Claire Legrand Talks All Things Empirium
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
On April 7th, New York Times bestselling author, Claire Legrand, joined our bookseller, Ava, live on Instagram to celebrate the US paperback release of Kingsbane, the second installment in her Empirium Trilogy. Here's what she had to say about the series, new books, her writing process, and more!
Ava: Claire is the amazing New York Times bestselling author of so many books. Most notably at the moment, the Empirium trilogy. If you have not read it, I cannot recommend it enough.
Claire: It's the big red book. If you're ever in the bookstore, it's like 'where is the biggest, reddest book?'
A: You can't miss it. It's just stop, read me, right there. And we are all looking forward to the upcoming third book in the trilogy, Lightbringer, which is coming out October 13th. I don't know if anybody's really prepared. Are you prepared?
C: I'm not prepared, so I don't know how any of you could be. If you've read books one and two, you know that this is a very intense series. So we'll all be in this together. I can't wait for people to start reading it.
A: I know that I personally will be buying multiple copies because me tear stains sometimes mess with the pages. I have a feeling there may be tears shed?
C: Possibly. I shed tears as I was writing it. Not every book makes me tear up while I'm writing it. But this one did. It's gonna be ok though. It's not a completely bleak ending. There are moments of hope.
A: What are three words to describe the Empirium trilogy?
C: I think for that I would have to say... Angry Feminist Fantasy. This is an epic fantasy series for young adults about a centuries long war between humans and angels and the two young women who are fighting at the heart of this war, separated by a thousand years. Each of these girls - Rielle and Eliana - are trying to determine whether they are subjects of the prophecy that says 'Two queens will rise. One of blood. One of light. One with the power to save the world. One with the power to destroy it.' Their arrival will mean that the angels are coming back to take their revenge upon humanity. So as these girls are trying to figure out if they are, in fact, the subject of this prophecy and what to do with this power that's been given to them. They're trying to figure out as well, am I the good queen or am I the bad queen? What does good queen and bad queen even mean and who gets to decide that? They're trying to figure out how to navigate this world with everyone around them telling them how to use their power and what their voices should be like. It's Avatar: The Last Airbender meets His Dark Materials meets Game of Thrones, and a little bit of Star Wars too. My friend calls this trilogy the Anakin Skywalker origin story we all deserve. Not entirely accurate, but I love the villain origin story, the story of the supposed chosen one falling from grace.
A: And how did you approach writing a villainous arc as opposed to writing one of the 'good heroine?'
C: The idea of a story, especially a woman, who starts out as the hero, the chosen one, the good character, and that progression to something darker, more unlikeable, less friendly - that was always very interesting to me. I loved the Star Wars prequel trilogy mostly because I am so fascinated by the idea of Anakin's fall. That's something that's been very formative to me as a reader and watcher of stories. As far as charting out her arc, it's more about the girl, her power, her personality, and the natural evolution of her story. And how those dynamics differ because she's a woman. But I don't think of it as a villainous arc. It's her arc. It's Rielle's arc. It's neither heroic nor villainous. It's her story. I have really tried hard when working on this story to work in shades of grey. So no one is a complete hero, nor are they a complete villain, as is true in real life.
A: Which book was the most fun to write?
C: Out of this trilogy, I think it was probably Kingsbane, because there were things in that book that I'd been waiting years and years and years to write. To finally be able to sit down and execute those knowing that people were actually going to read them was incredibly thrilling. As far as all of my books total, the most fun I had was writing Sawkill Girls, my young adult horror novel from a couple years ago. It's a Stranger Things/Stephen King-esque girl gang vs. monster book. That was really fun to write because I got to share it with my friend. Every night I would send her a new chapter and she reacted and screamed and flailed and yelled at me for everything she should have. It was such a pure, exciting experience.
A: And what genre do you prefer to write in?
C: Anything fantastical. It doesn't have to be epic fantasy, but most of the time it has to have some sort of magical element. I'm also discovering that I really like weird horror stuff, because I've written two of them. Like weird, sapphic horror is my new thing that I really want to keep writing in for my whole life.
A: So you've written many books at this point, and have published 8 so far. But how did you stay positive while trying to get published for the first time?
