An interview with Sherry Thomas, YA author

The Burning SkyReaders love Sherry Thomas’s historical romances. Of the seven she’s published, three are Desert Island Keepers here at AAR and three others garnered a B+. She is a two-time winner of Romance Writers of America’s RITA® Award.

When I heard Sherry was releasing a Young Adult novel, The Burning Sky, I requested an ARC and gobbled it up. I know Sherry through Twitter. I contacted her and asked if I could interview her for AAR. Despite being in the midst of a book tour–The Burning Sky comes out tomorrow–she graciously said yes.

Sherry, I enjoyed your new YA novel The Burning Sky. Your world building reminded me of that of Philip Pullman and JK Rowling in that you took an actual period–the 1880′s–in a real place–England–and melded it with a magical realm. Out of all the magics your heroine and hero utilize, which would you most like to wield? Which do you think would be the most terrifying?

Alas, my h/h do not possess magic that would make dinner appear on the table without anyone having to work for it. (Likely I don’t believe the possibility of it even in my imagination.) But they can vault, i.e., rematerialize instantly somewhere else.  The ability is subject to a lot of restrictions, but I don’t need to go very far.  I would LOVE be to be able to literally “pop” into a grocery store when I am in the middle of cooking and realize I am out of that one crucial ingredient, then “pop” right back!

The magic that is most terrifying to me is not one that is wielded by my h/h, but their main antagonist in the book, and that is the ability to break apart someone’s mind to look for their secrets.

I could see glimpses of Sherry Thomas, the fabulous romance writer, in The Burning Sky. As in your Fitzhugh trilogy, your hero goes to Eton, there’s cricket and a woman so beautiful all who see her gape in awe. The love story is strong and nuanced. And yet, this is first a YA fantasy novel rather than a YA romance. What called you to write a fantasy trilogy? 

It was more a who.  A YA editor did.

Okay, back up a bit.  I have always vaguely wanted to write something for my older son, who loves to read, and to whom I introduced many of my favorite fantasy series—Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, the Queen’s Thief series, etc.  But I never had any specifics, so never did anything about it.

Then early in 2009, my agent let me know of interest from a YA editor, who enjoyed my romances and wanted to see me write something for the YA market.  Several months later, my agent forwarded a second email from that editor, reiterating her interest. That very afternoon, as I was walking across the Costco parking lot, a sentence dropped into my head, On the night I was born, stars fell.  

Immediately I knew this was a story with teenage protagonists, and that it was a fantasy, and that there would be some sort of prophecy involving those falling stars.

Would I have had that same idea, if I hadn’t received that second email earlier in the day?  And even if the same idea had come to me, would I have unhesitatingly categorized it as YA?  I will never know.  But that germ of an idea intrigued me enough that I went home and looked up meteor storms.  The last truly great meteor storm was in November of 1866, which would put a story with a protagonist born on that night in the 1880s, an era that is already fairly familiar to me from writing my historical romances.

As for similarities between The Burning Sky and the Fitzhugh Trilogy, I wrote them side by side through 2010 and 2011, sharing research whenever I could.

The Burning Sky uses language and myth in interesting ways. Each spell is said in English and its counter spell in Latin. Your magical world draws on old European fairy tales, more than one ancient mythology, and the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition. Do you have a favorite mythology? And did you study Latin in school?

I do not know the first thing about Latin.  All the beautiful, grammatically correct Latin spells come courtesy of Dr. Margaret Toscano, professor of Classics, whom I met via her daughter, romance blogger Lazaruspaste.

I am most familiar with Greek mythology, but I do not love mythology, because mythology is pitiless and so much of it is about human frailty and all the ways life can irrevocably go wrong!  Fairy tales suit my sensibilities better.

In The Burning Sky, the magical realm is under the forced rule of Atlantis which is helmed by The Bane. It seems to be a place of evil. That’s quite different from the ideal state it’s usually defined as. Why did you chose Atlantis as the oppressor?

The realm that is colloquially referred to as Atlantis in my book is actually New Atlantis, the original one having been sunk a while ago, of course.

New Atlantis is resource-poor, so it must expand outward—which seems a reasonable motivation for colonialism.

This book is the first in a trilogy. Have you plotted the entire story out? When will the next two books be released?

I have already written two drafts of the sequel.  I know roughly what will happen in the whole trilogy and how it ends, but it’s getting there that’s the problem—much like with my romances.

The books are scheduled to be released a year apart, so we are looking at fall of 2014 and 2015 for books two and three in the Elemental Trilogy.

You also have a new historical romance coming out in November, The Luckiest Lady in London. Tell me a bit about that.

I love The Luckiest Lady in London.  It was inspired by Lord of Scoundrels.  Now please everyone preorder it right now.

It really was inspired by Lord of Scoundrels, but as with most things I do, I am inspired not to copy the original, but to tilt it at least 90 degrees in some direction.

So Lord of Scoundrels had a hero who had an awful childhood and responded by becoming an out-and-out scoundrel.  And I wanted to give a similarly awful childhood to my hero, but have his reaction be the opposite, he would become The Ideal Gentleman instead, with not a single flaw visible to the public.

