Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Interview with Rachel Hartman, author of SERAPHINA

Today we welcome author Rachel Hartman to the Inkpot, to talk about her gorgeous debut YA fantasy SERAPHINA. It only took me a chapter to fall in love with this book, between the beautifully-realized and complex world and the determined, clever, wry protagonist struggling with her own identity, romance, philosophy, and Dragon-Human politics. I'm not the only one who loved this book: it's already received four starred reviews and is number two on the Summer Kid's Indie Next List!

Cover of Seraphina, featuring an medieval-style engraving of a dragon flying over a city

Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

SERAPHINA is available now in stores! [SPOILER ALERT: the Indie Next blurb on that page gives away certain plot details you might not want to know. So do a number of other reviews, so be warned] You can also learn more about Rachel and her books at her website!

Thanks for joining us, Rachel! On your blog you say that it took you eight years to write SERAPHINA (or rather, to write four different novels that were steps along the way to the final version). You've also written (and illustrated!) a comic series AMY UNBOUNDED, which is set in the same world as SERAPHINA, and (if I understand correctly) even features a few of the same characters. Can you tell us what it was like write a book on top of such a foundation? Were there any particular challenges or advantages? How much did the book change over the course of those eight years?

There was one obvious advantage to setting the novel in the same world as the comic: I had less active world-building to do. There was this whole infrastructure already in place, a big stage where new characters could come out and have their own dramas. Any time I needed a reminder of the world’s aesthetic, I even had a handy visual reference! That part was wonderful.

I didn’t anticipate what the challenges would be at all. One challenge was that I had this whole other cast of characters from the comic series, and they all wanted to pop into the novel for cameo appearances. I remember my agent identifying these very characters and asking, “Why are they even in the story?” That forced me to look closely and see where I was being self-indulgent.

Another challenge was that with so much of the world already built in such detail, I initially felt little need to delve into it much. The book started as an intimate family tragedy, like Ibsen with dragons. This was a source of befuddlement for agent and editors both, the fact that I had set such a small, quiet story in an enormous, complicated world. It was as if I had been cultivating a single begonia in the middle of a great garden. Maybe it was the most beautiful begonia in the world, but here was all this garden going untended. This struck them as a terrible waste.

Each successive version of the novel has expanded the scope of the plot, the better to fit into the world I had already built. Only echoes of the original remain, mostly in scenes where Seraphina interacts with her father. So yes, the book has changed substantially, but I really believe it has changed for the better each time.

The world in which Seraphina lives is richly detailed on so many levels. There's a complex and intriguing religion involving a profusion of Saints (including the heretic Saint Yirtrudis) and holidays, as well as discussions of philosophy, and explorations of what it means to have a soul (the general belief being that Dragons do not have souls). What led you to include these elements? What does including elements of religion and philosophy allow you to explore within the story?

I included those elements initially because I felt they rounded out the society. I’m kind of a medievalist nerd. Religion loomed large in the real Middle Ages, but so many “medieval” fantasy worlds ignore it completely (CHALION, mentioned below, being a welcome and brilliantly executed exception). I realize religion can be a touchy subject and it’s easy to offend people, but where can you talk about touchy subjects if not SF/F? This genre is a laboratory for thought experiments. The chance not taken is an opportunity missed.

I am one of those peculiar atheists who is fascinated by belief (Terry Pratchett being another, I suspect), so belief is quite a strong undercurrent throughout the whole book. Discussions of religion and philosophy are just echoes of the deeper preoccupation. We also have the beliefs dragons and humans hold about each other, Seraphina’s beliefs about herself and her mother, a painfully honest (and pious) prince, questions about art vs. lying, and so on. The important thing, to my mind, is to ask the questions, and keep asking them. Run the ideas through mazes; let the reader draw the conclusions.

On your blog, you reference Lois McMaster Bujold's THE CURSE OF CHALION as being your favorite fantasy novel. As a fellow fan of Bujold (and CHALION in particular) I was intrigued by your reference to it as a book that provides both an intimate, personal story and a big, earth-shaking story. How do you think this can be achieved? What was your experience in trying to bring a focus on both the large and the small to SERAPHINA?

CHALION played an important role in the final iteration of SERAPHINA. My editorial history is a bit convoluted, but the short version is this: my original editor left right in the middle of things, my agent found a new home for my book, and then my new editor basically said, “I love your writing, I love this world, I love these characters, but damned if I know how to fix this plot.” He thought the story was still too small, and it’s apparently unwise to start small in today’s publishing climate, even when small is beautiful.

I insisted that I didn’t like big earth-shattering epic fantasies (which isn’t entirely true, but I was mad), and that I couldn’t possibly write one. He said, “Surely you can think of one novel, just one, where the main character’s personal journey is just as strong and important as the earth-shattering external plot?”

CHALION popped immediately to mind. My editor quickly read it and we discussed how Bujold had managed to entwine and balance Cazaril’s outer and inner stories. So in that sense, CHALION was my teacher, and it was the first thing that gave me hope that maybe it was possible to wrote the kind of plot my editor wanted while still hanging on to all the things that were important to me. Of course, then I still had to figure out how to do it myself. There was a long learning curve, but I think in the end it came out better than I had ever dared dream.

