Courtesy of Leigh Bardugo
Leigh Bardugo ’97 just bought her first house. A small, former schoolhouse, which was built in 1918 with a garden that Leigh and her spouse tend to. Bardugo joked that readers might soon hear a story about a witch who lives in a small home and grows mandrakes in her garden.
Through a Zoom screen, Bardugo sits relaxed and contentedly from her bright, Los Angeles home. She credits her time in Yale improv groups — calling herself a “theatre nerd” — for teaching her how to think on her feet and remain at ease during press meetings. This year, she has been doing more press than usual: two of her New York Times Bestselling series, “Shadow and Bone” and “Six of Crows” were picked up for production by Netflix showrunner Eric Heisserer, who was also involved in “Arrival” and “Bird Box.” They are set to release this Friday.
Both fantasy series take place in a universe of her own making, dubbed the Grishaverse. “Shadow and Bone” takes place in Ravka, a fictional nation that Bardugo based on old Russian folktales and history. It follows the world of Grisha, a rank of soldiers with the ability to manipulate certain elements. “Six of Crows,” a heist story in the same universe but with different characters, takes place in Ketterdam — a city in the fictional nation of Kerch, which is loosely inspired by Amsterdam. Bardugo was an executive producer on the show and had a say in the way the series were combined for the Netflix adaptation. Despite considering herself lucky that she was more involved than most authors in the process, Bardugo describes adaptation as “terrifying.”
“It’s essentially like somebody locks you out of your house,” she said. “And then you have to watch through the window as they break your furniture, and eat your food and put their feet up on your couch. And you’re sort of banging against the glass to be let in.”
Heisserer promised her that they would still be friends after the show was done, and Bardugo said that he kept his promise. Her Hollywood acting debut is also in the show, during her small cameo in an episode. She is wearing a traditional Ravkan coat, or a kefta, in the scene, which is still in her closet — right next to her wedding dress.
Her favorite moment behind the scenes of the adaptation occurred during her second time visiting the set of the show, which was filmed in Hungary. After six months of recording for hours on end and filming action scenes, Bardugo expected exhaustion from the cast. Upon arriving on set, she encountered quite the opposite. She recalls sitting on the soundstage and hearing show tunes and laughter coming from one of the tents where all the main cast were. Bardugo called the moment “extraordinary.”
“No matter what happens with this show, something really special happened on this set,” she said. “You see that in the episodes. There is a connection between these people.”
While the adaptation process was daunting to Bardugo, she is prepared for another round. Her other series, “Ninth House,” got picked up for production by Amazon after the release of its first book. The series takes place at Yale, where Bardugo incorporates her love for the supernatural with her experience with and in secret societies on campus. Stephen King, the award-winning horror author, described “Ninth House” as “the best fantasy novel [he has] read in years… this story — full of shocks and twists — is impossible to put down.”
During her time at Yale, Bardugo was in Wolf’s Head, which she writes as shapeshifters in her novel. She joked that the only thing she can shapeshift into is “a drunker person if you give [her] a cocktail.”
“Reading ‘Ninth House,’ people might think I have some kind of bone to pick with Yale,” Bardugo said. “And I suppose I do. I have a bone to pick with all institutions that embody a particular kind of privilege. But I also loved my experience at Yale. And I hope that comes through … there’s a reason we long for these hallowed halls and these ivy-covered walls.”
She is currently in the process of writing the sequel to “Ninth House” and is excited to return to campus and New Haven, whenever possible. Bardugo described New Haven as “a most peculiar town,” noting that it is an “endless font of great stories, and history and strangeness.”
“I love the feeling of a secret history lurking beneath the history we know,” she said.
While at Yale, Bardugo met some of her current best friends. She smiles fondly when talking of how she dedicated her first novel to them and they were the first readers of her book when she decided to write a novel at 35. Two years later, she became a published and New York Times Bestselling author. She is planning on having these same friends at her house for an outdoor screening of the show once it is officially out this week.
Bardugo began writing at a young age and knew she wanted to be a writer early on, but did not “know what [her] process was.” She noted that taking screenwriting and exploring the three-act structure “unlocked” the novel-writing process for her.
She added that she inevitably puts part of herself into the characters she writes, “even the very bad ones.” Bardugo leans forward earnestly onscreen, noting that those are “the best and truest moments” of her books. She also noted that writing novels is a process of falling in and out of love with your own writing.
“The thing I find with books is that you have to fall in love with the original idea. But then, at some point in the process, you’re going to fall out of love. You’re going to start to question whether this is the right story to work on,” she said. “It’s like the honeymoon is over… The challenge of being an author is to stick with the work until you find your way back to falling in love with that idea.”
Bardugo noted that while writing the final book in her “Six of Crows” duology, she was on a tight deadline and was unable to take a step back from the process. In doing so, she fell out of love with her work. It was only after publishing the novel that she allowed herself to be proud of it.
She has been open about her rocky path to success, criticizing the media for only portraying idealized stories of the achievements of writers like her. Bardugo pointed out that she began her writing career in her mid-30s and sees herself still writing 10 years in the future — smiling and calling it her “dream job.” As a rookie author, she couldn’t have predicted her spot on the bestsellers list. She insists that before the acclaim and the success, or perhaps in spite of it, the “role of the artist is to continue to make art even when nobody is looking.” She hopes that aspiring writers can be patient with themselves and understand that success doesn’t have to happen right away.
“Most of the young people at Yale are high achievers. And if they’re like me, they were pushed to achieve from very early on. The problem with that is that you begin to think that what makes you interesting is that you’re young,” she said. “There’s no expiration date on your talent. We live in a world that fetishizes youth and that only likes to tell the story of people who achieve immediately. And I hope that if people dream of becoming writers, they get that opportunity — they get published right out of school, they have glorious careers. But if it doesn’t go that way — if you end up on a different path, if you have loans to pay off, if you have to work day jobs — none of that means that you are not deserving or talented. If you have a story to tell, it does not matter how old you are. People want to hear it.”
Ángela Pérez | email@example.com