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Fantasy writer Leigh Bardugo on magic, miracles and her version of hell


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Leigh Bardugo is one of today's most successful and popular authors working in the fantasy genre, writing books for both the adult and YA markets. She became famous for her "Shadow And Bone" novels, which took place in a world inspired by 19th century Russia. They were adapted into a series for Netflix. Her latest novel, "The Familiar," takes place in 16th century Spain. Bardugo spoke with our producer Sam Briger. Here's Sam.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: The heroine of "The Familiar" is Luzia, a young woman with little prospects, working in the kitchen of a not very important noble and his wife in Madrid. However, Luzia has a secret. She's able to perform small miracles. Like when the cook burns the bread, she's able to unburn it. Her secret is discovered by her employer, the haughty woman of the house, Dona Valentina, who imagines she will be able to rise in society having such a woman working for her.

But the story of Luzia's parlor trick-like miracles travels fast, and members of King Philip II's court take notice. Perhaps, they think, she can serve a larger purpose in the pursuits of Spain's empire. But first, she must prove her magical skills in a contest with other miracle workers, some of whom may be hucksters, some might be real. And in a society policed by the inquisition, she must prove that her abilities are the products of God's blessings and not the work of the devil, which would surely be the conclusion if it's revealed that she is of Jewish descent, that she is one of the conversos, the Jews that in 1492, when faced with exile from Spain, converted to Catholicism to remain. Luzia faces mortal traps everywhere as she tries to find a place for herself in the oppressive world she's been born into and as she discovers love.

Leigh Bardugo is well-known for her YA books in the "Shadow And Bone" and "Six Of Crow" series, as well as her adult books "Ninth House" and "Hell Bent," which take place on a version of Yale's campus where she went to school, where magic is used to maintain the power and privilege of the school's secret societies like Skull & Bones. Leigh Bardugo, welcome to FRESH AIR.

LEIGH BARDUGO: Thank you for having me.

BRIGER: I'd like to start, if you're willing, with a reading from the new book, "The Familiar." This is after Dona Valentina thinks that something is up because she came into the kitchen, saw there was some burnt bread. She got very angry, yelled at the cook. And then when she comes back, the bread is no longer burnt. She thinks maybe someone's pulling a trick on her, but she's not sure what's going on. And we're going to hear from Luzia's point of view here.

BARDUGO: (Reading) When Luzia had seen the burnt bread, she hadn't thought much about passing her hand over it and singing the words her aunt had taught her, aboltar kazal, aboltar mazal - a change of scene, a change of fortune. She sang them very softly. They were not quite Spanish, just as Luzia was not quite Spanish. But Dona Valentina would never have her in this house, even in the dark, hot, windowless kitchen if she detected a whiff of Jew. Luzia knew that she should be careful. But it was difficult not to do something the easy way when everything else was so hard. She slept every night on the cellar floor on a roll of rags she'd sewn together, a sack of flour for her pillow. She woke before dawn and went out into the cold alley to relieve herself, then returned and stoked the fire before walking to the Plaza del Arrabal to fetch water from the fountain, where she saw other scullions and washer women and wives, said her good mornings, then filled her buckets and balanced them on her shoulders to make the trip back to Calle de Dos Santos. She set the water to boil, picked the bugs out of the millit and began the day's bread if Agueda hadn't yet seen to it.

It was the cook's job to visit the market, but since her son had fallen in love with that dashing lady playwright, it was Luzia who took the little pouch of money and walked the stalls, trying to find the best price for lamb and heads of garlic and hazelnuts. She was bad at haggling, so sometimes on the way back to Casa Ordono, if she found herself alone on an empty street, she would give her basket a shake and sing onde iras, amigos toparas - wherever you go, may you find friends. And where there had been six eggs, there would be a dozen.

BRIGER: Thanks so much for reading that. So Luzia uses this magic that she has to unburn bread and to do small, little tasks, sort of makes her life easier. Eventually, she's discovered by her employer in which that will completely alter her life. But let's talk a little bit about these miracles. Like, She recites these proverbs called refranes. Is that how you would say it?


BRIGER: And in the Ladino language. So can you tell us about Ladino and refranes?

