July 06, 2017

Kiersten White

Power, passion, blood: Reimagining a teen Dracula

Kiersten White kicked off her And I Darken series with her eponymous 2016 novel, and now she's back with the second installment, Now I Rise. We asked White a few questions about her inspiration for the series, the importance of antiheroines and more.

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Kiersten White kicked off her And I Darken series with her eponymous 2016 novel, and now she’s back with the second installment, Now I Rise. Drawing from the real-life story of Vlad the Impaler, White’s alternative history follows Lada—a headstrong, bloodthirsty teen—on her quest to rule Wallachia as its rightful prince (since a princess has little power). Perfect for fans of “Game of Thrones,” White’s reimagining of the infamous Transylvanian ruler shows a tough and sometimes tyrannical young woman who must fight for gender equality, power, love and loyalty during the 1400s.

We asked White a few questions about her inspiration for the series, the importance of antiheroines and more.

What inspired you to take on the quite brutal history of Vlad the Impaler as the focus for your series?
Whenever I embark on a new story, I start with a central question. Sometimes it’s as simple as, “Can I write a paranormal romance series that is also funny?” And sometimes it’s as complicated as, “How do normal people get to the point where they can justify atrocities in the pursuit of their goals?” Because history is cyclical and we do the same things over and over, examining the life of brutal and brilliant Vlad the Impaler through a different lens felt quite timely.

Many people have asked you if it was challenging to swap Vlad’s gender and create the female Lada, but it seems like it would almost be more freeing! Did you feel like it was easier to connect with Lada than the historical Vlad?
It definitely gave me more fictional freedom. Because this isn’t straight historical fiction—it’s alternate history—I was able to fudge timelines and change events to better suit a narrative. History is sprawling and incredibly complex. It’s fascinating to study but not so easy to condense into novels, even when they’re 500 pages long, ha! Also, when I was considering how Vlad Dracula was ruthlessly brutal and refused to ever give an inch, even when it would have made more sense to do so, it just felt . . . right for him to be a girl. A girl trying to rule would have to work harder, be smarter, be the absolute most brutal and never, ever back down, because the day she did would be the day she died.

Your first novel in this series, And I Darken, was widely praised for Lada’s incredible strength, ferocity and even her ruthlessness. Was it important for you to create an antiheroine in the current YA fantasy landscape?
I never really thought of her in relation to other books being published right now. The best thing writers can do is just tell the story they’re desperate to tell, and tell it as well as they can. I love all the ways female characters can be strong. I happened to need a story where the antiheroine is strong in traditionally masculine ways, but there’s tremendous power in feminine strength as well. I’m just grateful people have responded to her as they have!

Although this is historical fiction, Lada, Mehmed and Radu must deal with some of the same issues today’s teens face. What lessons do you wish you could have learned from them back when you were a teen?
I do wish I could have seen positive portrayals of LGBTQIA+ characters in genre fiction (or any fiction, really) when I was a teen. I also wish I could have taken some cues from Lada earlier on in my life: to be myself on my own terms, and not let society dictate how I felt I should look and behave and even think.

What were some of the challenges that came with writing feminist and queer characters in a story set during a very oppressive time period?
I didn’t have access to the same vocabulary and social awareness that we have now. So I couldn’t have Radu have an “Oh, I’m gay!” moment. There was no one he could turn to to discuss it and try to figure out what it meant in his life. So exploring that self-discovery and those realizations without a modern context was definitely something I worked at very hard, to make it as authentic as possible both to the characters and also to the restrictions of the time. But it was not so much a challenge as a personal determination to bring these characters—queer characters and powerful women who carved out spaces of safety and control for themselves—to the forefront. I took a lot of inspiration from other histories and filled in where I had to.

Have you been surprised by how fervently teen readers have embraced a historical fiction series set in the Ottoman empire and Wallachia during the 1400s?
Yes. Like, that’s my whole answer. Yes! I really thought I was going to have to fight for this book—fight to get a publisher, fight to find an audience. Gender swapping a relatively obscure 15th-century Romanian prince doesn’t really scream bestseller!  I continue to be amazed and delighted at both the support of my publisher, Delacorte at Penguin Random House, and how much readers have embraced the series.

Are there any other historical figures that you’d love to write a series about?
I frequently run across amazing women in history and think, maybe I should—and then I remember the thousands and thousands of pages of research I had to do and think, maybe I should nap instead.

Can you tell us anything about the last book in the trilogy? We’re so excited!
It will come out next year. It was a surprising book for me—both because it was emotionally difficult to face some of the real-life historical events I had to write, and because I ended up changing the ending I had planned from day one! That has never happened to me before. What can I say—Lada is impossible to argue with!


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Now I Rise.

Get the Book

Now I Rise

Now I Rise

By Kiersten White
ISBN 9780553522358

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