Genre Chick Interview: Robin McKinley

In 1985, Robin McKinley won the Newbery Medal for her novel The Hero and the Crown. In just a few decades, she has traversed the world of legends from fairy tales to elementals to vampires. In her latest novel, Dragonhaven, she explores–you guessed it–dragons. Ever a lover of girls with swords and magic that turns beasts into princes, Genre Chick Alethea Kontis hunkers down by the fireside with her tale-spinning heroine.


Alethea Kontis: You are known for–as Tamora Pierce so eloquently put it–your “kick-ass heroines.” Was it a challenge to slip into the mind of a 14-year-old boy?

Robin McKinley: Oh, I’m so glad someone has asked this! (I’ve been waiting nervously for someone who likes my “kick-ass heroines” and also has a rather narrow view of things to accuse me of Betraying My Audience. I get Betraying My Audience letters with every book for one thing or another, and this seems to me the obvious iniquity about Dragonhaven. I like your approach much better.)

The short answer is: yes. The story arrived in first person–thus far my stories have always arrived in whatever POV each wants to be told in–and I felt a little uncertain about it. I fooled around briefly with trying to convince it to go into third, but it wasn’t having any, and I realized pretty quickly that I, for my own sake, needed the enforced intimacy of first-person narration to get inside Jake’s skin.

I found the experience not unlike his experience of sharing his head with dragons. In some ways we understood each other completely and in some ways we didn’t fit at all. I realize there will be readers who do not find Jake among my most convincing protagonists; for me, he’s been utterly and completely real and solid and himself, and I love his story, but writing it has given me blisters in areas of my writing anatomy I’ve never had blisters before.

AK: Many of your past works (Beauty, Spindle’s End, Rose Daughter) have been inspired by fairy tales. What was the inspiration for Dragonhaven?

RM: Dragonhaven started life as another Fire Elementals short story–my husband Peter Dickinson and I are theoretically supposed to produce Air, Earth, and Fire to go with the Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits that we’ve already produced. Years ago. I’m just not very good at short stories. My last novel before Dragonhaven, Sunshine, started life as a Fire story, too. The one I’m working on now also started life as a Fire story.

AK: What do you think fascinates people about dragons?

RM: To paraphrase Jake: 80 feet long, flies, and breathes fire. What’s not to be fascinated by?

AK: What’s your favorite dragon legend/story?

RM: I had a comment on my new blog a few days ago that made me laugh, where the poster said that she might declare me her favorite author except for her crippling indecisiveness. I posted back that I was going to quote her: I don’t do favorites generally, because of my . . . crippling indecisiveness. The world is full of depressingness and garbage, but it’s also full of wonderful stuff, and I’m not sure I even want to know what my single favorite this or that is.

I will tell you instead that the first dragon story that drifted across my mind, thinking about dragon stories, is Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon. I am often drawn to things–people, stories, animals, whatever–that go against type. Grahame’s dragon was the first against-type dragon I’d met, a very long time ago, when I was only familiar with the standard princess-eating, village-razing, knight-contesting kind, and I imagine there was a small snick as it slid into an against-type dragon niche in my mind.

One of the strongest wellsprings of my own story telling is this idea of against-type: my obsession with girls and women who do things (briefly deviated from for Dragonhaven) is all about the against-type of the useless fluffy, fragile, or feisty heroines of the books I read growing up. And to my curmudgeonly middle-aged eye, there are still far too many of these still being written–or if they’re not quite useless, the girls are still second-rate to the guys.

AK: In Deerskin, the heroine raised a litter of orphaned pups; in Dragonhaven, Jake is burdened with the responsibility of an orphaned dragon. Does any of this come from firsthand experience? Have you ever had to raise an orphaned animal?

RM: No. The nearest I’ve come is the occasional litter of puppies (when the owner is looking for a patsy and I’ve been too slow to get out of the way) whose mum has absconded early. This is dramatic and demanding enough, especially when all six or eight or 3,012 of them fall ill at once (and if one puppy in a litter falls ill, chances are they all will), and gives the imagination plenty to work with, when the Story Council drops something about an orphaned animal on you.

AK: Did you do much Native American research when creating the rich background of the Arkhola Indians of Smokehill?

