The Shelf Care Interview: Margaret Owen

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Macmillan.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Maggie Reagan talks to Margaret Owen, author of The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk. Margaret was born and raised at the end of the Oregon Trail and has worked in everything from thrift stores to presidential campaigns. The common thread between every job can be summed up as: lessons were learned. She now spends her days writing and negotiating a long-term hostage situation with her two monstrous cats. In her free time, she enjoys exploring ill-advised travel destinations and raising money for social justice nonprofits through her illustrations. She resides in Seattle, Washington. You can find her on Twitter at @what_eats_owls 

The Faithless Hawk will be released by Henry Holt & Co. on August 18.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. The transcript has been edited for clarity.


MAGGIE REAGAN: Margaret, thank you so much for joining me today.

MARGARET OWEN: Thank you for having me.

I have to ask, what does eat owls?

I chose that because it is just such a good, valid question, and it only more firmly cements my love of owls, because the answer is bigger owls.

That brings me to the caste system in your books, which I just kind of ate up myself this past weekend. They’re based on birds, and that clearly is something that you have an interest in. So I’m wondering about your world building.

One thing that’s always struck me with magic systems is this idea that some magics are going to be seen as more useful or more special or more valuable than others just inherently, and I’ve always wondered how that would impact a society. So, when I was approaching the world of The Merciful Crow, and I knew I wanted the main character to come from this sort of very low position in society, I said, “Well, why not a caste system based on magic?” As I was trying to figure out how to delineate these different castes,I knew that Fie would be from this group of people who were working as kind of plague doctors and plague containers, and they would pick up a name that had some unsavory connotations of scavenging. Not the most glamorous of names. So, crows seemed to kind of fit for that, and then when I was thinking about the other end of the spectrum, where royalty would weigh in, I thought, well, what if to really just sort of nail home the difference, it was the phoenixes? So, it’s not just the fact that they have the most destructive power out of all the castes with their command of fire. It’s that they’re literally a magical special bird. Then from there on, I was like, well, it would be weird to have a bird at one end and a bird at the other, and then everything else is just something different, so let’s just go birds all the way down.

Castes can be a really tricky thing to navigate in fiction, but I think one of the things that you do so well is to set up these systems of power and privilege, and then kind of completely dismantle the expectations that readers might have about them. I think you set up with this kind of, oh, the people in power can really help out the people not in power, and then you spend the rest of the two books going through all the ways why it’s not that cut-and-dry. So, can you tell us a little bit about how you approached this?

That was a very important thing for me, to be very mindful of what I was doing with that, because a lot of the time we see these kind of white savior narratives where this person in power, this person who operates from a place of privilege comes in and helps these underprivileged people and kind of explains their own problems to them. In telling this story from the perspective of someone who is from a lower, less privileged position in society, who faces actual prejudice as a result of that, I wanted to really explore the ways that not just dealing with people who have that privilege put her and her family at risk, but also, the ways that the two boys, who are introduced to the family, put other people at risk because they don’t understand what it’s like to operate without that privilege.

A lot of the time, when we’re dealing with these big power differentials, and oh, these people are from opposite sides of society, it turns into a, well, both sides have things to learn about the other, and I didn’t want to do that because I think we’ve had a lot of those narratives, and if we look at today’s society, the burden of learning about the other is usually placed upon marginalized people, and we looked at the recent statistics that came out about diversity in kid lit, and as it has been for decades, the overwhelming majority of stories and narratives being put out there are by white people, about white people, for white people.

I didn’t want to have yet another story that was this marginalized person learns how difficult it is for someone with more privilege than her to navigate those worlds. I slid something in a little bit sideways with that, with the fact that Fie already knows what it’s like to live as other people because she sees that whenever she calls magic from a tooth. She sees someone’s life. She knows what that is, and so this idea that she is already intimately and personally familiar with other people’s experiences are by nature of her own magic, and she could say, “No, I know how everybody else lives, and the way that we are treated is, A, different, and B, wrong.”

Can I just say that reading about a plague right now was horrifying?