BARDUGO: Yeah. Ladino is also - it goes by a lot of different names. It's sometimes called Judeo Spanish. Its origins were in the Jewish population of Spain, and it was a combination of a very old form of Castilian and Hebrew. And when the Jews were expelled in 1492, that language went with them. And it combined with the languages of the countries they found refuge in. So you will find Ladino containing words in French, in Greek, in Turkish, because that was what diaspora was doing to this particular kind of speaking. And the idea of these refranes is that they are one of the few ways that this language that has nearly died out in the world continues to be spoken to this day. They are the things that are passed down from people's grandparents and great-grandparents. And for me, they were a way of connecting Luzia to her people in exile.

BRIGER: Is Ladino kind of like the Yiddish of Spain in some ways?

BARDUGO: Yes. Very much so.

BRIGER: These refranes, did you know them growing up at all? Like, have you heard them before? Did you find them doing research?

BARDUGO: Yeah. There was - I had only a small amount of contact with my grandmother on my Sephardic side, but there was this little rhyme - quien no risica, no rosica that rattled around in my head for many years without really even knowing what it meant. And it was only when I was around 10 years old, 11 years old, that I walked into a Spanish class, and my teacher, Senor Beigl (ph) said, you know, your last name is Spanish. It means executioner. And that was a thrilling thing to discover as a budding young goth. But it was also my entry into connecting to this culture that I didn't know very well at the time.

BRIGER: So Luzia is a converso. She comes from a Jewish family that decided to convert to Christianity in Spain in 1492, when Jews were faced with this terrible choice of either exile or conversion. But the people that decided to stay, like, you make it very clear in the book that, even if you did convert, this was not, like, a get-out-of-jail-free card. Like, conversos...


BRIGER: ...Lived a precarious life.

BARDUGO: No. The birth of conversos is also the birth of the Inquisition. And there's a lot of theory about why the Inquisition had such power in Spain. And one theory is that, well, Jews who became conversos now weren't bound by many of the restrictions that existed for Jews. So now they could do business with their fellow Christians - viejos - old Christians, and they could marry and they could live outside of these neighborhoods they'd been confined to. And so there was anxiety associated with that. But there was also real anxiety that I think sometimes as modern people, it's hard for us to get our heads around. There was real anxiety that false converts - if these people were actually practicing Judaism, or in the case of Muslim converts, practicing Islam, in secret, that they were endangering the soul of Spain and that it was the responsibility of the church and the crown to rid Spain of this danger.

BRIGER: Tell us a little bit about how this history links up with your family tree. Like, your family left Spain in 1492, as far as you can tell, is that correct?

BARDUGO: Yes. My family left Spain and went to Morocco - on my grandmother's side, to Egypt. And we know that there were some relatives who did remain, but they converted. And once you had converted, to have any contact with Jews or Judaism, was to put yourself in the crosshairs of the Inquisition. And so that branch of the family tree withers and dies. It vanishes. And this book was a way of reimagining it into existence.

BRIGER: So, Luzia is smart. She's quick-witted. She's ambitious. She wants to see the world, and she says she wants to have opinions about it. She wants to stay up all night and argue. But a real-life Luzia in 16th century Spain would most likely not be able to live the life that she wants. Was that depressing for you to think about?

BARDUGO: (Laughter) Well, I think there are always ways we find our lives constrained. And I think that something that probably resonates with a lot of people is never really having the opportunity to show what you can do, to do your best, to have your talent mentored or discovered. And I think that that is still something that is with us in the modern world, probably particularly for women. So yes, it's depressing, but I think one of the joys of fiction is then finding ways to let your heroes and heroines gain access to power that they might not have had access to in the real world. And there are always exceptions in history. When I was working with one of the historians who helped me to make sure that the book was correct and authentic to the period, he said, look, I deal in generalities. History deals in generalities. There are always exceptions. And that was sort of a guiding touchstone for me.

BRIGER: You say that you start your characters off as archetypes. Why is that?

