Holly Black: Architect of Magical Worlds
Tori Marchiony explores the enchanted worlds of young adult author Holly Black.
Holly Black is a bestselling author of fantasy novels for young adults and children. Her books have been translated into thirty-two languages and reached number 1 on the New York Times bestsellers list.
Black was raised in New Jersey and earned a BA in English from The College of New Jersey in 1994. Her first book, Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale, was published in 2002. A sequel, Valiant (2005), won a Nebula Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. From 2003 to 2009, she collaborated with Caldecott-winning illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi on the eleven-book Spiderwick Chronicles. The bestselling series was adapted into a 2008 film directed by Mark Waters.
In all, Black has published over thirty novels, story collections, and comics. Her graphic novel series The Good Neighbors (2008–2010) was nominated for an Eisner Award, the highest prize in the comic industry. Her stand-alone novel Doll Bones (2013), won a prestigious Newbery Honor for children’s literature.
Holly Black grew up in her great grandmother’s Victorian house, a home not so different from the one she now shares with her high school sweetheart and their son in Western Massachusetts. Among dark forests and creaky staircases, ghosts and fairies always seemed plausible. The supernatural felt close. But though she grew up believing firmly in all kinds of magic, Black didn’t have much in the way of self-belief when it came to her most deeply held ambition.
Holly Black: I always wanted to be a writer. You know, people say, “If you believe in yourself, “then you can make it.” But I was like, but I don’t. Why would it be me? It seems so unlikely. I know it’s meant to be inspiring, that if you believe in yourself, you can do it, but for me, I thought, oh no, that’s terrible news. Like, I’m disqualified.
She wasn’t disqualified. Today Black is one of the best-loved names in young adult fantasy and has published more than 60 books since her 2002 debut. That first book, Tithe, took a full six years to produce, and in that time, her focused narrowed from a young girl’s dreams to the reality of the blank page.
Black: Just moving forward without really knowing, without believing, without thinking that anything had to come of it, by the time that I actually finished a book, I, at that point, was less afraid that no one would ever publish it than I was that I was never going to finish it. My fears had shifted, but I remember when I sold Tithe, I was happy for maybe like three months. I mean, I was happy all the time. Someone rear-ended my car and I was like, ‘Hey!’ Like, I was super happy. And I think I somehow messed up my brain chemicals because that summer after I really had the only depression I have ever gotten into and I became certain that my death was imminent, and I began looking up articles online about quasi-medical journals about the afterlife, because, of course, my death being imminent. I really needed to know what was going to happen next and later, what I found out is that this is actually a common experience of lottery winners and people who have this great, good thing happen, that it really does actually change the way that you think. I think I had told my brain for so long that the end goal of life was to sell a book, that my brain was like, well, there’s nothing left for you and let’s pack it in. Like, you’re done. So, I think everything beyond selling that first book is in a state that I never thought about. I never thought about what happened afterward. That thing was so impossible that it was the goal of everything.
Things eventually evened out for Black, who has guarded her own creative autonomy over the last two decades by writing relatively short series of no more than five books each, enough for fans to lose themselves in a particular world, but not long enough to let a single franchise define her. Several of Black’s stories have been optioned for film, but to date, only The Spiderwick Chronicles have made it to the big screen. Though she borrows heavily from the folklore she fell in love with as a child, Black is ultimately the lone architect of each parallel universe. Her tales are wide-ranging and have featured everything from vampire reality TV shows to haunted dolls. But, Black says, all her magical realms are united by a common essence, which is embodied by something called ‘faerie fruit.’
Black: You know, ‘faerie fruit’ is so delectable that all other food is ashes in their mouth. You will never eat and be satisfied again. In that kind of ruinous beauty, to me, is such a huge component of faerie. I like the idea that sort of out of the corner of your eye, around the corner, there is this magical world, sort of juxtaposed with ours, and so I come back to that a lot. I think the thematic business and the feeling business is a lot of what I do, but when you’re actually creating a magic system from the whole cloth, you want then to think about what restrictions it has, because the more restrictions you have, the more fun it actually is to play with. Nothing is as dull as an overpowered magic system. And then you want to think, am I saying the thing I want to say about the world? If you, for instance, create a magic system where men and women have different kinds of magic, then you’re saying something about the essential nature of men and women, and is that the thing that you actually agree with? Is that the thing that you really want to say? And so magic is always also metaphor, and then I think you take that magic system and you say, okay, how would people really use this? And how would that play out? And how would that change the way that our world works?
In Black’s most recent series, The Folk of the Air, teenaged protagonist Jude is defined by the near-constant danger she faces as an adopted citizen in the magical land of Faerie.
(Excerpt from The Cruel Prince)
“No matter how careful I am, eventually I’ll make another misstep. I am weak. I am fragile. I am mortal. I hate that most of all. Even if by some miracle, I could be better than them, I will never be one of them.”
Black doesn’t try to protect her young readers from heavy subjects, like mortality, rage, and even lust. Indeed, she believes that all good literature, for any age group, should delight in tough questions.
Black: What would we do for power? How far would we go? How far is too far? What does it mean if you are raised with a particular moral code that is left of center of a mainstream moral code, do you adopt it? What does it mean to take that on? And I think that asking questions is the most important thing we can do with books because people, as readers, get to try out things through books. They get to try on being different people, try on being somebody who maybe doesn’t always do the right thing. I have lied and I have betrayed and I have triumphed. If only there was someone to congratulate me.
The second and third books in Holly Black’s, The Folk of the Air series are due out in 2019 and 2020 respectively. Beyond that, just one thing is truly certain. The author will continue to blur the lines between our realm and mysterious others with her words and her ears.
Black: I have pointed ears and I’m super excited about them. They’re a year old.
AJC: They look great.
Black: Thank you very much. I sort of discovered that people were doing that a few years back and I thought, okay, great for them. I had no particular thought that I could do it and then I had a costumed New Year’s party and it was fairy tale themed and many people wore pointy ears and I thought, ‘God, everyone looks better in pointy ears.’ I think probably it’s the one thing where I really feel like it makes me feel more fantastical. People perhaps might wonder, well, what happens when you get old. First of all, I’m not sure why we’re really interested in preserving the beauty of the old, but also, I just really love the idea of like someday being in a home and somebody being like, ‘I’m gonna take a tray down to that old elf.’ Think how happy that person would be.