Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon is Kelly Barnhill’s fourth fantasy novel, none of them a sequel, God bless her. The girl of the title is Luna, found — and enmagicked — as a baby by Xan, a wise woman centuries older than she looks. Reading the book in preparation for this interview I was struck by just how many balls it keeps in the air (see below) and I had to laugh as Kelly and I started talking, because she is exactly the same way.
Roger Sutton: Where did this story start?
Kelly Barnhill: With all of my books, I think about them for a long time before I begin writing. For this particular book, I knew a lot of stuff before I even put down a word. I spent time trying to inhabit the characters’ bodies in my imagination. I had a good sense of the texture of the language, how it would feel in the mouth to read it out loud, how it would feel in the ear to listen to it. I often will compose fiction while I go running. I’ll find a sentence that pleases me, and then I’ll move it around in my head until it feels right, and then start to add sentence after sentence, fitting them together.
RS: I also get ideas while I’m running. Sometimes, though, an idea seems really brilliant, but once you’re not running it doesn’t have quite the same pizzazz it had while endorphins were racing through your body. Do you find that?
KB: I used to write down all of what I’d thought of while I was running, because I can usually carry two to three pages of text in my head.
RS: Two pages in your head? That’s a lot of words.
KB: It keeps me from thinking my knee hurts or I’m hot and sweaty and when am I going to be done or why did I go on this longer route? But now what I do when I’m in the thinking process of my books is make a box. I’ll write the title or names of the characters as I think of them on the box and start putting things into it.
RS: This is an actual box, right?
KB: An actual box, yeah. Not like a metaphorical think-outside-of-the box. Well, maybe, but it starts with an actual box. I’m a very concrete person. If there’s one sentence that’s particularly memorable to me, or just feels good to say, I’ll write that down on a little scrap of paper and stick it in the box.
RS: I have to give you the award for the grisliest sentence of the year.
KB: Oh, which one?
RS: “That baby isn’t going to sacrifice itself, after all.”
KB: And that’s not even the grisliest thing I’ve ever written. My adult stories are much darker.
RS: Where did that sentence come from? Did it grow out of something else? Tell me.
KB: That one came later. The power structure of the town was one of my first entry points into the story. How power structures persist and maintain themselves, especially those that are unjust — these things are interesting to me. How we tell stories and who is telling the stories and how things are framed, what’s included and what’s left out. I think that idea was one of the first things I put in the box, actually. And the structure of magic in this world, that bit about gathering starlight in the fingertips.
RS: But this is before you have an actual plot?
KB: There’s no open document, no notebook, nothing. I do a lot of just thinking.
RS: I would imagine you have to have a good amount of faith in some of the things that occur to you. Like, will this mean something or not?
KB: For sure. And there are all kinds of things that don’t end up in the book at all.
RS: Where did you get the landscape for the world? Geographically, where does that come from?
KB: I will tell you this. I wasn’t going to write the book when I did. I was going to let it sit for another year. I had a different manuscript that was much more realistic, but I’d mentioned this one to my editor, Elise Howard, and she was like, “Write that now. I think we should follow The Witch’s Boy with another fantasy.” But I didn’t have the landscape in my head yet. Usually I do. I’m a nature-y girl, so there usually is a lot of the physicality of the landscape in my books. Then my husband and I — we had been married for fifteen years at that point, and we decided to finally go on our honeymoon. We got cheap tickets down to Costa Rica. We speak Spanish, so we could just take buses on our own and find cool oddball places to stay. And that’s when I started writing The Girl Who Drank the Moon. We had gone to Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park, which is not the most visited national park. It’s up in the northwest. It’s beautiful and unlike a lot of the national parks there that are very structured, very tame.
RS: Now you’re singing my song.
KB: Right. That’s what a lot of people like. But Ted and I were both park rangers. We worked at Olympic National Park where the ranger station was thirty miles in, from any direction. We’re hikers. But we couldn’t go up to the top of the cone in Rincón because the volcano was active, and it was producing all this poisonous gas. The landscape was so dynamic. We saw this place where a river just erupted out of the side of a mountain. I’d never seen anything like that, so it went into the book. The experience of being someplace where the earth is unstable under your feet — that’s where it began. A year later, when I was finishing the manuscript, we went backpacking in Glacier National Park, and then we drove down to Yellowstone — again, this incredible volcanic landscape. All of those experiences fed into the book’s landscape.
RS: Given my druthers, in my own recreational reading life, I don’t read fantasy. I read it as a kid, and I do read it for work, but it’s not my thing. And as I’m reading your book, I’m thinking, Oh my God, this is so complicated. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Is fantasy more complicated than it used to be, or am I just getting old?
KB: I think fantasy is as complicated as it’s ever been, but not everybody has read the right stuff. We’re living in a great age for fantasy, and I do think that fantasy as a genre is coming into its own. I’m reading V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic right now, and it’s remarkable. Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor is wonderful. There are some really beautiful, complicated, and nuanced fantasies for both children and adults being written right now. I don’t think it means that those types of books didn’t exist before, but I do think they existed for smaller audiences. There were always interesting, complicated, weird fantasies being written. Diana Wynne Jones…
RS: She’s complicated.
KB: Yeah, she’s really complicated. You see a different thing every time you read her books. I love that they are all being reprinted, finding new audiences. The Lives of Christopher Chant — I re-read that book all the time, and I always see something new.
RS: You talked a bit about the political dimension in this book, the way that the town is controlled and structured. If I think about Megan Whalen Turner’s books, The Thief, etc., those have that too. And that’s something I don’t remember from reading fantasy as a teenager forty-something years ago. I suppose you could argue there’s a huge political dimension to Tolkien, but the way the story works, it’s good and evil. We’re not so worried about evil governments; we’re worried about evil people.
KB: That’s true. And the same thing with C. S. Lewis, whom I read tons of as a kid. I mean, I love C. S. Lewis. I do. I think, like a lot of fantasy writers, I have conflicted feelings about C. S. Lewis. There isn’t a ton of nuance in his books. There’s good and evil, the end. I think that was how he saw the world, and I think that was also how Tolkien saw the world, quite frankly. Perhaps as a result of World War I and World War II — perhaps the world is just more complicated right now than it used to be.
RS: There is a lot going on in your book. I think of the young girl, Luna, as the main character, but would you disagree with that?
KB: That’s an interesting question, because that was the basis of a lot of conversations between my editor and me. She was probably so sick of me — all these crises of confidence I had along the way. When you have a story with a bunch of different threads, you can see all the threads separately before you begin, and you can untangle them and make them all fall into place afterwards in the editing process. That’s why editing and revision are magic. But when you’re in the middle of it, it can get overwhelming. And at one point I started to question if I was writing a children’s book at all. Often, particularly when I’m writing short stories, I have no idea if I’m writing for children or adults, if this is going to turn into a poem, or whatever. The process is very dynamic. I like things that are dynamic and have a lot of moving parts. In the end, I do think this is Luna’s story. But because her story is—
RS: Braided into these other stories that started taking place centuries before.
KB: That’s the thing. Each of us is our own story, but none of us is only our own story. The arc of my own personal story is inexplicably and intrinsically linked to the story of my parents and the story of my neighbor and the story of the kid that I met one time. All of us are linked in ways that we don’t always see.
We are never simply ourselves. That’s true of Luna, too. I do see this book as Luna’s story, but you can’t know Luna without Xan. And you can’t know Xan without Glerk. And you can’t know Glerk without Fyrian…It was hard keeping all of these different threads straight, because each character changes the gravity of the story. Each footstep is felt by everybody else, even if they don’t know it.
RS: Even with Sister Ignatia — we get a revelation at the end. It doesn’t change how we feel about her. She’s evil. She’s scary. But we understand her in a profound way, once we find out why she is the way she is.
KB: Yeah, totally. Sister Ignatia is so far away from her own story. As is Xan, actually. As are a lot of people.
RS: What do you mean by “far away from her own story”? That’s interesting.
KB: Xan keeps telling herself that sorrow is dangerous and memory is dangerous too, so there’s only right now, there’s only what’s in front of me. I think a lot of people live that way, and they do so at their peril. Sister Ignatia walled off her sorrow. And yet there it is, still impacting her life, even if she’s not thinking about it.
RS: Right, and Xan is saying, “I’m just not going to pay attention to that scary town over there.”
KB: Exactly. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. I’m just going to allow my own story to get lost in this fog. She’s making this fog out of fear of sorrow and just focusing on right now, but then, as a result, she doesn’t have the perspective that she needs.
RS: I had to laugh, in the showdown scene between Ignatia and Xan, where Ignatia makes a crack about Xan’s hair. Dynasty! It’s like Linda Evans and Joan Collins. Fur is going to fly.
KB: Oh my gosh, I haven’t thought about that show in years. That was like my entire teenagerhood, babysitting late at night, watching reruns. Who knows, that may be my Melania Trump moment — I accidentally stole that line from Dynasty.
RS: This book certainly has an ending.
RS: I know that shouldn’t be surprising, but so many fantasy books don’t have endings.
KB: Mine typically don’t. I like writing standalone fantasies, but all of my books so far except for this one have had kind of an open-ended ending. I do that on purpose. I expect a lot from my readers. I want them to do much of the work, because I believe that the story is built by the reader, not by the writer. I like having an open ending to a standalone fantasy, because it allows a continuing story to be written in the hearts of the readers.
RS: It keeps the reader invested in the story even after the story is over.
KB: Exactly. What happens next is the reader’s responsibility, and I like that. This book’s ending is much more definitive. You don’t totally know what Luna’s life is like once she’s older, but you have a sense of it. I get the question a lot, are you going to write a sequel? The answer’s always no.
RS: Good for you.