Given the popularity of Holly Black’s books, it’s unlikely that anyone reading the just published “The Wicked King” had not read “The Cruel Prince,” which spent 10 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and was one of Amazon’s Top 20 for last year. Black’s 29 books have sold 12 million copies.
The sequel, which debuted at No. 1 on the Times bestseller list, immediately welcomes readers by explaining the main character and bringing them into her universe as Jude, our protagonist, practices with a heavy sword and reflects on her former life.
“Sometimes Jude longed for her bike, but there were none in Faerie. Instead, she had giant toads, and thin greenish ponies and wild-eyed horses slim as shadows.
“And she had weapons.
“And her parents’ murderer, now her foster father. The High King’s general, Madoc, who wanted to teach her how to ride too fast and how to fight to the death.”
The author of the Spiderwick series takes her fantasy fairy world seriously and rocks an ethereal look with a shock of cobalt hair and ears she had surgically altered to look elfin.
On the first day of her book tour, which was also the day Black’s latest fantasy book was published, Black chatted with New Jersey Authors about growing up in West Long Branch, almost becoming a librarian, and how she churns out two books a year. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
You have written 29 books since 2002, which is extremely impressive, especially to some writers who struggle to get one done every few years. What’s the secret here?
The first came out in 2002. I did The Spiderwick Chronicles, and they were very short, and on a publication schedule of every six months. It was a much faster moving series, and they are much, much shorter. That really bumped up my numbers. They were middle grade, really early middle grade. They weren’t early readers.
Still, the most recent books are 370 and 320 pages, so not exactly early chapter books. What is your process? How do you work?
I have tried a lot of different things. My process started out, I would make a plan and figure out what I thought would happen and as I wrote it, I realized my plan didn’t work. When I started out, I would rewrite a chapter and rewrite and then realized I needed to rewrite and I would be in this constant process of rewriting and re-imagining. And I still have a tendency to not write something correctly until I write it wrong. I am experimenting with fast drafting. Just trying to write 3,000 words in a day, just trying to move through the whole thing with mixed success I am not sure it was successful, but maybe it was.
Where do you work and what’s your process like?
In terms of my day, I get up and often meet two friends Cassandra Clare, who writes the Shadowhunter books and a short story adult writer, Kelly Link. We meet at Cassie’s house now and work all day, near each other. We’ve got our headphones on. All doing our own thing in proximity to one another. It is nice, recreating an office space and have some people to get feedback from. Otherwise being a writer can be lonely. Sometimes I scamper off to the couch because I like to lay around a little.
On a regular workday, often have a noonish start and go until about 6. I have a 5-year-old, and so we hang out. And then I will put him to bed and hang out with my husband for a while. I have a terrible tendency to stay up all night and going back to work.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I was in middle school. I loved stories I wanted to make up stories about knights of the silver sun, by which I think I meant moon. I wrote it in eighth grade, and it was so bad. I had the “Writers Market” and I remembered having some pleasure from the process. I remember poring over that “Writers Market” and finding it inspirational in some way.
Did you do other jobs before becoming successful as an author?
There are a lot of obstacles to becoming a published writer. I just wasn’t writing enough, and not with a great seriousness until I was probably 24 or 25. Before that I had a bunch of different jobs. I did medical market research. I was a production editor on medical journals. On weekends I was working on this book, and at some point, I became serious about it and more willing to spend a lot of time fixing it and approaching it with more rigor.
How does growing up in New Jersey inform your work?
I graduated from the College of New Jersey. My first book, Tithe, is set on the Jersey Shore and all three fairy tale books are very much in that space. There used to be a pier in Long Branch, with a haunted mansion on it and the whole thing burned down, and it lives in my novel. Some of the geography I definitely fudged so I could have what I wanted, but Tithe is set in the house where I grew up.
Where did you get your first library card?
I am a library school dropout! I went to Rutgers Library School, and I went on my first book tour in my last year of library school. I went on tour for Spiderwick, and they let me push it back. Let me preface my story. I am a terrible library patron. I had a terrible problem bringing books back. I would keep taking out books and keeping them too long and afraid to bring back and sneaking them back at night. At some point, I realized I was no good with books that were not mine. The last thing I had to do was to pay my library fines.
I’m sure many will relate, though possibly not as many who were studying to become librarians. Where did you get that first card?
It must have been the West Long Branch Public Library.
A couple of personal questions. How long have you had bright blue hair?
About six years.
And, please tell me about the surgery to give you elf-like ears.
After the election, I was: ‘I don’t know what I am doing. Nothing makes sense anymore.’ I had seen people who had the surgery, and I read about Samppa von Cyborg who does the surgery. He travels all over the world giving people elf ears. It is super cool but (I thought) not for me. After the election, I don’t know, but why not? It is a world without sense or reason.
Which authors do you reread?
Ellen Kushner’s “Swordspoint,” Charles De Lint’s “Jack, the Giant-Killer,” Tana French, I have been reading a bunch of her books. I have read “The Goblin Emperor” by Katherine Addison a million times. I find it really comforting. And, Megan Abbott.
What are your goals?
As a writer, it is a weird job, and I always think about success as a writer is staying in the game, continue to be able to publish books and continue to be able to be out there, and having a long career.