In her sophomore novel, author Rochelle Hassan (The Prince of Nowhere) reminds eager fantasy fans why they fell in love with the genre in the first place in The Buried and the Bound. A rich and defined world with three protagonists who capture hearts while their own weather hardships, it’s one of the most exciting YA debuts in ages. While her first was a middle school geared story, The Buried and the Bound plays with darker thematic elements as our characters look to unearth the mysteries of their hometown, the fictional Blackthorn, while building lasting friendships, facing flesh-eating shadows, unpredictable magic, lurking monsters, and wicked fae.
We spoke to Hassan about her latest and what drew her to the genre, as well as her writing process and the research that goes into contemporary fantasy.
How soon into the writing process do you know it’s going to be a series rather than a standalone?
Rochelle Hassan: For this one, I always envisioned it as a series from the beginning, so basically right away. With other projects sometimes I would start out intending for it to be a standalone and as I got deeper into the story, like halfway and once I’d fleshed out the world and fleshed out the characters and started to have a sense of how the stories can continue, that’s when it really clicks that I want to spend more time in this world. For The Buried and the Bound though it was from the start. So I was able to begin setting things up that I knew I would want to continue in the sequels.
When you started thinking about this book was there a certain character or image that really sparked your journey on wanting to write this?
I wanted to write something where it was grounded in the contemporary world but there were flashes of magic woven into this mundane reality. I knew I wanted to incorporate a kind of fairytale, true love, fairytale curses aspect but do a little bit of a twist on it and have it be characters who I felt I could connect with because they’re very flawed. So taking those idealistic fairytale tropes and grounding them in a messy reality a little bit was what I wanted to do.
What is your writing process? You released a book last year and are obviously going to be working now on sequels – how do you manage your time? Is it the same when you get picked up for a series where you need to listen to certain music, you have to write at a certain time, or does that all get thrown out the window when you have clear-cut deadlines?
It’s helpful if I can if I have a playlist for my books and I can turn that playlist on and now I’m in work mode and immersed in the feeling of that story. I write at any, and all hours of the day. I do a lot of planning. So I’ll have an outline and in the initial drafts I’m going back and forth between the outline and the draft and I will change the outline as I go and go back and revise things I’ve already written as I go. So that initial draft takes longer but then by the time I get to it, there’s already been some revision so it ends up being a bit of a cleaner draft which saves me some time down the line.
So you’re drawn to this magical realism, fantasy world which is built into the real world, is that a genre you’ve always been interested in?
I’ve always loved fantasy, like any subgenre of fantasy. It could be high-fantasy, it could be more grounded, but I think what really spoke to my imagination as a kid was that magic was just around the corner and if I looked for it it would be there. I think that’s probably the subgenre of fantasy that feels like home to me.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing for fun since I was a kid. I was, you know, writing fanfiction in high school, that type of thing. But I didn’t start pursuing it seriously with the goal of publication until a few years ago, maybe four or five years ago.
This world is so immediately immersive. Can you speak to the process of defining the world?
I wanted it to feel familiar but I also didn’t want to have to worry about getting things wrong which is why I was like, it’s going to be a fictional town but in the real world. I wanted to do, a kind of a town that’s more suburban rather than a very big city because I, growing up in the suburbs, always found it really boring so the idea of taking a setting that comes off to me as very quiet and being able to work the magic into that felt like a fun thing to do.
As for defining the world, I usually start out with the things that I absolutely need to know to make the plot work. Anything about the creatures that are going to show up in the story, and here are the rules of the magic. From there, questions will naturally arise. Things like, for example, here are the types of creatures that exist in this town of Blackthorn, Massachusetts, are there different creatures elsewhere? Then I’ll answer those questions for myself, and take notes on them, and they might not appear on the page of this book but I have it at the back of my mind and I might use that material in one of the sequels or, if not, just knowing that in my head helps me write with more specificity.
It starts out with the basic things I need to know, and then I will follow my train of thought and any questions that come up to fill in the blanks.
Sometimes I think people don’t quite realize how much research goes into the writing process. In this book and the magical creatures and how they’re depicted, how much of this is based on research on the lore of these creatures and the stories they stem from, and how much room you have to play with it and make it your own?
I start out with research on existing lore and fairytales but I don’t want to borrow anything too closely and just kind of repeat what’s in the research. But I like to make it familiar enough that it feels like the lore in my book can coexist with other kinds of lore and fairytales. Maybe it’s not a complete contradiction or it’s not a complete departure from that but different enough where the idea is that something real could exist, then stories about it can travel, and it’s like a game of telephone where the game gets farther and farther from the reality and it transforms over time.
