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Interview with Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan, YA Authors

February 10, 2013

Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan are two well-known, published authors in the young adult genre and proof that dedicated white fantasy authors can include characters of color in their works. Holly Black has written non-white and non-straight characters in her books since her first novel, Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale . Two of her popular book series feature biracial lead protagonists, the Modern Faerie Tale series and the Curse Workers series. Sarah Rees Brennan has been praised for her non-stereotypical depictions of characters in her The Demon’s Lexicon and Lynburn Legacy series. The protagonist of her co-authored novel Team Human is Chinese American and was prominently featured on the book’s cover.

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Racebending.com’s Gabrial Canada interviewed Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan about their experiences as allies and authors in the young adult publishing genre! Read on for their thoughts on advocating for diverse representations and the publishing industry’s approach to diverse characters.

NOTE: The opinions espoused by the interviewees represent their viewpoints alone, and do not necessarily represent the views held by the staff of racebending.com

RACEBENDING.COM: Starting off with Holly, will we see the same level of representation that we have seen with your modern faerie stories, other works, and Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series in your new collaboration, Magisterium?

HOLLY BLACK: We’re both committed to diversity in our work, so as we figure out the details of our world and of our characters, we’re trying to be very conscious of the decisions we’re making. I don’t want to talk about the world too much, because we’re still making big decisions and doing research, but I don’t think that a world without diversity makes any sense. If fiction is about telling the truth — and I believe that ultimately it is — then that just isn’t true. We live in a big, diverse world and that should be reflected in the stories we tell.

RACEBENDING.COM: Have either of you had difficulty in displaying the diversity within your books on the covers? You both have authored books with Justine Larbalastier. Did you actively seek out publishers you felt you could trust on this issue of representation because of her experience when publishing Liar?

SARAH REES BRENNAN: The process of publishing doesn’t quite work like that: publishing houses are so vast, and the policies of different editors in the same publishing house can be so different, and it is so massively hard to know who you can trust on these issues–covers go past editors, whole marketing teams, so many people the writer may never meet. You can basically only learn how a publishing house will treat you by working with them.

But I can’t say enough good things about Harper Teen, who Justine and I published Team Human with, and our editor Anne Hoppe. Anne made a pre-empt for the book (called and said ‘Here’s my offer and it’s great, I hope you say yes to me now and other editors snooze and lose’) and one of the very first things she said to me and Justine was that of course our heroine Mel, who is Chinese-American, would be accurately portrayed. Justine and I were lucky enough to be able to attend our photoshoot and meet the gorgeous model who portrayed the main character. We never even had to ask.


The U.S. cover of Team Human

SARAH REES BRENNAN: What happened to Justine–being given a cover for a book starring a biracial girl which showed a white girl–was truly awful. She was luckier than some other authors, though: due to an outcry on the internet once people saw the cover on the advance readers’ copies, the cover was changed. Lots and lots of authors have whitewashed covers that were published and that still have whitewashed covers to this day.

Another author called Jaclyn Dolamore had an internet outcry over her book having a whitewashed cover, butafter it was published. Due to the outcry, the book was taken down from bookstore shelves and given a cover with a heroine of color on it–wonderful that the mistake was corrected, but the fact that her books were recalled and recovered means that many booksellers didn’t want the hassle of bringing the books back in, and that readers weren’t sure what cover to look for. It ended up being very bad for the book, and that meant there was another book ‘proving’ that books with protagonists of color don’t sell. It’s a terrible, complicated situation–of course, what people should have taken away from it was that Magic Under Glass should have had a cover which reflected the heroine of the book accurately from the beginning.

There are also other fights the public don’t ever see. In Cassandra Clare’s interview she mentioned a friend who had a biracial girl on her cover and was told the sales were disappointing because she insisted on said cover. I saw people online saying “Oh, that was Justine Larbalestier” because they know what happened to her. It wasn’t her. People have no idea how often this happens. I have seen similar things happen to almost every writer I know who has written characters of color prominent enough so they could be on their covers. Sometimes these writers get whitewashed covers they are forced to swallow, as Ursula LeGuin was in the early days of her career. Sometimes the covers get changed, but if the books sell badly the covers (and the writers) are blamed, and the writer may not get another contract. People are being punished in this way, for writing characters of color, every day.

