Welcoming Sarah Zettel, author of Bad Luck Girl!

Bad Luck Girl, by Sarah Zettel, the third book in the American Fairy Trilogy, is now out in the world (Random House, YA, May 27, 2014), and is a lovely ending to this series about a girl named Callie growing up in Dust Bowl Kansas, whose father is a fairy.  Not just any fairy, but the prince of the Unseelie Court...caught and held hostage, along with Callie's human mother, by the opposing Seelie Court.

The first two books, Dust Girl and Golden Girl show Callie caught in a world of inhuman and often cruel magic, struggling to figure out how to learn her own magical gifts so she can save her parents, while navigating the world of the United States in the 1930s--not an easy place for a girl who is half-black.  Fortunately, Callie has a true friend, a young traveler named Jack, on her side, and in true fairy tale fashion, the enemies she meets are balanced by helpers...

In this third book of the series, Callie has grown stronger and more confident, and she has saved her parents.   But Callie's confidence is a fragile thing--bad luck seems to follow her... Bad Luck Girl takes Callie and her family, along with Jack, to Chicago, where they must prepare to defeat the Seelie King once and for all.

It is Very Good Reading.   There are personal tensions and character growth nicely placed alongside the larger story arc, and best of all, there are new characters introduced (most notably the Halfers--beings who are half magic, have found/made things) who add beautifully to the magic of this alternate US!   

And so it's a pleasure to welcome Sarah Zettel here to day!  (My questions for Sarah are in italics).

You have had a full and varied career as a writer of speculative fiction for grown ups long before Dust Girl came to be!  You've since gone on to write the next two books about Callie, and you've also written the YA Palace of Spies, with its sequel, Dangerous Deceptions, coming out this November.

What made you decide to write for younger readers? 

One of the things I love most about a writer is the challenge of new projects. I love being able to explore new worlds, new times, new ideas and new characters at all phases of their lives.  As the ideas that became DUST GIRL and the other American Fairy books started to come together, they coalesced around this girl, dealing with loss and fear and discovery.  So there was that.  The decision to write the stories as young adults books was also, of course, influenced by that greatest of American fairy tales, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was a huge part of my own childhood.

Now that you are "a YA author" have you noticed people (in real life, in the book world, in the spec fic world) reacting to you any differently?  Have you gotten any dismissive remarks about writing for kids etc? (nb--I asked this question before the latest kerfluffle about YA happened!)

I never got that.  I came to YA after the J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyers revolutions when a lot more adults were not only introduced to the wider possibilities of "kids" books, but started reading YA for their own entertainment.  I know plenty of authors who did (and still do) face it however.  There is still an unfortunate assumption that anything made for kids is somehow of lesser value, weight or complexity than something made for adults.

And conversely, from the outside looking in, the world of YA seems like a place where writers can find close relationships and community--has that been your experience? 

I have been lucky in that always experienced a tremendous sense of community across the writing world.  I came up in science fiction, I've since written romance, mystery and YA and each stop along the way has been filled with great, welcoming people.  I"ve met my share of jerks as well, people who did not think I belonged in "the club" for whatever reason, but they have always been a small minority.

One of the things that strikes me about Callie is the between-ness of her--half black, half white, and half human, half fairy.  She's also betwixt and between child and young woman, and this is true of the book itself--it's a series I'd give to upper middle grade readers (11 to 12 year olds) as well as YA readers (12 and up).  My impression, again as an outsider, is that this is not an ideal place marketing-wise, and I'm wondering if you got editorial pressure to make Callie a more "fully YA" character, and push her age up past 14....or to make her younger....

The ideas of "between-ness" was something I really wanted to explore, because it seems to me it's one of the essential questions of American culture.  Our culture and our nation has a hundred different origin points.  It is constantly combining and recombining influences from inside and outside, and this history, tension and creativity gives rise to what is best in us and uniquely American.  And yet there is always a side to it searching for the one true American Way or American person and attempting to define us down to that one thing. 

