This, says Pierce, has always been a key impetus behind her writing. Growing up in Pennsylvania and California, she fell for fantasy after a teacher introduced her to Tolkien. But as I grew older, I began to realise that nobody ever goes to the bathroom, nobody ever takes a bath, she says. In fantasy theyre always having stew. Stew takes forever to cook. And you also never see game animals, or farm animals, unless its in the Shire. Where do they get the animals? Where do they get the time to cook?
Its particularly true when it comes to women, she says. Just look at Red Sonja in the comics, sleeping in the winter out in the wilderness in a chain mail bikini.
I just decided, very early on, I was going to be as real as possible so the only thing I would need my suspension of disbelief for was the magic, she says. I wanted characters people would feel they could meet. I was always searching for female heroes. The very few I found were highly dissatisfactory, so when I started writing, I wrote what I wanted to read girls like me.
Pierce credits her father with setting her on the road to writing. He gave her Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Boys King Arthur, Robin Hood. When she was 11, he overheard her telling herself stories while doing the washing up, and suggested she should try writing a book on his typewriter.
Up until then it was death to touch his typewriter, he wrote the union newsletter on it. I knew it was really important to him that I tried this book thing, she says. He suggested she write about a time machine, so she sat down to peck away on a story about going back in time to the Trojan war. About a year later I stopped not because I had finished the book, but because I had run out of ideas.
Her parents split up and her father took the typewriter with him, but she continued writing until her second year in high school, when she sent a short story to Seventeen magazine. It didnt get published, but the editor wrote back and said her talent was obvious. She showed the reply, proudly, to her mother whose reaction sparked a period of writers block that lasted five years.
My mother also shaped a great many of my intellectual interests and the way I looked at the world and made a feminist of me. But she didnt like my writing, says Pierce. Maybe because it was my fathers thing. And she hated speculative fiction she was an English major and had a very snobby view of what a person was supposed to write. I thought she would be proud Id had the courage to submit a short story. She flew into a rage and wanted to know who did I think I was, to think I was good enough to be published, I hadnt studied near enough, I hadnt written enough. She just went on and on. I tried to run away, but ran out of nerve and went home.
Pierce gave up on becoming a writer and went to college to study psychology. But being exposed to new books, people and thoughts at university Penn in Philadelphia, where she was on a full scholarship lifted her block. She wrote her first book-length manuscript, about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to enter a tournament. (It was beyond bad, according to Pierce, and will never be seen.)
Six months later, a scrap of a half-forgotten dream sparked a new idea: a girl who disguises herself as her twin brother so she can become a knight. Alanna, Pierces red-haired heroine in The Song of the Lioness books, drew from Pierces younger sister Kim, a very strong-minded, very determined woman who went on to be a captain in the military, an ambulance worker, an air rescuer and a nurse. She is a real hero, shes saved literally hundreds of lives, says Pierce. I have to have something from the real world to base it on.
Today, The Song of the Lioness is a bestselling and critically acclaimed young adult series, but when Pierce first wrote it, it was a single book for adults. Working in a home for girls at the time, she would read edited versions to the teenagers she was caring for in the evenings. It was turned down by three publishing houses, but she had set herself rules: she allowed herself one week to be upset each time the book came back, before sending it out again.
By then, Pierce was working for a literacy agency in New York, while writing stories, articles and radio plays. Her agent advised her to rewrite The Song of the Lioness as four books for teenagers; she realised it wouldnt be hard, as she had already told the story to the girls in the group home. Finally, the first Alanna book arrived in 1983.
She remembers being questioned about how shed managed to get her frank depictions of sexuality, violence and harsh language published for children. I just looked at them and said, How do you think these kids are living? I worked with Philadelphia and Idaho gang youth, I worked with violent and criminal youth. This Barbie goes to Paris and becomes a model thing, this isnt the kids of today. Youre not paying attention, she says. This is a medieval setting teenagers were not children. Its not believable if I dont tell it the way it was. Readers wanted the rawness of reality.
In 2013, Pierce won the Margaret A Edwards award for her significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature, and for helping adolescents become aware of themselves. It took a while, though, for her books to find their audience: she spent the 80s working for banks and law firms as a secretary, and continued holding a day job through the 90s, all the while publishing books including The Protector of the Small quartet, a series following Alannas first openly female successor, a knight called Kel, and her Circle of Magic series, about four mages in training.
By the end of the 90s I was starting to do rather better and by the time the 2000s rolled around, I was starting to do fairly well. Things just really took off, she says. (When it came out in the US earlier this year, Tempests and Slaughter debuted on the New York Times young adult bestseller list at no 1.)
With two more novels still to come telling Numairs coming-of-age story the tall, bookish magician is based on Jeff Goldblum, she says she is looking forward to writing about girls again. But she has no intention of straying from her fantasy universe.
Im very happy with fantasy. I can say almost everything I need to say. Ive sneaked in a lot of what I think about the modern world, about modern politics, she says. Most of us fantasy writers do. JK Rowling is absolutely brilliant on the failures of justice in human society. Everybody thinks fantasy is so safe, because we dont deal with heavy modern issues. Are you kidding? We do this stuff all over the place.
Tempests and Slaughter is published by HarperCollins. The Immortals quartet will be reissued by Harper Collins on 18 October.