Interview with Cassandra ClarePosted by Malinda Lo on Dec 5, 2011 in Blog, Featured, Interviews, Young Adult | 5 comments
Cassandra Clare is the author of the bestselling Mortal Instruments trilogy, beginning with City of Bones, which introduced the half-angel Shadowhunters who keep the ordinary world safe from demons. Clare’s latest book, Clockwork Prince, is the second in a prequel trilogy, The Infernal Devices, set in Victorian London.
The first installment of this prequel trilogy, Clockwork Angel, brought us a new heroine, Tessa Gray, who learned that her brother was embroiled in some shadowy dealings that turned out to involve clockwork creatures and, of course, Shadowhunters. In this sequel, Tessa continues to unravel the mysteries of the Shadowhunter world, as well as deal with her feelings for two boys: the sarcastic but sexy Will, and the kind but sickly Jem — who is also half-Chinese.
I asked Cassie about her inspiration for Jem, the challenges of representing an Asian love interest on the book’s cover, and her secrets for creating sexy YA love interests.
Malinda Lo: What was your inspiration for Jem?
Cassandra Clare: I think, as with so many things when you’re writing, Jem is a mash-up of ideas and archetypes that fascinate me. I knew from the get-go I didn’t want the whole cast of TID to be white, despite its setting. I’d been to an exhibition at the Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam showing paintings of Eurasian families — white men, Dutch and British, with their Indian, Indonesian, and Chinese wives, and their biriacial children. I became fascinated with the lives of those children, who really were caught between two worlds. I also knew I wanted to write about two boys, one physically broken but emotionally strong and the other emotionally broken but physically strong, and they became Will and Jem, Will being the latter and Jem the former.
I’ve also always been fascinated with the Keatsian figure of the beautiful, dying poet — coughing up blood into white lace handkerchiefs, the whole nine yards. In the nineteenth century, “consumption” was thought to make you more beautiful and creative even as it killed you — it would make your eyes bright from fever, flush your cheeks, and make you slender. It probably didn’t actually make anyone more creative but Keats was a very romanticized figure. But I didn’t want Jem to have TB — too mundane!
I also have a fascination with the Opium Wars and the fact that at one point, the British Empire was the biggest drug dealer in the world. So I decided that what Jem had was an addiction, rather than a disease, and that his forced addiction would parallel the history of opium in China and the fractured relationship of Britain and China. As for the violin playing, that was a nod to my favorite literary drug addict, Sherlock Holmes.
ML: What were the challenges, if any, in writing a half-Chinese character set in the 19th century?
CC: Well, you’re always worried you’re going to screw it up. And I’m sure I have in a myriad of ways! But I tried.
I knew sitting down to write Infernal Devices that there was going to be an enormous amount of research. I entered into this crazy project where for six months I didn’t read any books that weren’t either written during or set in the Victorian era, or somehow dealt with that period. I read whole slang dictionaries cover to cover, cookbooks, bought rare maps and prints.
The thing is that while there’s an enormous amount out there about Victorian London, it’s harder to track down sources about China at that time period, specifically Shanghai. Stella Dong’s Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City was helpful as was Maurice Collis’ Foreign Mud. I also dug up as much as I could in the way of contemporary resources and first-person accounts: The Shanghai Almanac and Miscellany published in 1856, by the North China Herald, gives exhaustive information for anyone living in Shanghai — including a list of all foreign residents in Shanghai, so if you wanted to know, for instance, who the silk inspector for Blenkin, Rawson and Co. in 1855 was it would tell you it was Edward Clarke and how to find him.
I also unearthed maps and sketches (a lot of them resembling this one and from about the same period) of Shanghai from The Map House in London, which is on Beauchamp Street and has everything. But it was a lot of work, and probably of what I learned, I only used about 10%, to fill in Jem’s background. But I felt like I needed to know it, so I could know him better.
ML: I don’t remember the last time I saw an Asian male on the cover of a YA novel — until Clockwork Prince. Can you tell us a little about the cover design process for Clockwork Prince?
CC: I believe that the cover of Betrayals by Lili St. Crow features three characters, one of whom is an Asian boy. That’s all I can think of but I’m not a cover expert; still, you hardly have to be one to see the lack of Asian male representation on YA covers.
As for the cover design process for Clockwork Prince — I knew it was going to be Jem on the cover. And while I had little input into my covers when I first started out, this is my sixth book with Simon and Schuster, and the cover design process involves me more now. I was upfront from the beginning that they were going to have to find a biracial model for Jem and that he was going to be hot.
I can see how that last bit might seem sort of silly but there is such an erasure of Asian men’s sexuality in media, and Jem, though a good, sweet person, is also supposed to be sexy and hot. (I mean surely I cannot be the only person into consumptive, brilliant musicians.) I went through modeling sites and found examples of gorgeous half-Asian male models and sent them on, and the photographer selected one whose look he liked.
I would say the only bump was that when they sent me the first set of comps, Jem was wearing a hat that was pulled down. I think the idea was to go for an insouciant look but it obscured the whole top half of his face. I was like, “No hat. I will die on the hill of this hat. We have to see his whole face.” I don’t know if they had to do reshoots or not, but the hat went.
ML: Magnus Bane is one of a very few bisexual male characters in YA (if not the only one), and he seems to have a very vocal fan base. Did you expect that? Why or why not?
CC: My best friend while I was growing up — she’s still my best friend — is bisexual, and while I don’t want to compare growing up with someone GLBT to being GLBT yourself, you do see what they experience, and feel that discrimination at a remove.
I always felt bisexuals were never given a real fair shake — I knew she felt excluded both when it came to the heteronormative straight community (“well, if you could date girls or boys, why not just date boys?”) and that the gay community was not as welcoming as she had hoped. So I thought, why not a bisexual character who is proud of it and secure in it? (One sort of interesting note: Magnus wasn’t created initially for Alec to date — I knew Alec was gay, and Magnus was bi, but their relationship evolved very organically over the course of the series.)
And no, I never thought Alec or Magnus would be that popular; I think those are things you just don’t consider when you’re writing that first draft. Readers always surprise you.
ML: What advice would you give to the writer who is afraid to write beyond their own personal experience, whether it be in race, culture or sexual orientation?
CC: Research as much as you can. Learn as much as you can. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s workshop on Writing the Other now has a companion book, and a good, honest, varied critique group is always helpful. Lastly, when your portrayal of those who are different from you, whether because of their race, sexuality, or anything else, is criticized, it can be hard to hear and spark a sense of defensiveness but the best thing to do is stay quiet and listen. And keep trying harder.
ML: All of your books contain plenty of smoldering romance, and arguably you are the queen of bad boys in YA. Do you have any tips for creating a really sexy love interest? (Good abs?)
CC: Well, abs of steel are always helpful! Honestly I think there are two things that are key to a sexy love interest: the first is that they should be good at what they do. There is little sexier than watching someone excel at something they do extraordinarily well — the difference between a bad boy is that they know they do it really well and that it’s turning you on; the good boys don’t. And there should be a dash of vulnerability. Your boy doesn’t have to be tormented but the girl or boy who he loves has to be able to get under his skin and pierce that armor, or it’s no fun.