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Shadow and Bone, Netflix’s adaptation of the mega-popular Y.A. fantasy novels that make up “the Grishaverse” world, continues to dominate the platform's top 10 list. So what does author Leigh Bardugo make of the success?
We sat down (virtually) with her to talk about the surprisingly awesome process of turning her books into a TV series, how the fandom is changing, and why we all need to be our own Grishas sometimes. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.
Glamour: I need to know: How do I become a Sun Summoner? Because I think that I would be very good at it.
Leigh Bardugo: Have you practiced your gestures? Have you tried being attacked by a Volcra? Just saying, sometimes you need some trauma to bring out your inner strength, your true powers.
What was it like to see these very specific details that had been in your head and your book be reinterpreted for the show? How involved were you? Did you show up at Netflix and say, “This is how you do the gestures”?
I never envisioned these kinds of elaborate gestures for the Grisha. In the books there are some very simple movements…but they are largely about mental focus as opposed to a physical manifestation of that. But just having a lot of people concentrating deeply is not the most interesting thing to watch.
Not super cinematic, no.
They did send me the early iterations of the choreography. If there was something I objected to or was concerned about, I would voice that. I was an executive producer, but I was one voice in the room. I chose my battles. And none of the hills I chose to die upon were particular Grishaverse gestures. I wanted to save the real battles for things I was truly concerned about, and those were usually more about story than other trappings.
Can you give me an example?
We didn’t butt heads over story too much because [show runner] Eric [Heisserer] and I sat down early and had a lot of conversations about what mattered to us about these characters. I felt the show could do right by Mal (Archie Renaux) [in a way] that I as an author maybe had not. To me, the story of Ravka is as much about these grunts in the army who are ill-equipped, not well trained, and treated as cannon fodder as it is about the magical destinies. The fact that Alina comes from that background is essential to who she’ll become as a leader. We get to see that through Mal’s experiences as well.
TV show versus movie series: Is that a conversation you had? I could see this going the Harry Potter or Hunger Games route, but you went episodic.
We first sold the option to the rights to DreamWorks back in 2012. Back then, the conversation was around film. In my mind, the book trilogy is very much built that way. But I always felt Six of Crows was built much more the way episodic television is built. It was the kind of setup where you could potentially take those characters and keep them running heists for as long as you want them to. When we decided to bring those stories together, it felt natural to shift to that format. I also wanted to break up some of what happens in the later books—I don’t know if we’ll get a chance to touch that material, but this is an opportunity for me to be corrective. I’ve always felt Siege and Storm, the sequel, has a very soft middle. This is a chance to get rid of the soft middle.
It’s so interesting that you were excited to correct your own work, because a lot of times we hear authors being like, “They got it wrong,” or fans taking the attitude that the book is the final word on the story.
I think—I hope—I became a better writer as I’ve worked. Shadow and Bone was my first book, and it was written 10 years ago. I would hope I’ve grown in terms of craft and understanding story and character. I don’t see why you wouldn’t apply that when you have the opportunity to!
I’m very lucky in having a partner in Eric Heisserer, who had a lot of respect for the material and, unlike many people in Hollywood, really walks the walk. He cared about us having a diverse writers room, he cared about us trying to bring in diverse crew, and he also cared deeply about the readership of these books. When you look at young adult [book] adaptations, you frequently encounter a great deal of contempt for the material, the creators, and the consumers. I think the reason for that is quite obvious: Y.A. is primarily created by women and consumed by women. Eric doesn’t have that particular chip on his shoulder, so he didn’t approach this material with a desire to fix it. Because I felt that respect, we were able to collaborate.
Have you been keeping an eye on the fan reactions?
I can tell from the Instagram posts I’ve created how much love there is for this cast, which brings me a lot of joy because they are all genuinely good, wonderful people. There are so many people in this show, and there’s not a bad egg among them. When I visited set, I instantly felt that sense of camaraderie. It almost felt like they were at summer camp, even though they had been at this grueling shoot away from home, in a foreign city, and working every day for six months. To see readers also pick up on that love and the passion that was put into the show has been meaningful.
I told readers to trust me that this was going to all fit—because when they found out that we’re bringing together Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows, there was a lot of worry. I get that. A lot of my favorite books have been adapted horribly. But I felt the heart of the stories and the characters had been preserved. It’s been great to see that [the fans] seem to agree and are getting something different form the show than they would’ve gotten if we’d just done a page-by-page adaptation of the books.
