from the world of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy to that of the Strange duology, or did you go down other paths first before finding Lazlo?

Good question! I definitely am not one to jump straight from finishing one book into starting another, the way some of my writer friends do (to my great envy). When I finally finish a book I’m mentally exhausted and take a little break. I finished Dreams of Gods & Monsters in December, and through January I was on a breakneck copyediting schedule, and then I collapsed. In February, I went on a writing retreat to a fabulous house in Mexico with my family and some amazing writer friends, and while they were all hard at work on books, I was mostly in recovery (i.e., churros and hot chocolate). I did however begin to ask myself the question: what do I want to write next? It was so exciting. I’d spent five years working on the trilogy, and now I was free to dream up the next thing. I started sort of auditioning all the ideas that have been jostling for space in my head for years, and I wrote down the three most compelling ones and coaxed them into shape. One is for an adult book; the other two I pitched to my publisher. They wanted them, yay, and they left it up to me which one I’d write first.

But…I couldn’t decide! I loved them both. I kept vacillating. Finally I just forced myself to choose, and I chose the one with a heavy historical component and threw myself into research. To be honest, I got a little lost in it. Four or five months later, I had piles of notes but the story wasn’t really coming together and I panicked and jumped ship to the other pitch, which was a little more in my comfort zone, being fantasy. I told myself it would be “easier.” (Cue hysterical laughter.) It wasn’t easier. But now it’s done, so phew! Deadlines really are the greatest motivators…

Your books combine this wonderful sense of discovery with tight plotting that feels very purposeful. Do you write your scenes in order? Do you pants or do you plot?

Thank you!!! I do write in order, and it’s kind of a combination of pantsing and plotting.

I fantasize about this orderly process of having an outline and then just writing scene after scene until it’s all filled in, but the truth is I can never grasp my characters’ arcs until I just get in there and start making them do stuff, asking “in this situation, what would this character do now?” for every character, every situation. It builds on itself. It’s very much like the great E.L. Doctorow quote: “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I can only see a little way ahead. I tend to have a destination I’m trying to reach, but the route is unknown and full of mystery to discover as I go. Like, I knew for several years what I hoped the last scene of the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy would be, but the challenge was taking the characters on an emotional journey that could believably end that way. It had to feel true and earned. For me, it’s all about the emotional journey—or rather, all the characters’ interweaving emotional journeys and how they color each other. In the thick of things, it feels like I’ve taken all these balls of yarn and tangled them up, and I have to try to trace them. It builds and changes scene by scene, so I could never write out of order, or know what’s going to happen before I get there.

That said, I don’t actually “pants.” I’m way too terrified! I try to figure out as far ahead as I can. Maybe it’s just the scene at hand, but I think about it eight million ways and I brainstorm endlessly—what if this? what if this?—before I even try to write anything. It’s all very fraught! Then after each scene or chapter, I rewrite it until it works, then begin again with the brainstorm—write—rewrite cycle. Occasionally I have enough momentum to flow from one scene into the next. Love it when that happens.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? What was it about, and how old were you when you wrote it?

The first story I remember writing was about a talking crayfish. It was a total ripoff of the fairy tale of the talking fish that gets caught in a net and talks its way out of being eaten by granting wishes. I was five or six. *pause* Hold up. Hilariously, I just started to write, “I so clearly remember sitting on my front steps writing it,” but then had to admit to myself that I don’t remember if my house at that time even had front steps, so obviously I don’t clearly remember it at all. I’m such a liar! No, this memory feels real, but now I question it. After that, I don’t remember any particular stories until high school. I used to write a story for my best friend’s birthday every year. One was called “Tahitian Passion: Flesh Gods in Paradise.” One was a full choose-your-own-adventure book set in Europe and illustrated with tarot cards. And one was a Gothic horror set in Brittany, which anticipated the supernatural YA dead boy/alive boy love triangle by years! Ha!

What books blew your mind when you were a young reader? And what books have done that for you lately?

One of my clearest young reader memories is of Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall books (which I’ve just reread, and I still think are the strongest Pern books), and Madeleine L’Engle—not just the Wrinkle in Time series, but more clearly her mainstream books (like the Austins and the Polly O’Keefe ones), because they showed this world of kids traveling and having sophisticated conversations with scientists and being engaged and interested and smart. I loved that world. I was lucky to get to travel as a kid, being a Navy brat, but alas I never got to solve a murder mystery on a steamship to Venezuela (again, RDWR syndrome…). (I did, however, at the age of 11, get held at gunpoint on a Navy ship…)

A book that I ought to have discovered as a teen (it came out in 1985) but didn’t until later was A Company of Swans, by Eva Ibbotson. It’s like, 1911, and this company of Russian and European ballerinas steams up the Amazon to perform at the Manaus Opera House during the rubber boom era. I adore it. Books involving exotic travel, performance, and romance will always get me.

More recently…there are so many. I’m a huge fan of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows books, and Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes books. The forthcoming Wicked Like a Wildfire, by Lana Popović, is gorgeous, and I’ve just read The Weight of Feathers, by Anna-Marie McLemore, about these two enemy performing families in Central California: one does a mermaid show, and one a treetop shop, and it’s so magical and beautiful. For middle grade: The Lie Tree, by Francis Hardinge, was amazing, as was The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill, and The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, by Janet Fox. For a manga rec, I’m currently loving Princess Jellyfish. And the Last Man graphic novel series, imported by First Second from France, are wonderfully bizarre.

What are your fictional obsessions—words or images or ideas or themes that keep popping up in your work, book by book?

This is so interesting to me, because they’re really not conscious. But then I look at my body of work and go huh. Let’s see. I tend to end up wrestling with the question of forgiveness—amnesty—usually in the aftermath of war—and whether it’s possible to change the dynamic between groups of people, to overcome hate on both a personal level and on a larger scale. And it is. We’ve seen it in history, but it still feels so insurmountable. Can someone break out of lifelong indoctrination, and what does it take? In Strange the Dreamer and its sequel, the character of Minya is a big challenge. When someone is shaped by intense childhood trauma, can they ever be changed? Can they be saved? Of course, I hope so. Other fascinations include portals, parallel worlds, monsters and what constitutes a monster, and the idea of the soul as a discrete entity apart from the physical body. In DoSaB we have resurrection, in Strange we have bound ghosts. Personally, I don’t believe in the soul. I believe in the brain. But I’m drawn again and again to manifest the idea of soul in different ways. Wonder what that means?

Also: cake. There is a lot of eating cake or dreaming about cake in my books, and I almost always manage to mention chocolate at some point. 🙂

Strange the Dreamer is on sale tomorrow, and available for pre-order now.


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