BARDUGO: I think I have a very popcorn sensibility when it comes to stories. I tend to begin with a kind of fun proposition for a tale, right? Look, here's a girl who can work miracles during a time when miracles and magic were under such close scrutiny. With "Six Of Crows," it was, I'm going to write a fantastical heist. It's "Ocean's Eleven" meets "Game Of Thrones." With "Ninth House," it was, well, wouldn't it be fun if these societies wielded this kind of magical influence. But when you're telling a story honestly and thoroughly, It tends to get a little heavier than maybe the popcorn version. And when it comes to my characters, they begin as archetypes in the sense that Luzia is a kind of Cinderella figure. Valentina is her shrewish employer. But they end up being very different people as we get to know them in the same way that hopefully the people you encounter in your lives become more interesting and reveal themselves and surprise you as you get to know them too.

BRIGER: You know, magic has been a prevailing interest in all of your books. Why do you think you're so drawn to the idea of magic?

BARDUGO: I think that magic is essentially just a metaphor, right? It's just another kind of power. And I think as I've written, the magic in my books has gotten smaller and the real world has overtaken it. Because I think magic is at its most interesting when it is limited and when it exists for a metaphor for power. So in "Ninth House" and "Hell Bent," there are very real secret societies at Yale that to one degree or another, wield economic, social, political influence. Well, what if they wielded magical influence as well? And what does it mean to put that kind of power into the hands of a bunch of undergrads? When I was writing this book, "The Familiar," I wanted to pose the question of what magic might look like to the church of the time and where the line between magic and miracle actually exists.

BRIGER: And one thing that happens in all three of those books is that figures of authority or governing bodies try to co-opt your heroes who have these extraordinary abilities. That seems to be a prevailing theme.

BARDUGO: Well, I think that is a natural theme. I think that we see again and again that once somebody's gifts or abilities are discovered that they essentially become commodified. And so you're going to have people who want to use them for their own ends. And I think it's worth saying too that if you pose the question during the Renaissance, and maybe even now, what's the difference between magic and a miracle? The answer is, well, who is performing that magic or miracle? That's going to tell you whether it's holy and safe or not.

BRIGER: We need to take a short break here. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with author Leigh Bardugo. Her new novel is "The Familiar." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. Our guest is author Leigh Bardugo whose new fantasy novel takes place in 16th century Spain. It's called "The Familiar.".

Leigh, I wanted to talk about the series that you've been working on. The first two books came out before "The Familiar." I guess I'm going to call it the Ninth House series. There's two of them so far, "Ninth House" and "Hell Bent." And this is a really clever rewriting of Yale University, where you went to school.

Yale is known for having these secret societies, where a lot of the most famous alum were members. Perhaps the best known of these societies is Skull and Bones, where the two Bush presidents were members. But so you've imbued them with the ability to do magic. They all have specialties like Skull and Bones prognosticates by reading human entrails. So first of all, like, how did this idea come to you?

BARDUGO: I mean, I think it began when I was an undergrad. When I was an undergraduate, we still wrote letters, and our post office was off campus. And I remember walking back reading a letter as a freshman, and I looked up from my letter, and to my right were the gates of the Grove Street cemetery, which is really right in the middle of campus, and there's a huge - the gates are sort of huge neo-Egyptian plinth that reads, the dead shall be raised. And to the left was a massive mausoleum on a street corner, the size of an apartment building, with black wrought-iron fences around it with black wrought-iron snakes crawling up them. And later I would learn that this was Book and Snake, which is one of what are called the Ancient Eight, the old landed societies that have tombs or really just clubhouses, windowless clubhouses on campus.

BRIGER: But called tombs, right?

BARDUGO: They are called tombs and sometimes crypts. Yes. So these are societies who, in theory, are secret, but who build these giant, very showy crypts around campus. The Scroll and Key one is beautiful. It has a kind of Moorish facade. Wolf's Head is a giant English Tudor mansion that...

BRIGER: They want you to notice their secret places.

BARDUGO: ...Has no business being there. One hundred percent - look at us. Don't look at us. And so I was obsessed with these when I was an undergraduate. I found them fascinating. And so I think this story has been percolating for a long time.

BRIGER: So these societies have the ability to do magic. But here at Yale, magic is just another apparatus of maintaining power and wealth and privilege. Like for instance, we - I mentioned Skull and Bones. They use their prognostication to game the stock market. And magic is used for darker things, like one character is raped under the spell of this magic potion that's kind of like a more potent version of a date-rape drug. So magic here is being used by people for, like, the basest of interests. Did you feel like that would be the inevitable conclusion if magic was a real thing in the world?

