Leigh Bardugo On 'Ninth House'
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Yale University's secret societies are the stuff of legend, bastions of privilege that set you up for a life of connections, wealth and power. In bestselling author Leigh Bardugo's new novel "Ninth House," these clubs are reimagined as places where actual dark arts are performed in a Yale flooded with ghosts and driven by witchcraft. Leigh Bardugo joins us now to talk about her book.
Welcome to the program.
LEIGH BARDUGO: Thank you so much for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the center of this book is Galaxy Stern, also known as Alex. She's a high-school dropout, a former drug addict with a dark past. But she has a talent that catches the eye of occult Yale recruiters. What is that talent? Tell us about Galaxy.
BARDUGO: She can see through the veil to the other side. She can see ghosts or what are referred to as Grays in Ninth House. The Ninth House was formed because these eight secret societies - and the societies are very real, although the magic they practice is my invention. Since you have a bunch of undergraduates tampering with the supernatural forces, another house, a kind of oversight house, had to be created to keep them from quite literally raising hell. So that is the Ninth House to which Alex is brought.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You went to Yale, though.
BARDUGO: I did.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Were you part of a secret society at Yale?
BARDUGO: I was.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh. Well, now this gets interesting.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you allowed to talk about it?
BARDUGO: I mean, I'm pretty sure that a special ops team won't descend from above. Yeah. I was in Wolf's Head, one of the ancient eight. But I am not a shape-shifter, as far as you know.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: As far as I know. So obviously, you knew this intimately. When did you start thinking about making this book? Was it all the way back when you were an undergrad and you thought, wow, this would make a really, really interesting book someday?
BARDUGO: I think there's no question that the mystery of these places and these organizations pulled me in very early. I mean, I remember very clearly being a freshman and walking down the street from the post office reading a letter because we read and wrote letters back then. And I looked up from this letter, and I found myself on this street. And to my left was this giant marble mausoleum that was two stories high. It was the size of an apartment building. And it was surrounded by a fence covered in wrought-iron snakes. And then to my right was a giant neo-Egyptian gate to a cemetery. And above it read, the dead shall be raised. So you know, as a young goth girl from Los Angeles, I had really come home.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. This book reminds me a lot of "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt or Hogwarts in the service of Voldemort, possibly...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...What that might be like if, indeed, you know, that was the case. There is a lot of violence in the book - a murder, sexual violence, a lot about sort of gender. Why did you want to show that undercurrent?
BARDUGO: You know, I didn't go in looking to make a statement about those things. But I think if you're going to explore a world honestly, you're going to come up against those things. And I think, for me, part of this story was about the pleasure of creating magic and drawing these parallels to power in our real world. But part of it was also the very uncomfortable act of excavating my own experiences as an undergraduate and maybe exercising some of the anger that came from dredging that up.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about that.
BARDUGO: Well, the thing that I realized - I had this very happy, rosy memory of Yale. And I had even described it in the past as my Hogwarts. And there is still a part of me that feels that deep attachment. But when I went back to write this book, I had an old acquaintance get in touch with me and say, oh, are you going to reunion? And I honestly hadn't - I didn't even realize reunion was happening. But I was like, hell yeah, I'm going to reunion. I'm a bestselling novelist.
BARDUGO: I finally have something to brag about. I will be there.
And then he started sending me photos of all of us hanging out and partying. And instead of having this warm, nostalgic feeling, I felt my gut clench because I had really forgotten what it was like to be in that culture - this very white, very straight, very wealthy culture. And I had forgotten the way that I talked about myself, the way that me and my friends talked about other women, the kind of slut-shaming we engaged in, the way we pruned ourselves down in order to belong to this culture and just to be in on the joke, right? And I look back on the girl who I was. And it is not with - it is with a lot of embarrassment and sadness over the things that she put up with because she didn't even have language for what was happening to her.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I keep on hearing you talk about your love for magic. And as someone who also loves magic, I want to know what kind of draws you to that. You have a few lines in this book that hints at it. I just want to read a few. Magic, you write, allows you to show someone else wonder, to watch them realize that they had not been lied to, that the world they'd been promised as children was not something that had to be abandoned, that there really was something lurking in the wood beneath the stairs, beneath the stars, that everything was full of mystery. You also write, it gives back the world all the lonely children have longed for. Is that what you believe?
BARDUGO: Yeah, absolutely. I started reading fantasy and science fiction and writing fantasy and science fiction when I was - when I started junior high school. And that was when my mom remarried. We moved to a completely different neighborhood. I started a new school, and I could not have felt more alone.
And I walked into the library at my school. And some wonderful librarian had put out a table of speculative fiction that said, discover new worlds. And God, I wanted to. And I desperately needed books that would take me out of my environment and show me a world where being smart and brave and prepared was more important than being cute or cheerful or knowing the right thing to say. And that's what science fiction and fantasy gave me. They expanded the universe that I lived in beyond home and school and the mall.
And so it was a lifeline for me. And I think that the possibility that magic presents and the stakes that magic present are addictive, in a way. And I don't think if you fall in love at that early age you ever really get it out of your system.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Here's to all the kids who eat lunch in libraries reading fantasy and science fiction.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Indeed.
Leigh Bardugo's new book is "Ninth House." Thank you very much.
BARDUGO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.