Finding Out What Makes Kathy MacMillan Tick: An Interview

Kathy MacMillan (she/her) is a writer, nationally certified American Sign Language interpreter, librarian, and signing storyteller.  She is the author of nearly two dozen books, including picture books, children’s nonfiction, young adult and middle grade fantasy, and resource books for librarians, educators, and parents. Find her online at www.kathymacmillan.com.

Can you give us a short description of Dagger and Coin? How does the protagonist differ from the previous novel in the series, Sword and Verse?

At the end of Sword and Verse, the society of Qilara underwent a revolution. Dagger and Coin is about what happens next: the messy process of rebuilding a society. The story centers around someone who lost a lot in that revolution: Soraya Gamo, the wealthy Scholar heiress who was supposed to become queen. Now a member of the new Ruling Council, Soraya has to work with her former enemies. These include Raisa, the protagonist of the first book, and Jonis, the leader of the Arnath Resistance who once kidnapped Soraya as part of a political plot. Can they learn to trust one another and build something better?

Raisa and Soraya couldn’t be more different, but they come to respect one another in Dagger and Coin. Raisa grew up enslaved, cut off from her people and the writing that was core of her culture. She’s kindhearted and idealistic, sometimes to the point of being naïve. Soraya grew up surrounded by wealth, but also knowing that her only option for success was to marry well. She’s financially savvy and conniving and willing to get her hands dirty. But she also sees possibilities, especially for the women of Qilara, in the new order, so she’s willing to give it a chance.

What motivated the shift in perspective to a person with a very different background and upbringing?

The first draft of Sword and Verse told the story in a very different way. It originally shifted between Raisa and a female Scholar three hundred years later who stumbled across her hidden letters and pieced her story together. Though that structure changed and the first book became solely about Raisa, the Scholar character stuck with me and informed the minor character of Soraya. When Raisa’s story ended, I knew there was more to tell. There is a moment at the end of Sword and Verse where Raisa figuratively passes the baton to Soraya. Her story was the next natural one to tell, because of all the main characters, she had the most to lose and the most to learn.

Tell us about Qilara. What is unique about it as a setting? Did you have any particular influences in mind when building the world?

Qilara came out of my research on ancient libraries, and is largely inspired by ancient Alexandria – though it is also interspersed with many details of my own invention. This world came out of the spark of an idea I had when reading about libraries made up of letters. In the margin of my notes, I scribbled: What if they were letters to the gods? This then led to other questions: Who would write them? Who wouldn’t be allowed to? What would a culture built around oppression of writing look like? In many ways, these books are about the evolution of the concept of the public library and open access to knowledge.

You write for several different age groups, from young children to young adults. What’s it like juggling these different categories?

It keeps me entertained!  The thing is that the publishing process takes so. very. long. So having different projects to work on for different age groups keeps me motivated while I wait.

Is there a theme that unites your work across the different age groups?

In every single one of my books, there is a focus on the power of language and communication, whether that is the language of the gods in the Sword and Verse series, or the magic of everyday communication in Nita’s First Signs, or the magic of connecting through play in The Runaway Shirt, or the powerful voices you can hear in She Spoke: 14 Women Who Raised Their Voices and Changed the World.

What other books and authors have inspired you?

I gravitate toward thinky books with strong, authentic female characters: Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief books, Brittany Cavallaro’s Charlotte Holmes series, The Winner’s Curse series by Marie Rutkoski, Polly Shulman’s Grimm Legacy series. (There will never be a better first kiss than the magic carpet scene in The Grimm Legacy!)

Which of your books are you most proud of?

Isn’t that sort of like asking which of your children you’re most proud of? I am proud of all of them in different ways and for different reasons. The thing about writing books is that, even though you develop skills over time, it’s a new process with each book. I may know how to write books, but I don’t know how to write *this* book until I have written it.

Explore Kathy MacMillan’s bibliography on Amazon