Interview: Leigh Bardugo on her inspiration for ‘Shadow and Bone,’ set visits and foster puppies
Shadow and Bone is being hailed as the next great fantasy series. The series is a chosen one story that follows Alina Starkov, an orphan whose life changes after she finds out she has a power that she didn’t know she had. From the mind of Leigh Bardugo, the author of the original Shadow and Bone trilogy, comes a world that also includes characters from her Six of Crows duology, all falling within the Grishaverse, the world in which these characters thrive.
For AwardsWatch, I recently sat down on Zoom and had a conversation with New York Times best-selling author Leigh Bardugo about the new series and the original books, the complications of the casting process and what it felt like to step onto the set for the first time.
Tyler Doster: Hi, Leigh, how are you doing today?
Leigh Bardugo: I am alright. I am watching our new foster puppy sleep. I guess he’s a dog, he’s not a puppy, but he’s adorable.
TD: Oh! How old is he?
LB: We think three. They said three but he seems younger to me. He seems very energetic. We’re not sure, but he is completely konked out right now so that is good timing for me.
TD: I’m sure that does work. What kind of dog is it?
We know there’s got to be some Westy in there, but we’re not sure what else. He has a very Westy-ish face but the body could be some kind of chimera but he’s very sweet. He’s got a few behavioral things but he’s good.
TD: Well, that’ll be easy to get fixed up. He’ll be fine in no time.
LB: I think so, I hope so. We’ve wanted a dog for a really long time and we meant to wait until the show launched to rescue but then we met him…
TD: Sometimes things just fall into place like that.
LB: That’s just the way it went! So that’s how it had to be.
TD: I wanted to ask you, what inspired you to start these books?
LB: Well, I wanted to write a book for a very long time. Really, I wanted to be a novelist from when I was very young btu I had a bad habit of starting manuscripts and never finishing them. I didn’t seem to be able to get past the first act of the story. And I didn’t know anything about writing a book or story structure or any of it. So when I got the idea for Shadow and Bone, I really didn’t sit down and start writing. I thought, “why bother? This is gonna be one more thing you start and don’t finish.” But I had taken a screenwriting class because that’s what we do in Los Angeles, it’s, I think, law. And I had, at that point, learned how to outline and I thought, “okay, I’m at least gonna try to outline it. I probably won’t ever write it but I’ll try to outline it.” And I did. And it turned out that that was the key for me was knowing where I was going. And I sat down and I said, “Okay, well, it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be done.” And I’ll prove to myself that I can write a book and then I’ll write a different book but when I got to the end of Shadow and Bone, which at that point had no name, there was enough in it that I loved that I wanted to keep working on it and so I did.
TD: Shadow and Bone was originally published in 2012, right? So that’s when the Grishaverse started. When you started writing this or your other books like Six of Crows, did you ever envision it as a series or a movie?
LB: I mean, I think you can’t help but do that. I think that part of it is that there’s a cinematic element in writing and envisioning these places and hearing this dialogue. I read all of my books aloud and so when I’m revising them, so being able to envision the scene and help the reader envision the scene. I think also there’s just the dream of getting to see something get adapted knowing how many more people will get to hear and see your story if you get that opportunity. I mean, I also knew the odds. It’s the kinda thing where you hope but you don’t expect because that would be a spectacular kind of hubris.
TD: Did you go to Netflix for the show, did they approach you? How did that come to be?
LB: So, Netflix first came knocking about Shadow and Bone when the rights still belonged to Dreamworks. We sold the option to Dreamworks in 2012 and then the executive who had brought the project in left and so we were sort of orphaned there. I was first approached by Netflix then and it was one of those meetings that, as a Hollywood outsider, you’re just baffled by. Like, sure, I can draw you a map and we can talk about the stories but you can’t have the – do you wanna hear about something else? So we had a conversation about it, we all got along really well. What I didn’t expect was that after the option to Shadow and Bone expired, I did a lot of meetings from people, some who were interested in Shadow and Bone, some who were interested in Six of Crows, and to be candid – they weren’t great meetings. I always came out of them feeling disappointed and frustrated. I wasn’t sure if the people I had met had read the books. We were talking rarely talking about the story, we were talking about things like franchise. And I would leave and I would speak to my producing partner and I would say, “this doesn’t feel right.” But I was terrified if I said no too many times, the interest was going to dry up. You know, you only have a certain amount of time when a story is on the best-seller list or people are excited about it. And then, we got a call from Netflix and they said “we heard we have a shot at this story again” and we went in for a meeting. One of the executives said, “We know how to tell the stories of young people and we take them seriously” and all of a sudden it was like “okay, now we can have a conversation about this.” And my gut said we were in the right place. I loved the idea of it being a series as opposed to a film and we really went from there.
