Brought to book
Chewing the fat with US author Sarah J Maas.
By her own estimation, Sarah J Maas was “a total weirdo, miserable” when she was at high school. “I had no boyfriend, I was so sad,” she recalls, shaking her head while laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. “When you’re a teenager, you think, ‘ Oh my god, I’m so lame, none of the boys I like know I exist.’” Worse, as an aspiring novelist, she had nobody with whom to share her stories. And having moved on from writing Harry Potter and Sailor Moon fan fiction, “the dorkiest, cheesiest stuff ”, to working on her own fantasy sequence, Throne Of Glass, she needed feedback. Maas’s answer was to post some chapters on FictionPress, a website where writers share work in progress. She hoped that one or two people might like her story of a conflicted young assassin, Celaena Sardothien. Instead, “a ton of responses” came back.
“To go from being invisible in the day at school, and come home and find emails from people around the world saying, ‘ This story is awesome, can you keep writing?’ it completely changed my life,” she says. “I realised this is what I want to do, I love sharing my writing with people, I want to be a published author.”
It’s an ambition Maas realised in 2012 when her debut novel, Throne Of Glass was published. Two years later, she’s made the New York Times bestseller list and, when SFX catches up with her amidst the madness that is Worldcon, she’s busy promoting the third novel in the YA sequence, Heir Of Fire.
It’s a book that finds her heroine, Celaena Sardothien, in a reflective mood. “It’s about facing the horrors of her past, that in being this very arrogant assassin, she’s hidden beneath her arrogance and haughtiness,” says Maas. But if that potentially sounds a little dull, never fear, there are new characters to keep the action moving along, including a bad- ass coven of “militarised witches” who are learning to ride dragons and act “kind of like a motorcycle gang”.
Says Maas with some satisfaction: “All of my anger and aggression I could pour into these witches that just want to beat the crap out of everyone all the time.”
This is actually the kind of thing Maas says all the time, often while laughing as she tells a story against herself. She’s kooky in the way people used the word before it became close to being a veiled insult, which is to say disarmingly open, funny and just a bit batty.
This makes her good company, although maybe it wasn’t always thus. Before she became a self- conscious teenager, New Yorker Maas was a pre- school terror, dubbed The Pink Police by her fearful family.
“I told all the boys and the girls they had to wear pink”
“I was so obsessed with pink that I told all the boys and the girls [ at nursery] that they had to wear pink or I would brutally kill them,” she says. “My parents would get phone calls from angry parents saying, ‘ Do you know that my son is terrified to come into school?’” Only one girl stood up to her, her friend Alice, who perhaps not uncoincidentally wore a Wonder Woman costume every day.
Maas grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her parents read to her every day, even when that meant reading The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munch, the tale of a resourceful young royal and how she sees through a narcissistic prince charming, over and over.
Later, Maas also loved The Hero And The Crown, Robin McKinley’s tale of a princess fighting dragons. “That was my dream, that was all I wanted,” she laughs. As for Buffy, which was airing when she was 12 and 13, “You could not have had a show that spoke to me more or shaped me more as a human being.”
If it seems logical these girl- power influences would come to give rise to Celaena Sardothien, the direct spark was listening to the soundtrack to Disney’s Cinderella, specifically the “dark and intense” music that accompanies Cinders fleeing the ball. This keyed off the idea of Cinderella having done something wrong – like assassinating the prince and staging an “epic escape” as the clock struck midnight.
But if the early versions of the Throne Of Glass were strongly infused with the Cinderella legend, that’s far less true of the version that’s made it into print. Having begun writing the books when she was 16, Maas carried on working on the story as an undergraduate, studying creative writing.
In 2008, she realised she’d have to take down these early versions of the Celaena Sardothien stories from FictionPress, both because no publisher was going to take on material available for free and because she wanted to rework the books entirely. “That was really scary because until that point being online and having this online fanbase had become this thing that I went to, this foundation,” she says. “I built most of my identity on that.” Not to worry. Today, Sarah J Maas seems pretty sure of where she’s going. She even knows the final line of the books, Celaena Sardothien’s story, which will eventually run to six volumes. For no particular reason, it came to her while she was on holiday in the highlands of Costa Rica with her husband. It was a big moment, although she didn’t bother to tell her other half, not a fantasy fan, why she was suddenly weeping.
“I quietly cried in the back of the bus,” she laughs. “I know how it ends. I’m the weirdest person, it’s embarrassing to be out with me in public.”