published in the News and Observer, Friday, September 25th, 2020
North Carolina author Tracy Deonn was at a loss for words Wednesday when her first young adult novel, “Legendborn,” debuted at No. 5 on The New York Times’ Best-Sellers List.
Just a few hours before, she learned the novel had reached No. 3 on the Indie Bestseller List for YA books, based on sales from independent bookstores around the country. The news came after her publisher started a second printing of the book, just two days after the publication of her debut.
“It’s incredible to be recognized on both lists,” Deonn told The News & Observer in an interview Wednesday. “And I’m hoping that it means something big is going to happen for this book and the series.
“It feels so important to have contributed a book that helps us imagine what’s possible and at the same time examine what’s happening right now.”
In “Legendborn,” Deonn blends her passions for Arthurian legend and fantasy in a book set at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in communications. She tells the story of a smart, contemporary heroine who won’t stand for racial and gender injustice.
But it’s also a deeply personal story about loss and grief. In the book, the 16-year-old character, Bree, loses her mother in a car accident. She pushes those memories away until she “witnesses a magical attack” on her first night at a high school program for bright high school students at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“I lost my mother in 2008, and she lost her own mother at my same age,” Deonn tells The News & Observer. “So Bree’s origin is really very much my own.”
Deonn calls herself “a second generation fangirl.” She grew up watching “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” and loving fantasy stories and magic. Now, she hopes to inspire fangirls with this book, the first in a series, particularly people of color. Deonn and her team will figure out how many books there will be in the series, but she’d love to write as many as she can.
Deonn spoke with The News & Observer by phone about the world of fantasy and the Legendborn universe.
Q: How long have you been a fantasy lover?
A: Growing up, I wanted to know what hidden magic was around the corner in my everyday life. I remember walking around Apex Elementary School, hoping that I would get swept away in some magical adventure.”
Q: What’s different about “Legendborn?”
A: I wrote a book I hadn’t seen before. My contemporary fantasy story is about Bree, a young woman of color who deals with microaggressions, racism and sexism. My goal was to invest equal attention and complexity in aspects of contemporary life and the fantasy.
Stories about the Round Table have been told, in different ways by lots of different people around the world, starting 1,500 years ago. I’m contributing to the Arthurian Canon and challenging it at the same time.
Versions of racism that people tend to write into fantasy serve as a proxy for conversations in the real world. I think that doesn’t allow us to really engage with what’s going on, for people who are alive right now.
Q: What drives your book?
A: Bree, the main character, is a little bit like a missile in this book. She’s got one question that I call the heartbeat of the book: What happened to my mother? It’s an inner, even primordial drive, when we lose someone we love and want to understand.
Because I am a writer, I was able to write towards an answer. I was led to King Arthur because of asking questions about whose lives and losses and deaths get memorialized and become legendary — and whose lives and losses become mysteries.
Q: You also give such a strong sense of UNC. What are places that you love there?
A: I really love Davis Library. I did two degrees at Carolina and I taught there as a graduate student, so Carolina was very near and dear to my heart. I really love the Arboretum and Chapel Hill campus in the springtime. There’s absolutely nothing like it on the planet.
There’s also a Silent Sam analog in the book, because when I started writing the book, Silent Sam was still up. It came down as I was revising. As a Black student who went to UNC, Sam was ever-present for me. All that I love about Carolina and all the things that I find painful are woven into this book.
Q: Bree, like many of your characters, is complex. Did she come to you easily?
A: Bree is both me and not me. Bree is bolder than I was. She’s the embodiment of who I wanted to be. But she experiences the anger and grief I did as a teen.
People think that grief is one sad thing, and really, it’s an intense array of emotions that show up sometimes when you don’t even expect them to. And living with that, as a teenager, especially, makes it more intense.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on the second book in the series now. Fandom is important to me, and you can’t really have that if the world is not big enough for people to live there in their minds for a while. It was important to me to build a world like that.
I see this book as launching the Legendborn universe. So I’m really excited to see how far we can take it. It took at least a year, maybe almost a year-and-a-half to figure out the world building and magic. And now that I’ve done all that, I can just use it in the second book.
But it’s always challenging, because you want to make sure that you’re escalating everything for every character and making the world still new and interesting for readers. Bree will still be the viewpoint character, and the second book picks up not long after the first ends.
Tracy Deonn will be part of the Black Girl Mystery Panel, held by Books are Magic bookstore in New York, Sept. 28 at 7 p.m. She will be joined by authors Rachel Howzell Hall, Alyssa Cole and Tiffany D. Jackson. Registration is free at booksaremagic.net.