Interview with Tamora Pierce

Posted by Goodreads on September 16, 2013
Long before Katniss picked up a bow or Bella found her vampiric strength, we had Alanna, the brave and rebellious young knight who is the heroine of Tamora Pierce's fantasy series, Song of the Lioness. Like so many modern fantasy writers, Pierce was first inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series and went on to create two magical universes that are every bit as epic as Middle-earth. Pierce's Tortall is the setting for the Alanna books and several other series, each with strong female characters at their center. The best-selling author's latest book, Battle Magic, on the other hand, is set in her Emelanese Universe and brings back the mages of the Winding Circle.

We sent Tamora Pierce ten of your questions! Read on as she gives advice on making friends and writing books, plus reveals the story behind some of her tattoos!

Mijeong: Do you get ideas for books in dreams? I would love to know your thoughts on creativity/dreaming.

Tamora Pierce: Sadly, I don't get ideas from dreams; in fact, I hate dreams (no plot).

This is delightfully ironic for two reasons. In November 1976 I woke up one Saturday morning with a fantastic dream fresh in my head. By the time I could sit down at my typewriter, I had only a scrap of it left, and the scrap never made it into the book. Nevertheless I wrote that first scene, in which the lord informed his twin children that he had arranged for their lives for the next eight years, away from home. I wrote the scene after that, and so on, and so forth, until five months and 732 manuscript pages later, I had a single adult book I called The Song of the Lioness. I never tried to write from a dream again; I never had any piece of a dream that inspired me. These days, if I have vivid dreams, I am either anxious or coming down with something.

The other ironic thing is that around the time I entered sixth grade, my dreams were driving me crazy, because they weren't about topics that interested me, and they didn't have a proper story line. I decided what they needed was a head start. In the afternoon, as I did chores like the dishes or cleaning my room, I told myself stories to start the plot going for my dreams to pick up on. One day my dad caught me at it. He didn't suggest that talking to myself was crazy; he suggested that I write a book, and he gave me the kind of idea that I would like.

Kristen: What gave you the idea that simple, everyday tasks and skills possessed an element of magic?

TP: Back in the late 1970s, when I lived with my dad and stepmother for a year, I would watch my sister and stepmother settle with balls of yarns and one or two long needles. They would talk and watch TV; the needles would flash, and the balls of yarn would turn into cloth. They also quilted, sewed, gardened, baked, and did cross-stitch. My dad turned wood into furniture and did scrimshaw work on horn. I had also met people who turned globs of glowing orange stuff into balls, bowls, birds, fish, and (in one case) a moose. I'm not good with my hands. To me, people who can do crafts—metal and glass workers, spinners and weavers, carpenters and gardeners—all employ magic.

And, in a related question, Emma asks: Do you believe in magic?

TP: Of course I do. Every time an animal chooses to reach out to a human instead of doing the instinctive thing; every human who seems to have a "gift" when it comes to dealing with animals; those who know when someone is in trouble with no logical way of doing so; those who can ill-wish someone and make it stick…. Plenty of people will come up with perfectly logical reasons for these things, and I am just as quick to look for the scientific answer as anyone of my generation. I'm just willing to admit that there are things in the world that aren't explainable by science and logic.

Mrs. Melaugh Melaugh: One of my favorite things in your stories are the healthy, generous, respectful group friendships that your characters form. What is your advice to those of us who wish to form supportive friendships like that?

TP: Don't look to the people who are popular. Listen for the ones who are making the quiet, smart, or funny remarks.

Look to see what other people who aren't outgoing are reading—are they reading the kind of books you like? This is especially true for readers of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and comics/graphic novels (you may have to get sneaky if people are on an e-reader). If they are, steel yourself, and if you don't know that author—ask if they would recommend her/him, or if you do [know the author], ask if the other person likes her/him. If you're more outgoing than the average reader, start a book club at school or at the library, or a writer's club, and make sure that there are rules at the outset to ensure that everyone gets to talk, so guys don't out-talk girls and social folks don't out-talk shy ones.

Talk to the people ahead of you and behind you on author book signing lines and event ticket sales lines—you already know it's an even bet the people near you are also fans! And reach out online. Be cautious; don't give out personal information like addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses, but there are plenty of places online where sane, decent people gather to discuss the things they love.

