Why Tamora Pierce Doesn't Shy Away From Sex In YA Lit

If you're a fan of YA fiction and fantasy who grew up in the eighties and nineties, Tamora Pierce is something of a living legend.

Pierce's first book, Alanna: The First Adventure, introduced readers to Alanna of Trebond, a red-haired, violet-eyed girl who dreams of being the first lady knight in her realm in recent memory. Over the course of the ensuing four-part series, The Song of the Lioness quartet, Pierce builds a magical medieval world in which Alanna learns to contend with evil, of course. (What adventure would be complete without a nemesis?)

But she also comes to define friendship and intimacy along her own lines. The series is the kind of bildungsroman female readers don't always get to see in literature — characters who contend with issues of family, power, love, and, often controversially, sex.

Since Alanna, Pierce has crafted other memorable female protagonists in numerous series. Her latest novel, Tempests and Slaughter, is the first of a three-part series 10 years in the making that tells the coming-of-age story of Arram Draper, a male character introduced in The Immortals quartet.

Ahead, Pierce talks to Refinery29 about world-building, the power of fantasy in women's lives, and how to write compelling male and female characters.

When did the inspiration to write the early stages of Numair's story begin for you?

"I've kind of been turning it over in my mind for years. Just in terms of people wanting to know about where he came from and what his family was like. The actual writing has taken about seven years. I moved completely out of New York City in that time. I had a couple of surgeries — which are always fun — and when it started out, I pitched it to my editor as two books. When I was partway through the first book, I realized that I had a problem and called her up and said, 'Actually, it’s going to be three books,' so that took a while."

What do you think made fans want to see more of him?

"Arram is kind of a puzzle. He's not exactly your average guy. He's so approachable, and for all his power he makes mistakes, is absent-minded, loves animals, and is kind in a world where there's so much violence going on. So many men either choose combat or are forced into it, and here's this bumbling, educated fool in a way.

"You know guys like that; they're usually in academia or research and they have multiple levels to them. They are not who they seem to be, and I think that intrigues people — that he has limits, and areas where he can make colossal mistakes, and sort of seems to be fumbling his way through life like the rest of us. I think makes him very attractive to readers."

I don't tend to see guys as other creatures; it's what they’re taught and how they're taught to act that makes them different.

Do you have a different approach when writing male characters and female ones — especially leads? It's not as straightforward as changing the kinds of work they do in your books because you write about lady knights and mages who are women.

"For a large part of my life, a lot of my friends have been male. I just tend to see guys as people. Some of them are better people than others, and some of them are intolerable people, but I’ve known an awful lot of good ones — and the same with women. There's just one area where they’re kind of a mystery to me, and that’s an area I ran into trouble on in the book.

"If you know my stuff, you know I tend to be very frank about body development and sexual issues. But I hit that part of the book and went, Uh-oh. I could do one of two things: Do what I always do and treat him like a person, which means dealing with this. Or I could chicken out and skip it. That's cheating as far as I’m concerned because I did it for the girls.

"So I went to my husband and he said, 'What are you asking me for?! I don’t remember that stuff. That was a long time ago. I can’t help.' Then I went to my writing partner Bruce Coville, [the author of] Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, My Teacher is an Alien and The Unicorn Chronicles. I call him the Grand Poobah of kids lit, and he started to laugh and he kept on laughing, but he answered my questions. Then he got to laugh again when I read what I wrote from what he told me about what happens to boys when they reach a certain point in life. He had a good old time; I thought I was going to die. But I did it because it’s important to guys’ lives as much as to girls'.

"I don’t tend to see guys as other creatures; it’s what they’re taught and how they’re taught to act that makes them different. After that, I went with what I knew. I’ve known Numair for such a long time and his character, at least, was very familiar to me. I’ve known Ozorne [his rival] for such a long time as well. But people are just people I think, and it’s how they prove themselves to you that determines how you think of them, whether male, female, trans or anything."

