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Newbery Honor-winning author Megan Whalen Turner on writing new twists for the same character

Every time I read a book by Megan Whalen Turner, I immediately have to flip to the beginning and start the whole thing over again. Not just because her books are so fun — although they are — and not just because her characters are so witty and likable and compelling — although they are — but because invariably, the ending comes with a revelation that completely changes the way I see the whole book, and I have to go back and read it again for the pleasure of seeing all the signs that I missed the first time.

Turner won the Newbery Honor Award in 1996 for her first novel, The Thief, in which a trickster named Gen sets off on a quest for a sacred object called Hamiathes Gift. Since then, she’s published four additional novels set in the same world —The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, and now Thick as Thieves — devoted both to Gen’s continuing exploits and to the elaborate, Machiavellian political intrigues going on all around him. Her books are a careful examination of how to achieve and consolidate political power, and they’re perfectly structured heist novels to boot.

I sat down with Turner to discuss her most recent book, Thick as Thieves, and how it fits into the larger universe of the Queen’s Thief series — and the problem of writing fantasy without repeating Tolkien. Our conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

How to build a fantasy world that feels real

Constance Grady

I wanted to ask you a little about the development of this incredibly complex political system that you have in your world. Did you know when you started out that it was going to be as complex as it turned out to be, or does it sort of reveal itself to you with every book?

Megan Whalen Turner

Well, when I wrote The Thief, I had meant for it to be a standalone novel, but the complexity of the political system was always there. I pruned out some of the information that didn’t have to go in to actually support the story of The Thief, but I really wanted to make a world where you had a sense that there were more and more and more countries. That there was an entire fantasy world as opposed to like, three nations in a void surrounded by nothingness.

Historically, even if Ancient Greece didn’t know anything about China, China was still there. I wanted my fantasy world to be like that right from the beginning.

Constance Grady

I know that a lot of the political maneuverings in your world have historical antecedents. What would you say are the most important of those antecedents?

Megan Whalen Turner

The most important thing I can point to is the landscape. Twenty-five years ago, when I was trying to find a setting for a story that I had in my head, I couldn’t write until I figured out where to set it. I went to Greece in 1992, and I thought, “This is perfect, because it gives me that opportunity to have these small nation-states, and an empire on the other side of the body of water.” Really the most important thing for the whole story is figuring out where to set it, so that the geography supported the story that I wanted to tell.

And then, yes, the story that I wanted to tell had a lot of things in it, like things that happened around the Mediterranean in the past 3,000 years. But it’s a mix and match of the past 3,000 years, it’s not like I picked one time period and I’m trying to mimic that. It’s more like I read a lot about the ancient world, and then evolved it further. So it’s like a Byzantine level of technology, but it’s not supposed to be an echo of the Byzantine world. By the time the Byzantine world had gone on, the Mediterranean was really a very different place than the world that I’m imagining.

How to write a twist that works every time you read it

Constance Grady

When I was reading Thick as Thieves, I kept waiting — I’m going to try to be vague and unspoilery — for certain characters to reveal what tricks were up their sleeves, because I knew from the other books that they always have tricks up their sleeves. How do you balance the expectations of a reader who is coming to the book with those expectations, versus a new reader who isn’t waiting on tenterhooks for that reveal to come?

Megan Whalen Turner

I’m always simultaneously writing, not so much for the new reader versus the old reader, but the reader who’s on the inside and the reader who’s on the outside. So when I first wrote The Thief, it was really important to me while I was writing it — because I thought that some significant part of my audience was going to cotton on early, and I didn’t want it to be really boring and frustrating for the people who figured it out on page 33 — I deliberately wrote a book that would be satisfying for someone who already knew what was going to be revealed at the end of the book.

So when I’m writing Thick as Thieves, I’m writing for people who already know some things that I’m going to reveal. And at the same time, I’m writing for people who don’t.

Actually, it’s a little bit the same, because it’s amazing how when you put things right under people’s noses that they don’t see it. So when I’m writing, the little fan-service moments that I would put in, that I know my in-the-know reader would be like, “Whoa, that’s so great!” are exactly the same things that I put in for the reader that’s never read it before. And the meaning of those things changes; they’re double entendres. I love the double entendre, where if you know something, this phrase means something completely different.

