The Waterstones Interview: Sara Holland
Sara Holland has enchanted a generation with the stunning world-building of the Everless novels, and now, with her latest book Havenfall, she takes on the challenge of creating a fantasy environment that sits within a real-world narrative. In this exclusive interview Sara outlines her writing process and how she set about crafting Havenfall.
Urban Fantasy and Me
What was the inception for this book?
My writing process seems to work differently for every book, however much I wish that weren’t the case! Every time I write ‘the end’ on a draft, the how of it seems to fly out of my head – and then the next time around I have to figure out all of it again from scratch. For Everless, I began with an image of the main character, Jules; and then constructed a world that made her existence make sense.
After I finished writing Evermore though, I knew I wanted to try writing a contemporary fantasy, something set – at least nominally – in the here and now. I wanted to write a story that could feasibly, for all I knew, be playing out somewhere at this very moment. Those were the books I loved most growing up: books which let me believe that any moment my invitation to a magic school might drop down the chimney, or some badass demon hunters might scoop me off the street and recruit me into their ranks, or I might find a doorway to another world where yesterday there was only a brick wall. Where magic might be just around the next corner. So where in the world could I tuck a bit of magic where it might go mostly unnoticed?
I tried to think about how the writers I admire have done it – temporarily convinced me that magic is real and it’s here. Some authors hide their magic elements off in remote locations, like the highlands of Scotland – vast and misty enough to plausibly contain Hogwarts Castle – or a small, remote town such as Forks, WA, or Christine Lynn Herman’s Four Paths, NY. Some hide it amidst the hustle and bustle of cities – see: the magical denizens of NYC in Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper or Zoraida Córdova’s Bruja Born. Some writers weave it into the fabric of the universe itself, like in Northern Lights or Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood, where a tear in the veil could happen anywhere.
The idea of a magical hotel popped into my head – they’re odd, contradictory, liminal spaces, full of movement and mystery. Luxurious, but anonymous. Meant to feel homey, but with people always coming and going, meeting and leaving. Sometimes they can feel corporate and boring, but often there’s a glamour there too, in the ballrooms and bars and behind locked doors. You get the sense that anyone could be here, anything could happen and no one would notice; what a great place for magic. So that was the beginning of what eventually became Havenfall. Everything else – Maddie, the Colorado setting, the actual plot – came after that one seed of an idea: a magical hotel.
Are you inspired by things or people in real life?
I don’t typically model characters after real people, except for in superficial traits – I might steal a friend’s favourite idiom for one character, my sister’s fashion aesthetic for another. Mostly though, my characters are a mishmash of certain parts of me and other fictional characters.
However, I am definitely inspired by real-life places. I can’t really envision a fictional room, building or landscape without modelling it on a real place I know well. That’s why I love travelling – it expands my mental library of places and scenery I can use in my stories.
And I think Havenfall is shaped a lot by its setting – the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. In the brainstorming stages of this book, I had landed on the concept of a magical hotel that sat at the intersection between worlds, but I didn’t know where that might be. For a bit, I thought I might set it in the Upper Midwest, where I grew up, or in New York City, where I live now. Both places have plenty of mysterious, magical qualities.
But then I thought about Colorado, which is a place I’ve spent a lot of time in – I grew up driving out there from Minnesota with my family to visit my dad’s parents. I thought about how when you’re driving west across the Midwestern plains, the mountains almost seem to appear out of nowhere – one moment you look ahead and there’s nothing, the next there’s a dark shape in the grey, faint but unmistakeable. I thought about how it felt to be in the back seat, chewing gum to relieve the pressure in my ears as my dad drove up the twisty roads. How the previous highway turns into a slow roller coaster of hairpin turns, and how more often than not the road is a narrow band between a rock wall on one side and a sheer drop on the other. How the fog always seems to stay a few yards ahead of you. I thought about the clusters of buildings you see up in the mountains: sometimes magnificent, glittering mansions overlooking the valleys, and sometimes small ramshackle towns tucked between the pines, with no visible way in or out.
So the mountains always felt magical to me. What sealed the deal, what made me finally decide to plunk my magical hotel here, was reading a Wikipedia article about the movement of tectonic plates. I’m oversimplifying here, but the gist of it is that mountains are formed when tectonic plates – the chunks that make up the earth’s crust – collide and crumple against each other, forming jagged peaks and valleys. It’s such a cool image, and one that mirrors the worlds-colliding events of the story.
What were the most challenging parts of writing Havenfall?
As much as I loved writing a contemporary fantasy, I did run into some problems that never came up in my previous books – namely that instead of creating a whole new world that could look like whatever I wanted, I now had to take the real world into account, with all its attendant constraints. Every author of contemporary fantasy (and related genres, like paranormal romance, magical realism, urban fantasy and so on) has to answer the question of who among us deals with magic and how. Is it a universally acknowledged truth, or is there an in-group and an out-group? Is the magic kept secret from the Muggles and, if so, how? Especially in the social-media age, how could such a huge secret possibly stay under wraps for long?
The elevation and isolation of the mountains definitely helped. But ultimately I have a hard time believing that such a secret could stay hidden forever. While Maddie manages to protect the secret in this book, I’m curious about will would happen the day the secrecy fails. Maybe in a future sequel …
Did you always want to write? Are there any themes that connect all your writing?
I did always want to write – and I have been writing for as long as I can remember! My early works date from around age five, and include such masterpieces as Stleznen, a tale about a sea monster who befriended a little girl and came to live in her swimming pool, and I’m a Rabbit, the life story of my pet rabbit narrated from her perspective. (She had some harsh opinions about my siblings, but I came across great.)
More seriously though, I love to write about unlikely heroes, difficult love, and young people finding their place and purpose in the world. Everless was largely about Jules trying to wrap her head around the legend of the Alchemist and the Sorceress, and figure out where she fitted into it and into her world as a whole. In Havenfall, Maddie has always desperately wanted to someday inherit the inn from her uncle Marcus, but the moment comes earlier and in a more terrible way than she ever imagined. So she has this huge responsibility and power too, but she doesn’t feel ready. She’s spent most of her life (understandably) running away from her fears, but now they’ve caught up with her in the one place she thought she was safe. And she doesn’t think she’s strong enough to handle it, but she has to anyway, because everyone is counting on her.
I think most YA writers are probably interested in similar themes and questions, because they’re kind of what we all have to figure out as people in order to grow up – who we are, and where we fit in this wide, amazing, scary world.
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