The Big Idea: Amy Bai

Who will your heroes be? How and why are they as they are? Amy Bai gave serious thought to these questions when writing Sword, and found the answers for her through a most circuitous path.

AMY BAI:

I grew up, as so many of us did, on Hans Christian Andersen, the Grimm brothers, Charles Perrault, and Disney; on destiny and good girls with shining hair, golden boys on tall horses bending over them to save them with kisses; on the wickedness of evil stepmothers and the last wishes of dying kings. I believed in the power of enchanted swords, wise old mentors, fate, and the deadly secrets of the spinning wheel. I never doubted that the serving girl was disguised royalty and that someday her prince would come. I knew that gentleness and kindness won you the help of the furry woodland creatures, that beauty was worth more than confidence, and that if you waited patiently and were good, if you suffered with grace, you would be swept out of an ordinary life into jeweled-encrusted slippers and true love.

As I got older, I found myself princes more well-rounded than Gallant and Charming—Will Stanton, Cefwyn Marhanen, Rand al’Thor, Frodo and Aragorn, Bastian and Atreyu, King Arthur and Lancelot. They saved the kingdom, defeated the big evil, and changed the world: they lived large.

I was twelve when I discovered Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, and my world opened up. There was destiny and magic, dragons and world-ending threats, and hey presto! there was also a girl protagonist who wasn’t passive, graceful, decorative, or a damsel. Aerin-Sol’s power had nothing to do with beauty, and she neither waited for nor expected a rescue. She worked for what she wanted. This is much, much more of a thing now than it was then, thank frak, but for an early-90s tween living in an isolated rural town in Maine with a teensy library, it was a Big Deal of the mindblowing variety. I still reread The Hero and the Crown pretty often, because I am obsessive that way, and damn if I don’t get that same little thrill of vicarious power every time. Girl fighter. Girl ruler. Girl hero.

So all things considered, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that when I finally mustered the courage to try writing novels, this kind of story was what came out.

By that time I was a veteran of the sort of undergraduate writing workshops where you begin by talking about theme, then move on to some more theme, and bring it home with a really deep discussion about theme… and along with a diploma and a lifelong partner, I’d emerged from college with a vague sense of shame for my love of fairy tales and SF/F. When I started Sword, I had a handful of ideas and absolutely no clue what I was doing. (I’d love to say this process has undergone a vast metamorphosis since, but alas, several hundred thousand words later, I think I’ve just gotten more comfortable with the initial state of confusion.)

In spite of the confusion, I’m glad I didn’t know how to outline a book back then, because I’m almost certain I would have censored myself. I’d have edited out the influence of all those well-loved fairy tales and books, spent the entire first draft trying to recreate everything I’d been taught to value about words up to that point, and the end result would probably have been something along the lines of the world’s worst Great Gatsby fanfic.

Many long nights, the thunderous arrival of the ebook, a vast shift in the publishing industry, and a complete rewrite later, what I arrived at was a coherent story, and also an homage to everything I love to read… but most of all to that amazing moment when I realized that heroism and agency weren’t the sole purview of men.

Gender flipping of genre tropes is hardly a new thing: it’s been done badly, done well, and done better than I could ever hope to do it myself, but one thing I personally don’t think it will be anytime soon is done to death. (If you’re wondering why, just visit VIDA’s site and take a look at the numbers there. Enough said.) So when I decided that Sword required a twisted nursery-rhyme-turned-vague-prophecy and three reluctant and/or outright disgusted heroes, it was natural to me that the Sword of that prophecy who guides the hands of men and commands the army, and the Crown who harbors all their hope and also rules a kingdom should be my two female main characters—while Song, a Bard who has the more traditionally feminine role of easing their sorrow with music, emotional stability, and a lot of snappy one-liners, would be the brother and friend of my two ladies.

Natural, because those were the stories that spoke loudest to me; natural because I could see me in them. And natural because although years and countless improvements in gender equality have passed since I read a book with a girl hero for the first time, it’s still more likely that in the movies I watch and the books I read, I’ll be expected to identify with a sidekick or a love interest, rather than a hero.

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Sword: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo|Publisher

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9 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Amy Bai

  1. We read The Blue Sword in 4th grade and it was The Best Book I had ever read in my life up to that point. It opened up new worlds. I discovered fantasy with that book. (I read the Hero and the Crown right after on my own. In retrospect, the Hero and the Crown probably had too much implied sex to be a class reading assignment, though it completely went over my head the first time I read it…staying up all night because I couldn’t put it down.)

    More strong female heroines is good.

  2. I am also a huge fan of Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown and I am so glad it was actually taught in a school. I loved this Big Idea and just bought your e-book from Amazon Kindle.

  3. Robin McKinley is brilliant – I’ve handed out dozens of her books as gifts – so was perfectly happy to take the chance on someone inspired by her writing. This is a wonderful story so far. I shall hope that Ms. Bai writes faster than Ms. McKinley (who writes more slowly than many geological processes). That isn’t a knock on Ms. McKinley, just a desire for more great stories.

  4. Another fan of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword.

    The Blue Sword was one of those impulse purchases in one of those big box bookstores where half the time they don’t even know what the books are, and I read and reread it. My ex gave me The Hero and the Crown, which has its own charms and which I also read and reread, but it isn’t quite the coming-of-age story that the first one is. (tl;dr: it’s not better or worse, just different.)

    I suppose if the books were better known, the protagonists would have gotten the same criticism that Katniss Everdeen gets — that she doesn’t actually forge her own way like a Real Grownup(tm), but just reacts to events and doesn’t know herself enough to know why she does what she does. Except that that pretty much describes my life. I’m 61, and I still don’t know who or what I’m going to be when I grow up.

    Maybe that’s why most of the books I relate to have female protagonists: because they usually aren’t the dominating masterful movers and shakers that the boy writers and readers usually go for (Aragorn, Legolas, Gandalf — they leave me cold.) It’s okay for them to hurt and be confused and painfully aware that they are not equal to what life is throwing at them. (And I like Frodo and Sam because they, too, are just blundering along trying to do their best and hoping it’s good enough. Like me.)

    FWIW, one of the things I really relate to in Katniss and Frodo is the way they are permanently scarred by the things they’ve gone through. So many books lose me when they come to the end and everything is all right and happy — something I’ve never seen happen in real life.

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