But all of those things, they really serve a purpose to the reader for building the world. So I guess the answer is, the way I handle it is that I love doing those two things at exactly the same time.

Constance Grady

Do people tell you that they figured out the twist in The Thief very early on? That surprises me, but then I was 9 when I read it the first time, so I guess I couldn’t have figured it out.

Megan Whalen Turner

The thing is, if someone tells you there’s a twist, you’ll find it. The main reason The Thief worked so well when it first came out is that I never hinted that there was going to be a twist. People were used to the idea that if there’s going to be a twist ending, the author’s like rubbing her hands and saying, “Twist ending coming! You’re never gonna get this!” And I didn’t do that. I was completely straight-faced about the whole story, and people were surprised.

Back in the last century, when librarians were writing reviews for Kirkus and Horn Book and everything, they were writing for librarians, who were not supposed to care about whether there was a spoiler or not. This was a professional review for other professionals who need to know how the book ends before they give it to a kid, right? What was amazing — and I think was one of the biggest reasons that I got the Newbery Honor — is they didn’t. They didn’t spoil it. They didn’t even say, “Ooh, big twist coming!” And so all of these people read the book, and they were surprised. They were professionals, and they didn’t expect to be surprised by something written for 12-year-olds.

It was really important that there weren’t spoilers in the reviews, and really important that people didn’t even get a hint. Because if you hint, yeah, people figure it out.

How to make each book darker

Constance Grady

I wanted to ask a little bit about the pretty jarring tonal shift between The Thief and The Queen of Attolia. How did you arrive the decision to make that change?

Megan Whalen Turner

I knew, when I was writing The Queen of Attolia, that it couldn’t be in first person. Because he [Gen, the protagonist] is a whiny, sarcastic, snarky, funny, self-deprecating, cutting, insulting, occasionally unkind, totally-a-jerk-at-times character. And he was going to be in a really, really dark place. And if it was in first person, he was going to lose everything that people had come to the book to read for, because it would either be really sad and depressing, or he’d be really whiny.

He was whining for large stretches of that first book, and it’s one thing to see that from the outside, but very difficult to see it from the other side and still either remain sympathetic or not be totally devastated. So I decided third-person would have to be the way that book would go.

But I also realized, after The Thief got the Newbery Honor award, Barbara Bastow from Cuyahoga County Library said, “Where’s the sequel?” And I thought, “Whoa. I have all this other information that I had to cut out when I wrote The Thief, because I thought it was a standalone. I could do so much more with this! I know where everything’s going!”

And I could have written, like, four books where he just keeps stealing things, and I knew that people would really like it. But I also knew that the next important thing that happened in the storyline would be that he gets caught. And that he would have to be caught, because he was just going to keep pushing the envelope. That’s who he was, is the person who pushes the envelope until everything comes crashing down.

And so that was obviously going to have to be — I mean, I just skipped over the four books and went right to the next big thing, which is, he gets caught. And yes, it was dark and sort of surprising.

Constance Grady

It was very surprising to me when I found it. But I loved it.

Megan Whalen Turner

Not everybody does. I get hate mail. Just every once in a while, I get, “How could you?”

Constance Grady

It’s a difficult scene to read, that opening. Was it difficult for you to write?

Megan Whalen Turner

It was, but it was really important, I thought, that it happened at the beginning of the book. I hate suspense. I am such a softy. I write these incredibly violent books, and I just, I do not like to know that there’s a train wreck coming. I hate watching train wrecks. I much prefer that we just have our horrible thing, and the whole rest of the book is recovery. And so although it starts in a very dark place, the whole rest of the book, things get better and better and better and better. That’s the kind of story arc I like.

How to develop a story for 21 years across five books

Constance Grady

The Thief is about 21 years old now, so it’s just about old enough to buy a drink. What makes you keep coming back to this world? What makes it your playground of choice?

Megan Whalen Turner

Well, largely the fact that when Barbara asked me for the sequels, I saw this enormous story arc. Right from that moment it spooled out, like one of the best internal movies ever. I’ve just been slowly working my way through everything that I wanted to say about all of these people.

