We had the pleasure of hosting YA author Kiersten White in-store Feb. 15th for the release of her new book, SLAYER. Bookseller Rachel Roepke sat down with Kiersten to chat about the Buffyverse, her writing process, comics, and more. Check out the interview below! If you missed the event, you can still order a signed copy here. Just comment “signed copy” at checkout.
I consider my life to be two discrete time periods: the time before I watched Buffy, and post-Buffy. When I first heard that a YA novel in the Buffyverse was in the works, I was apprehensive. It was a progressive show (that still has its flaws, nothing is perfect!) that spoke both to the possibilities and responsibilities of being a hero and the joy and terror of growing up a woman, and it meant a lot to me. Still does, in fact.
But like when Dawn summons a dancing demon because she’s sad, I was equally foolish to question whether this novel would live up to the power of the television show. Kiersten White, in her books (the And I Darken trilogy, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein), works through these beautiful and terrifying aspects of being a young woman in complicated and nuanced ways. Slayer follows in the footsteps of her previous books and begins a new incredible chapter in the wonderful, horrifying, exciting world of Buffy.
*This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.*
RR: One of the things I love about this book is that while your main character is a healer, a person who has to be calm under pressure, she still has a refreshing impulsiveness, as many of your other characters. I was wondering if you would speak a little about what draws you to impulsive characters.
KW: I’ve always been a very careful person, not an impulsive person, and I really like my inhibitions—I keep them around for a reason. I was raised in a very specific community, in a religious community that had strict gender roles, and so being able to examine those in fiction and play with the what if’s—what if I didn’t do what I was told, what if I was angry and allowed myself to be angry? Those are the questions I continually come back to. And a big part of Slayer is Nina finally questioning the Watchers, because she’s idolized them for so long. In her head they’re the good guys, and so for her to identify that their system isn’t great reflects what a lot of us come to in adulthood when we’ve been raised with certain beliefs. We finally have to separate ourselves from the structure of what we’ve been taught and examine its foundation. So I like getting to work through these things with fictional characters, and exploring the what ifs because I don’t do a lot of that in real life.
RR: Speaking as someone who has terrible anxiety, I find the same thing with fiction. I like it because I can explore what I would never do.
KW: Anxiety is actually why I write. It’s why I started telling stories to myself as a child, because I found if I could feed my anxiety a story then it wouldn’t rip me apart, and so I always had a story going on in the back of my head to tell myself instead of going through worst case scenarios of my own life. Part of what makes a lot of people with high anxiety good storytellers is your brain is constantly coming up with the worst case scenarios and playing through things and replaying them and replaying them and replaying them, and that lends itself well to writing and storytelling.
RR: When you spoke earlier about choking writing this first draft of the book, that really resonated with me—the idea of “this is so important to me, I want to do it” and then finally getting the chance and choking—
KW: Yes. Almost like self sabotage.
RR: I know you’ve spoken about this elsewhere, but if you would speak a little bit about—the pressures and the delights of writing in this universe, but the balance of exploring that world and not crossing over the legal boundaries.
KW: Yes! One of the most fun things was just immersing myself in all the existing canon and what was already there to look for holes. Where is there a story that hasn’t been told, where can I fit in my storytelling in this incredible twenty year long cache of stories? It was just so fun getting to view it all from a more possessive point of view, where I was like “I can use that, I can use that, oh look, there’s a hole that hasn’t been explored, I can claim that.” The sheer giddy joy of getting to claim a portion of the Buffyverse is pretty amazing. I had somebody ask, “How did you come up with the stuff for Watchers if it wasn’t in the canon?” and I got to make it. I got to decide. The fact that I got to sit on the couch and pick what my Slayer was named? It was amazing, and it was harder than I thought, because the series is so long and there are so many random side characters, and I was like “I’ll name her this!” Search the Buffy wiki—already been used. “I’ll name her this!” Search the Buffy wiki—already been used. Like, so many names.
