Earlier today, Disability in Kidlit editor Natasha Razi reviewed Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows for its portrayal of PTSD. Natasha also sat down with Leigh to discuss magical heists, incorporating disability into fantasy, writing multiply diverse characters, and more.
Natasha Razi: Where did the idea for Six of Crows come from? What are some ways the story has changed since you first came up with it?
Leigh Bardugo: It’s usually tough for me to trace the genesis of an idea, but this one’s easy. I was driving down a street in Los Angeles, when I saw a billboard for a movie called Monuments Men starring George Clooney and Matt Damon. It didn’t make me want to see the movie (sorry, George), but it instantly brought to mind Oceans 11, and then I almost drove off the road because all I could think was MAGICAL HEIST.
It’s a lot harder for me to untangle how the story changed. The structure stayed largely the same, but the characters and relationships evolved in unexpected ways, and naturally, that impacted the narrative.
Natasha: On a personal note, I’m curious whether the characters were initially conceived as teenagers.
Leigh: Yes and no. I always knew they would be young, but I didn’t think too much about their specific ages when I was imagining the story. I know some people have found the idea of Kaz and crew as teenagers unlikely, but they’re really not teens in any kind of modern way. The idea of the teenager and the concept of adolescence are actually pretty new, and they don’t have much place in the world I’ve created. These kids have lived a lot and suffered a lot by the time we meet them, and in most cases, they’ve had no one to protect them. I mean, imagine Arya Stark at 17.
Natasha: How did you come up with the characters of Kaz and Jesper? At what point in the character-creating process did you determine their disabilities?
Leigh: Kaz was always Kaz. He appeared in black gloves, leaning on that cane, and I basically followed him into the story. This is going to sound ridiculous, but until I was deep into the draft, I didn’t give much though to the fact that his disability mirrored my own. And now I kind of wonder if writing him was my way of making peace with the pain I was in and the increasing fear I was experiencing around a degenerative condition. I think I wanted to write someone disabled and ferocious, because that’s how I wanted to feel. As for Jesper, I remember the first time I wrote in his POV—he was so daring, so grateful for the opportunity to throw himself into a fight, I really had to ask, where is this coming from? What does it mean for a character to love risk this much? I wanted to dig even more deeply into that in Crooked Kingdom.
Natasha: One of the most exciting things about Six of Crows for a lot of readers were the twists and turns of the heist. Can you talk a little about the process of planning and writing the heists, and anything challenging about that?
Leigh: I think the most important thing for me to say is that the heist happened in revision and there was absolutely no way around it. It was a puzzle where, if I moved one piece, everything else fell out of alignment. I think it’s also worth mentioning that I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I took on this book. I love heists, so I thought, hey, won’t it be fun to write one? But most of our expectations for heists come from television and film—visual mediums. I learned pretty quickly that the same tricks and feints do not work in a novel, and there were plenty of times I looked up from the manuscript and just said, “What the hell was I thinking?”
Natasha: How did Kaz’s limp influence the planning of the heist scenes, especially the more physically taxing scenes? Did you ever have to rethink a scene to account for the limp?
Leigh: It was a balance for me. Kaz is so deeply invested in not showing weakness, and he isn’t wrong to be. He lives in a world that doesn’t treat any kind of vulnerability kindly. But I always wanted the reader to be aware of the pain he was coping with—physical and psychological—and that he wasn’t always dealing with it in a smart way. So you see him break down physically over the travel to the Ice Court, and you also see what it costs him to hide that from the others. The way he fights, and particularly the way he and Inej work together in a fight, evolved around understanding his strengths as much as his weaknesses.
Natasha: Kaz’s PTSD includes touch-aversion, which is fairly rare and (to state the obvious) seriously influences his relationships. What made you decide to include that element, and how did it affect your writing of the character?