“People have no idea how often this happens. I have seen similar things happen to almost every writer I know who has written characters of color prominent enough so they could be on their covers. Sometimes these writers get whitewashed covers they are forced to swallow… Sometimes the covers get changed, but if the books sell badly the covers (and the writers) are blamed, and the writer may not get another contract. People are being punished in this way, for writing characters of color, every day.

SARAH REES BRENNAN: Personally, I’ve had whitewashed covers both shown and just suggested to me, and said “No, you can’t, this character isn’t white, no” and been listened to. I’ve felt incredibly lucky that I was listened to, because I knew I didn’t have the power to change the cover, and knew that any author who speaks out publicly against their covers will likely be regarded as a problem author, as someone who sabotages their own marketing and isn’t promoting their book. (Which is not to say I wouldn’t do it… but to say also that there are real and terrible consequences for doing so.) There was literally nothing I could do but protest, and hope.

These covers are tricky, as well. A lot of covers are stock art, art that already exists which publishers buy for the book: it’s often really beautiful, it’s cheaper than a photoshoot, it’s already done so you can be sure it turned out well. My UK publishers wanted to show the two main characters of my latest book, Unspoken, and they had to do a photoshoot rather than using stock art, because we found so little stock art of an appropriate-looking interracial couple. Extra expense, and no way to be sure they’d make the money back: I was so relieved and happy they did it. I remember recently being at a convention and hearing someone say they were disappointed when a cover was iconic (a symbol like the cover of the Hunger Games) or showed a landscape when they could show a character of color, and I was like, well, what I worry about isn’t avoiding icons or landscapes, that I didn’t think we were there yet–that we were all just fighting to avoid flat-out having white people on those covers.

This is a prevailing social problem. It’s important for writers to write characters of color. Because too few do, and it’s harder for writers of color to get published–though many amazing writers of color are published, and should be supported. Because writers are rewarded for writing all-white worlds with money and promotion, perpetuating the false default of everyone fictional being white, it’s important for writers to consistently protest whitewashing.

It’s important for publishers to keep publishing diverse fiction, and to try and promote more. It’s important for readers to support diverse fiction: because publishing is not dedicated to a Course of Racism Against All Odds. Publishing is full of allies–and people who mean well–and yet we are all tripped up at every turn by the idea that diverse books are less commercial, and so a) publishing them at all is a bad idea b) if you do publish them, hide what they are and c) don’t waste any more money on bookstore placement or advertising on them.

Everybody needs to work together to solve this problem: it’s too huge for writers to be able to solve on our own. All hands on deck!


The US (left) and UK (right) covers for Unspoken

HOLLY BLACK: Sarah makes several excellent points, especially about the vastness of publishing houses, the many people who have input into covers, and the need for publishers, authors, booksellers and readers to be working together to make sure we get representative covers. We need more representative covers and especially more representative covers on blockbuster titles, covers that will prove definitively to booksellers, sales people, and executives that you can have a big bestseller with a person of color on the cover.

Writers are the people with the least power in the equation and often the ones with the most on the line when agitating for change, so we can’t do it without readers buying books. The saddest stories I’ve heard have been from authors whose covers were once representative and then got changed due to poor sales or poor bookstore buy-in. We need to, as a community, support diverse books by purchasing them, reading them, and talking about them so that there will be a demand for more.

We need to, as a community, support diverse books by purchasing them, reading them, and talking about them so that there will be a demand for more.

HOLLY BLACK: In terms of your other question, I did co-edit an anthology with Justine, called Zombies vs. Unicorns, which was actually sold before Liar was published. We signed up the book with my editor, Karen Wojtyla, at Simon & Schuster, so I did both know her and trust her. I have been very lucky in terms of editors — they’ve been a pretty diverse group themselves — and S&S was very proud when the anthology was chosen as a ALA Rainbow List selection.

SARAH REES BRENNAN: Vehement nodding to Holly’s saddest stories–which I have heard too. There was an internet outcry about Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix–and I’m only referencing the known stories here, because telling the stories that happen behind closed doors would get other authors and me into trouble!–being changed from a representative cover to an ambiguous cover, and it was extremely sad that the change was made, but I was also like, “If only Silver Phoenix had been taken note of as a cover that did things right so the change never had to be made!” I keep my eye out for the covers that get it right. And I can only think of two books with people of color on which have hit the New York Times bestseller list (Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Prince and Lili St Crow’s Betrayals). So hell yes on Holly’s point about blockbuster titles, too.