The lore in my book might have some familiar kinds of lore but it’s not the same because of the way stories naturally transform.
To speak on the characters a bit, they’re all very vivid. Did you always know you wanted the point of view to be shared between the three leads?
It was always going to be the three points of view because to me the heart of the story is these three characters who start out alone and all kind of have their own problems and over the course of the story come together to form this tight-knit group. So because I wanted to tell that story – almost like a found family story – I felt like having the three POVs was very important. In much earlier drafts, Aziza was much more of the protagonist but I felt like that wasn’t quite getting at the story I wanted to tell so I rebalanced it. I took out a subplot that really just involved Aziza and brought the boys out more. That’s my goal for all three of the books to keep them as balanced as possible because that is, and the relationship between the three of them, is the heart of the series.
Aziza is such a fun and interesting character because she’s so strong but also still vulnerable. She’s still a teenager. Was that something you thought was important to highlight?
I think that’s really important, first of all, because I think it’s good to have a range of different experiences in YA. It’s great to have a YA that’s geared more towards older teens but also great to have a YA that’s a little bit more middle of the road or aimed at younger teens. For Aziza particularly I think that putting contradictions into a character makes them more interesting and makes them feel more real. Because real people have a lot of contradictions so if Aziza was just strong all the time she would become boring really quickly. So to have those flashes of vulnerability and especially to have other characters like Leo who can draw that out of her make her more engaging to write and hopefully makes her more engaging to read as well.
To pivot – I did read that you’re a big animation fan – so am I. It’s kind of what got me through quarantine. So I wanted to know if there is anything you’ve watched that influenced your writing. Or things you’ve read, things you’ve watched, it doesn’t have to be animation.
For my middle-grade book, The Prince of Nowhere, Studio Ghibli, especially Spirited Away, was an inspiration for the way that it feels more than anything specific in the story. The way the movies can be eerie and unsettling at times but also really whimsical and magical which was a feeling I was aiming for in The Prince of Nowhere.
Read More | ‘The Buried And The Bound’ Review: Rochelle Hassan Delivers An Incredible Contemporary Fantasy
In The Buried and the Bound, I think it was a combination of fairy tales, folklore, and other YA books with grounded contemporary fantasies and in general, I’d say anime is a big inspiration. I think the pacing, the characterization, and the way they develop over time – the stories of the friendships that appear in anime that are so powerful, I think that’s just a general inspiration for anything I write. With The Buried and the Bound, this is a book I’ve been writing for a long time. I’d put it down, then have to write something else because it wasn’t working, and then go back to it. Because it started so many years ago it’s hard to remember what the root inspirations went into it.
So did you start writing it before The Prince of Nowhere?
I did. I wrote The Buried and the Bound – it was one of the first things I ever tried to write. I just wasn’t a good enough writer to pull off the story and I wrote myself into a corner so I stopped and tried again. I revised, queried, and received tons of rejections. I did Pitch Wars which is a mentorship program where I worked with a more experienced writer and did some more revision, queried again and it still wasn’t working. After that, I wrote The Prince of Nowhere, but I couldn’t let The Buried and the Bound go, so I went right back to it. Finally, I figured out what needed to be done.
I think what you just said is really important and there’s strength to persevering and sticking with what’s not working as a writer rather than abandoning ideas. Do you have any advice for writers who might be just starting out?
One of the things that helped me the most was to try out different things to use in my writing process and not feel like this is my process and now I have to stick to it. If your process isn’t working for you, do something else. Try to do more outlining or less outlining. Try to write out of order or, if that’s what you do, try to write chronologically. I did a lot of reading on different types of story structures – three-act structure, four-act structure – and there are the different beat sheets that are out there, curricular storytelling, and different kinds of structure used in other countries. Researching all of the different ways there are to tell a story and sometimes combining bits and pieces of different types of story structures has helped me kind of refining a writing process and story structure that works for me.
It’s also an ongoing process. Even now there are things about my writing process I think could be a lot more efficient. It’s constant learning and along with that, just trying to finish projects even if I hit a rough patch. I realized that when I was first starting out if I got stuck I’d want to stop or start over completely or move on to a different project but eventually I realized that if I take a project all the way from beginning to end, even if I end up with a terrible draft, I’ll learn a lot more from that process and the revision process than I will from writing a thousand perfect chapter one’s.
The Buried and the Bound is out now. Find out where you can purchase here.
Featured Image Courtesy of Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan