SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Going to talk now to an author of fantasy novels who has been beloved for so long that both our books editor and producer - 12 years of age apart - kept her books in their school lockers. Young adult novelist Tamora Pierce is one of J. R. R. Tolkien's heirs. But over the last few decades, she has expanded high fantasy to include gender, race, war and violence. Fellow fantasy writers cite her as an influence, as you can see if you flip through the blurbs at the front of her new book "Tempests And Slaughter." Tamora Pierce joins us now from the studios of Syracuse Public Media in upstate New York.
Thanks so much for being with us.
TAMORA PIERCE: Thank you for inviting me.
SIMON: We'll try and set this up. It's one of the - I hope I get the pronunciation correct - Numair Chronicles.
PIERCE: Yes, it is the story of a very popular character. He's an incredibly powerful wizard, or mage. And this is his story from the time he was about 10 or 11 or 12. He's the youngest student at the university in Carthak, to the south. So he is struggling to master being among older teenagers. He is struggling to master the lessons. And his magic, already strong, is beginning to grow on him.
SIMON: The protagonist of this book is a young man - Arram.
PIERCE: Yes, Arram is my first male hero.
PIERCE: I'm going back to girls.
SIMON: Well, what made you switch to a male? I mean, Alanna is the heroine that is kind of at the center of so much of your universe - or have you been in the past. What made you decide to try and write from a male point of view?
PIERCE: I thought it was fair. I thought I owed the boys some. And Arram is so popular and gets into so much trouble that I knew I could do it, which was an act of hubris on my part that still leaves me breathless. See, I'm kind of notorious for one thing in particular as a writer. I am pretty straightforward about teenagers and sex.
SIMON: I noticed.
PIERCE: ...The girls...
SIMON: You're much more straightforward than I've been with our daughters, let me put it that way.
PIERCE: I've lost count of the mothers and fathers who have come to me and said, thank you for explaining it to them.
SIMON: (Laughter) Yeah.
PIERCE: The thing was, in my first book, I had a girl disguised as a boy. And when you're a girl disguised as a boy going through puberty, the changes in your body become a major part of the plot. So I just stuck with it as I went on. And when I was working on this book, I got to a point I went - oh, my God. I can skip it, but that wouldn't be right.
PIERCE: So I went to my writing partner Bruce Coville. And first he laughed himself silly at me. But all those embarrassing little questions, he answered them for me. But it was important. It had to be done. I had to be as fair to the guys as I was to the girls, which is one reason why I'm going back to girls after this is over.
SIMON: (Laughter) Well, I enjoyed the result. Can I ask you to go back to a time - I guess you were in the sixth grade - you were washing dishes and your father overheard you.
PIERCE: And instead of saying, Tammy, people think you're nuts if you talk to yourself - 'cause I'd tell myself stories while I did the dishes - what he said was, you should write a book. And if he thought so, it was important to me. So instead of going (scoffing), I asked him what I should write about. And he thought about it for a minute and he says, how about travels in a time machine? And the thing that really made it stick - that told me more than words, 'cause he wasn't that kind of guy - that this was a big deal for him, he said I could use his typewriter. And up until that moment, if I had touched the typewriter, I would be missing that hand today.
So I knew more than him telling me that this was a big deal for him. So I sat down to the typewriter and, one finger at a time, I started on a girl traveling with a time machine. And that carried me to Blackbeard and to ancient Egypt and through a year before my parents broke up and the typewriter went with my dad. But by then, I was hooked.
SIMON: You made reference to your parents splitting up. Did you write your way through that?
PIERCE: I had to. My mother was a brilliant woman, but she was also a severely disturbed woman. And this was the time when courts automatically awarded custody to the mother. So yes, I wrote and wrote and wrote. And unfortunately, in 10th grade, she and I had a major fight. And I did not write fiction of my own for another five years. I wrote bad poetry, which is why I'm still a little leery of poetry today.
SIMON: Is - your mother's no longer with us?
PIERCE: No, no. She passed on in the '90s. And it was a shame because she taught me about religious history. She taught me about art. She taught me about literature, which I wasn't as appreciative of as maybe I should have been. But my mother never got it. For some reason, she was threatened by my writing, maybe 'cause it was something my dad had given me.
SIMON: As you survey the YA world, a lot more women heroes, aren't there?
PIERCE: Oh, my heavens, yes.
SIMON: And you're often cited as being responsible for opening that door.
PIERCE: Yeah, I don't know. I think they would have happened anyway. The third wave of feminism really gave young women permission to just break out. The idea that, yes, you can be a strong woman, but there are roles opening up in traditionally masculine fields. And if they're opening out here, then why can't they open out in fantasy?
SIMON: And whatever is next, will some of the force and impetus of the #MeToo movement wind up in your characters?
PIERCE: I think so. I think - I try very hard to include elements of reality in everything I do. I think the one thing fantasy does - and science fiction as well - is we give kids exposure to parts of the real world at a safe distance so that they can read about it and think about it and turn it over, close the book, go away, talk about it with people they trust and come back and think about it again. So definitely the #MeToo movement - I would like to see way more of that because I've been so energized by women finally coming forward and people having to listen to them. That is just so important to me.
SIMON: Tamora Pierce - her new book, "Tempests And Slaughter."
Thanks so much for being with us.
PIERCE: Thank you for having me here. It was so wonderful to talk to you.
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