Sara Ryan's novel Empress of the World speaks of summer, smarts, and school. It also deals with friendship, love, and life. It's about finding yourself when you're away from home. Fans of Empress have been eagerly awaiting her newest book, The Rules for Hearts, which features one of the characters from Empress as well as her older brother, an eccentric group of housemates, and one lucky dog.
I consider myself a lucky cat today because I had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Ryan. We discussed puppets, card games, and broken crowns, among other things.
Was Empress of the World a difficult story to tell? To sell?
It wasn't difficult at all to tell the story of Nic and Battle falling in love, and I was very fortunate to work with the fabulous Sharyn November, who also edited The Rules for Hearts. She had absolutely no qualms or hesitations about anything in the novel.
Do you think that the next generation of writers will be met with fewer hesitations and more open minds?
Yes, I think that as more books are published that tell un-mainstream stories of any variety, it becomes more likely that those kinds of stories will find a home. Of course, then you run the risk of saturating the market... "Oh god, not another sensitive gifted teen lesbian love story -- I'm so bored with those!"
That is such a great question. When I started working on Rules, I thought of it as a sequel, but the further I got, the more I realized that it was really more of a companion book. I wrote Rules in part to answer my own questions about who Battle really is, as opposed to the way we see her through Nic's eyes in Empress.
When did you know how significant the puppets would be, and that they would factor into the second book as well?
Ah, the puppets. :) I wish they really existed! Also, I guess I should say SPOILER ALERT here!
In Empress, when Nic decides to make Battle the Empress puppet, on the surface it's because she wants to give Battle a really special present, because she's so in love with her.
But on another level, by making the puppet, Nic also wants to show and prove how well she knows Battle. That's what freaks Battle out; the fact that Nic has seen her so clearly, so soon.
I didn't know it when I wrote Empress, but thinking about the puppets actually led me toward seeing the story I wanted to tell in Rules. Because in Empress, the boy puppet, with his crown, is the only way we "meet" Battle's brother, and what we meet is a beautiful doll-like object that's used onstage. Battle, in fact, becomes theatrical when she's holding the boy puppet: she talks in a different voice, she's performing. The only other time we see Battle remotely like that in Empress is when she's shaving her head, and she and Nic improvise a romantic, courtly scene together (to Katrina's disgust).
So in Rules, I brought back the puppets for two reasons: to foreshadow what will happen to Battle's idealized vision of her brother, and to show that even though she and Nic aren't together in this story (much to the dismay of many Empress fans!!) she still values Nic's gift and their relationship.
When did you start writing Rules?
It depends on how you define "start." After I wrote Empress, I immediately started what I thought was going to be the sequel. I wrote a whole manuscript, and then realized that it absolutely didn't work. It was the wrong story. It wasn't what really happened.
So I threw it out, and started writing Rules in, I think, the summer of 2005. (My fantastic agent, Barry Goldblatt, keeps pointing out that this means I am not as slow a writer as I think I am.)
When the story begins, Battle hasn't seen her older brother Nick for four and a half years - nearly a third of her life. Being the narrator, readers hear her thoughts first-hand -- but what are Nick's thoughts upon first seeing his baby sister (almost) all grown up?
He's surprised at how tall she is, immediately aware of the attraction between her and Meryl, and amused by it, genuinely glad to see her. And he wonders how much money she has.
Do you have any siblings?
I don't, actually -- but I grew up reading a lot of books about big families, and I eavesdrop more or less constantly.
Did you chose the card game Hearts because of its name or because of its rules of play?
What is your favorite card game?
The funny thing is that I don't really play cards now, though I did play a lot of Hearts growing up. I'm fascinated by tarot cards, though of course tarot isn't a game. (There are some great books with tarot themes, too -- Last Call by Tim Powers and The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino come to mind.)
The main characters live in a group house, Forest House, and perform as Theater Borealis. Did you ever live in a group house?
Oh, yes. For years. The joys of sharing space. And drama. And mountains of dirty dishes.
A Midsummer Night's Dream, which Theater Borealis puts on in Rules, is my favorite Shakespearian comedy. What are your favorite Shakespearian plays?
Midsummer is right up there for me as well, ever since I saw a really amazing production at the Stratford Festival in Canada years ago. It's the one I know the best, and in fact I've used it twice in fiction, in Rules, obviously, but also in a short comics story I wrote and Steve Lieber illustrated. It's called "Me and Edith Head," and it's about Katrina before Empress happens. I've posted it on ComicSpace.
I wish I knew more Shakespeare plays better. Some others I've enjoyed: Henry V, Richard III, A Winter's Tale, As You Like It, and Much Ado About Nothing. This year I'm finally going to make it to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I'll probably have some new favorites after that.
Battle has looked for love and solace in various people throughout her young life. She finally finds unconditional love in a dog dubbed Lucky. Do you have any pets?
Oh, yes. I have a spazzy thug in feline form who makes regular appearances on my blog. His name is Snag.
Would you or will you ever write another story about Battle, or Nicola, or Nick?
I do have another story about Battle -- it's a short story in comics form about her senior year in high school, the year between Empress and Rules. It's called "Click," and Dylan Meconis is drawing it. We'll put it on ComicSpace when it's done.
As for the others -- I dunno. Maybe. I have a lot of stories I want to tell!
As a librarian and a writer, you are always surrounded by books. What are ten of your favorite novels?
I'm glad you said "ten of your favorite" instead of "your ten favorite," which is of course impossible. :) And I've cheated and included eleven titles, including a poetry collection and a graphic novel and a biomythography and a trilogy, which makes fourteen actually. (If anyone is really interested in the books I own, I have most of them up on LibraryThing.)
Finn Family Moomintroll and the other Moomin books by Tove Jansson
Locas: the Maggie and Hopey Stories by Jaime Hernandez
The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies
The Lone Pilgrim by Laurie Colwin
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
The Last Samurai by Helen De Witt
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
archy and mehitabel by don marquis
Zami by Audre Lorde
The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell
Thank you again for sharing your books and your time with me!