Laini Taylor: The girl who collected teeth

By David Larsen

Growing up on navy bases, Laini Taylor always wanted to write. She tells David Larsen about the blue-haired girl with an unusual collection who helped her realise her ambition.

Laini Taylor says she has to battle with perfectionism to complete her novels. Photo  / Jim DiBartolo
Laini Taylor says she has to battle with perfectionism to complete her novels. Photo / Jim DiBartolo

The blue-haired girl had teeth in her pocket, but there was no reason to think she might be the spark that would set off Armageddon. Laini Taylor caught a glimpse of her while hiding from a novel, and followed her back to her father, who turned out not to be human. They seemed like good people; and in fact they were. That made the genocide all the more unexpected.

"I have process issues," says Taylor, when I ask why she would need to hide from a novel. "Very simply, it's perfectionism. My brain wants to polish everything. I have a very hard time leaving a sentence behind and moving forwards. For a long time I could never finish a book."

This is a problem she has clearly solved; Daughter Of Smoke And Bone, the book in which we meet Taylor's blue-haired girl and her stern, possibly demonic father, came out in 2011. It was one of Amazon's top 10 books of that year. Days Of Blood And Starlight, in which the blue-haired girl's star-crossed romance traps her in a genocidal war, came out the following year and was a New York Times best-seller.

The final book in the series, Dreams Of Gods And Monsters, sees the blue-haired girl confronting the end of at least two universes, one of them ours. Meanwhile, the novel Taylor was hiding from when she caught that first glimpse remains unpublished. But she did finish it.

"I'd always wanted to write. I was a navy brat, and we moved around a lot, so for reading I had the military base commissary and whatever bookstore happened to be available, which often wasn't a lot. Often I'd end up reading the fantasy or sci-fi books the navy thought 22-year-old sailors wanted to read. I remember being about 5 or 6 and sitting on the porch writing a story, and after that writing books was just going to be what I did. I'd sort of imagined, as a teenager, that I would write my first book young and be a prodigy, but I have never been very good at finishing books."

As a way of putting these problems out of her mind for a while, Taylor went to art school in her 20s, attending the California College of Arts and Crafts, where she studied illustration. Perfectionism remained her personal demon, but the visual arts turned out to be a very good arena for learning to deal with it.

"Writing happens off-stage. You can hide your mania from the world; you could be writing, 'all work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy' over and over, and no one would ever know. But when you're painting or drawing, it's there or it's not. People can see it."

The exposure of working around other students, combined with the pressure of formal assessment, forced her to work out ways of pushing on with projects until they were done. "And then I was able to apply some of those techniques in a slightly different way to writing, develop this habit of completion."

That habit - raised to the level of a strict "you must finish what you start" personal rule - is ultimately what led to Daughter Of Smoke And Bone. She had broken into print with a well-received pair of children's books, Faeries Of Dreamdark, set in "a sort of faerie version of Vietnam", and was working on a science fiction novel. She was not having a good time with it.

"It wasn't working out. Having learned to finish things I feel this great commitment to doing so, but there was nothing about this book that I liked. I didn't want to sit down and write it at all. I mean ever. I would have rather done anything else. So that wasn't very good for morale, and finally I decided, I'm just going to have a play day. I'm going to write whatever I want today. I had no plans, I just sat down and wrote.

"This thing happened that I'd actually classed as a mythical writing event up until then - I'd heard other writers talk about it and thought they were lying. These characters just appeared. This blue-haired teenage girl and her father, who wasn't human, and who made her go around collecting teeth. They felt very real right away."

She had a lot of material by the end of that day. "After which I actually did finish the other book, by the way, and then I never looked at it again." She knew her characters' names (Karou and Brimstone), and she knew where they lived (Prague, in Karou's case, and a mysterious workshop in a non-human dimension, in Brimstone's). Karou was an art student. Brimstone collected teeth. All sorts of teeth. Also, he wore a wishbone round his neck. It was not clear why.

"The two questions that really motivated me were, what are the teeth for and why is Brimstone wearing a wishbone? Those were the questions that once I answered them - with many days of brainstorming and thinking, 'what if this, what if that' - then I had the story. More or less. I knew the ending I was shooting for with that first book, and after that I was content to let it be very misty, and let future Laini figure it out. When future Laini became present Laini and I realised I'd gone from this place of magic and wishes and kissing to having to write a war book, I was very dismayed. I didn't know then that I was writing a trilogy, either."

This seems a fairly fundamental thing not to know, but Taylor is not a planner. "I can't outline in advance. It sounds so sane, to outline, such a good idea, and yet when I try to do that it feels like expecting every idea that I'll come up with over the next year and a half to come to me immediately. It has to arise somewhat organically, for me. The things that end up being important are the things I don't even know where they come from."

Dreams of Gods and Monsters (Hodder & Stoughton $29.99) is out now. Laini Taylor will be appearing at the WORD Christchurch writers and readers festival, August 27-31.

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- NZ Herald

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