Constance Grady

So do you have lots more ideas coming of how everything’s going to develop?

Megan Whalen Turner

Well, I’m working on the next book now. I’m trying very hard not to get distracted by people who suddenly started cropping up with other storylines.

Constance Grady

Can you say anything about the next book, or is it all under wraps right now?

Megan Whalen Turner

It’s pretty much under wraps right now. Because I take so long sometimes to write books — because I have taken so long sometimes to write books, not that that’s going to happen again — I try not to tease people with stuff, because I feel like it’s mean. It’s not funny, it’s just mean.

Other authors who know that their books are coming out in eight months can say things like, “A major character dies in book seven of Harry Potter,” but people only have to wait eight months. God forbid, you spend eight years thinking, “Who died?! Who died?!”

So as a habit, I don’t like to talk about what’s going to be in the upcoming books. At least not until they’re in print, on their way.

How to write a fantasy world that isn’t Middle-Earth

Constance Grady

Can you talk a little bit about some of the authors that you imprinted on as a kid who you find have influenced you?

Megan Whalen Turner

How long do you have? Because Thick as Thieves was originally meant to be the second half of The King of Attolia, but then The King of Attolia got to be like this big and it was its own book. And I thought, “I will finish this book and then I will write Thick as Thieves,” and so I finished King of Attolia and then I wrote Conspiracy of Kings. That just happens. And I knew that the reason that I wanted to tell the story of Thick as Thieves is I wanted to revisit a story that meant a lot to me by Rosemary Sutcliff, who was a British author who wrote historical fiction set in the Roman Britain era.

My favorite — one of my favorites — one of my many favorites by her is The Eagle of the Ninth. In The Eagle of the Ninth you have somebody — he’s a newly made centurion coming to Britain, and he’s all excited, and he has a whole plan for his life: He’s going to be a soldier. He’s going to get his pension in 20 years, and then he’s going to go back and he’s going to buy back the family farm in Italy.

By the end of the first chapter, he’s been in his first battle. And his leg has been so badly broken that he’ll never be a soldier again. So there go all of his plans, right? So he goes on this quest, essentially, to Scotland, to retrieve the lost eagle from the ninth Roman legion. And he takes with him the gladiator that he accidentally bought, as you do. It’s a physical journey, and it’s a psychological journey for both of them, because they both have had their plans for their whole life go up in smoke, and of course they both come back free men.

Reading Sutcliff, I asked myself for the first time, “Who gets to be the hero in an adventure story?” Because Sutcliff wrote the kind of stories she liked to read when she was in the hospital for long periods of time in her childhood, because she had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. At this time all the boy books would have been in the boy ward, and all of the, quote, “girl books” would have been in the girl ward, and she didn’t want to read Pollyanna. She wanted to read Treasure Island. She had to have a nurse bring those books to her. And she grew up to write these fabulous adventure stories.

But here’s a guy who can barely walk, who’s the hero. I thought it was really interesting who she chose to be the hero of her story. And I knew I wanted to revisit that story with Thick as Thieves, but I wanted it to be about Kamet [a minor character in The Queen of Attolia who becomes the protagonist in Thick as Thieves]. I wanted to focus on his story. And one of the things I realized after one whole draft in third person is that it really had to be his voice telling his story.

Constance Grady

Why was that?

Megan Whalen Turner

Because — how long do you have? — because when I first started writing The Thief, I was trying really hard not to set a story in Middle-Earth. I wanted to do something different from Middle-Earth and from standard fantasy, and I’ve only realized over the years how much I’m influenced by people like Joan Aiken and Peter Dickinson and Rosemary Sutcliff, and Tolkien and Lewis and Lloyd Alexander, right?

So here I am, trying really hard to be different, and I’m writing quest novels. It’s like, I could have called them the Fellowship of the Hamiathes Gift. I realized I’m writing quests, still. And in some sense, Thick as Thieves is a quest. The soldier in my story has been given a job by his king, and he’s absolutely determined to carry that job out. So for him, it’s a quest.

It’s not his story. It’s Kamet’s story. And for him, this is not a quest story. I just really felt like his voice had to be the one telling his story, instead of him being essentially an object of the story.

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