Yeah. I did not plan on that. I respect anyone who is a virologist or is working in the medical field and is just like, A, this is not how a disease works, and B, I can’t read this right now. I totally understand because I definitely had to fudge some of the details on the plague and be like, well, some of that’s just because it’s magic plague. But I keep on saying, I wrote Faithless Hawk in August of last year, and it was just . . . A lot of the choices that are made by the villains were informed by the ways that we’ve seen bad actors in current positions of power both weaponize, encourage, and abuse tragedies and trauma that people are experiencing. Unfortunately, I wish it wasn’t so prescient. I really do. But yeah, it was definitely a little chilling to see so many of the things that I had written about, just going on six months ago at the time, were almost word-for-word repeated by the administration in dealing with coronavirus. It was just like, no, this was not supposed to be an inspiration for you. This was not supposed to be a road map.

In general, what would you say inspires your writing?

It can be a lot of different things. It can be little bits of history. It can be fairytales and interrogations of fairytales, because Lord knows I grew up with so many books of various mythologies and folklore, but that’s more of my third book stuff, but for Merciful Crow, it was a couple different ideas that kind of smashed together into this primordial soup and sparked off. I wanted to write something that was atmospheric and had a very sort of ethereal but dark kind of sense of place. I’d been kicking around the idea of doing something with plague doctors because I always thought those were interesting, and a little spooky. Then I also had come across this article on the lives of medieval executioners, and that was, to me, fascinating. There’s a lot of baggage attached to the idea of an executioner in medieval times. One was that even though murder was seen as a sinful act, they still needed someone to enforce justice, but since it was inherently this bad, unclean thing to do, executioners were ostracized from the communities that they served, they were exiled from them. They were only allowed to enter the cities under certain conditions, and they had to mark themselves when they did so. So you can see how a lot of that informed these ideas that you see in The Merciful Crow of not just disease and sin and uncleanliness, but how these necessary roles are still ostracized within a community because it’s something that people don’t like to think about. It’s something that they’re afraid of. This idea of the executioner is a scary thing. It’s the stick as opposed to the carrot of the justice system.

Are you allowed to say anything about your next book?

Right now, I think the most I can say is that it is a retelling, so it’s a completely different world, completely different universe, it’s a fairytale retelling of The Goose Girl, which is—

You got me.

Well, hang on, because it’s told from the villain’s perspective. So, it’s a very loose retelling in that our main character and narrator and overall just horrible gremlin girl, who I absolutely adore, is the maid who has stolen the princess’s place, and is now using that and her access to high-society parties to pull off a string of jewel heists.

Well, when you’re not writing, if that happens these days, what do you like to read or surround yourself with?

So, I am a bit of a workaholic, and so I tend to just immediately switch gears into drawing if I’m not writing, and it’s usually drawing something that is either promotional art for something or it’s me doing concept art for a story, and I will sometimes allow myself to watch a show in the background. I know this sounds very just dreadful. This is part of the nice thing about being an artist and a writer, is that I do love both of these things, and so it’s not the full-on if you love your work, you never work a day in your life, because it is still work, but it is work that I enjoy. Then when I am like, “Molly, you need to take a break. You are going to just . . . They’re going to find you wandering the moors and screaming into the winds,” because that’s what we do to blow off steam in Seattle.

Of course, I read YA. I’m a huge sucker for animation, just from an art perspective, and you can always find me knee-deep in Miyazaki movies, and they’re so beautiful. That’s another rant for another time, but yeah, I will be reading everything from comics to occasionally nonfiction. I spend a lot of, more time than I should, on Twitter, but yeah, I tend to just leap right back into the stuff that I love when it’s my free time, and then sometimes I cook.

Well, thank you so much for chatting with me, and thank you, everyone, for listening to the Shelf Care Interview.

This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Macmillan, publisher of Margaret Owen’s The Faithless Hawk, available August 18. Happy reading!

About the Author:

Maggie Reagan works for Booklist as an associate editor in the Books for Youth department. In addition to the required love of reading, she is also an adventure junkie, animal hugger, and stringed-instrument enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @MagdalenaRayGun.

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