Tamora sporting stylish shades in fourth grade.
Kaia: As someone who writes such strong feminist stories in a genre that isn't always welcoming to women or feminism, how do you keep going when you see antiwoman ugliness in fantasy? What's kept you soldiering on in the face of a genre that still caters mostly to men? How do you deal with people who dismiss and/or belittle you simply because you're a woman writing strong women in a genre that often considers strong women "unrealistic"?

TP: I started reading fantasy in the late 1960s, when I could count the number of female heroes I found (and I really dug) on one hand and have fingers left over. I started writing as an adult in the last half of the 1970s, when things were somewhat better, but we in no way had a majority, and I published my first book in 1983 when it was Robin McKinley and me for female heroes in YA. It has gotten better. It is not perfect, not in adult fantasy, not in children's fantasy, and the number of female heroes—note I said "heroes" and not "main characters," as in female characters who strive to achieve a destiny that is not predicated upon romance, who try to achieve a good that is beyond their wardrobe, social status, economic status, or marital status and whose methods do not employ backbiting, weeping, vibrating between two hot guys, and failing to do anything that might employ the use of their hands or legs…

It is not perfect, not in adult fantasy, not in children's fantasy, and the number of female heroes does tend to rise and fall. Since I know things have gotten better since I was a kid—reading what were then termed "boy books," I can keep going, even when it gets really, really bad.

As for that "unrealistic" stuff, history—which used to be my worst enemy, giving me hints or legends without nonfiction backup—has finally come to my rescue, as women historians uncover more and more accounts of women who have gone to war disguised as men or fought openly as women, committed crimes, enforced the law, and done "men's work" in the past. I was in college before I learned that Isabella of Aragon and Castile, who was celebrated all my youth for hocking her jewels to send Columbus on his voyages, led her troops on the field of battle, clad in armor. A pair of female pirates, treated as nothing much in the books I read as a girl, turned out to be serious threats on the high seas (and no one mentioned the Chinese pirate queens or Grania Davis at all).

I answer belittling remarks as strongly as I can. I do my best to keep my temper; I have lost it on occasion. I know those who denigrate women are wrong. We may not be built like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, but there are work-arounds. One thing I have learned, that the people I look up to have learned, is that if one wants something badly enough, one will find a way. If that means exercising until your muscles turn into overcooked noodles and practicing with weapons that suit your weight with the same result, that is what you do. A 60-year-old woman swam from Cuba to Key West today—perhaps mention that to the next man who says strong women are "unrealistic," and ask if he could make that swim. Or point out that a male Channel swimmer went to practice with the synchronized swimmers during the Australian Olympics and quit halfway through because he couldn't keep up. (Evidently I have swimming on the brain today.)

Beth Barany: How much research do you still do for your books? Do you take classes, like in sword fighting, or codes, or lock picking?

TP: Before I started Battle Magic, I stockpiled books on China and Tibet (the cultures I used as a basis for Yanjing and Gyongxe) for about four years and began reading them about a year before I started to write. I'd been getting music from China for years, but I got more instrumental music and more music from the Himalayas, and listened to that. Getting information on Tibetan arms and armor from a similar time period to the one I use was a pain in the butt, that's for sure. I also went to a Tibetan museum in New York, which, along with a piece of jewelry I got, caused me to take a turn in the book I had no idea I would make before I started writing.

Often I'll get ideas that I won't use for years, like the pigeons and the dust spinners of the Beka Cooper books, or using magic from everyday crafts and work for the Circle of Magic books. I'll see actors or performers whose faces I like, and I'll store their pictures on my system or in my paper files, then cast a character from that picture years later. It was two years after I first saw Indian actors Akshay Kumar and Rani Mukherjee that I used them for the twins in Battle Magic.

I don't take classes anymore, since parts of my body are stiffening up, but sometimes I sit in on classes or watch demonstrations live or on video. I learned to spin with a drop spindle (badly) for Sandry's Book, and I still make it a point to stop by spinners and weavers at wool fairs to watch them work, and I still love weapons and martial arts demonstrations when I can get to them.

Henna Javed: I have always loved how each of your supporting characters are individuals that the reader genuinely cares about. Which supporting characters inspire and interest you in your own reading?

TP: I like characters with wit and self-awareness. One of my favorite writers for her broad cast of characters is Georgette Heyer: Ulysses, the scruffy dog, and Jemmy, the climbing boy of Arabella, are both favorites of mine for their spirit and commentary; Frederica's younger brothers always catch the Marquis flat-footed in Frederica, and the smooth Sir Vincent in The Grand Sophy as well as Beau Brummell in Regency Buck always have dignified, sarcastic comments to make.

