Sally Green started writing in 2010, releasing the YA modern fantasy book Half Bad in 2014. That story would go on to be optioned for a film, translated into more than 50 languages and form the basis of three other books. Now the British author has kicked off a new fantasy trilogy with The Smoke Thieves, which follows the interweaving stories of five teens. We talked to Green about the joys of world building and the challenges of writing so many characters.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: What made you decide to switch genres from modern fantasy to historical fantasy?
Sally Green: I think it happened because I started off with an idea, which was a father-son demon hunting team. I tried to write it, and it just didn’t work. I couldn’t get excited about it. I realized that I wasn’t that interested in demon hunting and I’d just done a father and son in Half Bad. I wanted to do something else. I thought, “well what am I interested in?” and I realized I really wanted to do what I call a strong female character, which a lot of people talk about and I think, “they’re not that strong.” I played around with that and I still liked this demon-hunting duo so I changed the son to Tash, who’s a 13-year-old girl and made her very feisty, and I changed the father to her partner. But I still wanted this woman who’s going to be the ruler, who’s going to be ambitious. I wanted somebody who wasn’t sort of forced into taking power; she’s actually going to say, “Guys, step back because I can do this a lot better than you can.” I don’t know how these things evolve really, but I came up with this idea of Princess Catherine. She’s privileged, she’s a princess, but she’s also a second-class citizen. She has no real rights. She’s just an object to be used by her father, but she’s also educated and quite obviously intelligent and has that arrogance that you get from position. I began to really like her and develop the story. I was influenced by Elizabeth I. I was reading about her and medieval queens and then I later read a little more about Catherine the Great, who was a big influence on my thinking of the character. I sort of fell into it. The one thing I really did want to do was develop my own world, because then I am queen of the world and I can do what I want to do there because I’m making it up. It gives a huge amount of freedom to play around and make things how you want things to be.
PRH: Did you have specific inspirations for Pitoria, Brigant and the other nations in The Smoke Thieves?
SG: I like to stick to places I know. It is very much European-style counties. There are certain elements of Britain and we move more towards Southern Europe. I’m comfortable with that. The big challenge for me was developing the demon territory, this sort of mysterious underworld, and that’s a lot of fun. I’m really pushing myself to think of how it can be completely different.
PRH: How do you develop different voices and perspectives for five different narrating characters?
SG: It is really hard. I thought, “This will be fun. I love writing character points of view. I love coming up with their stories.” The challenge was getting it to work in a story where there’s balance between each one, they feed into each other, and they all end up at the same place at the same time. It was like the most awful 3D puzzle. But I seem to have gotten myself into this mess so I have to keep going now.
PRH: What are the challenges of writing an intrigue story?
SG: I don’t plan. I wasn’t quite sure where this story was going to go. It was only when I was about a third of the way through that I thought, “This is sort of a detective novel.” That was a help for me. I know the clues and you have to sort of give bits away. I, as the writer, think it’s all so obvious, but other people say, “I didn’t pick this up at all.”
PRH: What interested you about demon hunting as a subject?
SG: I wanted to do something fantasy. I’d done witches before and I wanted to do something I thought other writers hadn’t touched too much. I’m almost finished with the first draft of the second book now and I’m having to develop my ideas of what demons are much more thoroughly. They’re definitely my version of demons. Some people might not even think of them as demons. I’m developing a whole story around them, which is really fun. I just wanted some creatures that were fierce and terrifying and were really strong and something so different that these people really couldn’t understand them.
PRH: Your first series was very successful. Did you feel a lot of pressure with this one?
SG: I was so naive about the publishing world when I started Half Bad. Now I do know how it works and it’s become much more intimidating in that I know how difficult it is to get going. I still had to pitch the book. I still had to sell it. You’re not exactly starting back from square one, but you’ve still got to come up with a good idea that people will be happy with. It is nerve wracking. I suppose the thing I’m nervous about is that I’ve got fans who love Half Bad and I really want them to like this and it is quite different.
PRH: Any updates on the film adaptation of Half Bad?
SG: It’s now with The Imaginarium, which is a British film company, Andy Serkis’ company, and they are working on a script. The film world is even slower than the publishing world.
PRH: What do you like about romances?
SG: Funny enough I was writing a sex scene this morning. What a great way to start your Monday morning. The things I enjoy reading about are love stories. I quite like the challenge of writing a sensual, loving scene. It really is a nice thing to do especially when I do so much violence and bad stuff.