After winning near-universal acclaim for Uprooted and Spinning Silver, two romantic, fairy-tale inspired fantasies, Naomi Novik is turning to the dark side. Her Scholomance series, which begins with A Deadly Education, takes place in a supernatural death trap of a school and follows El, a young woman who seems destined to become an evil sorceress. But if you know Novik, you know it’s all going to be a lot more complicated than that.
I’m so excited to get to talk to you about A Deadly Education! What can readers coming in fresh to your work as well as those who are longtime fans expect for the first installment of this new series?
I think that one consistent element is that my work is always in conversation. In this case, there’s an old folk legend of the Scholomance, a hidden school of dark magic where wizards spent years studying in the dark, without teachers, and when they left, the last graduate’s soul was taken in payment for their education. I read about this legend back when I was about 10 years old, and it’s stuck in my head ever since, and in this book I’ve worked it together with the magical boarding school trope that we all know and love from Harry Potter and A Wizard of Earthsea and the Worst Witch books and so many others.
Like Uprooted and Spinning Silver, there’s also a first-person female narrator. El, the main character of A Deadly Education, is very different from Agnieszka or Miryem; she comes into the story already knowing a lot about magic and the magical world. Also, she’s fundamentally a modern girl who has grown up in our recognizable world despite having magic herself, as opposed to being in a more historical era.
But like Agnieszka and Miryem, she’s also going through the coming-of-age process and grappling with her own power and working out who she is and who she wants to become. She’s also trying to find community and connection.
How does it feel to return to writing a series, rather than standalone fantasy?
I did my best not to return to writing a series! I wanted the story of the Scholomance to be in separate books, because the rhythm of the school year is important to the magic school story. I wanted the power of that rhythm in the narrative—punctuating the end of one year, crossing from one year to another. But I wrote most of the trilogy before I paused to get book one actually ready for publication.
"When you start from a place where your reader has expectations . . . what that gives you as a writer is a way to tap into your reader’s brain."
Your previous books are nestled into these wonderful subgenre niches—alternate history (with dragons!), romantic fantasy and now dark magical schools. Do you feel like you approached them all differently or are the bones of creation largely the same? What appeals to you about setting a story and writing in the dark academia world of the Scholomance?
When you start from a place where your reader has expectations, where your reader knows something—whether that’s because they’ve heard the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, or they’ve read a biography of Napoleon, or seen a Harry Potter movie—what that gives you as a writer is a way to tap into your reader’s brain.
What you get from working with source material that’s already in your reader’s head is the combination of the pleasure of a new story, and the pleasure of recognition in a story they’ve seen before. “I know that trope! I’ve seen this before!” And you also get the pleasure of the unexpected. Letting your reader have expectations gives you a more interesting way to move around your reader and with them.
The truth is no story stands on its own. Some stories may be more self-conscious than others about letting you see where they’re coming from, but I'm not, because I’m not worried about it. If I didn’t have something new to say about magical schools, then I wouldn’t be interested enough to write it myself. So I’m not shy about using tropes or other stories as inspiration, or history or any other inspiration.
Your previous books—Uprooted and Spinning Silver—are a bit lighter and more hopeful in terms of magical systems, settings and tone. I had the opposite reaction when reading A Deadly Education. It’s so tense and mysterious! How did you feel about that shift? Is a story with much darker magic elements something you’ve always wanted to do? If so, is this how you always imagined writing it, or did you have a much different idea in mind at the start?
The legend of the Scholomance paints a truly horrible place. The idea that you would spend years locked up in the dark, with answers to your lessons appearing in letters of flame, with no teachers, no contact with the outside world. It’s a horrible idea! Who would do that? What would drive somebody to go into the Scholomance? That question was one part of the root of the idea.
The other part of it was taking the glaring flaws in school safety at Hogwarts a little too seriously. If you look at Hogwarts from the objective standpoint of a parent considering whether this institution is really a good place to send your young child—you might have some questions about the choices that the administration is making. Does the school really need to have a locked chamber with a basilisk in it? Do the staircases really need to fly around to different locations?
The Scholomance series is basically taking that a step further, and acknowledging, “Yes, this school of magic is absolutely horrible. The school is, in fact, deadly.” So you have this terrible school—What makes people go there? What makes them send their children there? How do they survive it? Who comes out of it, and how do they come out of it?
El is biracial—Indian and Welsh—and I’d love to know what sort of research or sensitivity reading you did while writing about her identity and lived experience.
My specific research for any novel is guided by the work itself as it goes. I don’t decide a character's backstory in my head and then dole it out; I find things out about my characters as I write them down. And when I do write a line where a character tells me and the reader something about herself, that's where my research begins, making sure that what I'm saying works and makes sense and is true.