I love the chatty skull in Bruce Coville's The Skull of Truth, and there is a beautiful one-eyed female monster in his book Always October who made me shriek with horror (and cries of "that's so unsanitary!") when she deployed her weapon in a battle. I love Coville's big, inarticulate guys—the Igor in his Goblin books and the Dimblethumb in the Unicorn Chronicles books—who are strong and scary in their strength but have a deep well of friendship. Beloved in the Unicorn Chronicles has to be one of the creepiest villains in YA books, right up there with Black Dog, Blind Pew, and Long John Silver of Treasure Island.

There's the naga next-door neighbor (and for creepiness, the other neighbor, the wicked witch) in Rachel and Michael Grinti's Claws (you keep waiting for the naga to yell, "You kids get off my lawn!" as he soaks in his swimming pool), and Julie's crazy Aunt Cindy (formerly Cinderella), who comes to pick her up at school in a wild orange Volkswagen, embarrassing the poor kid to death. In China Miéville's Un Lun Dun, it's Curdle, the little crushed milk carton who follows the girls around.

On the more serious side, before you think I'm a very not-serious person, my favorite side character from To Kill a Mockingbird is old Mrs. Dubose, who is fighting a heroin addiction and makes Jem Finch crazy. In Charles Todd's Ian Rutledge mysteries, centered on a Scotland Yard inspector after World War I, my favorite secondary character is Hamish, who may be a ghost or a hallucination but always rides along with Ian and provides a running commentary on Ian's cases. In Kerry Greenwood's mysteries I love her flapper detective, but I also love the two Socialist cabdrivers who end up doing footwork for her from time to time. Like Shakespeare's famous grave diggers, they always have something pertinent to say.

Laura Bock: Years ago, when I read The Will of the Empress, I was so surprised and moved when you revealed that one of your characters, Daja, happens to be a gay. At the time I was coming to terms with my own identity in a scarily conservative community, and this story line went a long way in helping me to feel less invisible. Was this the way you imagined Daja from the beginning or did it become apparent as her character developed?

TP: No, I always knew that Daja was gay. It was just a matter of finding her the time and opportunity, and the right woman, to help her sort it out. I'd always known that Lark was gay and Rosethorn was bisexual, as well, but being constrained to 200 manuscript pages and four main characters for the first four books, there was absolutely nowhere I could really bring it up without forcing it. I had to let it happen naturally.

Elizabeth Planck: I was wondering if you could give some advice for writers who are just starting out. Whenever I see this question on my favorite authors FAQ page they always seem to give the same answer: Read, read, read. I was hoping if you could add more to this answer!

TP: Well, I think I assume everyone reads who is serious about writing. We're like sausage grinders—you don't get anything out unless you put a lot of different stuff in. (Sorry, vegetarians!)

The advice I gave is, "Be persistent." Persistence will actually get you farther than talent will, because it's through persistently working on your talent that you get better. Most of us start out only writing a little a day, or we may get enthused and write a big burst, and then it trickles off. If we're persistent and write a little more on that project every day, or simply just write as much as we can every day, we'll find that sooner or later we start writing more, and the writing begins to improve. The more we do, the better we get, so the more we do.

The same is true for the time when you're trying to sell work. You need persistence more than anything else. I used to give myself a week to be depressed when a book manuscript came back and a day for a short story or article, and then it went right back out again. It's not doing you any good sitting in your home. You'll be depressed anyway, so you may as well send it out while you're depressed, and work on something else and send that out, and work on something else and send that out. (This goes for sending material to agents, too.)

In our house we have a shorthand form to describe this process: Being too stupid to know when to quit.

Tamora's cat Tess, also affectionately known as Lummox.
Myra: What type of atmosphere do you write in? Do you lock yourself in a room alone, write at coffeehouses, or something in between?

TP: I have my own office in my house, at the back. One window faces the house next door, and the other faces our backyard, where I can watch the squirrels, birds, and occasional cat roam. In front of my desk are two corkboards for the book I'm currently working on. I tack up pictures of the kind of scenery similar to what I'm writing about, the buildings like those I write about (if I don't have them on my computer system), and the photographs I use to create my characters. As I progress, I add more and more photos, so my husband can tell if things are going well or not.