RR: And Buffy is a show that the names are important to.
KW: The names are important.
RR: So it’s not like you could just do a random name generator.
KW: But I was also like, what would Watchers name their kids? The answer is incredibly pretentious things.
RR: This is one of your least dark books, which is funny because it’s in the Buffy universe, a typically dark world—and I think that speaks to you having said Nina is a Hufflepuff. But also, did it make it harder because it was a lighter book? Was it easier?
KW: I actually tried to approach it as Buffy Season 1 as opposed to Buffy Season 7. I feel like if you’re telling a long-term story with characters you have to build, and so I wanted this to be a more intimate story that was more focused on Nina and her family and who she was and who she wanted to be, and then book two is a bigger story. It breaks more out into the world as opposed to the insular setting of the first book. I think what works about Buffy so well is that they balance the horror with humor, and it always gives you that breathing room, permission to laugh, permission to enjoy it, and I wanted to capture the same sort of thing.
RR: I think you do such a good job with the humor, because Buffy, as well as your book, lets us laugh at the dark parts of ourselves. We can laugh at the anxieties we have or the things we’re afraid of—which I think is a very important thing for every kid to learn, especially a teenage girl where she feels like everyone is laughing at her. Did you run into any problems with what you could and couldn’t use?
KW: Not really, no. I knew going in who was doing what at that time, so there were a couple of characters that I would have loved to use but they were either busy in the graphic novels doing things that would have conflicted, or they’re dead and haven’t been brought back to life yet. So that was the only real problem. I did figure out a bigger cameo in book two, a character that I could use that I’m really excited about. The other problem was getting too referential— in the first version I really referenced Harmony’s reality TV show that she has in the graphic novels, but my editor felt it was too specific. The hardest part of writing this book was that I had to make it appeal to people who watched Buffy when it first ran and remember it fondly, people who caught a few episodes, people who have watched the entire series through countless times and also Angel and read every single graphic novel, and people who have zero familiarity with Buffy. The story had to function as both a continuation and also an introduction to the Buffyverse. Even though I was respecting that canon, I had to walk that line of respecting it and acknowledging it without getting too involved in it.
KW: I wanted to make sure it played completely within all the other canon. I get a lot of people asking me if it’s officially canon, and I have no idea. I don’t think there is an answer, because it’s not an active property.
RR: Right, this isn’t the Marvel universe where you have executives and movie creators and show creators and comic creators constantly moving the pieces.
KW: People also like to ask me, “Does Joss know about this book?” I think they’re afraid that I just…wrote a Buffy book? And published it? And they’re like “Does Joss know?” It’s cute. I like that they feel protective of it and that they’re concerned. But yes, I promise, this was officially licensed.
RR: And I imagine writing something that is a licensed property is being more of a curator, in a way—you are the custodian of the Buffy world for now.
KW: Yeah. So it’s funny because it is my story and my characters and I decide what happens to them, and they belong to something larger, so if they do the Buffy reboot and they want to use any of those characters, they can! And I love that. I think it’s rad that my teenage girls might get used for something larger.
One of Kiersten’s stops while here in Austin was at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, and she spoke so highly of the students and the passion they share for not just her book, but for everything they do. I also happen to teach and DM Dungeons and Dragons after school at Ann Richards. The young women who play D&D with me are enthusiastic and thoughtful, and many of them approach their adventures at the game table with impulsiveness. They have the freedom to explore their fictional world and explore their anxieties in the story we’re creating together.
It’s a privilege and a responsibility to build those worlds with them, to offer them the safety of fiction to explore their what-ifs. The Buffy universe has always let teenage girls be the heroes of their stories without the fear of shame or ridicule, and Kiersten White is, in my opinion, the best person to be the current custodian. The world of Buffy is a dangerous, sure. Our world is also dangerous, and young women are so rarely able to punch their problems—except in fiction. Slayer, smart and funny, offers that space to punch, to heal, and to grow.