I feel like Alina is that heart. You mentioned earlier the emphasis on diversity. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why you decided to include her being part Shu as an aspect of her character?
In Shadow and Bone, Alina’s race is never specified. But that entire book is basically built on a white default. My life has never been entirely white or entirely straight, so I had to really step back and question why I'd chosen to write my first novel that way. I think I was echoing unconsciously the kind of fantasy I had grown up with. This was a moment when I felt—and something Eric and I talked about the first time we sat down—the series can do this better than I did. We talked about what it would mean for Alina to be mixed race. In the book she’s from a border town; when they finally do visit this town, you see the line between Ravka and Shu is not a wall. Borders are porous. People fall in love across them; they do business across them. It makes perfect sense for Alina to be half Shu. We also got into the way that would impact her life as somebody who was raised in a Ravkan orphanage. She’s being asked to save a country that hasn’t treated her very well. For me, that made the story much richer. Jesse [Mei Li] brought her own experiences to Alina’s life and spirit in a way that altered the experience the audience has when they’re watching this character.
I read an interview where you talked about giving the story a Russia-esque aesthetic to differentiate it from the thousands of Game of Thrones–like fantasy epics. It seems like that’s a theme in how you work.
I write very much from what I want to see, and the hardest projects are projects where you lose track of that. Writing a novel takes a long time, and there will be many moments in the course of the writing and revising of that novel when you fall out of love with the initial idea that brought you to it. So you better be able to remind yourself of what made you fall in love in the first place. For me, the idea of using Russia as the touchstone came from my background, but it also came from the desire to see something different in my fantasy world. Many other writers have explored Slavic influences.
There was also this fundamental question that actually arose out of Harry Potter, which was: What happens when you bring a gun to a magic fight? Voldemort is scary, but why didn’t anybody just shoot him? There are in-world rules for why that wouldn't work, but to me that was a compelling question. The Grishaverse was a way of exploring what happens when magic stops being the ultimate weapon.
You mentioned having the heart of the idea that you’re in love with that will sustain you through the grueling process of writing a novel. What was that for you here?
I wanted to be a writer from the time I was a kid, but I didn’t manage to complete my first novel until I was 35. I didn’t know what my process was. I had no idea what it was to write a book and what I needed as a writer. I would start manuscripts and be excited about an idea, and then lose my momentum somewhere around the end of the first act because I didn’t know anything about story structure. For me, unlocking my process was fundamental to being able to actually complete a first draft of my first book.
But it was also banishing all of the ideas that we are poisoned by in our culture. When you see a movie or a TV show about a creative person, you see them get the idea and then you get a montage. I’m writing, I’m crying, music is playing, I’m crumpling up papers…and then at the end, you’ve got a book. The real process would be incredibly boring and not cinematic.
There’s no understanding of the fact that first drafts are inherently garbage, that writing isn’t a constant experience of joy and feeling like a genius. The process of writing a book is about feeling bad about what you’re doing every day and living with the discomfort between what you have in your head and what you’re putting down on the page. The idea of revision is nowhere in media. We have these ideas of what it means to be an artist or a creative person that really get in the way of actually producing a finished work.
Now that there are books on your shelf that are by you, is the process a little easier?
No. I do trust my process more than I used to. When I have horrible feelings of doubt and paralysis, I’m better able to sit with them and say, “You’ve been here before. This is not unfamiliar terrain.” But…the books get harder. The sequel is always harder. Because instead of just throwing open doors, you’ve now created parameters, you’ve laid out the map, you’re definitely more constrained. You’re also writing with the knowledge of an audience for the first time, so there are different hurdles.
When I finished the Grisha trilogy, I initially was not going to write anything else in the Grishaverse for a while until I came back to Nikolai’s story. Instead, I got the idea for Six of Crows, a fantasy heist. I wrote the proposal and was really excited about it, and then I ran up against the fact that I’d never written a heist or a con before. I’d never written multiple POV before. I’d never done prison breaks or flashbacks this way before. I think we unconsciously create these challenges for ourselves because, as much as it would be easier to simply repeat what we’ve done, we need that challenge to keep pushing our craft. It has to be perilous in order to be exciting.
I get asked so often, Why do adults read young adult? Why do we care what these teenagers are doing? The thing we forget is that the whole idea of “coming of age,” it’s not as if you turn 18 or 21 or 25 or 50, and you stop evolving. If you have, there’s probably a problem there. You don’t want to be making the same decisions at 28 that you were at 18. People go through these radical moments of transition in their lives. We switch jobs, we move to a new town...
