Brought to book

Chew­ing the fat with US au­thor Sarah J Maas.

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents - Words by jonat han wright por­trait by will i re­land

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.”

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