As to the marketing aspects, actually, it was the opposite from what you suggest.  One of the reasons my editor chose the book was because it was different in terms of the main character's age and attitudes.  No angsting around for Callie LeRoux!

I'm also curious about Callie being bi-racial--obviously, this ties beautifully in thematically with the book as a whole....but did her dark skinned father come first, or did that aspect of his identity, and by extension Callie's,  develope as the story grew?

That grew out of the variations I wanted to work with in the Seelie and Unseelie courts. When I started thinking about fairies in America, I settled pretty quickly on the idea that the Seelie Court was going to find its strongest inroads through Hollywood.  After all, this was the 1930s.  Where was more intensely glamorous than Hollywood?  But what about the Unseelie?  Magic, in my stories, was going to be attracted to creativity, to beauty.  The Unseelie Court is supposed to be the opposite side of the Seelie.  What was the flip side of Hollywood?  I was grousing about this problem to my husband, and he looked at me and said.  “You want a court?  Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lady Day…”

Of course the Unseelie Court was jazz, that incredibly popular music that was at the time also seen as incredibly dangerous, and so clearly originated in America.  But as soon as I knew that, I knew Callie would have to have a background that included an African American parent, because you cannot present jazz as a source of magic and power and ignore its essential roots in African American culture.  This also allowed me to within the course of the books talk about race, and identity and media imagery, and to include figures like Paul Robeson and Count Basie in the story, so it was all to the good. 

Did you have trouble with Callie's parents while writing Bad Luck Girl?  Callie has been on her own, surviving great dangers and learning about her magical heritage, for the first two books, and now in this third book she has her parents back in the picture,wanting to tell her what to do.   It's a source of tension for the three of them, and I was wondering if that tension spilled over into the writing of them!  Callie gets away from them for a good part of the book, but were you ever tempted to gently but firmly move the grown-ups off stage even more than they are?

That was a challenge, because it really changed the dynamic within the book.  In BAD LUCK GIRL, both Callie and Jack have to finally come to terms with their families, both the good and the bad of them.  It wasn't always easy to write, but I felt it was important to address this aspect of both of them becoming full and independent adults.

Your magical North American is not just fairies transported from European mythology--although those fairies are the focus of the book (given Callie's circumstance!),  myths and stories of other peoples that are made real here as well, including those of African Americans, and Native peoples of North America.  Was that something you wanted to put in from the beginning of telling this story, or was it a realization while the book was in process? I was very glad that, although your books don't go far beyond the magic of Europe, at least that magic isn't all there is!
Thanks.  This was a decision I made fairly early on.  Again, when talking about what is unique to America, you have to talk about the different origins points for the people here, and how the myths, legends, religions and cultures of all those people have fed into one another (or been stolen, or borrowed, or simply passed back and forth) to create us.  One example here is the character of Aunt Nancy in BAD LUCK GIRL.  When enslaved peoples were brought to North America, of course, their stories came with them.  As their original languages were changed or lost, the stories changed to fit the new Anglacized languages and different conditions.  So, over time, the trickster figure of the spider "Anansi" transformed into a new figure named "Aunt Nancy." It's Aunt Nancy who shows up in legends from the sea islands of Georgia, and in at least one of the Brer Rabbit stories.  So, it was Aunt Nancy who Callie meets in Chicago.

I didn't have the time, space or background of learning to fully address the legends of the First Nations in Kansas, but I wanted to be sure I acknowledged them as a vital part of the warp and weft of the fantastic in America.

Thank you Sarah!  It was a pleasure having you here today!


  1. I got offered a review copy of this book, but didn't take it since I haven't read the first two. But I really have to check this trilogy out, because it sounds awesome. (Plus, I loved Palace of Spies.)

  2. I love the origins of Aunt Nancy in Anansi, Sarah! Thanks to you both for the interview--can't wait to read Bad Luck Girl.

  3. I love this series so much - it's wonderful to hear more background! Thanks, Sarah and Charlotte!


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