C: I did not, a lot of the time. I came up with the idea for Furyborn in 2004, right after I graduated from high school. It took me a few years to write a draft I thought was worthy of taking to agents, but nobody wanted it. I sent queries out to upwards of 60 or 70 agents and got mostly rejections. So I had to put it aside and work on other things. And I was lucky to get other books published while I was working on this one. But it was really hard because I loved these books so much. I loved Rielle and Eliana and all of the characters, and it felt like some personal failing that I couldn't write their story well enough for people to want it. It was really painful in that way, but the love for those characters is what kept me going. It kept me insisting that yes, I'm going to write this someday, and I'm going to write it well, and I'm going to sell it. It was just one of those magical stories where I felt so invested in the characters from the very beginning and I believed in the story I wanted to tell that it kept me going amidst all the rejections, the horrible early drafts... I believed in these characters. And I think that's really important for all the people out there writing and trying to get published. You have to believe in your stories 100%. You have to love them. You have to be right there with the characters and invested in their story because otherwise it's just not worth it. It's such a hard industry. But don't give up. Just write the stories you feel really passionate about, that keep you going through all the hard stuff.
A: Do you have any tips for querying?
C: My first successful query is out there somewhere. Basically, keep it short and sweet. Don't go on about you as a person. Keep it 2-3 paragraphs max about your book, why you think an agent should want it, and what it is about that book that makes it different and special compared to the millions out there. And when it comes to going through the process, try to make sure that when you get to the point that you're querying a book, it's a book that you really 100% believe in, and something you're going to fight for. Something that, even when you're exhausted and discouraged by the number of rejections you're getting, or not getting, maybe it's just radio silence... Write something that you love so much that it doesn't matter because you believe in that book and you're going to get it published no matter what.
A: Which authors inspired you to fight for that published book, and become an author?
C: When I was a kid, I remember reading The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle In Time, The Phantom Tollbooth, and Matilda. I remember reading them over and over and over again and reading them so frequently that the covers would fall off. Those are the books and authors that really formed who I was as a very young reader. Then as I got older and came up with the idea for the Empirium trilogy and started getting back into reading, some of the authors that have really been inspiring to me are Philip Pullman, who wrote His Dark Materials, and Kristin Cashore, who wrote the Graceling Realm books. Those are two of my favorite series. I remember reading them and just being blown away, like 'people can do this in children's books?' Those authors really inspired me as I was trying to develop my professional author voice. There have been many more of course, but those are the two I keep coming back to and reading just a few pages of to feel re-inspired.
A: That's me going through my day and picking up Furyborn. Which, speaking of that inspiration and planning... How do you write all the twists and turns in your novels? How far ahead do you have to think to execute them?
C: I am a huge plotter. When it comes to the plotter vs pantser debate, I am a huge outliner. I make spreadsheets for all of my books and I break it down chapter by chapter. I very much know at the beginning of a project what the big twists are, the big plot points, the pivotal moments in a character's arc. I've been working on the Empirium trilogy since I was 18, so I've had the big, important moments sketched out for a long time. The books can still surprise me. Even with my spreadsheets, color-coded and very organized, the books still rebel and surprises happen. But the huge moments have been in place for years and years, and that's typical with my writing.
A: How did you come up with the titles of the books, and what does each one represent?
C: The original title of the series was awful - The Glow of Years. Don't know what that means. I think I was trying to be artistic and reference the spanning centuries/time travel element. The Glow of Years, because the years, the threads, they glow. Then the original title of Furyborn was 'With Scepter and Spear.' Obviously terrible titles. So when my agent and I were brainstorming titles, I decided that I wanted one word titles that were high impact, and I wanted them all to match. So we have something, with a 'b' word: FuryBorn, KingsBane, LightBringer. And then I also liked the idea of this family that was central to the plot each having a book that may not be named after them, but referring to them, and perhaps to other people as well, depending on your interpretation.
A: What have you learned about yourself as a writer in writing the Empirium books specifically?
C: What haven't I learned? These books have been a crash course in how to write. Furyborn is my sixth published book so it's not like I hadn't written before the draft that eventually got published. But these books were a whole other level of complexity. And they were so, and continue to be, so ambitious. They've taught me how to be more organized, to keep many many notes for a huge story in some sort of orderly fashion. They've taught me a lot about pacing. The first drafts have been tens of thousands of words longer than they end up being. So I've had to learn a lot about how to cut, how to make a story shorter, how to let go of things that don't need to be there. I think that more than anything else, teaching me about structure and pacing has been the biggest takeaway.