Music plays a significant role in the life of Seraphina (I'd love to be able to hear Seraphina's performance of the Invocation!). Are you a musician, and did you draw on any real world music while writing the book?

I played cello from about age ten all the way through college, until life got in the way and I had to let it go. I loved playing, though, and I particularly loved being part of an orchestra. There is nothing quite like that feeling of being surrounded by music, being a part of this vast tapestry of sound. It’s profoundly moving, an exhilaration like no other, and that was a feeling I really wanted to convey in the book.

As for real-world music, in fact it was the famous Renaissance song “Mille Regretz” by Josquin Desprez that gave me my first thoughts of writing a story grounded in early music. The song title means “a thousand regrets,” a phrase I use as the starting lyric for one of the songs Seraphina sings. In fact, there are a lot of sneaky references to real-world music peppered throughout the book, little jokes with myself. Maybe I should make a list of them sometime, except I’m not sure I even remember where they all are.

I was thrilled to see that SERAPHINA features several diverse supporting characters, such as brown-skinned Abdo, from the nation-state of Porphyry, and others who identify themselves as Daanites (after one of the Saints who loved another man). And Seraphina herself struggles with questions of identity and acceptance. How did you come to include these elements in the text? What sort of challenges and rewards were there, in presenting a fantasy world that was not entirely straight, white, and pseudo-European?

I’m so pleased you noticed and liked that aspect of the book. Diversity is important to me – not just of race and sexual orientation, but diversity of belief, ability, aspiration, species, you name it. To me, that’s a crucial part of making the world real: filling it with glorious variety.

Including homosexual characters was a no-brainer for me. I have family and friends from every part of the spectrum; one of my sisters is suing the state of Illinois right now for the right to marry her partner. It’s hard for me to imagine a world where no one is gay. Racial diversity was more complicated for me because I grew up in the American south and am painfully aware that I have unconscious biases. I have been scared of inadvertently playing into stereotypes, but I finally decided I can’t let fear run me. I have to act on my values to the best of my ability, which means making the cast diverse. If I offend readers, I hope they’ll let me know and that I can listen humbly, learn from it, and see with clearer eyes next time.

Empathy has been my main strategy for avoiding stereotypes. I try to spend time with each character and as each character (in my imagination). It certainly worked with Princess Glisselda, right? There are plenty of stereotypes she could have played into, but she doesn’t. I hope I did as well with all my characters.

While I was very satisfied by the ending of SERAPHINA, I am also very much looking forward to the sequel that appears to be on the way. Can you tell us anything about it? Or about other projects you might be working on?

The sequel is tentatively titled DRACOMACHIA, and it takes place during the year following the events of SERAPHINA. I am terrible about spoilers, so I’m afraid to say too much, but I think it’s all right to tell you there will be lots more Abdo, we’ll finally get to see the dragon lands up close, and we may even get to hear some quigutl folk-songs, provided my editor doesn’t make me take those out. Which he might. They’re pretty cacophonous.

I can't wait! Thank you so much for visiting us, Rachel!

Deva Fagan is the author of Fortune’s Folly, The Magical Misadventures of Prunella Bogthistle and Circus Galacticus. She lives in Maine with her husband and her dog. When she’s not writing she spends her time reading, doing geometry, and drinking copious amounts of tea. Visit her at


  1. I am really loving SERAPHINA (I just took it on a hike in the mountains around Lake Tahoe and read it as I walked, until the trail got too steep), and I so appreciate this interview's glimpse into the many revisions this story went through to become what it is! I ordinarily gobble books, but I'm making myself put SERAPHINA down, every few chapters, to make it last a little longer. Thank you for writing this book, Rachel, and thanks to Deva for such a great interview!

  2. Wonderful interview! Renaissance polyphony, saints, a kingdom in conflict, *and* mathematical dragons? I can't wait to read this! (Though "Ibsen with dragons" sounds right up my alley, too.)

  3. i love this interview so, especially hearing about her editorial process. I have a book that has given me this same struggle (intimate story against the backdrop of a vast world I've been writing about for almost 20 years) and I think I've gotten it much closer to where it needs to be (hasn't been shopped yet, though, so who knows)...I love hearing about this struggle to expand the story but maintain the intimacy and integrity... I'm 50 pages into Seraphina and I can already tell it will probably be my favorite novel of the year. Sometimes you just know right away.

  4. I have been wanting to read this book for quite a while now, but after learning that Rachel is a fellow medievalist nerd and Chalion fan, I reeeeally want to!

  5. Her cover is amazing and the story sounds intriguing. Guess this one goes on the TBR list!

  6. Thank you, Rachel! I especially appreciate your walking us through your editorial process - I love the idea that the plot expanded from a family story into a more traditional world-shaking fantasy plot. I can't wait to read it and see how it turned out!


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  10. Another fantastic review on this book!!

    Seraphina has been on my Amazon wishlist for months. I'm really hoping to get it for Christmas or else as soon as possible!

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