A chat with Megan Whalen Turner (Giveaway!)

Megan Whalen Turner writes both short stories and novels. She is best known for her popular QUEEN’S THIEF young adult fantasy series. Her first novel in this series, The Thief, was a 1997 Newbery Honor Book. The final book in this series, Return of the Thief, comes out today (I loved it!). One random commenter will win a Kindle or Audible copy of one of the books of the QUEEN’s THIEF series (you pick). 

Tadiana Jones: I’ve loved the QUEEN’S THIEF series for many years, ever since one of my kids brought it home from his elementary school library and shared it with me (or maybe I swiped it from him; I’m a little hazy on the details at this point). I’ve bought and thoroughly enjoyed every book in this series since then, and I’ve been pushing it into the hands of my other children this past week.

Return of the Thief wraps up a series of six books that has been twenty-four years in the making. Have you had the basic plot of Return of the Thief and the ending of the series planned for many of those years, or are these things that you’ve worked out more recently?

Megan Whalen Turner

Megan Whalen Turner: When I wrote The Thief, I thought it would be a standalone. The world and the characters were bigger than would fit in the book, so I trimmed away the stuff I couldn’t squeeze in. It didn’t occur to me that I might tell more of Gen’s story until the Newbery committee gave The Thief an Honor in the spring of 1997. When my editor, Susan Hirschman, called to congratulate me she handed the phone to Barbara Barstow, a librarian in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, who immediately asked “Where’s the sequel?” As soon as she said that, I took the manuscript I was working on and mentally shoved it into a drawer. I may have started The Queen of Attolia that day.

I knew I could write many more adventures for Gen, but I realized right away that the next significant event in his story would be . . . getting caught. It was inevitable that Gen would be caught because he was just the kind of person who would keep pushing the envelope until he pushed it too far. Once I saw that, the rest of the story spooled out in front of me very quickly.

One day to come up with it, 23 more years to get it all written down.

TJ: Pheris, the young narrator of Return of the Thief, has multiple disabilities that are a massive challenge in his life, but that also help to make him a compelling and unique main character, along with his loyalty and intelligence. Can you share any insights into your reasons for choosing Pheris as a central character and your final narrator for the series, and any research you undertook to make him more realistic?

Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen TurnerMWT: I can’t emphasize enough how important the books of Rosemary Sutcliff have been to me. She’s not my only influence, obviously, but over time this series of mine has become more and more an homage to her work. Sutcliff was a British author who wrote brilliant historical fiction, mostly published in the middle of the last century. She suffered from Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis and many of her characters were disabled. When I read Sutcliff’s Warrior Scarlett, I wondered for the first time just who gets to be the hero in stories, especially the hero in adventure stories.

Thick as Thieves, which was originally supposed to be the second half of The King of Attolia, was written very much with Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth in mind. In that book, set in Roman Britain, a very young Centurion is so seriously injured in his first major battle that he will never be a soldier again. He has to imagine a new future for himself — one in which he goes on a quest north of Hadrian’s wall to retrieve the eagle of the lost Ninth Roman Legion. He is accompanied by a slave who subsequently becomes a free man. In Thick as Thieves, I wrote about a very earnest young soldier on a mission for his king, but it was important to me that the slave Kamet be at the center of the story, not merely the object of Costis’s quest, but a person with his own version of the story to tell.

As for Pheris – he has been a part of this story almost from its beginning. I think if he seems particularly realistic it’s because he’s had 23 years growing and developing in the back of my head.

Gen and Irene are such memorable characters: they’ve developed a profound love and trust for each other that most of their courtiers don’t seem to understand, and they’re both mastermind weavers of next-level plans and political schemes. Are either of them, or any of your other favorite characters in this series, inspired by actual people in your life or from history?

My characters are always pastiches — made up from little bits I sample from the people around me, friends, relatives, someone I overheard once in the grocery line. In that sense they are based on real people. Other bits come from history or other people’s fiction. Irene owes a lot to the monstrous regiment of women — Mary of Guise, Mary Queen of Scots, Catherine de Medici and Elizabeth I. Gen owes a lot to Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl and to Phillipe the Mouse in the movie Ladyhawke. I don’t always remember — I’m sure sometimes I don’t even know all my sources. I came across an old paperback and only then remembered that when Eugenides was first forming in my head I’d drawn on a science fiction pirate in a short story by Gordon R. Dickson for inspiration.

While I’m happy to raid like a magpie, I don’t feel comfortable sticking real people into my stories. I didn’t even feel comfortable sticking the real gods of Ancient Greece in. I’m not saying I’d never do it. I just feel like you have a much higher duty of care to your sources when you’re dealing with real people and a responsibility to not mislead your readers about what’s real and what’s fiction.

