Holly Black Isn’t Letting the Pressure of Success Get to Her“It has been such a humbling journey.”
Best-selling fantasy author Holly Black is hitting her writing prime. Perhaps most well-known for her children’s books The Spiderwick Chronicles (which were turned into a major motion picture with Freddie Highmore, Seth Rogan, Nick Nolte, and more), Black has written 39 novels and dozens of short stories. And she’s just getting started.
Her newest novel, The Stolen Heir, brings readers back into the lush and wild world of Elfhame, a faerie kingdom with cruel princes, wicked kings, queens of nothing, and jaw-dropping treachery you have to read to enjoy yourself. On the heels of her U.K. tour, Black is in the midst of writing the much-anticipated sequel and has about two weeks to figure out the ending to her duology—while coping with reader feedback from the first novel at the same time.
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WM: You've had so much success with The Spiderwick Chronicles and The Cruel Prince series. Did you have a certain pressure to live up to expectations for The Stolen Heir?
HB: I think it’s hard to know. What people really think they want is a direct sequel to Queen of Nothing. And I was doing something where I was like, Well, I know we're going to meet new people. I know we're going forward in time. I know this is going to be different. You're writing into that discomfort. I think, for me, I try a lot to think about nobody ever reading the stuff I'm writing while I'm writing it. I want to write for myself and for the story I want to tell and try just to imagine that I deleted all of that.
But it is hard sometimes with something like this where you just know, Oh, people are going to have a lot of feelings and those feelings make sense. I'm so glad that they love Jude and Cardan. I'm so glad there are people who want to see them again. And so in no way am I not grateful for that, but I have to do this thing now. I think that was tricky.
WM: How do you cope with that pressure?
HB: One thing about writing is it's a lot like slow-motion gambling. You roll the dice and two years later you find out what happened. It's not quite that long, but you're very removed from the same timeline other people are on, and I think that's helpful. For instance, right now I am trying to deal with the end of a book [while] I'm hearing people's reactions to the first book, but there's nothing I can do about it at this point really, everything is pretty much set.
I just try to think about it as being a story I'm going to tell for myself. I have friends who are readers and I just try to get the thing right. I can freak out after I turn it in. I feel like a lot of my anxiety comes in then, and then I think all those things. But, when I'm actually doing it, I just try to do the thing.
WM: How do you protect your mental health when you’re on a tight deadline or right after you turn in a draft?
HB: So I have a lot of social anxiety. That's actually my prevailing problem, a thing which I did not realize for a long time. I don’t know if you remember but there was a commercial where there were these sad round things on TV and it was an ad for something for social anxiety and it was the first time I had ever heard the word social anxiety. And I was like, Wait, what's that? I just thought I was right. I thought I was just a really good judge of people and that I knew they all hated me. Because I just thought, Well, I pay really close attention, therefore I know everyone hates me.
So for me, my anxiety came from me going out and talking to people. The thing which I did not realize was part of being a writer. I thought you went to a room and you wrote stories and then you didn't see people. So it was a real bait and switch. My first book was a book called Tithe and then my second book was actually Spiderwick with Tony DiTerlizzi. And we went on the road and Tony is a huge ham, he is ready, he is funny. And my voice would shake. It was so hard back then to do that. And I think for me, the writing was the part I felt like I could control. The writing was the part where I thought, No, I'm going to put all that away and tell my story.
I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves while we're writing to ask ourselves: Will people like this? When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer … And I remember people saying, “If you think you can do it, then, you can do it.” And I thought, This is the most stressful advice. So not only do I have to do it, I have to think I can do it? That's bullshit. So this is my big, don't-believe-in-yourself speech, but truly, you do not have to believe in yourself. It's too much. Just try to do the thing. That's the thing, that's all. You do not have to believe it'll work. You do not have to believe people will like it. You just have to actually make it the thing you want it to be.
WM: How do you unwind after a long day, and how do you preserve your creativity?
HB: When I first was doing this, this was my dream job, this was my whole life and I would hang out with my writer friends and we would write. And I would work on the weekends and I would work at night. I would work when I woke up. It's all I did. And it was real bad because it's true, it wound up where I thought of my work as such an extension of me that it was the thing I worried about. It was the thing I thought about. It was the thing that was going to tell me whether I was good or bad at this.