It's definitely true that sex and sexuality factor very prominently in most of your books. That was something I loved about your characters, including Alanna, Daine, and Kel — that they all have different relationships with their bodies and other people — but is that something you've gotten criticized for? For example, Daine is in a relationship with someone much older.

"Absolutely I’ve gotten backlash about that. All I can say is, look: In the Middle Ages, it was common, at least in the middle and upper classes, for younger women to marry older guys — unless they were both engaged when they were babies, which happened, too. The lower classes had more flexibility and could live more sexual lives, but older men were more settled. They couldn’t afford to marry when they were young. They had to build up their work and their reputations first, and younger women were more likely to survive childbirth, unless they were too young, of course.

"It was a matter of drawing from history, as I prefer to do. I’ve come back to this over and over again. I also point out [that] Daine is so much older than her age. Her mother was in some ways rather childlike, and Daine was the practical one. And Arram or Numair — and you can see it in The Immortals — is in some ways much younger than his age, if he can even remember what age he really is. So I think it’s a fairly equitable relationship. Some people are still put off by it, and that’s the way they see it.

"People are so used to couples being more closely the same age. It seems indecent but every time it comes up on Facebook, a bunch of women come and say, 'Well, my husband’s x many years older than I am,' and 'My husband’s x many years younger than I am,' or 'I married a man who’s two years younger than me and everyone thinks he’s older than I am.' It just varies depending on people, and there are still places in the world where, I don’t like it myself, but brides are children compared to their husbands because they can afford to support brides."

I want my readers to be able to read and feel like these are people they can hang out with.

Do you worry about backlash in general when you write, especially at a time when people are still banning books from schools or incarcerated people from certain texts?

"No, not really. Because if they’re going to do it, they’re going to do it. There's nothing I can do to stop them. The truth is, I’ve only been banned twice in my career: once in a county in Oregon in the eighties, and once in one of the Carolinas in the same time period, but nothing since.

"Bruce has gotten it worse than I have. I don’t know why except possibly because people think that because it’s fantasy, it’s fake — which is far from the truth. There was an article I read somewhere in which people talked to a number of the contemporary teen romance writers about the trouble they get for sex in their books, and one of them said, 'It’s not fair. Tammy Pierce writes worse stuff than I ever do and nobody ever says anything to her.' But it’s true!

"I don’t know why. I’m just grateful because it’s very important to me that my books are as real as possible, partly to sell the magic. You save up your suspension of disbelief so you can believe in the magic and not have to worry why two teenagers hanging out watching the moon aren’t smooching it up. Of course they are! I want my readers to be able to read and feel like these are people they can hang out with."

Something that can be difficult in this genre is avoiding a Mary Sue. How do you approach writing female characters who are talented, magically gifted in some cases, or favored by the gods in others, without making them too perfect — without the reader assuming all will be well for them in the end?

"I try to be as realistic as possible. Everybody says this but the thing is, I’m not good at making stuff up. It’s true: I’m not good at just pulling something out of my head. I know there are plenty of writers who can do that, and my hat’s off to them, but I can’t. If I try, everybody looks and sounds the same. So, I base characters, places, everything, on something real. If I’m doing my job right, and I work at it for a while, it evolves into its own self.

"I base my characters on someone I know, or someone I’ve seen in TV or movies, or even wider fields. I’ve based characters on poker players, on professional wrestlers, on musicians. It gives me a face. If they’re from movies or TV or real life, I can hear their voices as I work. I see how they move. I listen to words they choose, and that gives me something to start with. Then I can follow that personality and keep it real."

There's a big conversation now about young readers needing diverse books. Do you feel intimidated by writing about people from different cultures, races, genders, or sexualities?

"I am very, very careful. I do not ever set things in a real culture. I draw from cultures, but I create my own. I don’t ever want to give offense when I so much admire the countries and the people I work with.

"On sexuality, now that I’m being encouraged to branch out, I am very, very careful and do my research because I won’t write it if I don’t feel like I can do it right. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t want to offend anyone. And the few times I have offended someone, I end up talking with them, so that was good. But I’m more and more careful about that all of the time. If I don’t think I can do it properly, I won't. It’s important to represent people, and represent them as people."