But underneath he is very much a scoundrel.  And that scoundrel comes to the fore when he meets a fortune-hunting young lady whom he simply can’t stop thinking about.  So he goes about persuading her to become his mistress.

It is probably the sexiest book I have ever done and I derived endless glee from the writing of it.

One of the things I love about your historical romances is how subtly connected they all are. Do you write one book and then think, “Hey, I mentioned a Lord Vere in Private Arrangements, I should write a book about him.” Or is it something you insert into your books as you write them? 

Usually I only start inserting mentions of characters into books when I have already written them.  Lord Wrenworth, the hero of the upcoming The Luckiest Lady in London, for example, is mentioned in at least five out of seven of my backlist books, because the first iteration of his story was the second full-length book I had ever written, right after the original version of Private Arrangements.  I jokingly say he is the glue that holds my fictional world together.

Society is not huge, my books take place in roughly the same ten year period.  So it follows that some of my characters would have gone to school with or live near some of my other characters.

I know you came to the US when you were young and learned to read English then. How does the fact that English is your second language affect your writing?

The main impact of not coming to the States until I was in 8th grade was that I had to start studying for the SAT fairly soon afterwards, when I was still picking up what would be considered “daily” vocabulary. As a result, a lot of times I have no idea what is considered a $5 word and what isn’t.  So they all get thrown into my books.

Another way it impacts my writing is that I sometimes borrow usage and expressions from Chinese.  And what might be a stock phrase in Chinese can  sound fresh and intriguing translated into English.

But otherwise, not much impact.  English has become the language I think in, and I can actually write much better in English than I can in my native Chinese.

I laughed to see, on your Amazon page, that the first romance you read was Rosemary Roger’s torrid classic Sweet Savage Love. It was the first romance I read as well. My copy was given to me by a badly behaved babysitter. How and when did you get yours? Have you tried to read it again?

I walked three miles to the nearest Wal-Mart to buy it early in 1990 with a bit of money I got for Christmas.  My mom was a grad student then and she, my grandfather, and I lived on her assistantship of $700 a month.  So buying books was a luxury that I typically went without.  But I used to go with Mom to stores like Wal-Mart and Kmart and sit in their book aisle and read the romances an hour at a time—and I’d been stalking this book for weeks, because I’d learned that it was totally revolutionary and whatnot.  So it was a big treat for myself to finally purchase it and bring it home.  (The walking three miles thing was just a teenager wanting to do things on my own, not because I couldn’t have asked to be driven.)

The book blew my fourteen-year-old mind.  The passion, the histrionics, the emotions running so high that they leaped off the page and hit the ceiling.  There were sections of the book I would reread again and again.  I was so into the Rosemary Rogers story archetype of mutual-loathing-except-when-we-are-in-bed-together that I remember having to pick my jaw off the floor when I encountered romances where the h/h were nice to each other.

I did flip through the book again a few years ago, when I was writing a blog post about learning English from reading historical romances.  Alas, I couldn’t get into it.  The story was the same but I have changed in the two decades since I first read it.

I still remember it fondly.  I enjoyed it for years and it opened a whole new world for me—what more can anyone ask of a book?

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6 Responses to “An interview with Sherry Thomas, YA author”

  1. Tin says:

    It’s interesting that you revisited Rosemary Rogers and had a different experience the second time around — I wonder if, in general, a rereading will result in the same reaction. I don’t re-read a lot of books but I have done so with your Not Quite a Husband. I loved it both times but I was able to focus on different aspects of the novel the second time around. ^_^

    Wonderful interview! Congratulations on your first YA Fantasy Novel, Sherry! I’m very excited for The Luckiest Lady in London. ^_^

    • I love to re-read. It’s interesting you would mention Not Quite a Husband. The first time I read it, I thought it was pretty good. The next time, I thought it was great.

      I had the opposite experience with Sweet Savage Love. Rereading it a few years ago was such a chore, I was barely able to finish!

  2. Elaine C. says:

    This is a delightful interview. Thanks Sherry and Dabney.
    I think I’ll read “The Burning Sky” and then pass it on to one of my many teenage great-nieces. It sounds intriguing. :-)
    I’ve often wondered about Sherry’s learning to write in English from “Sweet Savage Love.” I, too, read it when I first started reading romances. SSL is very far from the romances I read now. I have read all of Sherry’s books and they were all starred in own book-keeping system. I’ve pre-ordered TLLIL and look forward to reading it.

  3. Lynda X says:

    I wish you had asked why Luckiest Lady in London is MORE expensive in e-book format!

  4. hapax says:

    I am probably the only romance reader who isn’t a massive Sherry Thomas fan (her writing is beautiful but the relationships never quite work for me) but I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of THE BURNING SKY.

    And I loved, loved, loved it. The worldbuilding, the characters, the writing, the themes, everything.

  5. Thank you, everyone, for you kind words!

    And Lynda X, I will ask my agent to make some noise about that. Crazy that, charging more for electrons than for a physical copy.