The character Cassel Sharpe featured on an unrelased cover concept for Holly Black’s novel, Black Heart

RACEBENDING.COM: You both have written biracial characters. Hollywood has a history of using biracial identity as an opening to cast white actors. Do you have any fear that this would be the case with your work?

HOLLY: I do worry about that, especially with Kaye from my Modern Faerie Tale series, but also with Cassel from The Curse Workers, whose ethnicity I made deliberately obscure. I had read a true crime book about a grifter whose family had two contradictory stories about their background, thus robbing him of part of his identity, and I borrowed that story for Cassel. It’s an important part of who he is both that he’s not white and also that he doesn’t know what his ethnicity is and I think it would be really terrible to lose any of that. Despite the fact that I know it gives people even more of an excuse to cast or imagine a character as white, I do want to keep writing biracial characters, because my husband is biracial and representation of people like him is personal to me.


The book trailer for White Cat by Holly Black

SARAH REES BRENNAN: I have many fears, and that is one, but it isn’t super high on the list, and this is why: I’m aware that very few books get made into movies, and even fewer books with protagonists of color. My books are less likely to get made into movies because three of the five protagonists I’ve written have been people of color.

If someone ever did actually say, yes, we’re definitely making one of your books into a movie, I would be stunned and delighted, and then, yes, immediately the dark fear would set in.

I recently saw a fight on tumblr about someone insisting that a fancast of Cassandra Clare’s half-Chinese character Jem could be white, because he could “take after his father”– despite the fact that people in the book react, in varying ways, to him as a person of color on sight, despite the fact Cassandra Clare has been so vocal about the fact that a Jem who wasn’t Chinese wouldn’t be her Jem, despite the fact that the white part of a character’s heritage is not the part that’s always under attack, that you can’t act as if all things are equal–because biracial actors get regarded as people of color, and biracial characters get cast as white, and that’s unfairness built into the whole system. The game is rigged.

The reason I mention someone else’s fancast is that it gave me the sinking feeling that this is the rationale that movie makers use when it comes to biracial characters, that and what seems to them the inarguable logic of the bottom line.

The bottom line is used as the argument against all diversity. I recall more than a year ago people were talking about how authors Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith were asked to delete the LGBTQ content in their book, and someone said, “Well, books with LGBTQ content can sell, too, what are the percentages on bestsellers with LGBTQ content?” And at that point I said something along the lines of: “Look, here’s the thing. Bestsellers are complicated. All books are not treated equally. Sometimes bestsellers just happen, but very often the publisher has something to do with it. They can’t create a bestseller ten times out of ten, but marketing dollars, clever campaigns (lots of time and people put on the job), beautiful covers (great art purchased, photoshoots done)–they help.”

I’ve never seen any YA book with a main LGBTQ romance given the “big push,” the most possible marketing dollars put behind a novel. Maybe it wouldn’t work! But those books are already judged as not potentially super-sellable. (And since books are left out of fairs and stores like Walmart often because of content like this–because gay romances are regarded as more racy than straight romances–I am not saying publishers are totally undeniably wrong.)

The books that do get awesome marketing, become bestsellers and have LGBTQ content, usually aren’t debut books. Will Grayson, Will Grayson isn’t John Green or David Levithan’s first book by a long shot. John Green’s earlier books, all very focused on straight romance, paved the way. Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments were treated well out of the gate, but weren’t given star treatment until she took people by surprise by selling super well. P.C. and Kristin Cast’s House of Night series–P.C. Cast was a pretty well-known author in another genre. The LGBTQ content came after book one in Melissa Marr’s series starting with Wicked Lovely. LGBTQ content-books are treated like more of a risk, unless you’re a proven author, and that affects the chances of them becoming bestsellers.

Most recent YA debut books that I can think of which got really big marketing campaigns and great covers and became big successes fall into everybody’s-straight-and-white paradigm. Much other stuff to be said for these books! I’m absolutely not saying that anyone thought “Oh good, and no homosexuals.” But someone obviously did think “That’ll sell big” and didn’t think that about other books, with different content.