You’re a perfect example of that. A few years ago, you switched jobs and became a big-time novelist.
How many people have jobs where they feel like, why does nobody recognize this talent I have? Why does nobody see what I’m capable of? When we talk about chosen-one stories, that’s what those are. See the power that I have, give me a chance to show you what I can do. I think that resonates with a lot of people, regardless of their age.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the romance. You were talking about people falling in love across the barrier of Shu and Ravka—is that something that you wanted to highlight? People from different backgrounds can fall in love…or was it more, it would be really hot if two people hated each other also wanted to kiss?
I love an enemies-to-lovers trope, absolutely love it. But you also have to be conscious of what the power dynamics are in that, and how that relationship can play out in a way that doesn’t feel manipulative. There are relationships within this show that are heavy on manipulation, and those power dynamics are always very interesting to play with.
I also think we have this funny thing where we look at romance like it’s a guilty pleasure, and I don’t know why that is because most people spend a big chunk of their lives looking for somebody to be with. There’s no reason we should feel hesitation over enjoying the will-they-won’t-they of the story.
I got a message the other day from a fan who was like, “Why didn’t this person kiss, and why didn’t these people…” You know, it’s my fault. I am constantly pulling back on the reins when it comes to romance because to me the slow burn of wanting two people to get together is so the pleasure of a book or television show. I want people to be screaming at their screens, “Kiss!” before we ever get that from a character. One of the biggest mistakes we can make as storytellers is to move into that too quickly.
Have you gotten any other interesting messages from frustrated fans?
I will be 100% candid and say I have stepped away from social media in a very big way in the last year. As soon as the show was announced, the kind of conversation that was happening among my readership within the fandom changed, the tone of that conversation changed, and the way people spoke to me changed. I knew it was inevitable because I’ve seen it with other properties that have been adapted or suddenly blew up. But my job is to be a writer—the rest of it is really not part of the deal. I have no problem having a conversation about anything, but I’m not interested in engaging on Twitter or constantly checking my DMs because I cannot serve everybody’s interests all of the time and still be a creative person. If that means that my sales take a hit because I’m not active on social, I’m okay with that. The price has become too high.
I think people will say things online that they would never say to someone’s face.
When my most recent book was released, some people were unhappy with some of the choices I made. A number of them made threats against me and said they were going to find me and beat me up.
I try to remind myself: This is a time when a lot of people feel powerless, particularly women and girls, especially over the last four years. And when you feel powerless in your daily life, it is tempting to get online and feel the exaltation and the power of taking a swing at someone. It’s much more thrilling to be the hammer than to be the nail, so I try to remind myself of that when people are cruel or thoughtless in the way they talk to me. But that generosity can only go so far. I don’t want to reach a point where I resent my readers or the people who are excited and passionate about this show. They built the Grishaverse. I would not have gotten to write seven novels in this series without these people, so I want to continue to honor that and be proud of who my readers are. I also want the fandom to be welcoming to people. The thing that kills me is that people are not just unkind to me; they’re unkind to each other. I would love for there to be some kind of magic that would eliminate that.
Healthy boundaries! When you visited the set and everyone was having such a good time, was that the day you filmed your cameo?
I visited the set twice. The first time, I did the cameo, and it was quite thrilling. If you’ve seen it, you know I’m not an actor. All the other Grisha are focused and doing their thing, and I’m grinning, so happy to be there. I’m also older than everybody in the crew, so I’m clearly the matron of the Grishaverse.
It’s never too late to become a Grisha, I don’t know what you’re talking about.
It was quite emotional. I wrote Shadow and Bone when I was in a very dark place. I had a job I didn’t like and wasn’t very good at. I was in a scary relationship that had really torn my self-worth to shreds. I didn’t know the way this story was going to go, and there was a big part of me that thought, This is it. Ten years later, standing in a room surrounded by these characters in all these beautiful costumes, it was very hard not to give into those emotions and ruin the beautiful makeup they put on me. But it was also a reminder of how lucky and grateful I am that that wasn’t it. That wasn’t the end of the story—there were more chapters.
Elizabeth Logan has written for Vulture, The Awl, Reductress, Above Average, Indiewire, and NoBudge. You can (and should!) follow her on twitter @lizzzzzielogan.
Originally Appeared on Glamour