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Holly Black explores shadows and magic in ‘Book of Night,’ her first adult novel

Holly Black explores shadows and magic in ‘Book of Night,’ her first adult novel

Holly Black has written dozens of books for children and young adults, but her latest fantasy novel “Book of Night” is her first entry in the category of adult fiction

“There’s just a whole category of life and living and relationships that I’ve never gotten to write about before,” says the author. “It’s the difference between being a kid and having all of these choices ahead of you, and being an adult and feeling the consequences of the choices you made.”

Black, co-creator of the “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” and author of “The Modern Faerie Tales” series, specializes in contemporary fantasy, including close encounters with fairies, vampires and monsters of mythology that take place in your backyard or neighborhood dive bar.

In that regard, “Book of Night,” out May 3, from Tor, is not so different from Black’s previous works. Charlie, her main character, lives in a universe where some people are able to magically manipulate their own shadows, from altering their shapes to controlling their movements. The difference with Black’s latest novel lies in how she tackles the messiness of adulthood, such as facing consequences, fighting stagnation and exploring the darkest parts of ourselves.

Charlie is an ex-thief turned bartender with baggage from a previous history of crime, a sister who wants to gain the power of shadow magic and a mysterious boyfriend she knows very little about. Lurking in the background are the gloamists – ultra magic users who can control shadows to achieve their own ends, and with whom Charlie has had unsavory dealings in her old life. A school acquaintance who comes to Charlie for a favor is the catalyst that drags her back into her past, with all of its messy relationships and morally dubious choices, and leads her to new mysteries where the stakes are too high to run away. 

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Q. Was writing your first adult fiction book different from your past works?

It was surprisingly different. I like people who make mistakes, but also who have tempers and are struggling with their own emotions and frailties. That goes through all of my work. 

But I was really interested in the way that, in adulthood, it is harder to move out of a certain kind of stagnation. We’re sort of trapped in places – we’re trapped in jobs, we’re trapped in relationships, not necessarily because we can’t leave them, but because it becomes harder and harder and harder to make changes. I wanted to write about someone who might be on their last mistake instead of their first mistake. 

It was also really fun to write about adult relationships. There’s a part where Charlie wants to put on lipstick before having a fight with [her boyfriend] Vince, and I thought: This is the most adult thing I have ever written.

Q. In Charlie’s world, shadow magic is discovered and sort of incorporated into normal life. Can you talk about that? 

There are a couple of things that made me want to write about shadow magic. I remember walking home from town with my son, and he was watching his shadow get longer and shorter and bifurcate. It was so clearly magical to him, and I thought that was really interesting. 

I also remember reading a story from a book of fairy tales about a woman who woke up on a hill to a little man with scissors cutting away her shadow, and he disappeared when she jumped up. She had this sense that if he had cut off her shadow, something terrible would have happened. Those two things really stuck in my head.

Then I was thinking about how our shadows can represent the parts of us that we don’t want to acknowledge, our shame or fear or desire. As adults, how much access are we willing to have to our inner selves? We probably all know people who are standing outside their own houses, if you know what I mean. That seems a really dangerous thing to do because it means you do things and you don’t always know why you do them. 

Q. How did you develop the rules of shadow magic?

Whenever you’re trying to figure out how to create a magic system, it has to be thematically resonant. Books are basically torture devices created for one person – if you are the protagonist, your worst fear will happen; the worst thing you can imagine will come. So the magic had to be thematically resonant to stuff I wanted Charlie to deal with. 

I knew I wanted to have shadows be sewn on and cut off – one of my earliest drafts had a quote from “Peter Pan.” I’m always interested in folklore, and there’s a ton of folklore about shadow people – accounts of shadows doing bad things. And so from those, I went in a bunch of different directions until I got at what I wanted to get about shadows, and about these people and about the ways we sabotage ourselves.

I envisioned the story as at least a duology. I knew I wanted to do two books, and I knew some of what I wanted to happen in the second book. 

Q. Charlie keeps calling herself self-destructive, but I saw her as a natural-born detective who won’t stop. 

Yeah, Charlie’s got some stuff. She’s a person who’s going to get drunk at the local dive bar, throw a bottle at somebody and sleep in her car. She’s also a badass coming out of retirement – one of my favorite genres.

There’s something really pleasurable about watching characters be very good at things and also make mistakes – especially ones who bring us more into more interesting spaces in stories, right? I love characters who make mistakes. They’re my favorite.

Q. I noticed your Twitter bio says “author of melancholy contemporary fantasy” – can you talk about what that means?

So you have categories like contemporary fantasy; I think almost everything I’ve ever written is in that category. But there’s big swaths of difference based on how you approach it.

I think that there’s a certain tone to the way I approach things. I like a pretty description and I love a weird surprise. And I have a love of the little bit grim. Grim, pretty and gritty – those are my three words.

Q. What would you want to say to your YA fans about this book?

That it unites a lot of things that I have loved for a long time. It has some of the folklore qualities of my fairy books, which many of my readers will be familiar with. It has some of the mystery and con artistry that you can see in some of my other books, like The Curse Workers. I wanted to have all the things I love in a series about what it’s like to be older.

I really love Charlie; I really love Vince. I really love the world. And, you know, I’m really happy to have written it. 

Event: Holly Black will appear in conversation with Leigh Bardugo at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles.

When: 7 p.m. PT on Thursday, May 12 

Where: Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles, 3910 Los Feliz Blvd, Los Angeles

How much: Tickets are $27.99 and include a signed copy of “Book of Night.”

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