The Big Idea: Sarah Prineas
The American Midwest is many things, including the breadbasket of the nation — but is it a fertile field for fantasy tales? Author Sarah Prineas asked herself this question prior to writing her new young adult fantasy novel, Winterling. Her answer awaits you below.
When starting my new book, Winterling, I wanted to achieve two big things. One was that, after writing three books in the Magic Thiefseries, which had a male first-person narrator, I would write a girl-power book. I got that part of it done just fine. As the reviewer for Kirkus noted, “Unusually, almost every character … is female, portrayed in all ages and roles—authority, hero, villain, mentor, warrior, healer, servant and goddess.”
The other thing I wanted to do was shift from secondary world fantasy to portal fantasy, and to begin the story in Iowa, which is where I live. The Big Idea here is that the landscape of Iowa, as you can see, is beautiful:
But it is a highly industrialized landscape, too. Farming here is done on a massive scale—there are way more hogs in Iowa than people; the state is the world’s second biggest producer (after Brazil) of soybeans, and the US’s biggest producer of corn.
While doing research for Winterling I learned a lot about the natural history of Iowa, relying most on a terrific book from the University of Iowa Press by Connie Mutel called The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa. What I learned is that a hundred fifty years ago, Iowa was made up of oak savannah and vast prairies like this:
The effect settlers had on this land was profound, and the transformation from wilderness to farmland happened very quickly. In a short time the land was tamed—it was made “useful” and “productive.”
There’s not a whole lot of scope for fantasy in a place like this.
In Winterling, the Iowa landscape is an important character. It’s used for industrial agriculture; the land is groomed, tainted with herbicide, insecticide, chemical fertilizers. But still, folds of wildness are hidden away here and there, in patches of oak woodland, and in ravines tucked between soybean fields—and I was able to find some magic left in those places. In Winterling, hidden in one of these wild patches is a “Way” leading to another world that is magical and dangerous, a place where my protagonist goes to set right a terrible evil. What she does changes that world, and our own.