We all know that with writing, certainly with all art, success of an individual book is determined by so many factors that to take it personally is to tie yourself to something so random. It really is gambling because you don't know where the market's going to be, whether you're going to have the cover that's right, whether people on TikTok will decide to talk about your book. And I've had all ranges of that.
I take off weekends now. I realize it's not a big step, but it was for me. I have a nine-year-old son and I now have an office, and I am not in my house. So when I'm done for the day, I can go home and we can play games and we can hang out. I used to have an office in my house and it was just so easy to drift back.
It's easy to check email, right? And I'm not going to say I haven't, I'm not there yet, but I'm trying to create systems more and more where I can put it away so I can actually spend time with my family and be Holly Black, the person.
WM: What has writing taught you about life in general?
HB: I think the biggest thing is, when I was growing up, I was kind of a weirdo. I was certainly viewed as a weirdo. It was the ’80s and I was probably one of the first people in my school with colored hair. I know this is, again, not very exciting, but at the time I had to go to New York and buy Manic Panic hair dye at Manic Panic. It was a whole different world.
But I thought of myself as somebody who wasn't necessarily going to have interests in common with other people. I thought the stuff I like is just not the stuff people commonly like. And I have come to find that, no, there's a lot of people who like the stuff I like. And the more you open up your own loves to people, the more you will be able to find the common elements that people connect with. I really saw myself so separate from what everybody else liked and everybody else thought and everybody else would respond to that it has been such a humbling journey to realize that's not true at all.
WM: Do you have any advice for other writers on the anxiety of writing?
HB: I live really close to a writer whose name is Cassie Clare and we get together a lot for human stuff as well as writing stuff. There's a pond by where she lives and you can swim in it. One summer she and I were swimming and it's cold … if you wait a while though, your limbs kind of go numb and you're like, Alright, well it used to be really cold, but here I am and I'm fine. And I was swimming, looking back, watching my husband who would go in, get cold, and get out, go in, get cold, get out. And I thought, Just stay in through the discomfort and you'll be fine. And as I was thinking this, I thought, That's how I write. I write like him. I get in, I get anxious, and I dip out, and I need to sit in the discomfort until it goes away, until my body goes numb and I can no longer feel my limbs or whatever the writing equivalent is.
But it's been the thing that ever since then I think about, and when people talk about the anxiety, it's the thing I talk about because, to get into a state where you're consistently writing and you're in a flow state and you're actually producing words, you have to sit in that anxiety. That's real hard.
WM: How do you deal with rejection, especially in this industry where you often hear more nos than yeses?
HB: I think that the first time I had something that really didn't do well, I thought, This is it. It's over. And I think having gone through it, I realized, OK, it's not it. But this is a job where there are going to be ups and downs, and as much as the downs feel absolutely devastating, having gone through them, you realize, OK, I can do that, I can go through them. And I feel like I am less anxious—because I had some of those experiences that weren't great—than I was before I had them, when I was just anticipating them.
I think the goal as a writer, my goal, is to stay in publishing—like to stay on the horse. When you think about it that way, it's a little bit easier to weather the inevitability that things are not going to go well, but that doesn't mean they're never going to go well, that bad news doesn't mean you're a bad writer.
There are so many things beyond your control. You have to think about it not as this is a referendum on you or on your skill, but this is part of the industry. And that it's a long game, so be nice to everybody.
WM: Have you ever used your writing or a character specifically to process or better understand your own anxiety or life frustrations?
HB: The answer is always and never. I think that I always use my characters [like that]. A lot of being a writer is getting in your own head and poking around at it and saying, Well what's the worst thing you can imagine doing? What might you do in this terrible situation? How might this change you? How does it really feel to feel like this? And yet at the same time, I am not interested in writing one-to-one stories about me, especially as a fantasy writer. I'm always writing about myself and I'm never writing about myself.
WM: Any final words of wisdom?
HB: You know what gets you through? Your friends, your writer friends, because they're the people who you can go to and say, “What's wrong with this chapter?” And they will help you fix it. They're the people who you can say, “Oh my god, what do I do? I don't like my cover.” And they're like, “I'll write your email for you.” Having that great crew of good friends whose writing you love and who love your writing and are going to support you and are going to read all your stuff and critique all your stuff when you need it, that's what really gets you through. And honestly the best part of being a writer is getting to know other writers. I do not think I could do that job, this job, without my friends.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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