A: Would you consider now, or in the future, doing a spin-off series set in the Avitas/Empirium world?
C: I have many ideas for more stories, but it all depends on how the original series does. Fingers crossed.
A: So does Lightbringer refer to Audric, or Eliana, or both of them?
C: That is a great question. I don't think I can answer. But that is a very good question.
A: Let's segway to some more lighthearted questions. What are Audric, Ludivine, and Rielle's favorite desserts?
C: Audric is a chocolate cake man. If I remember correctly, he gives this to Rielle in the first chapter of Kingsbane. He loves a nice, rich, chocolate cake. He's a classic in that way. Rielle, though she eats cinnamon cakes in the books, in our time, I think she would eat whatever was there, homemade or storebought. She just wants all the sweets. Lu would be really discerning and eat all the beautiful, fancy desserts they make on The Great British Bake-Off. I could see her liking a pavlova or a Charlotte Russe. Something really finicky, like 'no one makes these. No one eats these.' But she would.
A: I would definitely eat dessert with Lu. That seems like a fabulous afternoon.
C: Her tea room or parlor would be so beautiful and appointed that you'd never feel fancy enough.
A: We'd have to break out the ballgowns for that one.
C: We would go in our sweats and she would be like 'oh honey, let me design you a dress. Where's my tailor?' It would be a perfect plan because then we could get Dresses by Lu as part of our teatime.
A: What would Rielle, Eliana, and Audric each binge on Netflix?
C: Sticking with our dessert theme, Audric would definitely binge The Great British Bake-Off. And he'd fit right in with all the contestants. I haven't watched The Tiger King but I saw the tagline was 'murder, mayhem, and madness' and thought Rielle would binge that, and delight in the chaos. The first thing that popped into my head for Eliana was Ozark. It's very dark. People make a lot of horrible, frustrating decisions. But it's about a family banding together and doing whatever they need to do to protect each other and stay alive. I feel like she'd be drawn to that.
A: Tiger King aside, if your characters could create playlists for themselves, what would their playlists be full of?
C: As I have established online a few different times, Audric is a Swiftie so his playlist would be mostly Taylor Swift songs. Right now, he's listening to a lot of "Death By a Thousand Cuts" and "Out of the Woods." I feel like he has an appreciation for really fun pop, the kind of music you can dance to while you're cleaning house. I think Rielle would have a lot of Florence + the Machine. A lot of those songs feel very Rielle to me, like "Drumming Song" and "Seven Devils." She would have ethereal, symphonic, female-centric bands on her playlist. I feel like Eliana would be very private about her music choices - a lot of singer-songwriter indie stuff that would be very personal and that she wouldn't share with anyone because 1) she doesn't want anyone discovering the indie artists she loves and 2) she doesn't want people judging her for her music choices so keeps them close to the chest. And then Simon probably likes stuff I wouldn't like. What's the genre of music where people are screaming a lot? Metal. It's great, but it's not for me. I just feel like he would really like discordant, high-energy stuff. Or maybe he wouldn't like music at all. He's a mystery. But he would have incredibly organized workout spreadsheets with accompanying playlists.
A: I know we already talked a bit about Lu, but what would your characters be doing for occupations in today's world?
C: Simon would probably work in the armed forces, as a navy seal, or maybe as an operator for some top secret, deep cover organization we know nothing about. I cannot imagine what Rielle would do. I can't imagine her holding down a job. Maybe she'd be an artist, that way she wouldn't have to report to anyone and could set her own schedule. Remy, of course, would be a baker. Lu, as we discussed, would be a designer. Audric would be some kind of college professor, in some obscure degree that isn't entirely practically useful, but very niche. He would be the world expert in that. I really don't know what Eliana would do. She's always been a character to me that is very guarded and hard to get to know. Now I think I love her most of all, but there are still things about her I'm still discovering, even though the books are done. What do you think?
A: Going back to the first book, I can't stop imagining her as a gardener, wearing a straw hat, tending to her tomatoes.
C: I love this. Some kind of gardener or something outside where she could do her own thing, be on her own, and not talk to many people. Kind of reminds me of Ron Swanson in Parks & Rec when he ends up as a park ranger and he's out in the wild not talking to anyone.
A: What would Corien be doing? Would he be in jail?
