Interview with Rachel Hartman: ‘Tess of the Road’

Reading Time: 7 minutes
Rachel Hartman and Tess of the Road cover
Image by Penguin Random House and Wikipedia

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

If you haven’t read Seraphina, the multiple award-winning YA fantasy novel with a unique take on dragon lore (and a deep bow to the power of music), go get it. After being impressed with that one, read the sequel, Shadow Scale, which, in my opinion, is even better. What next?

I heard Rachel Hartman had written a third book, Tess of the Road, but Shadow Scale was definitely an ending. Tess of the Road‘s synopsis claimed a new main character – Seraphina’s sister, an extremely minor character in the first two novels(I had forgotten she existed.) Was Hartman’s world strong enough to branch out into new storylines? Yes. It is a stand-alone tale, though certain characters and references are better understood if you read the first two. Although the story is set in a world full of magic and odd technological devices created by strange creatures, like the best of genre fiction, it is relatable. Tess is a broken, selfish, unlikable young woman who lashes out at everyone who tries to help her. She runs away, but cannot escape the voices of the past and the relationships that left her heart bleeding. It is a coming of age tale. It is an examination of family bonds that can strangle us. It is a spotlight on what an abusive relationship looks like and one that is based on respect. It is…well, why don’t I let the author tell us.

Rachel Hartman was gracious enough to be interviewed about Tess of the Road.

GM: Was Tess’s story in your mind at the beginning of this world building or did she demand to be heard as you progressed with Seraphina’s tale? Please tell me the evolution of her voice and character.

Rachel Hartman: Tess didn’t really speak to me until I’d finished Seraphina’s story, and I was surprised to hear from her. I had so many characters to choose from, and Tess had been such a minor presence, appearing only briefly in the first book, that I’m still not sure how she managed to elbow her way forward and catch my attention. One of the first things that came to me was a title – “Tess in Boots” – which made me laugh, and if it makes me laugh, it wins. I was quite burned out after writing Shadow Scale, and “Tess in Boots” sounded like an easy, merry jaunt, so that may also have been part of the appeal. I was ready to write something light and fluffy. As you’ve seen, the book did not turn out nearly as light and fluffy as anticipated.

GM: What was it like revisiting characters, but from the perspective of Tess? From Seraphina being a tattle-tale older sister to their father seen as “his meek posture, like an apology for being alive.”

Rachel Hartman: Those were some of my favorite parts of the book to write, in fact. Families are so complicated; you have all this history together, both happy and painful, which makes it really hard to see each other objectively. Tess sees Seraphina (and her father) through the lens of her resentments. I was hoping this would give these scenes a particular poignancy for readers who’d already read my earlier books, that they’d hear Tess’s unsympathetic assessment of Seraphina and realize that at some level Tess was wrong — and yet she’s not completely wrong. She’s seeing things Seraphina can’t see about herself. It was really wonderful to delve into the complex emotional layering of the sibling relationship.

GM: Mother issues. Phew! We get to read about all kinds of mothers and mother figures in Tess of the Road, many of them leaving scars on their children from Tess’s unforgiving mother whose voice was endlessly reprimanding in her head, to a side character, Jean-Philippe’s rage at his “bitter, backbiting bitch of a mother” who was now sweet in dementia. Pathka is neglectful, but also wise, “What’s a mother for but to be blamed?” Yet, we see mother figures like Mother Philomela and Darling Dulsia, both written up as “a traveling minister of mercy” to Tess in her journey. Was this a central theme going into the story or one that came out as you wrote? What do you hope readers get from this as both children and mothers ourselves.

Hartman: The motherhood themes came out as I wrote, but they tie in with other themes in the book — shame, body autonomy, sexuality — so it’s not simple to tease them apart. My own mother looms large in my childhood, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, and I’m a mother myself, so now I get to observe how that relationship is deeply complicated on both sides. Parents are teachers, but sometimes their voices end up being the critical ones we hear in our heads, shaming us. Sometimes they are too caught up in their own difficulties to be able to give us what we need, and we have to find substitutes out in the world and/or eventually learn how to parent ourselves.

One thing that was really clear to me from the beginning is that I wanted to write about childbirth, which I realize is an odd choice for a YA novel. But childbirth is one way of taking the Hero’s Journey: once you’re called to adventure, there’s no turning back; you go through a painful ordeal that seems insurmountably difficult; you return with a gift for the world, and the whole world is changed after that. It’s heroic, as surely as Frodo travelling to Mordor, but that’s an angle on it that I’ve hardly ever seen in fiction.

