When Tui Sutherland was writing the outline for her latest book series, she was pregnant with her first son.
“I was thinking a lot about parenting and the effect we can have on our kids,” she says.
Naturally, she was writing a fantasy series about dragons in an apocalyptic world war.
Yet, strange as it may seem, that is precisely what is most memorable about her “Wings of Fire” series for young readers. Among all the trappings of epic fantasy that one would expect in books about dragons at war – from prophecies to magic to contested thrones – it is their humanity and sense of vulnerability that engages.
Raised by a banker father who moved from Paraguay to Miami to the Dominican Republic to New Jersey all in the space of about four years, Ms. Sutherland recounts how she was the girl who, upon moving to the United States, didn’t know any pop music, wore her backpack on two shoulders (definitely not cool), and made the incalculable social mistake of winning the spelling bee.
“It was like, ‘Oh no.’ I was clearly not going to be one of the cool kids at that point,” she laughs – now.
Sitting in her Massachusetts home, stocking feet curled comfortably beneath her on the couch, Sutherland talked with the Monitor this fall ahead of the release of “Talons of Power” on Dec. 27. The book is the ninth in a 10-book arc and follows six young dragonets as they attempt to save their world from Darkstalker – an ancient and magically powerful dragon so terrifying that he drove his own tribe into hiding for two thousand years.
There is more than enough action in “Wings of Fire” to keep the pages turning, not to mention the twist that, in this world, humans are known as “scavengers” and are notable only in that they are generally terrified and taste disappointingly stringy. But the “FanWings” who frequent online forums have made the series popular because they connect most with what Sutherland brings to her characters – a conviction that, no matter one’s background, everyone can find a sense family and purpose in the goodness of others.
“I have at the top of my notes [something written] about how you can’t choose your parents and you can’t choose where you’re born, but you can choose the actions you take throughout your life,” she says.
The answers have been edited for length and reordered for clarity.
Q: How did moving so much as a kid influence you as an author?
When I was overseas I definitely felt like I was an American, but once I came back to America I felt like I wasn’t….
Q: So you were the new kid a lot?
That’s something I’m clearly interested in in my books. I would say Book 6 especially, where Moon is the new kid at her school. That was very much me remembering what it was like to meet a whole bunch of new people at once and be very overwhelmed by it.
Something I come back to a lot in my books is the idea that everyone is sort of the hero of their own story. What I really love doing is writing stories from other points of view.… That is something I think about a lot – how everyone is living in their own world and sees everyone from their own perspective. But if you sort of shifted it around, what else you might get out of it? I think that kind of comes from [moving around] growing up.
Q: One way that seems to come through is that you really don’t have villains. Is that intentional?
I think most characters, you can see a good side to them.… What I found interesting [in writing the books] was how many kids on the forums could defend characters like Morrowseer in ways that they were like, ‘He’s just trying to take care of his tribe, his tribe is suffering in all these different ways.’ And I love that they were able to do that multiple-perspective thing that I’m so interested in.
Q: When you’re writing two connected five-book series, how much do you plan out ahead of time, and how much do you just jump in and see where the writing takes you?
I spend more time planning the world and less time planning the plot. That helps when you’re a dive-right-in writer because if you know the world pretty well and the tribes pretty well and the characters pretty well then things feel like they’re developing naturally.
I did know from Book 1 that the NightWings had lost their powers, because I wanted the prophecy to be fake. That was actually a big part of it for me. I’m writing a big epic fantasy, but I want it to turn some of those things upside-down…. What does it feel like to have built your whole life around, ‘I have a destiny,’ and then to be like, ‘No wait, you don’t, just kidding. It was all a trick.’
Q: How did you come up with all the different characteristics for the different dragon tribes, like IceWings and NightWings?
Watching the “Planet Earth” [TV] series was a big influence because I was thinking about the different habitats and trying to create a creature that would live in each of the different ones.
Q: When did the idea for ‘Wings of Fire’ start to take shape?
The first scene that I imagined in my head was the one where the dragonets were born – where they all hatch. And I was interested in what it would be like for these five dragonets in this cave underground and which ones would feel like, ‘Oh, that’s a normal place to hatch,’ and which ones would feel like, ‘Wait, where’s the ocean? I should be in water right now.’ Or, when I started I had an IceWing, too, so like, ‘Why isn’t it colder?’
Q: Your world is very divided among the different dragon tribes, but the main characters all end up working together. Why do you keep returning to that theme?
That idea of bringing the tribes together, it’s something I think about a lot with all the conflict that America is having right now. If we could just get those people in the same room and have them hang out with each other more, I think there would be less polarizing views.… I think if you just let people be with each other they’d see the humanity of each other…. There’s a lot that’s hard about it, but my hope is that as the books go forward you’ll see that it’s successful.
Q: Might there be a third five-book series?
Am I going to an ending? Is there something that will be like, ‘That’s it, we’re done’ – like defeating Voldemort? Or is it the possibility that there could always be more stories? I’m not sure yet. I think what makes it continue to be interesting for me is that it’s a different main character in each book and so it feels like a new story every time even though it’s the same world and sometimes the same problems. As long as I can keep finding new characters that I’m interested in exploring – all the things I’m interested in I can bring into this series.
Q: We’ve seen Darkstalker and Foeslayer. Will we see Clearsight again?
I think we’ll find out more about what happened to her. I’m hoping maybe in [Books] 11-15, because she does go off and look for the Lost Continent and the other tribes. So I do have ideas of what happened to her and how we might find out that stuff.
Q: Will you ever resolve all the relationships swirling around?
In Book 10 there’s going to have to be something with Moon and Qibli and Winter – sorting that out, and I’m going to make somebody mad…. I pretty much knew [how it would end up]. It became clearer as I wrote the characters.
Q: What about the others?
We’ll see Tsunami and Riptide again. I have a whole world in my head of what’s happening. They’re both being ridiculous right now, basically. They’re still teenagers.
Clay and Peril? Peril has some character work to do, and I think she did a lot of it in Book 8. So I’m hopeful for them. But all sorts of terrible things could happen in Book 10, so I can’t promise anybody.
I do have someone in mind for Sunny one day that I have introduced elsewhere in the series, and if they ever meet, I think they’d be perfect for each other. But it’s a matter of getting them into the same place at the same time.
Q: Will we ever learn more about the scavengers?
I have a whole story in my head about the characters in Book 5. There’s humans in almost every book and I have a little story for each of them that I would love to tie all together, and hopefully that will see the light of day eventually.