Two Decades in, the Queen of Faerie Fantasy Is Doing Just Fine

From Slate:

Fairies are having a moment, thanks to the overwhelming popularity of books like Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses. But longtime YA fantasy readers will remember that Holly Black is one of the OGs of gritty novels about the mercurial inhabitants of faerie lands. The author of Tithe, the Curse Workers trilogy, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and other books—which have collectively sold more than 26 million copies—is no stranger to the otherworldly appeal of magic, romance, and dangerous court intrigue. Now, 20-plus years into her career, Black is still ruling the genre, with her Folk of the Air trilogy’s The Cruel Prince a staple of the book-obsessed subset of TikTok known as “BookTok.” Black’s latest work, The Prisoner’s Throne—a conclusion to her The Stolen Heir duology, about the young rulers of two rival faerie courts navigating political treachery, self-acceptance, and the cost of power—was released in early March, and she is at work on a card game based on The Folk of the Air. I chatted with the author about her long career, her thoughts on the booming genre and BookTok, and why hooves are sexy.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: It’s been nearly 22 years since the publication of your first book, Tithe, which was a young adult fantasy book. The genre is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. If you look at the bestseller list, a lot of them are fantasy romance books. How do you feel about this popular resurgence of faerie fantasy?

Holly Black: I tell this story a lot: Between when Tithe came out and when the first Spiderwick book came out—2002 to 2003—I went to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, which I had never been to before, and I didn’t know a lot of people who were working writers. I guess people had been told to network wherever, so there’s a long bathroom line, and the woman in front of me asked me, “What do you write?” I said, “Oh, young adult.” And she turned around to talk to somebody else. Young adult—nobody wanted to write it, it was an extremely tiny part of the children’s market, it really didn’t have the cachet. It was a time when picture books and middle grade were where you wanted to be.

There was a huge shift; I think it started with Barnes and Noble moving the YA section outside of the kids’ section so that you no longer had to go through that gateway, and for the first time it became discoverable by people who no longer considered themselves children. So you had teenagers much more willing to approach it, but also adults. Probably the first series that really blew up was Gossip Girlthat brought adults to the YA section but had teens really reading it, and just changed the genre. I just watched it blow up in this way where it became much bigger and attracted many more writers, having these huge hits.

. . . .

The majority of your work is YA. What draws you, as a writer, to that age range?

I sort of stumbled into it. I had written Tithe, and it has a 16-year-old as its protagonist because it is a story of someone who’s discovering that they’re a faerie changeling. A 30-year-old figuring out they’re a faerie changeling seemed late, or maybe like they’re not the sharpest knife in the drawer; it just seemed like the wrong time for self-discovery like that.

So you never set out to write YA specifically?

I just set out to write a fantasy novel. There were lots of fantasy novels with 16-year-old protagonists. I had a friend who was a children’s librarian, and she said, “I think you should consider YA,” and I thought, I don’t know, there’s lots of swearing in this book! There’s a lot of stuff in this book. She gave me Tamora Pierce and Garth Nix—some of the most beautifully built magic systems of any books that I’ve read, just super elegant. I went into this space at such a great time because it was growing and because, when people are coming into YA, they’re not used to reading extremely specific genres, so you can mash up things. You can try things. You can be more experimental because readers don’t realize you’re being experimental—they’re reading this stuff for the first time. So it was a really fun place to write in.

What does it feel like now to be surrounded by all these other faerie fantasy books and, consequently, readers who potentially read only fantasy, who are not coming into the genre for the first time?

As a person who writes and reads a lot of fantasy, it’s been extremely gratifying to see fantasy move into a mainstream place. There are a lot of people who’ve grown up watching Lord of the Rings at a young enough age that it’s become part of their vocabulary of how the fantasy world works. Game of Thrones too. I think, for a lot of people, that barrier to entry is much lower than it was when there wasn’t so much exposure to fantasy.

I think the rise of romantasy is certainly in part because people do have the vocabulary of fantasy. Romance is one of the biggest genres in the world, so of course people want to see, or are able to read, fantasy romances in a way that might not have been true before. Romantasy is really two different genres kind of mushed together, probably in the same way that urban fantasy was. You have two streams: the romance-forward fantasy, where it’s really a romance novel with fantasy, and then you have fantasy that has romance. They’re paced really differently, and they have different focuses, but they live in the same genre. Then you had urban fantasy that came out of fantasy, and often those were the faerie books; for a long time urban fantasy was faerie, in the late ’80s.

Link to the rest at Slate