GM: The Quootla suffix -utl is a fascinating one. Something and nothing at once, polar opposites existing simultaneously. It seems to define the quigutl’s culture, but this concept comes up in other times of the book as a theme for Tess trying to understand/never understand life. “She felt empty and full at once.” Can you explain it more?

Hartman: My undergraduate honors thesis was called “Paradox and Parody in Don Quixote and the Satires of Lucian” — so apparently paradox is something that has fascinated me for a long time! I guess my experience has been that the deepest moments of truth, moments where life seems to hit you over the head with a major epiphany, often come in the form of a paradox. The truth is both/and instead of either/or. Humans really like their binaries, but (as Mother Philomela would say) there’s always another option.

GM: Sisterhood is also a relationship explored in Tess of the Road. When Tess thinks of her sister Jeanne, she says, “I can’t seem to tease love and guilt apart.” Is this drawn from personal experience? Which sister, Seraphina, Tess, or Jeanne would you have related to most as a young girl?

Hartman: Full disclosure: I have two younger sisters, and the easiest thing would be to assign a one-to-one correspondence, in which case I’m Seraphina. She’s the oldest, bookish and aloof, separated from the other two by age and by circumstances beyond her control. However, as usual, the truth is not that tidy. I was definitely also Tess, full to bursting with ideas and enthusiasms (her “experiment” in the prologue is the most directly autobiographical episode in the book). And I have lived my share of Jeanne as well, being painfully dutiful and good, quietly resenting it.

GM: Was Tess of the Road easier to write with all the world building completed from Seraphina and Shadow Scale? What was the biggest challenge for this book?

Hartman: It was nice to have all that world-building in place, for sure, but at the same time the world expanded quite a lot in this book. World Serpents? I had no idea those were even a thing. However, I would not say this book was easier to write. Every book presents its own challenges (and honestly, world-building has never felt like a chore to me; it’s the easy part!). I would say this book was most difficult on an emotional level. I was trying something really different — building a story from my own idiosyncratic emotional map, rather than from one of the common maps used in fantasy (eg. the Hero’s Journey). I wanted to write a book about healing from trauma and grief, which meant digging into my own traumas. Turns out that’s super painful; I was a little naive about what that was going to be like. I’m not sorry I did it, and I hope people will understand this book as one possible road-map back to self.

GM: You have very close to 50% female speaking characters in your books (I counted myself for Shadow Scale, and used your character guide in Tess of the Road). Is this intentional?

Hartman: Ha! I’m surprised to hear it’s that low, honestly. I would have guessed that there were more women than men, but maybe that’s because I’m so deep into the main characters, who have always been female so far. Clearly, it’s not something I’ve ever counted or tried to keep track of, so no, I’m not doing it on purpose.

GM: There are so many empowering messages and quotes for girls and women in this book from the relationships with other women, showcasing the difference between a damaging romance and a healthy one, the joy and pleasure of our bodies, and even childbirth, “Stand up…I won’t let you fall- and when your time comes, you shall face it upright, like a proud young lady, not flat on your back like a cowering hound.” Again, were these there from the beginning or came out as you told Tess’s story?

Hartman: These were there from the beginning. One of my earliest impetuses for this book was that I wanted to write honestly about a bad relationship. I don’t have much patience with books where terrible boyfriends are romanticized — which is a lot of books! I wanted to push back against the idea that we can redeem people with our love, and that love means enduring abuse. It doesn’t. I also wanted to push back against the purity culture I was raised in because I think it did me more harm than good. “Innocence” is sometimes a romanticizing of ignorance, and what you don’t know CAN hurt you, very badly.

GM: “Had stories really warped her expectations and made her dissatisfied with her lot? Or were they her road map out?” Please tell me about this thought.

Hartman: Ah, this is sort of the crux of the last question. Stories are road maps, absolutely. They mold our expectations and our ideas of what’s possible. If the stories are all saying the same thing (Boys will be boys; you can fix him), I think that makes it harder to get out of a bad situation. You’re not just leaving a relationship, which is hard enough, but you’re pulling against the weight of every story you’ve ever read, as well.

Of course, that particular line comes at a moment of irony: the stories Tess thinks are her road map out are in fact taking her deeper into trouble, but she doesn’t see an alternative. I hope my book can provide readers with one additional alternative, at least.

GM: Wow! Lots of insight into the depth of Tess’s character and the journey she takes both physically and spiritually. I could ask a dozen more questions. (And have a huge discussion on female Hero Journeys.) Tess of the Road is a book I wish I could have enjoyed and learned from when I was younger. Luckily, I can pass it on to my children and recommend it to GeekMom readers. Thanks again for answering my questions and can’t wait to hear what Tess is up to next!

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