Who are some of the people you've based your characters on?

"Alanna is based on my younger sister. My younger sister is a very determined, brilliant, brilliant woman. She’s been a paramedic and an ER nurse, and she’s been in the Air Force — and when she says no, she means it. It was her first word, and I remember that because her teeth were buried in my finger.

"The Lord Provost in the Alanna books was my dad, and like my sister, he’s very determined. Ozorne? A young Ozzy Osbourne. Have you ever seen the movie Alien with Sigourney Weaver? Sarge is Al Matthews [who played] Gunnery Sergeant Apone. Numair is based on the actor Jeff Goldblum."

I love that. That's the best thing I’ve ever heard.

"The way he talks? That’s what I love. There are other things I love about Jeff Goldblum. When gets out of that chamber in The Fly? And in Jurassic Park when he’s sitting there with his shirt open? Well. But the way he speaks is what I fell in love with. He has a very definite speech pattern."

Photo: Courtesy of John Carnessali.
Author Tamora Pierce

Do you see yourself as any of the characters?

"In the Circle of Magic universe: short, red-headed, wears glasses, very stubborn, very irritable, loves animals, loves to read, bad attitude, can't do lightning yet, but not for lack of trying? Tris was the first person I was feeling brave enough to create a character based on myself. That’s how I manage to keep characters even — with good points and their bad points."

Would you ever consider making a film adaptation of any of your books? Have you been approached about that?

"Not lately. I wrote myself into a unique trap. Movie people want a series where the characters begin and end in that series. And if they are in an [ongoing] series, they want to be able to option the series, full stop.

"I have characters carrying over for as many as 14, 18 books; [studios] don’t like that. If they offer an option on all of the books to get the rights to one character — because forbid anybody else should option any other books — they hold that character and offer a very tiny amount of money. One outfit told me I couldn’t even write the characters they wanted to option."

What do you mean you couldn’t write them?

"I couldn’t write any [more] books with those characters because they held the option. So I said a bad thing, and they went away."

Is that something you feel any regret over?

"The only time I really regretted it was when Hayao Miyazaki optioned Howl’s Moving Castle. I was really, really thrilled for Diana Wynne Jones — but it was Hayao Miyazaki!

"I saw the final and said, 'Okay, he went far away from her books so I don’t feel so bad.' But if he or Peter Jackson looked my way, I’d get out my fan, and my hoop skirt, and fake eyelashes for one of those two gentlemen, and I’d flirt like crazy."

Novelist Urusula Le Guin died recently and it was interesting to see the outpouring of comments from people talking about the impact her work had on them. Something especially interesting was how people championed her discussion of power and subversion. Thinking of writers like her or Octavia Butler, what power do you think genres like fantasy and science fiction can have for women writers as tools of subversion and power?

"Fantasy offers the chance for women to have power through magic, but I also think that’s a cop-out, which is why I deal with so many warriors. I [gravitate] toward women who are political because you can overdo that; you can use [magic] and it doesn’t really say anything because, in the real world, you don’t have that. I show women, warriors, who are active and can do things believably, some of them, with their bodies. I show women using their minds in ways that men have to respect — or if they don’t, they are sorry for it later, which is my favorite part.

"Fantasy shows women that you can achieve. You can be a part of the conversation. You can rise. You do not have to accept what is ordained for you. I think that’s the most important thing any book can say to girls, to adult women. You have been forced to listen to people who do not have your best interests at heart — if you consider your best interests to be a part of the conversation, and to be a voice that is heard. You have to pay attention to men because they’re there, but you really need to pay attention to other women, and you need to pay attention to yourself. You need to ignore the voices that say you are secondary; that’s hard because our society still says that to us.

"Fantasy says okay, we’ll use a metaphor, but behind the metaphor there is truth, and that is if you want to work — and you have to work — you can do whatever you want."

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