Leigh: Kaz began as a very external character. As I was writing the first draft of Six of Crows, I didn’t feel like I knew him yet. I only knew how he appeared to others and the illusion he’d crafted to protect himself. When Van Eck asks him, “Why the gloves, Mister Brekker?” I was asking that too. I wrote Kaz’s backstory after the scene in the prison cart, and I chose to set up a trauma that would isolate him in every way possible. It left me gutted, but once I understood Kaz’s story, it was important that I not minimize it. I didn’t want it to be a gimmick—you know, “poor baby with a tragic backstory.” Kaz is tough as hell, but there’s a deep shame associated with the one demon he can’t best. That shame is important. It’s a very real and damaging component of PTSD, and it’s also something most of us can identify with on some level.
Natasha: In addition to disabled characters, the story also includes queer characters and characters of color, and overlap between all of the above. As a reader who is bisexual, Indian, and disabled, I thought you did a great job, especially at Inej’s ethnicity (and I loved that you have a canonically bisexual character). How did you decide the backgrounds and identities of the characters, and did any of these change over the course of writing?
Leigh: Thank you. That means a lot. I didn’t set out to check off boxes in terms of race or sexuality, but my peer group isn’t all white cis het able-bodied people, so it would have been deeply weird for me to build Kaz’s crew that way. The Suli are mentioned in the Grisha Trilogy, and I really wanted to write about a group of people who had been in Ravka before it was even known as Ravka, who had maintained their own culture, and who had been forced to live at the fringes of that world, so Inej’s backstory came into focus very quickly because of that. Jesper’s background was a little different. Too often we fall into easy analogues when it comes to race and fantasy, and I have most definitely been guilty of this, so I didn’t want to present just one understanding of race in this world. Jesper is a sharpshooter and a farmboy and gambler, and he is also Zemeni and the Zemeni have dark brown skin. The Zemeni have a nation, the Suli do not, and Inej has experienced race in a very different way than Jesper.
Natasha: Were there any tropes you tried to avoid or were worried about while writing? What about tropes you deliberately used or subverted?
Leigh: I think in some ways Six of Crows was a reaction to the Grisha Trilogy and to a lot of fantasy narratives that focus on a chosen one. I love those stories, but I wanted to step away from that. No kings, no queens, no saviors. This is not a story about good versus evil. It’s about doing what it takes to survive and hopefully maintaining your humanity while you do it—and maybe finding the people who help you manage that. Also, I don’t know if you’d call this a trope, but occasionally, I’ll see someone say, “I keep picturing Kaz as an old man with his cane! Lol.” Or they’ll say, “Why doesn’t Kaz have Nina heal his leg?” and it gets me really riled. So I wrote that anger into Crooked Kingdom. I want people to understand exactly why Kaz has never chosen to be healed by magical means, and I want them to understand exactly how the way Kaz deals with his physical disability makes him stronger and more dangerous.
Natasha: Did you have beta readers who shared the disabilities, racial backgrounds, or sexual orientations of your characters? Was there anything you learned or changed based on their feedback?
Leigh: Yes. I think that’s sort of a necessity. And you have to say, “Don’t spare me. Don’t spare my ego. Sweat every detail.” The biggest changes came after I spoke to a woman who had direct experience with young women who were trafficked. This is something I touch on only briefly in Six of Crows, and that I talk about a bit more in Crooked Kingdom, and I really, desperately didn’t want to fuck it up.
Natasha: Of the issues that aren’t from your personal experience, how did you go about researching and writing about them to make sure your stories were authentic? What advice would you like to give to authors looking to write about issues and backgrounds that they don’t personally have?
Leigh: I’m not going to say anything groundbreaking here. If you’re writing beyond your experience, do your research, and try to talk to firsthand sources as much as possible. Don’t conflate an individual with a culture. Don’t look for someone to give you a free pass. I can tell you that I spent a lot of time on N.K. Jemisin’s blog and on Writing with Color, that I tried to learn from what I didn’t get right in my other books, but that only goes so far. It’s easy to fall into the trap of just reading representation written by white cis het authors, so you have to work against that. Read authors of color. Read queer authors. Follow them on Twitter. Pay attention. Recent reads I’ve loved are Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson (published a long while back, but now I’m glomming everything by her), Proxy by Alex London, More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera. I just picked up Promise of Shadows by Justina Ireland, Serpentine by Cindy Pon, and The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson.