Five questions for Megan Whalen Turner

Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief (with that never-to-be-bettered twist at the end!) was published in 1996. Now, after six books set in that unforgettably detailed world, full of political machinations, double crosses, dubious motivations, and familial obligations, the series comes to a close with Return of the Thief (Greenwillow, 12 years and up).

1. You’ve spent almost twenty-five years in the universe of Attolia. What will you miss most about writing about it?

Megan Whalen Turner: This has been such a bewildering year, I’m not sure of my own feelings anymore, but I think the answer is…nothing? I know that other authors have gotten to the end of their long-running series and felt a sense of loss, but I don’t. Very much to the contrary. I feel like I hooked a whale twenty-five years ago, and after playing the line for so long, I’ve finally landed it — maybe because, for me, finishing this book doesn’t mean shutting the door on the whole world. There’s room left for more storytelling — if I ever want to go back and write about Sophos’s sisters and their mother, or to follow up any number of loose threads left to the imagination. It’s this one narrative arc that has finally reached its conclusion, and that’s just immensely satisfying.

[Photo by Jeannette Palsa.]

2. In each book you get more from each character. No one is just one thing — hero and villain are ever-shifting concepts. Does your view of them change as well?

MWT: I think my sense of them deepened over time. Every new thing I wrote required a little more back story or a little more nuance. As I grew to know them better and better, I liked my characters more and more, even my villainous ones. Also, I was growing older and, I hope, wiser. In retrospect, when I was writing The Thief I was not as sympathetic to Irene as I maybe should have been. It was Eddis who I approved of, Eddis who was the paragon. It took me some time to appreciate the sacrifices Irene must have made and to understand her motivations better.

3. Your scenes are so cinematic, from battle sequences to interpersonal connections — do you see them play out in your head, either before, during, or after the writing?

MWT: I do, except it’s a sort of futuristic three-dimensional sensorama kind of movie. I can fast forward it, or go in slow motion, reach inside the picture to see what things feel like, hear things, smell things, nice and awful things. Best of all, I can change the camera angles at will and see everything from a different viewpoint, even freeze the image so that I can study just what’s in the frame and what gets cropped out. It’s tremendously fun, and nothing at all like the hard work of writing everything down.

4. Now that you’ve written the last book, is there anything you would change about the first book?

MWT: When I sat down to write The Thief, I’d written short stories, but never anything longer. I was so sure that in ten years I would look back at my first effort and wince, that as I sorted through my ideas to choose which one to work on, I deliberately set aside my favorite. Twenty-five years later, I’m much happier with the book than I have any right to be — and I much better appreciate the fine guiding hand of my editor (now my editor emerita), Susan Hirschman.

That said, I thought it was going to be a standalone! The world and the characters were already too big to fit in a single book, so I trimmed away everything that didn’t absolutely have to be on the page to tell that first story. I didn’t know Barbara Barstow at the Cuyahoga County Public Library was going to tempt me into writing a sequel — or that the one sequel would turn into a twenty-year-long odyssey. If I’d have known, I never would have cut out those extra details — every single one of which turned out to be so important that I had to find a way to work it in later.

5. What can we look forward to next?

MWT: You can look forward to me not telling you that! I am temporarily wallowing in an absence of expectations and enjoying it very much.

From the January 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

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