RM: How interesting you should ask this. Because the answer is yes, but I thought I’d thrown it all out again by the final draft–that the few bits of Native American pseudolore left are pretty conventional. There was a lot more of it in some of the early drafts. For one thing I had a go at creating more of the Arkhola language. The Arkholas are in the Lakota/Dakota/Sioux group, so I tried to find out something about those languages (which are supposed to be rather a bear for us Indo-European types) not for vocabulary but for some sense of shape and structure.

The London Library, rather bafflingly (you never know what the London Library will or won’t have), has this massive, arcane, folio-sized series on Native American languages. I checked out the Sioux volume and had a wonderful time. I didn’t learn a thing–it was all way, way beyond me. But it was thrilling the way being let in on a big important secret is thrilling.

AK: How do you typically do research for a novel?

RM: Upside down, backwards, and frequently too late. My experience with the Lakota languages will do as an example of the first. There are a few useful things I know in my “real” life (I’m not prepared to say absolutely that my writing life isn’t the really real one, and the one with laundry and dishwashing in it is the shadow life), like cooking and gardening and domestic animals, which I can draw on. Mostly, however, stories come with all sorts of bits appended that I don’t know about.

The trick is to learn enough of the story to know when and what to research, but to start looking things up before I think I’ve figured out so much of it that I’ll be in big trouble if the encyclopedia doesn’t agree with me. My most famous example of too late is when I lost about six months’ work on The Outlaws of Sherwood when I got a piece of old English law wrong. I’ve never lost that much again. But getting stuff encyclopedia-right is surprisingly necessary in a lot of fantasy, too, or in the kind of fantasy I write, where the fantasy grows out of the encyclopedia stuff. This includes, I should perhaps say, before I’m inundated with e-mails from people about all the look-up-able stuff I’ve got wrong over the years, changing the factual stuff because it’ll make a better story my way. This is a little more contentious in Sunshine and Dragonhaven because they’re alternate-reality rather than so-called high fantasy.

I’ve been somewhat taken aback at the things people want to scold me about. Um. It’s fiction. It is, in fact, fantasy fiction. You did notice there were dragons/vampires in it?

AK: What was your favorite book as a child?

RM: No, I don’t do favorites. See above. But the first one on what would be a long list which crossed my mind after reading your question is Brighty of the Grand Canyon by Marguerite Henry. I was a monumentally horse-mad child, and Henry wrote a lot of horse books, so my favorite one by her is . . . about a burro. Go figure. I guess I liked all that rising above adversity stuff. There was a period in my young life when I was reading this book every day. And every day the ending made me cry.

AK: What is your favorite work of art?

RM: First one to cross my mind is a silly one: the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens in London. It is such a glorious, over-the-top example of High Victorian Tosh. When I was still a tourist here, the pilgrimage to the Albert Memorial was a necessary part of every visit. Then when I arrived to marry an Englishman and stay, it was all wrapped up in plastic, for restoration. It was wrapped up in plastic for years. I even contributed £25, partly for the pleasure of deciding which fingernail-paring of gold leaf was mine, after they unveiled it again. It was a curious small piece of the acclimation processes, too. I’d walk through Kensington Gardens and there it would be, still looking like a Christo installation. And I’d think, if I were only visiting, this would almost ruin the visit. But it doesn’t matter. I live here.

AK: If you could be any superhero, who would you be and why?

RM: I’ve fallen out of the superhero loop, so I’d have to invent one. Presumably they’re doing superheroes (and superheroines) more interestingly against-type now too. (Note, just by the way, that my Word spell check accepts “superhero” but not “superheroine”.) One of my blog readers has just informed me that Joss Whedon is doing an X-Men series. (I believe my response may be described as squeal. I’m learning all kinds of things, running a blog.) Maybe you should ask me again after I’ve read it.

AK: Who are/were your heroes?

RM: I’m not sure I do heroes any more than I do favorites. I’m too interested in the feet of clay, the shadow side, the doubts and fears and frailties, the stuff that makes it hard to be heroic, and sometimes just hard to get out of bed in the morning.

AK: How are your roses? (Did the crazy rains in England this summer get to you?)

RM: My roses are doing surprisingly well, given the weather. We had a hot April, which meant all my midsummer roses were out in May. Then it rained more or less non-stop for most of three months. There are more roses than one realizes that will flower even in a downpour so I’ve still had roses this summer and there is this to be said for a tiny garden: you can see all of it from your kitchen window, in the dry. The funny thing is that several of the once-flowering midsummer ones were so confused by the cold wet summer that they’ve put on an autumn show, like they think it’s next year already.