TD: How was it the first time you got to read the script?
LB: Well, luckily, I wasn’t blind-sided by anything. [Showrunner] Eric [Heisserer] and I had talked about bringing these stories together from Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows. We talked about the mechanism that was going to make that work. I had been lucky enough to come into the writers room pretty much every week and hear their pitches for the episodes. So, by the time we got to script I knew what to expect. I didn’t have to pick up the phone at 2 am and call anyone screaming.
TD: So no surprises or anything.
LB: No! Of course I had notes, everybody has notes, and feedback to give, but for me, it was a very positive collaboration process and there were very few times where I was really taken aback by something or where we really had to go to war over something. It just wasn’t that kind of relationships.
TD: Were you involved in the casting of the show at all?
LB: Yes! I didn’t have to be in the first round, but I would get the favorites. And with certain characters who we had more trouble casting or were more of a challenge, then I watched a lot more auditions. I mean, we have a lot more conversations about them. But certainly for our main characters, I got to see the favorites of the picks and, luckily, we had such extraordinary actors come in that sometimes all it really took was a chemistry read to make clear that we had chosen the right people.
TD: Did you have something in mind for each character when you were looking at the actors?
LB: You know, I learned to abandon some of my preconceptions early. Yes, I had been lucky enough to be writing these books for a while and have fairly clear ideas of what the characters look like and what my readers think that they look like but to me the important thing was finding people who really embodied these characters fully and who were good enough actors what was going to be an incredibly difficult shoot. But I can tell you when we saw Inej, when we saw Amita [Suman], as soon as she came onto the screen, I gasped because she looked like the official art we did through Kevin Watta. It looked as if she had stepped out of the poster, and I thought, “oh my God, please let her be good” because sometimes you’ll see somebody who is perfect and they open their mouth and it’s a disaster but she was actually extraordinary and read this great scene and was so vulnerable and powerful in it and I had tears in my eyes. I called Eric and I was like, “this better be our girl!”
TD: That must feel great, when you see someone you want and you actually get to cast them.
LB: Well, I didn’t understand the anxiety that goes with this. I thought you pick your person and they say yes and you’re good to go but that’s actually nothing like what casting is. There are a lot of people who have to approve. We found a number of actors early on. Amita and Jessie [Mei Li] were early favorites for me and Eric but there was a feeling of “well we can’t possibly have been this lucky to find these people this early.” Every morning I would wake up and say to Eric, “have we made an offer? Have we locked them in?” because my fear was that they were going to be stolen away to other shows.
TD: Did you get to visit the set?
LB: I had two big set visits. I was there for a week the first time and a week the second time. I got to go very early in the production and I was there on the last day of shooting too, which was pretty great.
TD: How was that, the first time you stepped onto set, being able to see what you had envisioned being brought to life?
LB: It was strange to see the scope of it. I had never been on a set like this. I didn’t understand the scale of it, I didn’t understand how many people would be working. We would go from the sound stage to another location and there were cranes and Earth-works where they were moving things to make the Shadow Fold. And a full scale model of the sandskiff so I can go and stand on its deck or walk the streets of Ketterdam. It was so far beyond anything I had imagined, I kind of imagined that they would build it in bits and pieces. I didn’t understand that they were actually gonna create the world so it’s livable.
TD: Were there any elements of the book that you were scared or nervous wouldn’t translate into a series?
