Tamora Pierce is the author of over 18 fantasy novels set in the world of Tortall. Her literature is highly regarded for its strong, believable female heroes — heroes who, as it turns out, have inspired more than a few real-life ones. We discussed them with Pierce at NYCC 2017
Unbound Worlds: You career stretches back a few decades. When did you start?
Tamora Pierce: I started writing when I was in seventh grade. I started my first adult novel in 1976. I published my first book for teenagers in 1981.
UW: You’ve probably seen some of your fans grow up before your eyes. What is that like for you?
TP: I told the first one that she was too young to be having kids, and I was definitely too young to be having fans having kids. It’s unnerving. You certainly don’t think of yourself in those terms, but it is sort of inevitable after a certain point. They bring their children around to appearances and then they start naming them after you characters. I have two named Keladry in Canada. I then found out that they start passing the books on to fellow parents, and they pass them on to grandparents, and then I have a whole new avenue of readers coming, so it is kind of awesome if you don’t think about it too much!
UW: You have a couple of big settings that people know you best for, and I’m wondering how you keep finding new things to explore in them.
TP: When I start to work on a new series, I usually do so a number of years in advance: four to six at minimum. I go with things that have attracted me as a reader or viewer in the past, or as a person looking for characters. I look for historical periods that have interested me, historical events, and I expand out from there. I know that I’m going to be editing those things to fit a world not ours. There are some subjects that I avoid completely. I started very early on with a strict avoidance of monotheism, so that helps. When I really start considering what I’m going to do, I think of great people, characters, actors, events. I read a lot about crime, epidemic disease — I’ve startled my friends quite a bit with my selection of reading material. I go for what I think I can treat openly and fairly that will interest readers without me getting preachy, and go from there.
UW: I may have misheard, but I thought I heard one of the young women at your signing tell you that you made her a feminist. I’d love to hear about feminism in your literature, and how you successfully handle important social issues without being “preachy”.
TP: I write female heroes, by and large, and I write female characters taking action when action is needed. I write female characters undertaking tasks that are often described as tasks women can’t do. I write realistically as I can how they would go about undertaking those tasks in a way that people in our world would understand without ringing any false notes. I was raised a feminist. My mother was a feminist. I came of age in the sixties being accused of being a feminist. I wrote to the FBI when I was 12 years-old and asked what the requirements for an agent were: They wrote back that, actually, women weren’t allowed to be agents, but when I graduated high school I could apply to be a secretary. That burned my bacon, but it was just one of many things I was told. I couldn’t be the first woman president. My principal in middle school laughed outright when I mentioned it. My mother, the feminist, laughed when I said I wanted to be a lawyer. I’m a Scots Presbyterian hillbilly — I’m not religious, but by background — and no is not a word you should tell me, because I won’t listen. I think that people who tell me no are full of it, so I proceeded to do what I wanted to do. When I discovered female characters in fantasy novels, I found them all flawed in some ways. I wrote my first fantasy with female characters being heroic in ways that were believable to show that it doesn’t have to be that way.
UW: I wonder what all of those people who told you no would think now if they could see young women thanking you for making them feminists?
TP: I think that if they were silly enough, they’d probably say, “What a lot of hooey”, but I’ve had letters from a retired admiral in the Navy, a retired captain in the Navy, and detectives in very tough police departments. One of these women was harassed when she was in the police academy, on the streets from her partners, when she joined the detective squad, and when she joined the bomb squad. I would tell [the people who told me no] that they didn’t know what they were talking about. There are grown women who are telling me that I was right, that they could do it.
UW: You certainly created more of what they feared.
TP: Yes, it makes me happy.