INTERVIEW: Marie Rutkoski onThe Winner’s Curse, The Winner’s Crime and other great things

In January, Raincoast Books offered me the distinct pleasure of chatting via Skype with the ever-charming Marie Rutkoski, author of The Winner’s Curse and The Winner’s Crime books. After we had both settled in with our respective cups of tea (Marie’s was an intriguing blue tea from Mariage Frères that I have since attempted to order online), we focused our discussion on all things Kestrel and Arin. Be warned: there are definitely spoilers for book one in this discussion, although I’ve tried to edit out the spoilers for book two. A portion of this interview was published earlier by Raincoast Books on their website

J:         So, I’ve finished book two, and I just have to ask … Are you trying to kill us with this book? I’ll bet you wrote that last chapter with an evil laugh!

M:       Ha! I mean… Okay, is this going to be public?

J:         It will, but I will edit for book two spoilers, don’t you worry!

M:       Oh good, that makes things easier. Well, after I wrote the first book, and I ended it the way that I did, which felt like a true ending to me, it felt like the characters were true to who they are and how I had made them into, and this is what would happen to them. After I wrote that, however, I wondered what might happen to them and how the story would continue. One of the things I felt pretty strongly about was that the tension between Kestrel and her father, for example, could break things eventually, just because they are both so similar, but their goals are so extremely different. I knew that they loved each other but …

J:         They really don’t know how to love each other, really.

M:       Yes, that’s it. It’s very true.

J:         There are events in this book that broke my heart, especially between Kestral and her father.

M:       He would definitely see her actions as a personal betrayal. Part of the reason he has been at war for so long is because he felt that he was building this great world, this empire for her, and in his mind, he knew she was capable of making it all hers. In book one, she tells him that she doesn’t want his life, and all of her actions, even if she doesn’t mean them to be against him, he could take it that way.

J:         She is very much her father’s daughter in her analytical thought processes.

M:       She is, that’s true. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t set out to break reader’s hearts with the endings of the books, but rather that I see each book as an inevitable conclusion. I did think that it would be interesting to write a book where readers feel that the books is about a certain romantic relationship, but that they also realize that there are so many other relationships that happen that are just a crucial, and end up having as much if not more of an emotional impact.

J:         Your characters are not one-dimensional; Kestrel is genuinely hurt and abandoned in this book because she has lost everyone close to her in book one. Jess, Ronan, her father …. There is so much more to her than just her relationship with Arin, and I found she really came into her own in book two. Book one was so much about figuring out the world, and I found book two was very much a character book. There is still lots of action, but so much of what happens is internal.

I also found it interesting to see how Kestrel and Arin developed and have almost changed roles. In book one, Arin is the enigma as we don’t have much from his point of view because he is hiding his role in the rebellion, while Kestrel is the more open of the pair.

M:       That’s a really interesting comment. I was definitely aware that Arin was not a very outgoing character; even in his point of view, we don’t get a lot from him in the first book and that’s very deliberate. I thought of him as a character that does not want to share, so anything he does share is done so grudgingly, but in the second book he does open up more. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that Kestrel would have to keep things much more close to her chest with everyone around her, but I guess she is much more secretive than she was before.

J:         In book two, there are some interesting scenes involving a particular moth. Do those chameleon moths exist?

M:       Oh, thanks! Well the book is technically fantasy, because of the different world, but I didn’t want it to be fantastical. I love fantasy, but for this book I really wanted to focus on the human – relationship, scenery, etc. I did want to lend little touches to remind the reader that this was not our world. The moths were convenient to me, for various reasons – plot-wise, events…

J:         For ….. reasons that will become apparent after release!

M:       Yes, exactly! So those, and the dragonflies that appear in the East … when I tend to try to remind the reader that this is a new and different world, it usually comes out in nature somehow. There may be something different, like green storms in the first book, and the crops in the second book.

J:         Let’s talk a little about some of the non-story aspects of the book. Winner’s Curse is so named because the economic theory of, essentially, paying more for something than it’s actually worth at auction. Is there a similar meaning for Winner’s Crime?

M:       The Winner’s Crime doesn’t has as serious a meaning; when you write a trilogy you want the names to go together and have some fluidity to them (example: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Dreams of Gods and Monsters). I wanted to have some kind of cohesion with the first book, and I knew what the second book would be about.