This series is known for its unexpected (and truly delightful!) turns and twists. I think literary twists are difficult to do really well: you need to have enough foreshadowing and clues in the characters’ words and deeds that the twist is logical and believable, but not spoil the surprise for the reader. Do you have any particular methodology for planning out and writing your plot twists? For example, do you ever go back to chapters you’ve already written to insert clues?

Yeah, there’s a reason it takes me so long to write a book. There’s a lot of going back to tweak this clue or hide that one. When I wrote The Thief, I felt like the clues were the size of billboards and that everyone was going to see the ending coming — I deliberately wrote with those people in mind so that the story would have something for them to enjoy and not just a big twist that would fall flat.

The Queen's Thief (6 book series) Kindle EditionWhat surprised me was how many people didn’t see the billboards — they just blew right by them, in large part because it was kid’s book and no one expected to be surprised by a kid’s book. I call it the power of Conventional Thinking. You could have window glass and printed books and pocket watches in your story, but if it had any fantasy elements, people would assume it had a medieval setting. That’s just where their imaginations were trained to go. They’d be stunned when guns showed up.

That’s less true nowadays. You see much more diversity in the settings of fantasy stories and there are so many that play with the previous generation’s conventions that readers go in with a more open mind. However, new conventions are springing up all the time and I’m sure that they’ll be misleading readers some day.

When readers do have an open mind, they are a lot harder to surprise. All you have to do, is tell someone that there’s a twist ending to The Thief and you spoil it. When they’ve read the book they’ll look at you funny, like, “you didn’t see those billboard sized clues?”

Back when The Thief was first published, there was no such thing as Amazon reviews. I know, right? So last century. Literally. What that meant was that almost all the reviews were in professional publications like SLJ and the Horn Book and those people were not supposed to care about spoilers. On the contrary. Librarians want to know everything significant about a book in order to decide whether or not to buy it. And yet . . . those professional reviewers did not give away the ending. They let their readers be surprised and I think that had a lot to do with me getting that call from the Newbery committee in 1997.

I would adore a story about Gitta Kingsdaughter, who seems to be so vividly drawn already, but you’ve been clear that that’s not in your plans (let me know, though if you’re ever open to bribery!). Do you have any plans yet for your next literary venture? If so, can you share anything about it?

I don’t have any plans to write Gitta’s story, but I might some day. I’ve left myself spaces in the previous books that I might fill in and there are still some threads at the end that it might be fun to pursue, but for now, I’m just really relieved to have gotten to the end of Gen’s story. The longer it took, the more I worried about getting run over by a bus.

I’m reading a lot of books that I put off “until the last book is done.” I’m having a great time recharging my imagination. I’ve got a couple of longer projects in mind, and I’m hoping a short story or two might show up. We’ll see.

A quick question: I was amused by the description of Gen’s spectacularly colorful parade suit, the same color as a pitneen bird. But … what color is a pitneen bird?

Not Telling. And sadly, Paul Zelinsky’s gorgeous illustration is in black and white!

This is a traditional question we at Fantasy Literature like to ask: Do you have a favorite beverage, perhaps a drink that has helped fuel your writing process, that you’d like to share with us?

Here in the Turner house, we say that the human body is a machine for turning caffeine into words. The smell of coffee, the ritual of coffee, the white noise of the café, the motorbike ride that clears the mind on the way to the café to sit and drink the coffee, they’ve all been increasingly important to getting the writing done.

Thank you for your time, and for the entire QUEEN’S THIEF series!

Readers, one random commenter will win a Kindle or Audible copy of one of the books of the QUEEN’s THIEF series (you pick). 


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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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28 comments

  1. Kermit flail!

    MWT–I read Queen of Attolia first after it was featured in one of those sunday newspaper magazine inserts (Parade, maybe?). Even knowing how twisty Eugenides is, I was still flummoxed and in awe of The Thief.

    I *think* I’m kinda a canny reader, but maybe not!

  2. Jaime S. /

    What a gift it has been to grow up with these books (literally…I turn 24 in a little over a month). I’ve read these books in every season of my life and now I’m counting down the hours until I have my hands on the last one! Thank you for this lovely interview :)

    • I was so delighted to get the opportunity to ask MWT some questions for one of my all-time favorite fantasy series. It’s fascinating to get the inside scoop on how the writing process works for different authors.

  3. Noneofyourbusiness /

    That’s cool of the Newberry committee to do that for her.

  4. Ashliegh /

    I started this series when I was a teen. I’ll admit I wasn’t at all impressed with The Thief at first. However, over the course of me reading the story Megan was able to draw me into the world with her incredibly detailed and thought out narration. By the end of the thief I was thoroughly humbled and in awe of what was my new favorite book of all time. Fast forward, and I have now read all of the sequels and I just found out that the final book is now available. I’m incredibly excited and also a little sad to finally say goodbye to the characters, myths and world that I’ve grown up with. Here’s to hoping I don’t cry if my suspicions about this one turn out to be true.