BARDUGO: Absolutely. And I think you see this play out in the best of science fiction and fantasy. Magic doesn't - in the same way that wealth doesn't make somebody suddenly a better or different person, magic doesn't either. And I think, you know, when I set out to write a book, I don't set out with a message in mind because then I think you end up with a sermon instead of a novel. But I do want to explore a topic honestly. And if you're going to create a situation - if you're going to bring magic into Yale, you're still going to have to grapple with things like race, gender, sexual assault, class, which is a big operating function for my heroine. So that was a natural way to think about magic in these terms. And I think there's a kind of naivete around the idea that magic might be used justly. Why would it be, when nothing else is?

BRIGER: Your main character Alex is very much a fish out of water in this environment. She comes from California. She's a former drug addict and survived this terrible homicide. She sees ghosts and is able to use them temporarily to sort of gain strength. She has a very cynical view of humanity, and she has little empathy for the many privileged students she encounters at Yale. In fact, I really think sometimes the only thing that Alex likes about Yale is the architecture. Does she look up to...

BARDUGO: I don't think that's fair. I'm going to be real. I don't think that's fair. She loves her roommates.

BRIGER: She likes her - yeah. She loves her roommates.

BARDUGO: She loves her roommate. She loves Mercy and Lauren. She...

BRIGER: She likes the cafeteria.

BARDUGO: Yes, she loves the cafeteria. She loves food. In fact, that was the one thing my editor made me trim down in the book, was he said there are too many rapturous descriptions of food. But I had grown up eating frozen dinners. And so when I went to - everybody else was talking about how bad the food was and I thought I had - you know, I was rolling in clover. And she likes her classes. She loves the idea of learning for the sake of learning. She just doesn't feel it's an option for her.

BRIGER: OK, fair. But let's say she has very ambivalent views of Yale. Does that reflect your experience when you went there?

BARDUGO: Yes. I think that - look, I think without the wish fulfillment aspect of Yale and of a place like Yale, both the beauty of it and the promises it makes, a story like this doesn't work. Because if it wasn't - if there wasn't an allure to this, if there wasn't pleasure in these things, then why would we stay? Why even bother? So that is an important part of the story, and that's certainly something I felt when I went to Yale. I felt as if I was surrounded by people who spoke a language I did not understand. They had a vocabulary I did not understand. They had family experiences I did not understand. And so I constantly felt like an impostor when I was there, and that is certainly something that Alex is contending with.

BRIGER: You said that before you went to college, you thought of your life as small in California.


BRIGER: What do you mean by that?

BARDUGO: I mean, I think for most young people, life is small, because we don't have a lot of autonomy. You know, for me, there was home, and there was school, and there was the mall, and I was a big nerd, so there weren't a lot of parties. It was me, you know, hanging out with my friend Lizzie and watching horror movies and eating sour candy on the weekends. I was not an edgy kid. I was a lonely kid. And I will say that I wondered when I was young if I might be a sociopath because I didn't feel a deep connection to my friend group. I thought maybe - and I read a lot. So I knew what - I had read "Anne Of Green Gables." I knew what friendship was supposed to be like. And so I thought maybe there's something fundamentally wrong with me that I cannot connect to the people around me.

When the truth was they were wonderful people, but they were not the people who were going to be, you know, my tribe, my army, and those were the people - I just had to meet more human beings. You know, I went to a tiny school. And again, I was not somebody who was brave enough to step out of my bubble very often.

BRIGER: Do you remember the first time where you sort of felt a strong connection to someone?

BARDUGO: Yeah. My dear friend Hedwig - yes, her name is Hedwig. She lived upstairs from me. She wasn't one of my roommates. But I remember when we met feeling a kind of instant kinship, and I remember thinking, oh, she actually gets my sense of humor. This is somebody who doesn't just tolerate me or think I'm quirky. This is someone who will celebrate this and whose quirkiness I can celebrate in turn.

BRIGER: Well, we need to take another break. We're speaking with novelist Leigh Bardugo about her work and her new novel, "The Familiar."