LB: I mean, the Shadow Fold was a big one. It’s such a big piece of the storytelling. I had to early on abandon the vision of it in the books. In the books, it’s a place of – not just darkness – but a place of heavy physical darkness that is unpierceable by light. I realized early on that would probably not be a very satisfying thing for people to watch a battle scene in so there were modifications made and the thing I realized was most fundamental to the Fold was that it be terrifying. That it play directly into our kind of visceral, primal fear of the dark and what might be lurking in it and I think that’s where Eric’s horror chops really came into play. So I hope that people watching that sequence will be fundamentally terrified.
TD: We’ve kind of touched on it already how both series of books have been included in this series. Was that your decision or was that a decision your were a part of?
LB: That was Eric’s idea. He brought it to me early on. I thought it was great, I thought it was a really smart thing to do. I didn’t know how he was gonna pull it off and that took a considerable amount of finessing. I love the fact that it made the world feel bigger. It gave a different kind of insight into the story. Alina’s story is a chosen one story, it’s something we’re a little more familiar with. The Crows have a different background, they aren’t people with royal blood, they aren’t people who have grand destines or prophecies that foretell their future. These are people that are caught in the crossfire of these epic events so I think it’s meaningful to see those stories side-by-side and to see them come crashing into each other.
TD: How often did you speak to and collaborate with the showrunner?
LB: Eric and I talked almost every day and I was glad to be a resource. He would text me with questions. Sometimes I’d have to go digging through my own very messy archives, trying to remember things that didn’t make their way into the books. We had a lot of conversations particularly about the Crows backstory – that’s prequel material that doesn’t really exist in the books. Eric made a vow to me early on that no matter where we ended up we were gonna be friends at the end of this process and he actually stuck to it. And we are still friends.
TD: Well, that’s good. I’m glad that you didn’t lose any friendships over the show.
I mean, look, you and I both know the way that adaptation can go and we’ve heard the horror stories and I’ve had friends that have gone through horrific experiences with adaptations. It is essentially being locked out of your own house and watching people play with your stuff while you bang on the window to get back in. I was very scared as we approached this, but as it turned out, my gut was right, and I chose the right partners and Eric has treated this material and me and the readers of the series with a lot of respect and affection that you see in every frame of the show.
TD: You kind of already mentioned it but since this was an adaptation, were you able to include anything that wasn’t included in the series?
LB: I think the thing that really got developed was – the trilogy is written from Alina’s perspective, it’s first-person POV for most of it and consequently, you miss out on big chunks of story when it comes to the Darkling, General Kirigan, Genya, Mal, their experiences. The writers team went and took some of the bonus material that I had written that a lot of people never see because they’re extras that are intended for readers and are rewards for readers, there’s a letter from Mal to Alina from the front, there’s a short story about the Darkling’s childhood, they went and took those things and exploded them out and developed them so we would get a better sense of all the pieces that were at play as opposed to just having Alina’s experiences running through the story and I really loved getting to see all of that.
TD: For my last question, you just had another book come out, Rule of Wolves, so how was it working on that and working on the show at the same time?
LB: Well, it was hard. It was actually difficult. As we moved from pre-production into production and then into post, I started to step back more and to let people do what they needed to do. I felt like my role had been fulfilled and I needed to get back to writing books and it was impossible to keep my head in both spaces at the same time. But I think there was also a lot of relief in getting to write Rule of Wolves and release it before the show came out because it has allowed me to put – I don’t know if it’s a full stop or semicolon – but it has allowed me to finish certain stories in the Grishaverse and that gives me a lot of relief and peace to then be able to step back and know that the books will live and be a complete universe unto themselves no matter what the show does.
TD: So, ultimately, it was satisfying to work on both at the same time?
It was! (laughs) It was very challenging. I find that the more I talk about my work, the harder it is to work. I think that it’s a great opportunity and – I hate to use the word blessing, it’s such an Instagram word – it’s such a gift to be able to actually be engaged in these things and to have your voice heard, even if you don’t always get your way. To actually be a voice at the table, I didn’t wanna miss out on that. I feel like I got lucky in that I got to do both.
TD: That’s very exciting, I’m glad to hear it. Well thank you so much for your time today.
It’s my pleasure. Thanks for the interview.
Season 1 of Shadow and Bone premieres Friday, April 23 exclusively on Netflix
Images courtesy of Leigh Bardugo and Netflix