Tracy Deonn is UNC-Chapel Hill royalty. After receiving three degrees from UNC-CH, she featured the university as the setting of her debut novel. “Legendborn” follows 16-year-old Bree Wilson as she navigates the fantastical and not-so-fantastical elements of UNC-CH’s campus. The novel is a fast-paced YA fantasy and Deonn does not shy away from incorporating a well developed and thought provoking commentary on the role of higher education institutions in upholding the racial hierarchy.
In this interview Tracy and I discuss her quarantine hobbies, writing process and much more!
Hi Tracy! I hope you are doing well during these confusing times. Personally, I have taken up some new hobbies over the past 10 months that I never would have considered taking part in as a 20-year-old. Have you picked up any hobbies during lockdown?
Hello! I’m doing well, thank you! I wouldn’t say I’ve picked up new hobbies, but I’ve definitely shifted my priorities in terms of how I spend personal time. I’m much more intentional about things like self-care routines and sleep hygiene, which have helped me manage the doom scrolling and the emotional ups and downs of the last year! I’ve learned a lot about what I need in my “off-time” in order to feel good during my “on time.” Maybe not new hobbies, but new practices, I suppose!
For me, reading fiction has quickly become a favorite hobby. I didn’t think I had the time for recreational reading as a college student, but it has become a necessary part of my daily routine. Have you read anything recently that you’d recommend?
Yes! I’m a big fan of webcomics on Webtoons right now. I find the medium fascinating because creators are taking full advantage of the app and mobile experience to tell stories in new ways. Also, episodes are easy to read quickly, which helps when my attention span gets shorter or less predictable, but I still want to enjoy fiction. In particular, I read Lore Olympus, Age Matters, and Let’s Play, and finished the run of Ghost Wife.
In terms of books, I’d recommend A Song Below Water, a contemporary fantasy novel by Bethany C. Morrow, and Happily Ever Afters, a rom-com by Elise Bryant.
I’m sure writing in lockdown has been a unique experience. Has your craft changed during the pandemic? If so, how?
My writing process has shifted quite a lot from what it was before 2020. The pandemic can make creative work harder due to stress, certainly, but beyond that, I didn’t realize how frequently I was working in spaces outside of my home, like coffee shops or the library. Being at home most of the time now, I have to create a different relationship with my computer, desk and office in order to get work done. I ended up buying a little non-networked, battery-powered keyboard word processor device so that I could write in a sort of true silence, and in different spots in the house. I’ve also begun to think about the impact of my work differently, knowing that so many of us are turning to stories during this time. Storytelling, whether it’s in a book or on a TV show, has a lot of power to carry folks through difficult circumstances.
The young adult genre has long been written off as trivial and superficial, with many viewing it as a difficult industry to accrue credibility as a “serious writer.” Personally, I couldn’t disagree more with these assertions. I’ve read plenty of YA novels that tackle pressing issues that affect young people in a thoughtful and insightful way. Why did you decide on writing “Legendborn” as a young adult novel?
Fortunately, I think that type of thinking is increasingly falling to the wayside in reader and industry circles, although I’m sure some people feel that YA is somehow easier to write, or less rigorous in content. They couldn’t be more wrong—writing for this age category is immensely difficult to do well. The audience is extremely discerning and hyper-aware of the situations they’re living through, and these books support a population that is learning and growing as they read. There’s also very little room for imprecise craft because the stories work at such a quick pace. When you look at the breadth of YA from the past decade, this age category regularly tackles nuanced issues of identity, class, and power. I have found that adult novels don’t necessarily push on those same topics as frequently, or in the same way.
I never considered writing Legendborn as anything other than a YA book, partially because that age is my “home voice” as an author, but also because I knew the story was about a young person discovering her path and power. Specifically, a young Black girl discovering those things, and that’s not only a story I needed to read when I was growing up, but one we still don’t see enough of today in children’s literature.
Reading this novel on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus allowed me to have an immersive experience unlike no other. The wonder you imbued into everyday locations like Polk Place and the Arboretum really have made my walks across campus so much more entertaining. What made you decide to set your fantastical Arthurian realm at UNC-CH?
Thanks so much for saying that! I’m so glad. I had hoped that readers familiar with the campus would get an extra layer of satisfaction from those UNC details.
I always knew I wanted the story to take place at a university in the South because secret societies thrive in those settings and the ancient Arthurian secret society I was creating would need a place to hide in plain sight. I also wanted to incorporate that setting because questions of memory, place, and legacy are in the air in those spaces, and in particular at UNC, the oldest public school in the nation and a place I know very well.
I loved learning about Bree’s family history. Reading Bree’s complex feelings regarding her mother and the gift of knowing your ancestry humanized her in a really sincere way. Even when Bree made mistakes, I fully felt her intentions to protect her mother’s legacy. I have an intensely close relationship with my own mother, so passages where Bree explores her mother’s influence on her life really hit me. Can you explain why you chose motherhood as a key theme in the novel?
The first idea of Legendborn was born when I lost my mother. At that time, I learned that she had lost her mother at the same age that I lost her, and that the same had occurred with my grandmother and great-grandmother. I was raised on science fiction and fantasy, so I immediately imagined a girl who would go on an epic, magical journey to find out why her mother died. That girl became Bree and that journey is the core of Legendborn.
Favorite Legendborn character to write and why?
William, because he’s so wholesome! He is the healer I’ve always wanted in my life.
Most fun scene to write?
Bree and Nick in the woods together, with banter and the beginnings of romance between them.
Favorite memory at Chapel Hill?
Impossible to choose just one! But I will always treasure the feeling of walking through campus at night on the way to see friends.
Favorite Chapel Hill food spot?
As a student? Cosmic Cantina. As an alum? Crook’s Corner.
My friends will quite literally murder me if I don’t ask you this one: Are you partial to Nick, the shiny golden boy, or (my personal favorite) Selwyn, the troubled bad boy?
I love them both, truly. I have to, in order to write them and in order for Bree to get to know them.
Last one: One piece of advice for young writers?
I know people say this a lot, but write the story you want to read, first and foremost. I think that starting from that place is how we see innovation because each of us has a unique perspective and lived experience.
I also think it’s a great idea to ask for feedback in specific areas of interest when you share your work in a workshop or with a critique partner. This doesn’t need to exclude any other feedback they may offer, but often it helps both parties to start with a few bullet points of where you’d like reader attention. This way you get what you need at each stage of the writing process.
Thank you so much for answering all my questions. I loved every page of your debut and cannot wait for the second installment of the Legendborn series to come out. At its core, “Legendborn” really is a love letter to UNC-CH. However, the novel never shies away from addressing our university’s misgivings. “Legendborn” forced me to evaluate UNC-CH’s violent history with slavery and white supremacy in a wayI haven’t since the removal of Silent Sam. Your book taught me that academic institutions should continuously be held accountable for atoning their racist history and striving to present equal opportunities to all students.
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