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger back with my guest, author Leigh Bardugo. Bardugo was perhaps best known for her series of YA fantasy novels, like "Shadow And Bone" and "Six Of Crows, " that all take place in a shared world called the Grishaverse. She's also written books for adults, such as "Ninth House" and "Hell Bent," which follow the paranormal activities on the Yale campus where she went to school. Her newest novel, "The Familiar," takes place in 16th-century Spain, is about a young woman who can perform miracles.

Now, for your second book in the series, "Hell Bent," your characters actually go to hell. And so you get to write about - you get to create your own version of hell. So what's your hell? How do you describe it?

BARDUGO: (Laughter) I mean, every single character in this gets to experience their own version of hell, of course. You know, I think that - I think my hell looks a lot like Dawes' hell. Dawes is this graduate student who's been working on her thesis forever.

BRIGER: Perpetual graduate student.

BARDUGO: Yes. And I think she fears never publishing and, at the same time, publishing. And I think, you know, the Damocles sword of my life has always been failure, so I think that's what hell looks like for me. But keep in mind hell also kind of looks like a giant, beige mini mall in this book. So that is also a particular kind of hell.

BRIGER: Well, I was also wondering if it had to do something with shame because you say that what drives a lot of your fiction is the idea of shame.

BARDUGO: Yes. I think that's something I actually learned from reading horror growing up, that these monsters embody things that are too shameful for us to acknowledge, and that the role of the hero is to either be devoured by that shame or to acknowledge it and make it public. I think that for my characters, those are the levers. That is the open wound that's being pressed on at all times. And in order for them to literally and figuratively walk the gauntlet, they have to acknowledge it and have it exposed to the people closest to them.

BRIGER: Are you someone that ruminates about the events of your life and feels chagrin about what you've done in the past?

BARDUGO: Oh, yeah. I have a very well-developed cringe impulse. No question, absolutely no question. But I also think that, you know, writing is not therapy. Therapy is what we need when we try to be writers, but that therapy is an entirely different thing. And while there can be elements of catharsis in writing about things that trouble us or that we're trying to grapple with, I don't think that that's really the role of fiction for the author. Or maybe it isn't - it just isn't for me.

BRIGER: Well, speaking of catharsis, like, there's some really bleak moments in these two books that are hard to read. I was wondering what they're like to write. Do you need to take a break after writing those kinds of things or do you feel, like, a weight lifted off you? I know it's not therapy, but, like, it must take something out of you to write those passages.

BARDUGO: I need to take a break after I write some of these things. I do. And I don't believe in novels that are unrelentingly bleak. I'm not interested in punishing my readers, but I will say that I think that there are kinds of experiences that should not be comfortable to read about. And I think that we - and I don't know if this is a function of the pandemic, where we were all saying, look, we want comfort and we deserve comfort because we're all going through this. But I think there's sometimes an impulse in us, or at least in me, to want everything to kind of feel like a warm bath and a slice of cake.

And I think that's fine some of the time, but discomfort is actually a powerful signal. And we should be shocked by things. We should be disturbed by things. And I like fiction that challenges me and maybe dunks me in cold water that I might find shocking, that I might find uncomfortable, but that I will also find bracing. And I don't want to live in a world where all of our culture is comfortable all the time.

BRIGER: "Ninth House" was officially your first book for adults, not YA. And I guess there's more sex and drugs and cursing in "Ninth House" than some of your other books. But, like, beyond that, is there much of a difference for you in those categories? Like, are there some things that open up to you if you're writing an adult book that is not available to you in a YA book?

BARDUGO: I think I feel freer to take a little time with the pace and with the world-building and to potentially make it a little denser. You know, I wanted to treat "The Familiar" as historical fiction. I didn't want to think about it as a fantasy novel. I wanted the magic to stay fairly small and sort of grow in the book and have us questioning at every point what was real and what was fraud. So I think that there are differences in terms of tone, language, pacing.

And I think there are also differences in terms of where the characters are in their lives and their expectations for what they want. The world view, the goal is usually much more long-term for a character like Alex Stern in "Ninth House" than for a character like Alina Starkov in "Shadow And Bone." They are really trying to get to sort of one big moment of transformation or epiphany, whether that is, you know, revolution or the end of a heist, a victorious moment, the enemy is bested. With "Ninth House" and "Hell Bent" and "The Familiar," the goals of my characters are much more like my own goals in this life, to be able to survive a world that doesn't value you and to somehow build a sustainable life to take care of the people you love in the long-term.

