5 Questions for Tracy Deonn

Photograph by Kathleen Hampton

Interview by the Young Adulting Editors

Tracy Deonn is the New York Times bestselling and Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe Award–winning author of Legendborn, and a second-generation fangirl. She grew up in central North Carolina, where she devoured fantasy books and Southern food in equal measure. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication and performance studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tracy worked in live theater, video game production, and K–12 education. When she’s not writing, Tracy speaks on panels at science fiction and fantasy conventions, reads fanfic, arranges puppy playdates, and keeps an eye out for ginger-flavored everything. She can be found on Twitter at @TracyDeonn and at TracyDeonn.com.

1) Hi Tracy! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions—we’re so excited to have you! Your Legendborn series is deeply steeped in Arthurian legends. How was the research process when dealing with such a complex history?

I’m so happy to answer questions and thank you for having me! And thank you for asking about the research process, which I love as an academic and creative. One of the more challenging aspects of working with the legends of King Arthur is that there are so many stories in a very old canon. I call it “fifteen-hundred-year-old global fanfic” because there truly is no single King Arthur story or legend; there are multiplicities of them. I treated the big wide canon of Arthuriana like a giant toolbox; I pulled the aspects I knew I most wanted to work with to tell my story and left others behind. For Legendborn, I worked with a Welsh language consultant and medievalist, two American medievalists, and consulted with two people trained in swordplay for fight scenes. For the history of the setting, UNC-Chapel Hill campus, I did a lot of primary source research in the university’s own archives and drew on my own experiences there as a double graduate. For Bloodmarked, I brought back some of my consultants from Legendborn and also did a lot of reading about epigenetics while working with a physicist. I love working with consultants and combining their expertise and training with my creative goals and research.

2) You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you’ve told stories in a variety of forms throughout your life (i.e., through theatre, video games, etc.). How does your experience with these different medias inform your writing process today?

I love talking about my creative background because, for a long time, I worried about doing too many creative jobs, in too many forms and mediums, and I don’t want anyone else to do that! Every creative job or project I’ve done has helped contribute to the next job or project, and everything I’ve done up until now translates to my writing career. In my time working in theater, I was a playwright, an actor, a director, a lighting operator, a stage manager, house manager, production assistant. All of those jobs contribute to a focused story experience, but they approach narrative at different angles. The visual storytelling of theater means I write scenes very visually; I’m always thinking of how people are arranged in a room, what my main character can see, how the magic looks, body movement. And the collaborative nature of theater means that I’m trained to be very open to working with others, even on a book project that can sometimes appear as if it’s one person’s job. I definitely attribute my magic systems’ strong sense of power, rules, and consequences to video games. Each use of power should have a result in my mind, and each power upgrade should have logic and a cost. Game writing is great for mapping out magical structure and progression.

3) Your writing provides insight into a Black girl’s experience navigating young adulthood, a perspective lacking not only in the publishing industry, but in the fantasy genre as well. Can you tell us what you hope readers take away from Bree’s character?

I’ll answer this question in two ways, first for writers and second for readers. As a writer, I always knew that I wanted to fully inhabit the subgenre of contemporary fantasy and actively push at its boundaries, and also hold myself and the book accountable to the subgenre in near equal parts, both the contemporary and the fantasy. For me, the “contemporary” aspect means acknowledging and wrestling with history and actual lived experiences. It also means engaging fully with Bree’s Blackness whenever that engagement would naturally occur in the real world environment of a PWI (Primarily White Institution) college campus in the South. I hope writers who want to create SFF works that manage this balancing act can feel inspired by Legendborn’s success and encouraged to do the same!

Bree’s journey is driven forward by the mystery of her mother’s death, but as a character she’s also driven forward by her emotional response to trauma, her pain, and her anger. Regarding Bree’s arc, I hope young readers take away the message that their feelings, particularly in the wake of trauma or injustice, are valid. And that healing from trauma does not mean a disappearance of pain and anger, but an integration of those things.

4) If you could give one piece of advice to emerging writers trying to navigate the publishing industry, what would it be?

Great question. I can speak to traditional publishing here, and what I’ve learned along the way. From an emotional and creative perspective, I always write for myself first and foremost and I believe that is what readers respond to—that authenticity and emotional engagement from the author. Young readers especially want to feel the “heartbeat” of a book and they can detect when it comes from a deeply human experience. I think my biggest advice from a craft perspective for writers who want to traditionally publish is to break down your favorite pieces of work (novels, short stories, graphic novels, etc) and try to reverse engineer them for yourself to really understand why they “work” and what you like about those elements. Outline the plot, map out the protagonist’s arc, do a beat-by-beat analysis of a chapter or sequence. 

After you have written your book or after your book is ready for submission, I would also suggest doing the same type of analysis above for a few recent books in your genre that have done well in order to better understand what the industry itself (and its readers) are currently drawn to. That isn’t to say write toward trends! (Please don’t. Write your book first, for you.) But having this information can help preview a) what a publishing professional like an agent or editor might ask of you later on, and b) what you might need to consider when your book eventually needs to be marketed to its audiences. Agents, editors, marketers, and publicists are all publishing professionals who will become a part of your book’s life at some point and professional authors engage with them daily once a book is bought and on the road to pub day. It’s good practice to think about that ecosystem. As an author I don’t just write novels, I also help write book jacket flap copy, consult on taglines, review marketing copy, etc. 

5) What YA books or authors do you adore?

  • I love Bethany C. Morrow’s YA work, which includes a wonderfully rich Little Women reimagining called So Many Beginnings. She also wrote a great contemporary fantasy duology that starts with A Song Below Water.
  • I adore Sabaa Tahir for worldbuilding and craft, and Kiersten White for the same. They both have great fantasy series. 
  • I love Olivie Blake’s voice – it is academic, playful, literary, and fantastical. I have The Atlas Paradox on my nightstand (which is adult, not YA) but can’t wait to read her YA, My Mechanical Romance, released under her Alexene Farol Follmuth name.

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