A Conversation with Rachel Hartman
Music plays a central role in Seraphina. In fact, you even composed a melody for one of the songs in the text. Can you talk about this, and about the influence that music has on your writing?
Music has always been important in my life. I came from a musical family, who played string instruments and sang together for fun, so I’ve always understood music to be active, not just something to passively listen to. One of the things I really wanted to convey in the book is what it feels like to perform: the rush of nervous energy, how enormous music feels when you’re right at the center of it, the way it connects you and the audience. It’s an amazing place to be.
I love poetry as a place where words and music intersect. Meter and rhyme may be out of fashion, but to me they present an interesting puzzle. I’ll solve a sonnet, the way other people do crosswords. I’ll rewrite song lyrics for fun, and those are heavily constrained by melody and rhythm. Almost all the songs in Seraphina are rhythmic and regular. I did compose a melody for one, which another fun puzzle to solve. I’d love to hear someone else’s musical interpretation, though, because that would let me view my lyrics through a different lens.
What role have comics and illustration played in your life? Did this affect your writing of Seraphina? In which ways?
Drawing is something else I’ve done all my life. My mother is an art teacher and a painter, so there was always abundant media around, whatever we wanted to work with. Of course, I ended up doing most of my drawing at school on the back of returned homework when I was supposed to be taking notes.
I did a comic strip called “Ellen of Troy” when I was at university. I had never considered doing a comic, but when I saw the call for submissions in the school paper, it was like being hit by lightning. I knew I had to do this. I loved drawing comics so much that I decided not to go to grad school. I worked at bookstores and drew a comic book called Amy Unbounded in my spare time. The comic was set in Goredd, like Seraphina, but with different characters. My novel owes a tremendous debt to that earlier work. Most of the heavy lifting, in terms of worldbuilding, was done before I ever started writing Seraphina. The comic is also a wonderful visual resource whenever I need to remind myself what the city and Goreddi countryside look like.
Your main character, Seraphina Dombegh, is the assistant to the court music master and music tutor to the princess—not exactly in the center of court intrigue. What made you place her in this role?
This question feels amusingly backward to me, because in the first draft of this novel Seraphina came nowhere near the royal court. She stayed home, butting heads with her father (early notes from agents said, “Please try me again once you figure out what a plot is!”). Each subsequent draft has moved her relentlessly toward the center of the intrigue, closer and closer each time.
I can tell you why I made her the daughter of a lawyer, though. There is no one-to-one correspondence between fantasy time and human history, but if we had to situate Goredd in an era, I’d say it’s late Medieval, on the cusp of Renaissance. One interesting feature of that period was the growth of cities and the beginnings of a middle class. That’s where I wanted Phina to come from. Her father is an educated professional without being nobility or clergy, something only newly possible. I wanted a parallel between Phina (with her inconvenient mixed heritage) and her social stratum, this new middle layer that is still uncomfortably integrating. That played more of a role in earlier drafts; it’s merely enriching background noise now.
I also wanted Phina to work. So many YA novels focus on love, and love is great, but love is only one of the things humans need to live. Another is work. Work gives life meaning and shape, gives us challenges to rise to, helps beat back despair. It’s Phina’s anchor in a tumultuous world.
The dragons in Seraphina are unlike any others in this genre. How did you come up with the idea to make them shape-shifters who excel at logic?
Shape-shifting dragons are another debt my novel owes my comic book. I discovered that I find dragons tedious to draw, but I already had plans for a dragon character. I decided the dragons of Goredd would take human shape, just to make the drawing less cumbersome. As soon as I did, a cascade of ideas nearly bowled me over.
There are so many interesting questions and implications that arise from this simple shape-shifting idea. What must that be like, to suddenly become a different species, with different senses and capabilities, a different kind of mind? Dragons and humans are completely different animals. I tried to extrapolate what it must be like to be a dragon, based on what we know about reptiles. Dragons haven’t evolved emotions the same way humans have. Because what are emotions for? Social cohesion, parentchild bonding, things most reptiles really aren’t engaged in. If dragons are as intelligent as myth and legend say they are (and I decided to follow that tradition, otherwise they’d be dinosaurs), what form does that intelligence take? Why do they have it? Why do they breathe fire? The questions go on and on. That’s half the fun of speculative fiction, right there: riding the wild river of ideas and seeing where you end up.
For you, what was the most challenging aspect of the writing process?
Being patient with myself. I ask a lot of questions, but I don’t always know how to answer them right away. I sometimes have to spend time barking up wrong trees before I find the right one. There seems to be no way around it. I was under the impression when I first began writing (and alas, several times since), that it should be possible for me to write a book straight through, beginning to end, and have it be right, complete, and perfect. That’s not how I work at all. My process is more akin to antique eggtempera painting: I put down semi-transparent layers, let them dry, go back, put down more. The layers accrete slowly, giving the work detail and subtlety, but it’s a painstaking process. It takes patience and stubbornness.
Orma, a dragon and Seraphina’s tutor, is a very complex individual (especially for a dragon). Is he based on anyone from your life?
Complexity is something I really relish in characters, so I’m pleased to hear you say that. I wouldn’t say Orma is based on any specific individual, however. My husband likes to claim that Orma was inspired by him, but he says the same thing about Lucian Kiggs. Those two characters do resemble my husband – in different ways – but bits and pieces of them also resemble me. Maybe that’s something that lends a character complexity, many facets drawn from different places.
Are any of the other characters based on people from your life?
No. Or else they all are. Everyone in the book comes from life in some fashion, but there is no one-to-one correspondence.
I read an interesting article by Wallace Shawm recently, where he says that acting is not so much pretending to be someone else as showing true things about yourself that you normally hide. It’s the same with writing. I am full of people: princes and priests, Porphyrian dancers and angry zealots. Insofar as I can understand my fellow humans, it’s because I have had similar thoughts and felt similar feelings. Characterization is, for me, an extension of empathy.
Dragons are harder to write, because they are alien, and yet not impossible. I’ve got dragons in me too, even if I have to stretch a farther to reach them.
Do you know from the beginning the trajectory that fiction will take, or do your characters take the story in their own direction?
Am I a plotter or a seat-of-the-pantser? I have learned to be a plotter over the years because it turns out novels need plots (who knew?), but I always take care to leave a lot of wiggle room. I’m a big fan of happy accidents and glorious intuitions. Serendipitous ideas need space – and time – in which to happen.
Who are your most influential literary references, both in your overall career and for Seraphina in particular?
George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a big influence on my writing; it may be my single favorite book of all time. Sure, the plot is glacial and she’s not the liveliest stylist, but the book is a miracle of characterization. She writes real humans, warts and all, asking that vitally important question, “How do I live this life?” The book also has wonderful world-building. Yes, I realize England exists, but Middlemarch doesn’t. She builds it; she peoples it; she lays it at our feet like a diamond, a complete world, rich and fascinating. That’s my model and my goal: a full world, with people in it.
The other major influence on my career is Terry Pratchett, who has helped me understand fantasy as a laboratory for thought experiments. You can set parameters and run characters through mazes. You can turn accepted truths upside-down and shake them to see what falls out, or talk about things that are fraught with peril in real life: politics, religion, race, morality, psychology. Wind up the world and watch it go. In physics, there are theorists and there are experimentalists. Theory is lovely – elevated and very clean – but some of us prefer to roll up our sleeves, get messy, and smash things together. Speculative fiction is where we practical experimentalists end up.
As far as a direct literary influence for Seraphina is concerned… I’m not sure. I think I’ve drawn more strength and vitality from music, neuroscience, and life than anywhere else.
Lastly, do you have a favorite “library moment” you’d like to share with our readers?
When I was in third grade our school librarian read us a book about a kid with a pet rock. I was so inspired by this story that I found a pet rock of my own. It was beautiful, smooth, and greenish when it was wet. I named it Wally and I loved it so much that I brought it with me to church. I played with it during the sermon, thinking this really was the best idea I’d ever had. It wasn’t until almost the end of the service that I dropped my rock on the floor with a resounding crash. Everyone heard the noise; I’d dropped it during a flute solo.
The flautist was my school librarian. I was sitting in the first row, right in front of her. I cringed, feeling awful and ashamed, but she didn’t scowl at me or even flinch. She knew why I was carrying a rock around. She winked at me and kept on playing.
That was the day I really understood that librarians are friends and allies, just as excited by the intersection of life and literature as I was. She was happy that story had moved me, even if it meant a little noise in church. If I’m a writer now, it’s partly thanks to her and to all the librarians who’ve lived that love of books and shared their enthusiasm with me.