BRIGER: In some ways, they're smaller goals, but so much more important.

BARDUGO: I think that they resonate with me because I'm coming up on 50. You know, my friends and I are all dealing with our own mortality, with aging parents, with what loss means. And these are certainly things that - I don't want to cast aspersions on young adult. Young adult is a vast category that has some extraordinary writing in it. And it has some garbage in it, too, which is true of every category...


BARDUGO: ...And genre of fiction. But for me, these are the questions that have become more compelling to me. And taking these kind of radical moments of change and transition that exist in young adult but seeing them through a more adult lens and that long-term lens, I think, for me, is where my creative brain wants to go right now.

BRIGER: You have a degenerative disease called osteonecrosis. Is that how you say it?

BARDUGO: Yeah. It can also be called avascular necrosis.

BRIGER: Would you mind describing it and how it affects you?

BARDUGO: So basically, AVN - or osteonecrosis - it just means your bones are dying. So I have little pockets - right now, it is mostly confined to my ankles. I have little pockets where the bone has died, and that causes quite a lot of pain for me. And certainly that has increased, unfortunately, as I've gotten older. It is unusual in someone who is my age and who has not gone through treatment for leukemia, or there are other factors that it can be. But, yeah, that's something I live with, and it's why a few years back I had to start using a cane. Not all the time, but certainly when I'm on tour, if I'm dealing with airports or I'm at a convention, I absolutely have to have a mobility aid.

BRIGER: Did you get diagnosed early in your life?

BARDUGO: I started showing symptoms when I was in my 20s, but I didn't know what it was. And then (laughter) I trained for a marathon and ran a marathon. And that was when I realized that - you know, and everybody's in pain after you run 24 miles.


BARDUGO: And if you're not, I don't really want to know you. But I would - my whole body would hurt. And I realized that my recovery was much slower. I was really struggling to walk, and I thought, something is wrong here. And so I went to a doctor and they did a bunch of MRIs, and that was when I got my diagnosis. But I will also say, despite the pain, I did not use a cane for a long time, I think because I had really kind of built up in my own head that this was - I just had a lot of ableist ideas that - and biases that I hadn't grappled with.

BRIGER: So have you bought yourself some really cool canes? Like, I know there's...

BARDUGO: Oh, yes.

BRIGER: Like, antique canes that have flasks in them or, like, that people would squirt poison.

BARDUGO: Yes, yes.

BRIGER: Or do you have anything like that?

BARDUGO: (Laughter) Well, those are very hard to get through airport security.

BRIGER: Yeah (laughter).

BARDUGO: But, yes, I do have a small collection of very beautiful canes, and I've even been gifted a couple of canes with crows on them and ravens on them.


BARDUGO: And there's something very special, too, about seeing people in my signing line who are using canes or mobility aids. And we have a little chat. We talk about good days and bad days. But it feels like we're like a little cane-welding army.

BRIGER: If you're just joining us, our guest is author Leigh Bardugo. Her new novel is "The Familiar." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with author Leigh Bardugo, whose new fantasy novel takes place in 16th-century Spain. It's called "The Familiar."

So, Leigh, you grew up in Los Angeles.


BRIGER: Well, you've described yourself as a goth kid, so I'm guessing sunny Southern California wasn't necessarily a good fit for you?

BARDUGO: No. You know, I live in Los Angeles now, but I never intended to come back. When I went to college, I wanted to get as far away as I possibly could. I think, like, a lot of young people felt alien. And, you know, I had gone to this very small school with a lot of smart kids at it. And then my mom remarried, and we moved. And I started junior high and a very prolonged awkward phase. And all of a sudden, I was at this school where everyone was tan and blonde and loved the beach and hacky sack. And volleyball was the most important thing. And books and schoolwork and theater and music were not - they weren't interesting to a lot of people in the way that they were to me. And so I needed to find my crew, (laughter) my crew of fellow listeners of The Cure and Morrissey, in order to find any kind of sense of stability or safety. But that is also when I fell in love with fantasy and science fiction.

