For the dedicated students who loved and continue to love Tamora Pierce's young adult fantasy novels, perhaps Saturday was a day more magical than most. After all, it's not every day you get to meet one of your childhood idols.
Pierce spoke with a group of 30 students at a lunch discussion, read from her newest manuscript and signed books at a packed Brown Bookstore, and gave a lecture about her writing during her visit to College Hill, organized by the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance.
Talia Wong '13 held her battered copy of Pierce's "Alanna: The First Adventure" as she waited in line at Saturday's book signing. The book's spine is peeling because Wong has read it over 10 times, often to help her relax if she's having trouble sleeping, she said.
Wong was so excited when she found out about the event that she was compulsively double-checking the time of Pierce's visit, she said.
"She was my childhood," Wong added.
Alanna Kwoka '10, head of the Brown chapter of FMLA, said she first read Pierce's books at age 10 and turns to them now for comfort during finals week. She loves the books partly because of the complex way they address issues of race, class and gender, she said. Scrolling through Pierce's Web site last semester, Kwoka noticed that the author visited campuses and decided to e-mail her.
Saturday's resulting visit was "a perfect crowning moment of my time at Brown," she said.
The woman, the legend
A love for baby name books — she owns about 22 — and a soft spot for Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman were among the details that Pierce revealed in Saturday's talk "Pierce-ing the Status Quo: The Writing Process," delivered to a half-full Metcalf Auditorium.
Pierce looked unassuming in an oatmeal-colored cardigan — except for the bright pink and purple laces on her black sneakers and the tattoos that became visible whenever she pushed up her sleeves.
Pierce said she began writing stories as a child, but during her teen years suffered a severe five-year case of writer's block that finally ended during her sophomore year of college at the University of Pennsylvania. She began to write again and made $75 on the first story she ever sold, "What We Did Was Sin," published in Intimate Story Magazine.
That publication gave her the courage to take a fiction class and eventually finish a novel — a book, according to Pierce, that was phenomenally terrible.
When Pierce graduated from Penn, her degree simply read "Bachelor of Arts," since she had twice failed the second statistics requirement for her major in psychology. She began working in a group home for teenage girls, where she wrote a 732-page manuscript about a girl who cross-dresses to become a knight. Telling the story to the girls was an experience that taught Pierce how to write for a young audience, she said.
Pierce tried to sell her book to several publishers, one of whom told her that her book had too many rules. That was when she learned that "editors are human beings, too, and sometimes they're stupid human beings," she said. Finally, she found an editor willing to publish an edited version broken into a four-book series known as "Song of the Lioness," which remains one of her most popular series.
After relating her journey to becoming a New York Times best-selling author, Pierce opened up the floor for questions. The well-informed audience — the majority raised their hands when asked who had read at least 10 Pierce books — asked about her writing process as well as specific aspects of her books.
Pierce spoke about her love of history, which she often uses for inspiration. When Pierce wanted to include a civil war in one of her books, she drew from an unlikely source — the American involvement in Vietnam.
She explained her obsessive attention to detail in her writing, recounting the time she called a friend at two in the morning to ask what color gems one of her characters would wear with a "flame-red dress." Rubies, the friend replied.
Pierce often bases her characters on photographs or celebrities, she said. Numair, a character from her "Immortals" series, was originally based on Gene Simmons from the rock band KISS "because I thought Gene Simmons was hot," she said. Even some animal characters have real-world counterparts — Pierce based the sparrows from one novel on sparrows she had "met" in Manhattan's Riverside Park.
Pierce's 26 published novels contain sorcerers, knights and mythical beasts, among other usual fantasy trappings, but there is something particularly captivating about hers, students said.
"I just fell in love with all the characters," said Luis Lazo '12. Pierce's novels were among the first books he ever read in English after moving to the U.S. from China, he added.
Sarah Peterson, an Emerson College graduate student, said she admires the determination of Pierce's characters. "They have a passion they want to follow, and they go for it," she said. Peterson is currently finishing her first novel, for which Pierce was a major influence, she added.
Pierce's main characters, who often inspire online fan fiction, share another trait — for the most part, they are female. Though young adult books with female heroines are relatively commonplace today, they were a rarity when Pierce began writing in the 1970s. Still, at the lunch discussion, Pierce — a self-described "card-carrying" feminist — said, "We need more girl heroes."
"Tamora's a good example of someone who's feminist and writes feminist characters, but doesn't hit you over the head with them in an obnoxious way," organizer Kwoka said.
Perhaps for this reason, Pierce has devoted male fans, too. Ben Marcus '13, one of two boys at the 30-person lunch discussion, was "absurdly excited to meet her," he said.
"My life has been informed by her books in so many ways," he said, adding that they sparked his interest in medieval studies, feminist theory and queer theory.
Suzanne Michalak '11 said she didn't get "the feminist angle" at all, but just enjoyed the books. They had such a big influence on her that she spoke about them for her high school application interview, she said.
Though Brown students made up the majority of the audience for Saturday's events, there were a few younger faces, too.
Using her "puppy-dog eyes," 12-year old Emily Delsali convinced her parents to travel over two hours from Connecticut to see her favorite author, said her mom, Beverly Delsali. Emily said she wants to be a writer, too. And what does she want to write?
"Fantasy, like Tamora Pierce," she said.
Pierce said she has noticed a shift in her readership in recent years. Her newer "Tricksters" series in particular attracts older teen readers. In general, older readers are starting to take a second look at teen fantasy, which is experiencing a "golden age," she told The Herald. "There's a lot of good reading there."
She attributed the demographic shift to the popularity of Harry Potter as well as the fact that older readers find "less gratuitous sex and violence" in young adult books. She added that young adult books tend to be better edited since editors have lighter loads and have to answer to teachers who want well-written examples for their students.
Pierce currently has multiple book contracts on her to-do list. Her next book published will be "Mastiff," which she read from at the Bookstore, followed by a short-story collection.
She has a few other series to wrap up before she starts on a new one, which will focus on Numair, she said.
Pierce said she is always curious to find out what will happen to her characters in the future. She spoke about these characters like old friends, saying, for example, that she is "really looking forward to working with Tris again."
When one student at the lecture asked her how it feel
s to write a character's death, she responded, "It hurts."
Beyond character curiosity, Pierce revealed another motivation for her writing at the book-reading.
"If I inspire other people to write," she said, "I ensure that I never run out of stuff to read."