It’s not often that Pomona College provides free In-N-Out dinner on campus. It’s even less often that free In-N-Out dinner is the second most exciting thing to happen in a day.
Last Tuesday, internationally bestselling author Sarah J. Maas came to campus to give a workshop on world-building in fantasy writing. The event “Creating the Fantastic: World-Building in Speculative Fiction” was presented by 5Cs Out Loud, a creative writing collective geared toward fostering an environment conducive to writing.
Loren Hinton PO ’13, co-president of the club, acknowledges that “it’s really hard for students at the Claremont Colleges to find the time to write between classes and social engagements.”
5Cs Out Loud allows students to come together to write, talk about writing, and get feedback on their work. Wednesday’s workshop was organized as part of April Out Loud, which began as a celebration of National Poetry Month but has expanded to include novelists, slam poets, and other creative writers.
Maas is the acclaimed author of Throne of Glass, a young adult fantasy novel about an infamous young female assassin who competes in a to-the-death competition to become the next top royal assassin in a “corrupt, fucked-up empire.” The 27-year-old author is lively and down-to-earth and doesn’t take herself too seriously.
“At first, when I was getting into [writing], I was scared I would have to be like a very serious author and use my NPR voice all the time, but I figured if I’m gonna do this for a living, I gotta do what makes me happy,” Maas said.
Maas is not much older than most students at the 5Cs; she sprinkles “like” throughout her speech and makes up voices when she talks, often self-deprecatingly. Far from the “very serious author” she feared becoming, Maas is a fun, “spazzy” twentysomething and a pleasure to hang out with.
A self-proclaimed Disney fanatic, Maas grew up loving fairy tales. She lists Beauty and the Beast (and variations thereof, including the Norse East of the Sun and West of the Moon) and the Russian folktale Vaslisa the Beautiful as her favorites. Maas says she hated the books she read in school, like The Great Gatsby and Animal Farm, because “there were no dragons or princesses.” Instead, she became captivated by fantasy, and she cites Garth Nix’s Sabriel, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon as early influences. She also loves The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series and admits to writing Harry Potter/Sailor Moon crossover fanfiction in her early years.
Maas’s fairytale background ultimately inspired Throne of Glass. She began writing the story at 16 as a retelling of Cinderella.
“I was listening to the soundtrack,” Maas said, “and the music that plays when Cinderella flees the ball is super intense. So I thought, ‘This music is way better suited to a story where Cinderella had done something really bad. Like, what if she had just tried to kill the prince and was an assassin?’”
Enamored by the idea of a glamorous assassin in a fantasy world, Maas kept writing until the Throne of Glass series was born.
Maas grew up in New York and recognizes that her urban upbringing influenced her writing. Although the fantasy world of Throne of Glass is a combination of several eras, much of it takes place in a city—the heart of the empire, dotted with museums and theaters. Maas claims that she was never an assassin, but confesses to other similarities between herself and Celaena Sardothien, the protagonist of her novel.
“The heroine is very much a product of the city, and she loves being in the city and gets into a lot of trouble in the city,” Maas said.
Today, Maas lives in Southern California with her husband, whom she met at Hamilton College. She considered Pomona, Scripps College, and Pitzer College (“I fucking loved these schools!”) before applying early to Hamilton. She hopes that she would have gotten into Pomona, although she admits it was a reach, and that she was “a shitty high school student.” These days, she’s content to visit campus with her husband “to creep and pretend like we’re students.” If you see her around, ask her about her Pinterest addiction.
At Tuesday’s workshop, Maas had plenty of advice to offer young writers. She suggested using history as inspiration for building fantasy worlds. Chronicles of conquest, trade, language, and religion can all inspire budding new places. For college students, Maas recommended taking a history course. She also advised that there be a reason for everything that exists in your world, even if the reader doesn’t always get that reason. Research may be “a pain in the ass,” but knowing “the why” behind things can help avoid logical missteps. Even in fantasy, disbelief can only be suspended to a certain point.
“Character-building and world-building go hand-in-hand. Your character is a result of their world,” Maas said.
Fantasy shines when the characters feel like they grew up in that world. A character’s religious beliefs can say a lot about them, and foods such as pumpkin juice can make worlds come alive. In a similar vein, Maas’s next maxim is: “small details, big impact.” Avoid info-dumping and pick out details that readers need to know; they should have a sense that a world exists beneath the surface of your story.
Maas also offers the classic writing tips: get a critique partner or a writing group, keep a notebook, take risks. Her biggest advice? Don’t give up.
“A lot of people are gonna tell you that you can’t get published,” she says, “that it’s not a realistic career path, that it’s very hard to get a book deal. Just politely say, ‘Thank you for your advice,’ and then tell them to go shut the fuck up in your head. Because you can do it.”
Throne of Glass is available now, and the sequel, Crown of Midnight, will be released this fall. You can find out more about Sarah J. Maas at her website: sarahjmaas.com.