Around the rest of the room are my cases of reference books (names, picture books of foreign places, plants, magic, language dictionaries, animals, biographies, costumes, weapons, military history, armor, horses, military books for different periods of history), my bureau full of maps, my globe, my few awards, my jars of crude opals in glycerin (they grow plant algae in water), my little boxes of different rocks, the rainbow kite hung from my ceiling, rolling file cabinets, wooden TV trays for various papers, plastic file boxes (one for each book draft), and my stuffies. Not even all of my stuffies, just the shy ones who were being picked on by my other stuffies. I bring them in here so Football, the comforting bear stuffy, can look after them. (My friend Bruce Coville will tell you it's a very strange place in Tammyland.) I also have the green, purple, and clear crystal that stands in for Luvo in here.

Ami Greko: I've noticed at readings that you seem to have some pretty epic tattoos—are there any that you'd be willing to share the story behind?

TP: Oh, not epic. I have cat tracks (my cats walk all over me), a badger paw print, and crow tracks (I love crows, and I cared for a baby before I handed him over to rehabilitators one year). I had the 1970s feminist symbol that seems to be coming back in style, the Venus symbol with a clenched fist in the circle. I have the Egyptian feather of truth, which is weighed against your heart to determine if your soul is too heavy with bad deeds to go on to the afterworld. I have a spiral, both for Winding Circle and for the journey: from birth to death, from darkness to light, and from ignorance to knowledge.

And I have Mr. Fear, who's a big screamy face in profile with a yellow eyeball and a spiky thing around his ear to the top of his head and under his chin back and up over his head. He's for all the loudmouths in the media who want you to be afraid of everything, so when I get tired of their yammering I just mash his face against the table and say, "Shut up." Or he's all of my fears, and I do the same thing. Or if somebody drives past me when I'm driving, honking at me and flipping me off, I just show that person Mr. Fear. Usually they just go away after that.

I wish you all good books to read, and thank you for inviting me!

Comments Showing 1-26 of 26 (26 new)

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message 1: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl I'm a huge fan! We own all your books and we love them all. :)

message 2: by Kat (new)

Kat Tamara looking at your 4th grade picture, I WISH you had been in my class at school. You really look like you are of the race that knows Joseph.

message 3: by Lovisa (new)

Lovisa Your series about Daine was what introduced me to fantasy! I owe you lots. Thank you.

message 4: by Kelly (new)

Kelly Guerra I first read Song of the Lioness when I was 11 and it changed my life. I very rarely pick up a book a second time (there's just too much out there to re-read the same books all the time!), but that series is one I always come back to every few years. I've gifted it so many times to girls hitting their tweens, and I can't wait until my daughter is old enough to read it herself. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and influencing girls to be real heroes!

message 5: by S (new)

S Thank you for answering these questions! I've been reading your work since 4th grade starting with the Circle of Magic books and moving on from there. I've been a big fan since then and can't wait to read Battle Magic! Thank you for writing and advocating for strong women. It means a lot.

message 6: by Jane (new)

Jane Mercer I found the Wild Magic series years ago helping my sons find library books and have read almost everything else you've written congratulations on excellent books that appeal to both adults and children

message 7: by Winged_One (new)

Winged_One Back in 1999 I wrote you a fan letter that just said how thankful I was for your books and how much they meant to me. I told you I didn't need a response. I still don't, and I still feel the same way :)

message 8: by Christian (new)

Christian Thanks! This was really interesting. Being male and in my thirties I'm not your target audience but I still enjoy your books a lot and have read them multiple times. Not only for the story, but for the writing too. Keep on writing! :)
Now I'm pretty curious to see Mr. Fear. You don't happen to have a picture of him? :)

message 9: by Victoria (new)

Victoria Warner Your Song of the Lioness series helped me accept being female and helped me to see people underestimating me because of that as their problem. This series helped me when I was in high school as I was learning to accept myself and now it is helping give me determination as I apply to vet school to be a large animal vet (I'm slightly under 5 feet tall and look like a teenager even though I'm 21 and I had one person tell me strait up that I should change my mind because I wouldn't be able to do it while other people have been more subtle. Thankfully there are also people in my life who have been encouraging me). Thank you for all the Tortall books you have written, I've enjoyed them all.

message 10: by Stephanie (last edited Sep 18, 2013 03:01PM) (new)

