Leigh Bardugo on Her Epic Journey from SHADOW AND BONE to RULE OF WOLVES

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Rosie Knight
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Leigh Bardugo never really thought Shadow and Bone would get published. In fact, the New York Times bestselling book that would spawn a massive multi-book series and upcoming TV show began as a personal challenge. “I was 35 when I started writing Shadow and Bone, and my only goal was to finish a book because I had never managed to do it.” Bardugo shared. “My father had passed away just recently. I was in a terrible, scary, awful relationship. I was in a very bad place. And I had also reached this point where I thought my tombstone was gonna say, ‘She had potential.’ So I decided, ‘I’m gonna write a book, and it doesn’t have to be a good book, it just has to be done. And then I’ll know that I’ll be able to do it.'”

Pursuing a career as a writer was something Bardugo had wanted since childhood. But the realities of making it happen evaded her. “I was one of those kids who looks really good on paper, I tested very well, I went to a fancy college, won some prizes. When I came out of school, I had many horrible jobs, but I didn’t know what the path was to a creative life or the life of a writer,” the author told Nerdist.

“And I didn’t know what my process was as a writer either. I had soaked up all of these ideas about what it meant to be a creative person from media and culture. And I had this idea in my head that if this was your calling it was supposed to be fun. It was supposed to feel good to wrestle with a blank page. And imagine my surprise when it wasn’t fun at all.”

Shadow and Bone book cover
Shadow and Bone book cover

Macmillan

But when Bardugo did eventually reach the end of that first draft she promised herself she’d finish, she found something surprising. “There was actually a lot of stuff I really liked writing and that I thought was worth going back to revise and try to make better,” Bardugo explained. “And I feel that I’m a much better writer now than I was then. I feel like I’ve done a lot of learning on the job. But I think that willingness to stick with the discomfort of something not being great and the decision to say ‘I’m going to attempt this one small thing, even if it goes nowhere’ worked wonders for my ability to get something done.”

What drove Bardugo to keep going on Shadow and Bone was very simple, and she was quick to reassure, not at all glamorous or romantic. Until this novel attempt she’d just never considered putting her screenwriting classes to use. But for Shadow and Bone she did just that: outlining the novel as if it was a script. “It had never occurred to me that’s how people wrote books. I thought you had the idea and the story flowed out of you. And I certainly have friends who write that way,” Bardugo explained.

“But I cannot, I need to know exactly where it’s going. I certainly make digressions. Things change. Just the simple act of writing an outline—of having a beginning, a middle and an end. A story that I could move towards. But as it turned out, that was my process. I just hadn’t learned it yet.”

Siege and Storm book cover
Siege and Storm book cover

Macmillan

Before learning that vital lesson, the curse of the wunderkind myth was something that weighed heavily on the author. “I didn’t publish my book until I was 37. So the ability to pay my bills, pay my rent, make a life for myself, and become a working writer was a puzzle that took me a while to solve,” she revealed. “The myth that youth is what makes you interesting is a real mindf**k. It’s the game that’s played on everybody, but I think it’s particularly poisonous for young women. We’re already asked to put so much time and effort into being beautiful, being young. We’re taught that those things give us value. And it’s a huge distraction from actually achieving anything. Think about the amount of energy that is put into dealing with your crow’s feet or your cellulite or whatever it is that makes us ‘valuable.'”

“The myth that youth is what makes you interesting is a real mindf**k.”

She continued. “As a crippled middle aged woman, I can tell you what makes you valuable is what you put out into the world. And for me that comes from aging and finding success later. I mean, I was a schmuck when I was 20. So I’m grateful to have these years. And I do think there are people who are much more evolved than I was at 20 and those stories have so much value. I just wish that our culture would reward stories at any age.”

Ruin and Rising book cover
Ruin and Rising book cover

Macmillan

In 2012 the world was ready to embrace Bardugo’s story Shadow and Bone, which became a New York Times bestseller. But it was harder to process the impact of her debut novel at the time. “Success is a moving target,” she explained. “The idea of hitting that list has sort of become the marker of whether a book is doing well. And there are certainly many other markets and many wonderful books that never end up on the New York Times bestseller list and sell brilliantly. But that’s definitely something that’s sort of like the grail for any author—and certainly any new author.”

When her book hit, Bardugo thought that was it. “I thought that was going to change my life. But it was on for one week and then it was off. So yes, it was successful, but it’s not as if there weren’t other places to go. It is very rare that a career is made by a book, or even a series. I was just very aware of that. Or maybe I’m just incapable of enjoying it,” Bardugo laughed.

