When told that my nickname for her is the queen of standalones, Sarah Beth Durst’s eyes light up. Then she asks for a tiara.
The bestselling YA author has been a staple on the shelves of fantasy loves for years, and a huge part of that is because of her amazing standalones. Though, yes, she is working on a trilogy right now, Durst loves books that are complete journeys in and of themselves.
“There I something special about starting at the foot of a mountain, climbing up, seeing the view, and then returning – or not – all in the space of one book,” said Durst.
Durst’s standalone Vessel, about a girl striving to save her gods, won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. Her fairy tale retelling, Ice, was a 2009 Andre Norton Award Finalist. Her latest novel, Conjured, doesn’t come out until September – and it’s already a Junior Library Guild selection.
“Conjured crept up on me,” admitted Durst. “I’d planned to write about a federal marshal who works for the paranormal witness protection program — that was my first idea, and I was committed to it… until I began to develop the marshal’s case. And then the witness herself, Eve, a girl with zero memories and lots of bizarre powers, drew more and more of my attention. The instant she made the birds on her wallpaper fly, I knew the story had to be hers.”
Durst pulls inspiration from many places. For Conjured, she found inspiration in images online: photomaniuplations of creepy violin players, paintings of girls with horns, doodles of carnival tents. For her novel Enchanted Ivy, about a girl who discovers that Princeton University is a gate to a magical realm, Durst got to pull from her college experiences.
“Every time I see a gargoyle, I imagine it can talk. So I started thinking about talking gargoyles the second I walked onto the Princeton campus years ago. But I didn’t discover the best gargoyles, like the stone dragon and the little monkeys, until I started research for Enchanted Ivy. I really love writing about places that I know. There’s something so satisfying in revealing the magic hidden in the everyday. If you’re thinking about trying it, I highly recommend it,” laughed Durst.
The worlds of Enchanted Ivy and Conjured aren’t the only one Durst has been sucked into. She loves all of the worlds in all of her novels, and all of the characters in each.
“I loved visiting the Arctic in Ice — in real life, I don’t like being cold, but when I wrote Ice, I was able to ride on the back of a polar bear to an ice castle. I also loved writing the world of Vessel, a desert land filled with wolves made of sand and sky serpents made of glass and gods that walked the earth in human bodies. That was my first entirely fictional world and writing it was such an immersive experience. I felt like I was stepping through a portal every time I sat down to write,” said Durst.
Durst writes best at her desk at home: notebook to the left, laptop in front, and a glass of water and a bag of Raisinets to her right. She culls her iTunes library for each book, making sure she’s listening to music that fits the mood of the story – though vampire novel Drink, Slay, Love is the only one with an official playlist, which she made available to her fans on her website.Sarah Beth Durst at BEA 2013.
She knows, of course, that not every writer has the same process – though she’s done her best to help aspiring writers. Durst launched a series on her blog in April called Writer’s Toolbox, which focuses on the craft of writing and inspiring writers to keep going with whatever it is that they’re working on.
“It’s so easy to compare your first draft or fledgling idea to a finished book on the shelf, forgetting that those books went through a whole process to get that way — it’s like comparing a pumpkin to a pumpkin pie. Totally unfair to bite into both then compare them. I want to remind aspiring writers that there’s a process and that it’s a doable process and, if you want to badly enough, you can do it,” said Durst.
Durst got her inspiration to keep going from her favorite writers: Tamora Pierce, Bruce Coville, Patricia C. Wrede, Robin McKinley, Anne McCaffrey, David Eddings, Charles de Lint, Patricia A. McKillip, Mercedes Lackey, Diane Duane, Diana Wynne Jones, and Jane Austen.
“See, there’s one non-fantasy writer in there,” laughed Durst. “I really do love fantasy and always have. My favorite authors when I was ten years old are still my favorite authors now. I love writers who take you on a journey and bring you back feeling stronger and more magical than you were before.”
And if there’s one thing Durst believes in, it’s the magic of books.
“I believe that books are magic. I think they have the power to restore a sense of wonder and to show the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s part of why I read, and that’s part of why I write. I promise that all of my stories will always have magic in them. And they’ll always have hope. Even the ones with creepy carnivals and magic-wielding serial killers.”