Stephanie Bibb I've been a big fan of your books, especially the Winding Circle and Circle Opens quartets. They've had a strong influence on my writing, something I love to do. Your characters and world also stuck with me, even though its been a few years since I read those books. I appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions here. :-)

message 11: by Anaka (new)

Anaka M Thank you. I think I may now start to write a book... any suggestions?

message 12: by Danielle (new)

Danielle You've been my favorite writer since sixth grade. I own all of your books, and I've read them numerous times. I'm currently a Master of Fine Arts candidate studying creative writing, and I'm also teaching composition. This unit my students have been tracing their past to see who/what has affected the way they read and write today, and I know that you've been a huge influence on me. I always knew I wanted to write, but I don't think I ever had the confidence until I read about your female characters. Thank you!

message 13: by Luca (new)

Luca I have read all of your books and reread the circle of magic series at least 7 times. thank you for putting these amazing stories into the world, and for taking the time to answer some of our questions. I am an aspiring fantasy writer and reading your books has both given me new ideas and insight into the ways of writing. I agree completely when you say that persistence and patience is the key to writing a good story.
thank you again for taking the time to read our questions,
Your admirer

message 14: by MLL (new)

MLL I love all your books. One of my favorite characters is Nawat. He is so earnest and endearing in his quest for humanity and courtship of Aly. I especially appreciated the short story where he and Aly became parents. It was shocking and eye opening watching him struggle with his animal instincts vs his more human/humane impulses with regards to his offspring.
I also am really glad kitten finally found her voice. I am glad she could talk to her parents before they got old and died. A couple of hundred years is just inconceivable.

message 15: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl My girls found your books when they were just 12 and 13. They knew that if they could get me to read the first book we would buy the rest if the series. They were right! We've used these in countless book groups, classes and teaching situations. We love the strong characters and the whole family has read them. I love Bekka Cooper, I was thrilled you wrote a 3rd book for her. I'm always excited when a new book of yours is released, we collect them all and someone is always enjoying them. We now look forward to sharing them with our grand children.

message 16: by Jacquie (new)

Jacquie Tamora,

I just wanted to say thank you for writing such amazingly powerful books.
I first read the Circle of Magic books when I was much younger and I loved them! I still love them as much as I did then and I'm 25 now! I read them often, mostly when I need a good pick me up to keep me moving forward. I own every novel in the many series that you have written and I've read them so many times that I actually may need to buy second copies of some because they're getting a little worn! I am so thankful for your novels that they have their own place on my bookshelf, in front of my harry potter books because I read them more often!
I look forward to the time when I have a daughter that I can share these wonderful, inspiring stories with. Thank you so much for all the characters and emotions that you put into your novels. I appreciate it so much!

message 17: by Susa (new)

Susa Your characters are alive in me!

message 18: by Whisperwind (new)

Whisperwind I'm 9 years old and I am done with all of the books except the very latest! I simply adore your books!!!

message 19: by Ella (new)

Ella Graf You gave me another life to live and share thank you

message 20: by Colleen (new)

Colleen Lovisa wrote: "Your series about Daine was what introduced me to fantasy! I owe you lots. Thank you."

Same here! I was all about reading horse stories and I saw a horse on the cover of the first book. Once I got into it I was totally hooked on Fantasy

message 21: by Kyriana (new)

Kyriana I love Ms. Pierce!! Shes is my favorite author ever, and I'm so happy to read an interview with her :D Please keep writing! I'll continue to love my books even when I'm a mother!

Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* I enjoyed the interview. Your writing room sounds epic

message 23: by Kimberly (new)

Kimberly Arend Great interview...always nice to get to know a favorite author a bit more

message 24: by Viola (new)

Viola Power Sometimes their is nothing that satisfies the fantasy craving like going to the library to pick up some tamora pierce. But sometimes reading or listening to her talk about real life is even better, because her sense of humor and the answers to questions are so interesting. And because she finds awesome books by other authers. Yay for Tammy! Can't wait for the next tortal book.

message 25: by Amy (last edited Feb 27, 2017 01:02PM) (new)

Amy Thanks for the brilliant interview and for all the amazing books which were a very important part of my childhood and still inspire me today. I love the idea of putting up pictures of relevant scenery/ buildings while writing for inspiration! I'm totally planning to do that if I try to write :D

message 26: by Leila (new)

Leila Love your wonderful books. Thank you so much for the pleasure they give me.

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