And I have a very clear memory - I mean, I was utterly miserable in the seventh and eighth grade. I was completely lost. And I remember walking into our school library, and some beautiful librarian had set out a table of books of science fiction and fantasy classics that said discover new worlds. And, boy, did I need that. I needed to know there was more than the world I lived in. And I fell into those. And that's when I started writing kind of - I guess what would now be described as self-insert fan fiction about, you know, very, you know, beautiful and tough and brainy blond girls, you know, saving the world. But that was what I needed. I needed to know there were worlds where being clever and smart and prepared and giving a damn were more important than being cheerful or cute or popular because I was none of those things.

BRIGER: Well, you describe writing at that point as, like, a survival mechanism, right?


BRIGER: So you're trying to survive junior high? Is that what you were trying to survive?

BARDUGO: I mean, people will mock teenagers for their sense of drama, right? Like, oh, it's not the end of the world. It kind of can be.

BRIGER: Oh, it's a terrible time.

BARDUGO: Exactly (laughter), thank you.

BRIGER: There's absolutely nothing good about being a teenager.

BARDUGO: Absolutely not. And it is a perilous time. There are a lot of ways your life can go wrong in those years, where you can make bad decisions...

BRIGER: Absolutely.

BARDUGO: ...Or undermine your future or experience heartbreak or violence, or all kinds of things. You are so vulnerable at that time. And it's one of the reasons my heart breaks for young people on social who are growing up with a constant sense of approval and judgment that is so much wider than just, you know, the jerks who happen to be in your class. Now there's a whole world of jerks to judge you or approve of you. So it was just - it felt like a deeply perilous time. And I was - you know, loneliness is a real - it's really a kind of poison and I felt it so deeply. And in books, I wasn't lonely. I wasn't afraid.

And if I was afraid, well, then the monster would be bested at the end. That was very valuable to me. And when I meet young people who use my books as comfort reads, you know, or who say to me this got me through my ninth grade year, I just think that is the greatest compliment I can receive as an author. If you can escape for a while in one of my books, that is a gift to me to hear that.

BRIGER: So was reading and writing kind of magical to you?

BARDUGO: Oh, very much so. I mean, I would ditch class to go to the library - that's the kind of kid I was - to just fall into fiction for a little bit, to discover a book on the shelves or to just sit there writing longhand, you know, what were really dreadful, you know, dreadful stories. But they were where I was strong and brave and beautiful, and I had friends. Like, I - that was - I was creating my own reality in those moments, and it was very powerful. It was a very powerful refuge.

BRIGER: Clothing can - for a teen can be, like, a kind of armor. Your clothing can feel protective, and maybe even more so if you're a self-described goth kid. Did you have clothes like that, that were like your armor?

BARDUGO: I definitely did. You know, we didn't really have Hot Topic at that time, but I was - or not one near me, but that was definitely my aesthetic. We would go to Melrose every weekend, and I was a nerd, though, still. You know, I was nervous about things like cutting my hair. And, you know, I, you know, found punk boys very entrancing, but also terrifying. And so I wasn't the kind of kid who was going out to clubs and was living that life, but I wanted desperately to be. And then when I went to college, my mom actually called it my preppy drag phase...

BRIGER: (Laughter).

BARDUGO: ...Because I completely transformed myself into someone else because I was still trying to figure out kind of how to live in the world. And for a while, it was, you know, J.Crew sweaters and white collared shirts.

BRIGER: Well, I think everyone goes through those stages, don't they?

BARDUGO: I think we have to. And one of the greatest gifts aging has given me is that now I actually dress a lot like I did when I was 14. I can just afford nicer black garments and more copious amounts of jewelry from Blood Milk because I now have found my way back to the person that I was before the world kind of kicked my individuality out of me.

BRIGER: Well, Leigh Bardugo, thanks so much for coming on FRESH AIR.

BARDUGO: Thank you for having me. This was great.

GROSS: Leigh Bardugo spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Bardugo's new novel is called "The Familiar." After we take a short break, jazz historian Kevin Whitehead reviews a new reissue of Sonny Rollins' live recordings from 1959, just before he stopped performing for two years. This is FRESH AIR.

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Sam Briger