  5. The Distinguished Professor /

    Ooh, Roman history is fascinating.

    You know, they had plywood, blue jeans, and maps with distances marked and inns ranked according to a five-star rating.

  6. “The human body is a machine for turning caffeine into words”. Love that haha! Huge fan of MWT and the Thief series, and even her interviews are filled with blessings like that for inspired readers. Feeling extra blessed with what feels like two books-worth of Gen in this release today!

  7. Lady Morar /

    Funnily enough, I read several posts about Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, on Tumblr recently.

  8. Probably one of my favorite series ever. I recommend it to absolutely everyone as the writing quality, the twists and the turns are just amazing, I look forward to retreading the whole series again before starting in on the new book as have been waiting years and donT want to miss out on a single clue. Thanks for the great interview!

  9. Bhavi /

    Can confirm that someone spoiled the twist for me, but the book nevertheless had so much more to give. Truly love the series and cannot wait to read the conclusion!

  10. McKenzie /

    I literally just finished Return of the Thief and was sitting here thinking that I love Gen because he reminds me of Howl… and then I read this interview and had a good chuckle. So thrilled I discovered this series!!!

  11. What a lovely, lovely interview! I, too, was in my 30s when I read The Thief, and I did not see any of the twists. Honestly, my first thought was: “This is a great book. Kids will love it. (They do.) But it’s not a children’s book. It reminds me of Mary Renault.”

    Of course, I loved Renault, too, as a teenager. But she did not write specifically for teens, and I don’t believe Megan does, either. Which is actually kind of great–don’t get me wrong here! Teen readers can, do, and should read all over the map.

    I am not quite half-way through Return of the Thief, and I am so glad to be in the company of that small, stubborn, silent boy whom Kamet befriended. But I’ve got to say, I’ve been wondering exactly what congenital syndrome Pheris has, and have been trying to research it online. I expect Megan would simply answer “Not telling”, but I still have to ask: what’s the syndrome? I had not pictured him as handicapped in Thick as Thieves.

  12. Maria Willess /

    If you woll only read one fantasy series in your life it should be the Queen’s thief. It is that good. I am an adult and I.was looming for plotwists . Did not see them coming. I Love MWT. This waw an awesome interview.

    • Noneofyourbusiness /

      But if you only read two standalone books in your life, they should be “The Neverending Story” and “The Last Unicorn”.

  13. Such an excellent series. I love every single book! Anything she decides to write next I’m sure will be excellent.

  14. Alisa /

    It took me reading the thief twice to get around to the rest of the series. I had a hard time connecting to it at first, but as I read on, I grew to love this series more and more. I’m so grateful I continued to read on because it has easily become one of my favorite series.

  15. Sarah /

    What a delightful interview. The Queen’s Thief series has had a constant space on my shelf ever since I stumbled upon the first one. I’m slightly mourning the ending of Gen’s story, but what a journey it has been so far! An excellent adventure all around!

  16. Allison /

    Like many, I grew up reading these books. I read the first when I was twelve, and now I’m 22. I literally cried driving home from the bookstore with this book. (I also ended up majoring in Ancient Greek in college, which… probably has a lot to do with these books.) My favorite character will forever be Relius.

  17. Thanks for a great interview! I love it when the interviewer really KNOWS the works of the author they’re interviewing, which is what frustrates me about most tv author interviews!

  18. WoW!!
    I can’t believe the final book is out! i just started reading this series this year, so I canot imagine the torture it was for some readers!
    Something truly amazing finally came out of 2020!
    I have Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, so knowing she was inspired by an author with the same disease, and that her characters get to be heroes no matter what is really touching.
    Cant wait to read this book! ❤️

  19. Sethia /

    I’ve never read these, but I keep hearing great things about them. Sounds like it’s time to give them a try!

  20. Yeah!!! I am totally excited to read return of theif……(✯ᴗ✯)

  21. Deirdre /

    What a wonderful interview! And I agree, coffee is essential – and I love all the descriptions of food and drink in these books! (So different from the food in Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasyland!)

    My sister gave me “The Thief” to read back when it first came out, and yes, I missed all the billboards BUT they all jumped out at me as soon as I finished the book, so I went back and started rereading right away. I love rereading, and I don’t think I can even tell you how much I adore books that compel rereading.

    I’m rereading Return of the Thief right now, and it’s even better the second time through! Exactly why I love this series!

    • Kristin Nitz /

      MWT thought the clues were shouting when they were whispering. Delightful.

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