J:         The theme of strategy is so pivotal to both books; there’s the game in book one, and even more examples in book two. Everyone seems to be working some kind of strategy in these books! I was exhausted, trying to figure out who to trust – a literal bite and sting.

M:       So true, and  – this is not a spoiler as it think it’s apparent to anyone reading the back of the book – Kestrel does decide to be much more active in her existence, to what she finds immoral. In the first book, she’s a part of the system, part of this empire that is doing some pretty immoral things, and even if she objects to it, she’s not sure how to object to things or how to change things. In the second book, she’s looking at a world where her people are killing others and conquering other places and enslaving people and she decides that she cannot be part of it anymore. She decides, “I cannot live with my world the way it is, and I have to do something to change it.” Even in deciding to work against her empire’s goals, that in of itself is a crime. The whole plot of the book begins with her decision to betray something.

J:         That’s interesting that you call it betrayal. To me, it’s making a conscious decision not to continue living a certain way. In book one, she’s part of a world but not comfortable in it. In book two, she has a (non-spoiler) discussion where she talks about how much she misses her previous life, and you realize that she has lived in two worlds her entire life. I think the scene in the first book where she visits the hall and sees where everyone has been poisoned is truly pivotal for her. When you live in a world where much of the violence takes place away from you, being brought face-to-face with the worst of human nature is pretty jarring.

M:       She does live in both worlds, and it’s something she has to face, something she has to deal with.

J:         Did you have much of a classical backstory for book two as you did with book one?

M:       There wasn’t one unifying story in my mind, but there were definitely little influences. At one point in the book there is a story within a story, and that’s something that I tend to do – it happens in the third book as well! In the first book, it’s the story told to her about the dream, of the Goddess of Death and the seamstress. In the second book, the Emperor tells her a story as well.  That story was influenced by the story of Judas in the Bible. When I was grad school I took a class on Anglo-Saxon, because it was part of our requirements to either learn one ancient language, and one modern one. I knew French and I knew Russian, but they wouldn’t count Russian.

J:         Because you can just pick that up in a weekend???

M:       I know, right? I guess because it doesn’t really apply to English literature. I tried to do Latin, and I did not pass the exam –I wasn’t very good at it. I took a summer program but it didn’t fly. I decided to take an alternative option, in that I took two modern language, and then a history course, either English language or Anglo-Saxon. I chose Anglo-Saxon because, that would be awesome – you can read Beowolf, and other things. One of the things we read as a class was the Angl-Saxon translation of the Book of Judas. It was translated at a time when the Catholic church was looking to convert heathens, or what they thought of heathens, so it’s really kind of pagan. There are all these Northern European elements, and it’s a really cool thing. It’s a story of how a woman uses her own strategies and wits to conquer this intruder, this guy. That’s a super long answer, but it’s an explanation.

J:         There’s other influences as well – a couple of Shakespearian references, such as a re-enactment of the killing of the Royal family that could be straight from Hamlet.

M:       Yes, absolutely, there are definitely times when I am thinking about revenge plays, and all the blood.

J:         Speaking of that … what are your dreams like? Between the boiling oil and the poisoning in book one, and some of the aspects of book two, there’s some crazy conversations that must be happening!

M:       I do have crazy dreams, and the crazy conversations. The torture scenes that I’ve written were helped along by a conversation with Barry Lyga, who wrote the I Hunt Killers series. He’s REALLY good with torture! Basically, I came to Barry and said, “I need to write a torture scene.”

J:         “Can you help me out with my torture?”

M:       Yes, exactly! I said, “Which body part do you recommend that I go for?” We talked about why the part I chose would be perfect, and why it fit so well with the character involved. Then I got in touch with a doctor, a friend of mine from high school who is now a doctor, and I said, “Please, tell me what it would look like if someone did these horrible things to [certain part of the body – spoilers!].” There was that.

The beginning of the book has a section about favour-keeping and that actually did come out of a dream.