In the end it was something much more tangible and powerful than a bestseller list that would give the author her first taste of how the book was impacting readers’ lives. “I did not know about things like fan fiction and fan art. And I remember the first time somebody pointed me toward fan art. It was by an artist named Irene Koh. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was so overwhelmed, thrilled, and delighted. That’s never gone away. There’s never been a time I’ve looked at a piece of fan art and not felt that thrill. That somebody can look into your imagination and is able to then grow this other thing that has its own life, that exists outside of the book. And that’s been the most bizarre and wonderful alchemy to discover.”

Irene Koh illustrates three iterations of Alina Starkov, Soldier, Summoner, Saint
Irene Koh illustrates three iterations of Alina Starkov, Soldier, Summoner, Saint

Irene Koh

Shadow and Bone would go on to spawn a bestselling trilogy and two follow-up duologies. But when she was writing the book, Bardugo wasn’t sure it would ever go past that first novel. One thing she did know as she went on, though, was that the idea of the story ending in one book didn’t sit right with her. So she started taking notes. And when the time came to pitch the book, the publishing houses asked if she could imagine it as a trilogy, so she used those notes to pitch. But those included some big differences from what fans eventually read.

One of those changes? A fan favorite character wasn’t supposed to live past his debut. “I originally intended to kill off Nikolai at the end of the second book, and then Alina would be framed for his murder by his brother,” Bardugo revealed. “But then when I started writing Nikolai I loved writing him so much. I didn’t want to let him go. And usually that’s a sign I should definitely kill that person. But I felt like he had so much story and he was just so fascinating. He’s so different from the other characters. He has this kind of optimism that most of my characters do not have. Then I realized I didn’t want to kill him and I saw a much more interesting shape for this story. And so that really changed the way the third act of Siege and Storm played out.”

the cover for Six of Crows shows the outline of a crow and the text Six of Crows shows a
the cover for Six of Crows shows the outline of a crow and the text Six of Crows shows a

Macmillan

After the success of the Shadow and Bone trilogy, Bardugo knew she wanted to write more Nikolai. First, though, she wanted to do something a little different. Something outside of the Grishaverse. But then she got the idea for Six of Crows. “The invention of those characters and those stories really shifted my perspective of the broader story that I wanted to tell,” Bardugo told Nerdist. The beloved duology is an epic heist story that introduces us to the world of the Crows—a ragtag found family of damaged kids going up against a cruel world. It fits in perfectly with the Grishaverse while feeling a world away from the glamor of the Little Palace.

For Bardugo, it was a way to build out the universe she’d created. But it was also a chance to move away from the more classic tropes of her first series. “The Shadow and Bone trilogy is a chosen one story. I like to think some of the tropes are subverted but it’s a very trope-heavy story. Coming out of that, I really wanted to write about characters who were not chosen. The people that the world viewed as expendable. Who didn’t have the most magical power or a royal birthright or a grand prophecy destiny. I wanted to write about ordinary people who were caught in the crossfire of these sort of grand fantasy stories. And so that shifted the kind of story I wanted to tell.”

The cover of Crooked Kingdom shows a crow rising
The cover of Crooked Kingdom shows a crow rising

Macmillan

But writing that story wasn’t easy. “Six of Crows was really a challenge to write. But it was a necessary one. First of all, it was the first book that I sold on proposal, which means you just turn in an outline. I’d never done that before and it does a number on you as you sort of create this golden ideal of the book in your head that you’re then trying to catch up to,” she shared. “But also the Shadow and Bone trilogy, excluding the prologue and epilogue, is all written in first person, very linear. Six of Crows has multiple POVs, flashbacks. And Six of Crows itself it has a couple of heists, but in Crooked Kingdom it’s heist upon heist upon heist.”

The challenge of the duology even saw Bardugo question her own place as the writer. “There were multiple times when I thought, ‘I’m not smart enough to pull this off. I can see what this book should be and somebody more talented should write it,'” Bardugo said. “But I also think we set these challenges for ourselves for a reason. I didn’t want to write the same books again and again, and I still don’t. With Six of Crows, I wanted to create this sort of Matryoshka doll where you would feel the walls closing in on you as the city closed in around the Crows, and where the moves would appear to be getting more and more desperate.”