But I don’t mean just fact-checking—it’s not the single line; you have to chase the single line you’ve written and follow where it leads you. Once I spent a week researching whether there were sidewalks in Edinburgh in 1806. It didn’t actually matter, I could have just tweaked the line and avoided the question far more easily, but in chasing that question I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know I needed to know. So I do that and I find and pack the information away in my head, and then it is there and ready to come out when it’s relevant.
For one example with A Deadly Education, early on I wrote a line where El was irritated about having been taught Marathi instead of the more practical Hindi. That’s the moment when I learned her dad was from India and specifically the Mumbai area. And it was clearly right when it came, because the Scholomance was taking shape in my mind by then as a British Empire construct, this sort of Titanic-scale industrial project, and therefore intuitively connected to the massive exploitation of India. At that point I needed to do a chunk of reading and research to understand what that line told me about him and about her.
And then in turn, one of the things I found while doing that research was a terrific online course by HarvardX about Hinduism Through Its Scriptures (I highly recommend, it’s free to audit), and what I learned there informed the backstory of the Golden Stone sutras later on in the book.
I did also ask my publishers to get me a sensitivity reader on this book as well, someone who wouldn't feel inhibited about giving honest feedback because they could stay anonymous and weren't working for me. I found the feedback they got for me really useful. I do think a good general rule for any author is that when you want honest feedback on a topic where people routinely react defensively, you have to go out of your way to make it really safe for someone to give you that feedback.
And you also just have to listen to the feedback that is out there in the world already. It’s there to be read and heard and taken in.
El’s also a bit prickly, which I personally loved. Were there any moments in writing her that surprised you, where a scene took a completely different turn than what you had planned simply by way of staying true to her personality?
El didn’t surprise me quite so much because I felt very clearly from the beginning that she wasn’t being completely honest with herself—that mentally she was working really hard to survive the experience and as part of that to convince herself that it was both survivable and worth surviving.
The prickliness, the dark humor, the sarcasm—that’s how El is surviving, and also how the reader survives, because I don’t actually want to give the reader the direct visceral experience of being in the Scholomance. The Scholomance is not a nice place! But I do want to pull back the curtain every so often; those scenes are the true moments. When those scenes happen, that’s what’s real. They tell you something true about the place and about El.
The side characters surprised me more often, because going in, I didn’t know who all of them were and which ones would be important. Several of them became important over the course of the book. Yi Liu in particular was an interesting surprise for me but I don’t want to spoil why.
I always let the characters lead me. So I don’t have a preconceived plan for any scene. I start to be able to see what’s going to happen a certain distance ahead, but that’s only because I know that’s where the characters are going.
There’s a hefty cliffhanger at the end of A Deadly Education and I certainly don’t want to give anything away. But when can we expect to pick back up in the Scholomance and do you have an expected number of books in the series? I’m already clamoring for the next one!
It’s a trilogy. It was supposed to be a duology, and then the first book ended where it ended—unexpectedly—and I realized I had to write three books instead of two. Book three is already under way; book two is basically done.
I feel I should share, in the interest of giving fair disclosure: When I sent book two (The Last Graduate) to my editor, she replied with a subject line of all AAAAAAAAAs that was longer than the width of my (very) large screen. And that’s generally been the reaction of most readers at the end of book two. I’m sorry! I don’t actually mean to torture people!
But that’s where the books needed to end. As a writer, sometimes you write a scene, and there’s the end. It’s done! When that happens, you have to accept it. You can’t fight an ending. When your brain gives you an ending, you have to nurture it and pet it. Like a small, fluffy mouse.
If you weren’t writing fantasy, which other genres would you like to try? Something similar or completely new?
Fiction is a subset of fantasy, as opposed to the other way around. Fantasy is fiction where, as the author, you use your power over the stage your characters are on, the stakes of their situation. I would never give that power up just to be able to say I wasn’t writing fantasy.
I know people think fantasy means there’s got to be elves, magic, dragons, wizards, something, but those are just fantasy genre tropes that people recognize and so when you use them, it gives you those expectations to play with. I do love all those tropes, and I use them freely, but to me the real value of fantasy is that my world and my characters grow together.
I will always try new things, though. A Deadly Education is very different from Uprooted and Spinning Silver, which are in turn quite different from Temeraire. My short stories have been wildly all over the map, and I’ve written hundreds of fan fiction stories that are as well.
My mantra is just that I write what I can write, when I can write it.
Lastly, I always like to ask authors what they’re reading and loving now. What books have really captured your attention lately or are books you're looking forward to?
Lately I can read three pages at a time before I get interrupted, and then another six pages two days later before I get interrupted again. But I am currently reading Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi and really enjoying it even though I’m crawling through it like a small snail. It’s very good and every time I come back it’s still in my head despite the interruptions, so I continue to crawl.
I also recently had the opportunity to read The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab in advance, and it’s really lovely! Faustian bargain stories are often bleak, ticking time bombs of impending doom; without giving away too much, she’s turned it into something very charming, and I think readers will be quite surprised.
Author photo © Beth Gwinn.