I got an inkling to see if I could snag Jennifer Nielsen for my interview series when we shortlisted her for the Cybils Middle Grade Science Fiction/Fantasy award. And then when The False Prince won? I seriously considered it. But then I read The Runaway King last month and that sealed the deal. Thankfully, in between her busy touring schedule (plus moving!) she found time to answer my questions. Obviously, there will be spoilers for both The False Prince and The Runaway King ahead.
MF: Tell us how you came up with the idea for Sage/Jaron and his story. What inspired it?
JN: The seeds for the story had been in my mind for a long time, but I could never find the right hero to bear the weight of the story. Sage (a name I’ll use interchangeably with Jaron) was found in a song by Eddie Vedder called “Guaranteed.” The lines of the song said, “I knew all the rules, but the rules did not know me, guaranteed.” And from that line, Sage was born.
MF: I’ve always wondered this about fantasy writers: how did you go about creating a whole world for your story to be set in?
JN: I started with the kingdom of Carthya and knew I wanted to build into the world some factors that would make it harder for Jaron to win. So I wanted it small, landlocked, and surrounded by unfriendly countries. Other details from the map got filled in as I planned for specific plot events that I knew would happen. Some things that may not seem significant from that map become more important later on.
MF: The Runaway King has a slightly different feel to it than The False Prince did. What were the differences and challenges with writing this one (as compared to the first)?
JN: The False Prince is really a game of wits, and challenges Sage mentally. The Runaway King is his physical test, and I push him to his limits there. The challenge I felt in writing this one was to avoid the mid-book slump that sometimes happens in trilogies. So I needed a story that could still stand on its own, but one that also linked the first and third books together.
MF: There are so many little things to love in this series. Do you have a favorite character or scene?
JN: In The Runaway King, I really love when Jaron returns to his castle at the end of the book. To me, that’s a profound scene as he realizes that he finally has the respect of his people. When I wrote it, I had the image in my mind of Frodo in the final Lord of the Rings movie, when Aragorn and all the kingdom bows to Frodo. That’s when Frodo finally feels the love for what he’d done. I think the same expression would’ve been on Jaron’s face when he comes home.
MF: If you had to choose one, which would it be: pirates or thieves?
JN: Thieves. They’re every bit as dangerous, but have to be more subtle, which I find interesting.
MF: Since this is a series, did you have any idea what was going to happen in the later books when you started writing The False Prince?
JN: I had a general idea for each book that I wanted to write, though most of the details have evolved along the way. That’s a fun discovery though, of knowing where I was going, but getting to figure out how to get there.
MF: Did you always intend to write for middle grade and YA audiences, or did you just fall into it?
JN: No, I actually started out trying to write adult women’s suspense, and it just wasn’t that good. About six months before the final Harry Potter book came out, I saw an online fan fiction challenge to write the last book – to wrap up all the threads in our own story concept. I had been a huge fan of the books and so I took the challenge, just to see if I could do it for myself. I had more fun in those few weeks than I’d ever had before and emerged from the process realizing I’d been writing in the wrong genre. I’d been searching for a long time for my voice as a writer – but to find it, I needed to write for young people
MF: Who, or what, inspires you to write?
JN: Story prompts are with me all the time. I could never write them all, but some stick with me more than others, and if I let them linger, eventually a character will emerge and begin pestering me (such as Sage). For me, writing is like finally scratching the itch in that hard to reach place.
MF: What’s the last book you read and loved, and why did you love it?
JN: One of my favorite recent reads was Robin LaFevers’ GRAVE MERCY. It’s a wonderful book, beautifully written, and steeped in the history of its setting. I am counting the minutes before I can get the next in that series, DARK TRIUMPH.
MF: So, if you can tell us: what’s in store for Jaron in the next installment?
JN: Trouble. Lots and lots of trouble. But knowing Jaron, you wouldn’t expect anything else, right?
MF: Right! Thank you so much for your time!