It’s a super, super complicated issue, and a lot of it is about what’s going on inside other people’s heads which cannot be quantified, and the risks people take with company money, which can’t be dictated. But even seeing the bestseller percentages wouldn’t tell us that much, I don’t think.’

All we can do is keep pushing against that perception of diverse books and movies as not commercial. I didn’t go to see The Last Airbender because hey, you vote against this kind of rubbish with your money. I would protest whitewashing in my movies. I live in hope that in the future, people won’t have to fear these practices, but we’re certainly not there yet.

RACEBENDING.COM: To Sarah, how do you feel about the reboot of DC’s Batgirl/Oracle and the death of Charles Xavier in Marvel? We have perhaps lost the two most prominent characters with disabilities in comics over the course of the last year. As someone who placed a character with a disability in a prominent role within your own stories why do you think that disability is so rarely represented despite being the largest minority group in the U.S.?

SARAH REES BRENNAN: So, I’m not the most qualified person in the world to comment on comics, because I don’t read comics and don’t have any attachment to the characters other than that James McAvoy is extremely dreamy and I hope the sequel to X-Men First Class has lots and lots of him in it. But the echoes of outrage over Oracle’s disability being reversed did reach me, and I thought: that’s awful. I also thought: that’s not surprising.

Disability is either seen as a problem that would inhibit the plot, which is therefore dispensed with, or a problem to be solved–genre fiction has an unfortunate amount of the magical healing trope, which is in some ways totally understandable — but which also says to disabled people that they cannot be part of a magical adventure. There’s magic in the Demon’s Lexicon series, and there was a possibility of magical healing. My disabled character’s friends and family wanted that for him, but the character himself, Alan, explicitly says he doesn’t care about it, that this is who he is. The magical healing happens only to be immediately reversed in what was, well, a case of me just making an obscene gesture at magical healing.

The-Demons-Surrender
The US cover (left) and UK cover (right) of The Demon’s Surrender

SARAH REES BRENNAN: There are so many potential pitfalls. I talked above about how photoshoots meant I could have characters of color: Alan in the Demon’s Lexicon trilogy was on the cover of my third book, and they sent me a ton of different shots. I chose one of the only ones I could: because it was one of the very few where he was standing in a way that it wouldn’t have been painful or impossible for him to stand. There were so many shots where he was in an action pose he couldn’t be in, with too much weight on his bad leg. (Again, I was lucky: they could have sent me stock art and me saying ‘he’s standing wrong!!!’ would probably not have been taken well.)

There are real people who can be hurt by your fiction. That’s the thing to always keep in mind, I think. Be inclusive, and thoughtfully inclusive.

To learn more about Holly Black’s books, visit her official website at http://www.blackholly.com
To learn more about Sarah Rees Brennan’s books, visit her website at http://sarahreesbrennan.com/

Racebending.com would like to thank Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan for this interview.

Categories: blog, Current Diversity Highlights, Featured, History and Concepts, Interviews
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About the Author

Gabriel Canada is a contributing writer to Racebending.com. Gabe Canada is from Indianapolis, Indiana where he is currently studying Journalism at Indiana University. He joined Racebending as a fan of the original Airbender series. Outside of school he runs a local anime meetup group and is the cofounder of a production company, Kind of Epic Films.

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  • http://twitter.com/shi1neko ESC

    Sarah Rees Brennan <3 (of her works I especially recommend Unspoken!)

    • Kayti Nika Raet

      Yes! She’s so awesome. :)

  • http://twitter.com/stacylwhitman Stacy Whitman

    Thanks for featuring this interview! I love Holly’s books and have always appreciated her work to feature biracial characters.

    I think what Holly says about the onus being on readers to seek out diversity is very important. We publishers are working on diversity (I myself run an imprint dedicated to diversity in YA science fiction and fantasy), and writers are working on it, though in both cases there’s always more work to be done. But readers–including booksellers and librarians–are also a highly important part of the equation.

    And I agree that a blockbuster starring a person of color could help, mostly in discoverability, but I worry that it also could lead to tokenism. People I know STILL refer to The Cosby Show as the one example of a prominent show featuring African American stars. We don’t need just one blockbuster. We need many. And for that, we need a groundswell among readers actively looking for diversity in their reading.

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  • http://inkandpenners.blogspot.com/ Ink & Pen

    This is amazing! That you so much for this interview!

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