Jesper, Inej, and Kaz in Shadow and Bone.
Jesper, Inej, and Kaz in Shadow and Bone.

Netflix

One of the standout characters from the series is the troubled teen gangster Kaz Brekker. As a disabled writer myself, he immediately stood out as a rare complex and nuanced disabled lead. For Bardugo, he was a learning curve that represented her own struggles with internalized ableism. “When I wrote Kaz, I wasn’t thinking about my own ability consciously. Which is kind of embarrassing. I have a degenerative bone disease and I’d reached the point where I had to start using a cane. I had to get over my own internalized ableism to do that. So I didn’t really think about it at the time but I got to the end of that first draft of Six of Crows, and was like ‘obviously, I’m writing someone who embodies the kind of swagger and confidence that I want to have.'”

Kaz also shirks the fantasy trope of the magical disability cure, refusing to have his leg healed by a Grisha during Six of Crows. It was a powerful moment and one that feels all too unusual in the genre sphere. For Bardugo, it was vital. “I have a friend who I adore, and I still adore. When she read Six of Crows, she said, ‘Why didn’t Kaz have his leg healed? Wouldn’t it be amazing if nobody knew his leg was healed and then he’s in an impossible position that they think because he has a disability that he couldn’t get out. But then he’s healed,’ she recalled. And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s a good twist. And it would also be a fundamental betrayal of me and every other disabled person out there.'”

Alina and Malyen in Shadow and Bone.
Alina and Malyen in Shadow and Bone.

Netflix

The highly-anticipated Shadow and Bone series on Netflix will bring together Kaz, Inej, and Jesper in a complex new heist alongside the original trilogy’s Mal and Alina. The experience of adapting the books has been a surreal one for their creator. “It’s been utterly weird. There have been moments that have just been incredibly emotional, where we’ll get to a moment and it will be exactly as I envisioned it. Or we’ll get to a moment that I never envisioned that’s not in the book. And I’ll think ‘Oh wow!'”

Bardugo continued, “Each collaboration is complicated, and I’m very lucky because Eric Heisserer is a very good person to collaborate with. And I feel a lot of gratitude for him letting me be as actively involved as I have been. It doesn’t mean that I always got my way. I didn’t. It doesn’t mean that everything is exactly as I would have done it. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t better for that. Collaboration doesn’t mean everybody comes to an agreement and walks away happy. It usually means that somebody walks away unhappy. But the decisions that are made are the best for the story. So it’s a very weird experience. And it’s very beautiful in a lot of ways.”

The cover for King of Scars shows a family crest with tears across it and the text King of Scars
The cover for King of Scars shows a family crest with tears across it and the text King of Scars

Macmillan

But before Shadow and Bone hits screens, readers are waiting for what might be the final book in the Grishaverse as we know it, Rule of Wolves. The follow up to King of Scars takes readers back to Ravka and its young king, Nikolai Lantsov. These were the stories that Bardugo was so keen to tell after Shadow and Bone, and that in her own words are the most high fantasy books she’s written. “They’re very epic in tone,” she continued. “You’re going into the origins of Grisha power, and there are these sort of big sweeping moves in them.” And it’s true, the story of Nikolai the monster prince makes Shadow and Bone look small in scope, and Rule of Wolves takes fans on a truly unexpected adventure that’s nothing short of epic.

“It’s very likely that I’ll write in the Grishaverse again. I left a lot of doors open at the end of Rule of Wolves.”

With the release of Rule of Wolves, Bardugo is feeling thankful. “I’m very proud of what I’ve built and I’m very grateful people want to live in that world. The reason I’m able to keep writing in the Grishaverse is because people buy a book. That’s truly a privilege,” she said.

The cover for Rule of Wolves shows a family crest with the words Rule of Wolves within it
The cover for Rule of Wolves shows a family crest with the words Rule of Wolves within it

Macmillan

But her new book also signifies an end. Maybe not the true end of the story, but the end to this part of it. “It’s very likely that I’ll write in the Grishaverse again. I left a lot of doors open at the end of Rule of Wolves. But I also wanted to write that book as a kind of goodbye for now. I wanted it as a grand finale because I don’t know exactly what the future holds. And also because this is the last book that will just belong to readers. The show will change things, maybe a lot, maybe not at all. For me, it’s already changed the experience of writing. So I wanted this to be something that I shared with the people who have been on this journey with me for a long time.”

Rule of Wolves hits shelves on March 31.

Featured Image: Macmillan

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