C: It's quite possible. I could also see him delighting in being like a Paul Hollywood, Simon Cowell, mean snarky judge on some sort of TV show. I could see him really delighting in tearing people to shreds, but with a well-placed turn of phrase. He would love the glamour and the spotlight, and he would also really love destroying people's dreams.
A: Now that we've talked a bit about the characters, which do you most identify with?
C: That would definitely be Eliana. Eliana or Audric. Eliana's emotional landscape is very complex and interesting and I feel like I have a really complex, not always in a good way, internal emotional landscape. I feel like I get a lot of her thinking, what she's trying to do, and I understand a lot of the mistakes that she makes. As far as Audric, I really think that I am a Hufflepuff - as I get older I become huffier? and puffier? Audric is very Hufflepuff. We both like to obey the rules and do our part and not stay up too late. We don't like to make people angry. I feel very similar to him and his more studious, nerdier tendencies.
A: If you were to switch bodies with any of your characters for a day, who would it be?
C: None of them. I guess, Ludivine. She has the best wardrobe. She's sort of in a position of knowledge and influence that I find really interesting. She, out of all of them, is also in the least amount of bodily harm so far. I would not last a second in the trials. I would not last a second as the Dread of Orline. I would not last a second as the Wolf. And I don't want to be in charge of a country and make decisions. So I want to be the one in the background, wearing fabulous dresses and advising people.
A: Who are some of your favorite angry, or unlikeable, female characters?
C: The character I always think of is Lyra, from His Dark Materials, because she's fiery and uncouth. She's a fibber. She's rash, and she's very demonstrative with her emotions, which is not something (the collective) we always allow our female characters. And I loved Amy March before Florence Pugh made her even more awesome. I've always loved her. People give her such a hard time, but I've always thought she was so interesting. Yes, sometimes selfish. Yes sometimes, bratty, but isn't everyone? I love that she's ambitious and she knows what she wants, and I also related to her artistic frustrations - wanting to be really really good and not quite getting there is something all artists can relate to. And then there's Briony from Atonement. She's a very unlikeable character, very in her own head, very selfish, very bratty in the way that little sisters can be. But I've always found her so interesting. I'm just very drawn to these characters that are prickly and you don't always like them, but you're always interested in them.
A: Which musician inspires you the most when writing?
C: I listen to a lot of film scores when I am brainstorming and writing. So really the musicians who inspire me are film composers, but not exclusively. Agnes Obel is a very ethereal, very interestingly orchestrated songwriter from Scandinavia. She is a recent discovery of mine. I love the mood of her music, very much like the mood I try to create in my stories. As far as film composers go, I love Hans Zimmer. Lorne Balfe, who contributed to the score for The Crown season two. Pinar Toprak who wrote the score for Captain Marvel. And Hildur Guðnadóttir wrote the score for Chernobyl and Joker. She has this really discordant, cello-heavy, disturbing sound, and I love it.
A: I imagine you watch a lot of these movies. Is there anyone who you think would be a good director for the trilogy if it was made into one?
C: Whether it were made into movies, or adapted into a TV show, I would want a lot of women involved. I would want a woman's sensibility informing each frame of the story. The first big female director name that pops into my head is Patty Jenkins (who directs the Wonder Woman movies). I'm sure there are many wonderful female directors out there that I'm, sadly, not familiar with. I'm also obsessed with the work that Margaret Sixel does, who edited Mad Max: Fury Road. I love the way she put together this very female-centric action movie. It felt like a woman's action movie in ways I hadn't seen before. I would love if someone like her was involved in the editing process. And I've already mentioned some composers I like. So I just want to get a whole amazing girl gang of all kinds of women involved in making these into movies, that would be awesome. First somebody actually has to want to make them into movies, but fingers crossed.
A: We are speaking to the Empirium, and hopefully it replies.
A: Well after that chapter, I can't wait for Lightbringer. That was sooo good. We're suffering, but we're happy about it, because it's so good.
C: That's why we read, though right? We read, and these books that we love, tear our hearts out, and we're like, 'Yes, again. Please.' That's what we do as readers, and what we do as authors. We're just suckers for it.
A: And the beautiful thing is that we can do it over and over again.
Want more Claire? View the full Q&A (plus a special reading from Lightbringer - Ava cried) on our IGTV. Then, check out her incredible list of books on Bookshop.org and pre-order Lightbringer (out October 13, 2020)!