Robin/R.L. LaFevers is a bit of a badass, in my opinion. She is totally matter-of-fact and seemed completely at ease with her audience and what she was going to talk about. I felt under-informed at the onset because I did not realize she also wrote two middle grade series, the Theodosia Throckmorton series and the Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist series. She said her audiences can often be quite a mixed bag and thus seemed a bit relieved that the present audience seemed to be completely comprised of the target audience for the His Fair Assassin series. After writing for younger readers, she was itching to write something darker and on a bigger scale. She said that she has always loved Arthurian stories, Mary Stewart novels (particularly The Hollow Hills and The Crystal Cave), and the merging of history and fantasy.
An audience member asked how important historical accuracy is to her, LaFevers says she favors "historical fantasy." Most of the time, she feels beholden to stay pretty true to historical events but some truths are probably best left out of young adult novels, like perhaps early teenagers being married to 35 year old men, etc. Another questioner asked the author to elaborate a bit about the magic system in place in the series. LaFevers said that the "magic" (if you can call it that, she says it is more mystical than magical) is caused by birth trauma to certain children and their connection to the god of death. One reason she wanted to include nuns was because she wanted there to be a moral aspect to the story. Also, she knew that there are folklore stories about being "marked for death." If forced to pin down the historical accuracy of her work, LaFevers says that about 80% is true history, 10% is history she's taken liberties with, and 10% is completely made up.
Both books had their challenges in the writing process but LaFevers said that Grave Mercy was probably easier to write since she had the luxury of time while working on it. Dark Triumph had a deadline and Sybella's story is much darker than Ismae's--she said she had gray clouds over her for months. Grave Mercy actually started in third person but LaFevers says she kept losing Ismae into the shadows she is so good at hiding in so she had to switch the perspective. She wrote SEVENTEEN drafts of Grave Mercy and the original manuscript was 500 pages. Dark Triumph, comparatively, took only seven drafts, which compared to the many authors I've seen on tour before who have answered this question, is still a large amount. LaFevers says she likes to do many rewrites--each time she focuses on something different and she prints each draft in a different color.
A lot of people ask her how she came up with the series. She said that after that idea of assassin nuns came to her, she was looking for an excuse to set a book in the Middle Ages. During that era, a majority of people were very young.(she is not certain why but it could be many factors-plagues, war, life expectancy, etc.) People started “adult” life much earlier, sometimes being married at 10-12 (“not that [she’s] advocating that!”) and leading battles at 18-19. At this point, LaFevers talked a bit about the possibility that the prevalence of war and the tumultuous time period of the Middle Ages could have been a direct result of so many young people being in charge of countries, armies, etc. After all, just look at Joffrey in Game of Thrones and imagine people like him and Sansa Stark in charge of decision-making. (I’d really rather not, thanks!)
From the idea and the time period, she knew she wanted to incorporate old gods/goddesses into the belief system, which really was not far-fetched, as it was common practice back then. The idea of girls going to a convent as an escape was also based on factual history. Though the idea may be a bit scary to imagine, many young women saw convent life as a life of relative freedom. Much of the history in the series is based on fact, a lot of it concentrating on Anne of Brittany, whose father, the Duke of Brittany, promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to several different people (6-7 suitors, it is said) in exchange for military support, after which point the Duke died and left general confusion. A later question revealed that the whole council was based on real events and that Anne was betrayed in the same way. The story element of illegitimate children living with full-blooded children in the same palace was also based on real events. The area of Brittany also has rich folklore which LaFevers wanted to include, including Ankoù, who personified death, Celtic druidesses, and stories about the night rowers who would hear knocks on their doors in the middle of the night and then go to row the souls of the dead across the water.
Besides history, LaFevers wanted to write about love. She found a real love herself and she sees so much YA that includes unhealthy relationships so it was important to her to include a real, healthy relationship but also to incorporate the ideas of love of country and duty. In addition, it was important to show that being a teenager is hard, so it is at least in part about one girl’s struggle. When she first started writing Grave Mercy and Ismae got to the convent, Sybella (the protagonist from Dark Triumph) seemed half crazy and she threatened to take over every scene. The author said she had to “take her aside” and explain that she would be the center of her own book, and now she is. Dark Triumph is darker than the author thought it would be, but the character came to her as a whole and she felt she had to stay true to her. Sybella has been through a lot in her life and, in real life, a lot of people do not make it through these trials. Some people heal, but not many victims become the hero. The fact that Sybella ends up with Beast, was never intended to be a spoiler, according to R.L. LaFevers. Actually, he was supposed to die in the narrative but LaFevers just couldn’t do it; he was perfect for Sybella. He could deal with her dark past because he had his own darkness, having seen war. The author really likes the fact that though he is a soldier, Beast is gentle.
An audience member asked how much time LaFevers spends on research. It took her seven years to write Grave Mercy. She was working on other contracted work and considered the book to be her own “private sandbox” that she could play around in. She Googled everything and the luxury of time allowed her to add more layers to the story. When she is writing, she will often get on a roll and leave blank spots where there are holes in her research, such as [They eat breakfast. What did people eat for breakfast back then?] and then moving on to keep the creative juices flowing without interruption. Those holes are easily filled with a few minutes of Googling.
The third book, Mortal Heart, will be about Annith. LaFevers says Annith is pissed off about her place in life and why everyone around her is getting to do all sorts of things while she is stuck at the convent. In Mortal Heart, the author says Annith will find out the answers to all her questions and we, as readers, will have lots of questions about the abbots/abbesses answered as well.
Sadly, LaFevers has yet to make it to France herself. She said if the books do well enough, she would love to go, but for now she has to make do with coffee table books and Google to find information about the region. I hope she eventually gets to see the region that inspired her series!
Because I bought a copy of Grave Mercy for the author to sign for me, then subsequently won a copy, I’m giving a paperback copy away to one reader from US/Canada. Just leave your name and email in the Google form and I’ll let random.org pick a winner one week from today. (Open until 5/18 at midnight, PST)
CONTEST OVER: The winner is Roselyn from Bookmarked Pages! Congrats!
R.L. LaFevers at an event? Or anyone else interesting lately?