J:         Really? That’s so cool. It ties in with the whole communication during the underground railway movement when slaves were escaping to Canada as well. It’s a kind of reinvention of a historical method

M:       I’m so glad that it worked for you. In my dream, all I dreamt initially was that there was an ancient tradition of using strings to keep a record of who owed who what. But then, later, in my waking mind, I thought about codes used in threads, and I made a conscious decision to take it and expand upon it in the book.

J:       There’s also a classical element to it as well, with the idea of the three fates. Speaking of three… there is the introduction of a third element, a third party in this second book.

M:       I’m glad you like them –they will be quite present in book three! (spoilers!) There are quite a few characters who are present in book two who will reappear in book three, actually.

J:         I need to ask about the Emperor because he is SO inherently evil! Please tell me that he is some former professor of yours that you are now exacting revenge upon!

M:       I’ve never known anyone so awful as him, luckily! He has one saving grace to him in that he has one person he trusts implicitly…. I don’t think his wife ever said no to him. I suspect that she died under mysterious circumstances…

J:         A future novella, perhaps?

M:       Perhaps! There are few things I’d like to write about but they just didn’t fit the flow of the books, and things will be busy in book three so I don’t think they will fit there.

J:         Without spoiling anything, if books one and two were about the world and about strategy, how would you describe book three?

M:       Good question… still about the world, about strategy … .but I’d add resolution to the mix. Part of the dilemma with Kestrel and Arin in book one lay in the imbalance of power in their relationship. They were equals as individuals, but their positions in society were not. That’s something that needs to be addressed in books two and three.

J:         Memory is a huge part of these books. Our memories colour our perceptions and how we act in the world.

M:       Sometimes, I think, we rely too much on what our memories have taught us, that prior knowledge that we think that we have. Arin does think that he knows Kestrel, and while he does in many ways, he really doesn’t. Sometimes he trusts too much what he thinks he knows about her. Memory is pretty fundamental for all three books.

Here’s what I think- one of the influences of the first book is a play by Shakespeare called “Titus Andronicus”. It’s an incredibly difficult play to read and watch. It’s so violent and so awful, and people are so horrible to each other. It’s one of the plays where you see the damage of the cycle of violence, where these conquered people – the Goths – are brought in and Titus decides to sacrifice the eldest son of the Queen, who then pronounces vengeance, and the cycle continues. I was thinking a lot about the legacy of violence, and what it means to inherit past sins. Very often, we as individuals have to question how much we are responsible for the sins that have been accomplished in the past. I know I’m being totally vague, but it does apply, I promise.

J:         There’s a human cost, to be sure. What are you hoping people will get from book two?

M:       Well, I have had to make a lot of apologies to people on Twitter – “You broke my heart!” “I’m sorry!”.

In book one, Kestrel seems kind of unassailable, she’s the girl with all the answers, so I’m hoping in book two you see her much more vulnerable than before. I also think, as a writer, it was really satisfying to write more from Arin’s point of view. That happens a lot in book three as well.

They both grow a lot in these books.

J:         We’re looking forward to book three – it’s done and in edits?

M:       Ha! No, it is NOT done, I’m still writing it! But it’s exciting to write book three, and there’s still lots I’m not sure about, so exploring that is intriguing. I think … there will not be a cliffanger!  There will be no book four, but perhaps novellas for some of the backstory. I really liked the one that I wrote, and it would be nice if there was another short story before book three but I don’t think I’ll have time.

J:         Are you touring for this book?

M:       I’m touring as part of the Fierce Reads tour, and the TLA in April. In March I’m having an event with Kristin Cashore – I love her, so it’s so much fun to do an event with her. I’m also doing an event in NYC at McNally Jackson the week of the launch. I should really update my website…. Toronto has been floated as a possibility.

J:         Well, we hope that you’ll make it to Canada at some point. It would be great to see you in person – we can exchange tea! Many thanks for your time and for your attention these questions – we can’t wait for book two to be released.

Thank you to the lovely Marie Rutkoski for taking the time to chat with me, and to Raincoast Books for allowing me the opportunity to do so. There were many things in this interview that were spoiler-y – once you have read book two, come back and ask me questions, and I’ll share what I am allowed, depending on the question! The Winner’s Curse and The Winner’s Crime are published by Farrar Straus Giroux, via Macmillan and distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books. They are available for purchase NOW from all fine booksellers.