Noa Wheeler: One of the things I love about working on books with you, Leigh, is your eye for detail, both emotional and physical. And I feel like that attention to physical detail really ties in to your previous profession as a makeup artist. Does that background affect the way you portray your characters?
Leigh Bardugo: I got into makeup and effects because I always loved costuming and the whole idea of transformation. So I do think that my background played a role in the way I see not just the character, but the scene, the setting, the world. I don’t think it’s just about the visual but about the tactile as well. How does velvet feel? What is the grain of the wood beneath your feet? What about the smell of boot polish or the flowers in a bride’s hair? I love all of those little details.
But really, I think the biggest impact came not just from working in Hollywood but from growing up there. I got a close-up view of what physical beauty (and I'm talking about a very specific type of beauty that conforms to a narrow standard) can and can’t do for you, and I’ve always understood it as a commodity. I think teenagers are keenly aware of that because beauty has even greater currency when you’re young, so I wanted to be honest about that in my work.
NW: Yes, I definitely agree that teenagers have a sharp eye for beauty as currency, both in our own world and in fiction. Do you think this changes the portrayal of beauty and artifice in teen books as opposed to adult books? Does it or should it affect what authors present in their books for each readership?
LB: No, I don’t really think there should be a difference. Men and women both contend with what culture throws at us. We get bombarded with really wretched and relentless messages about what is attractive and the way that impacts our worth. That doesn’t stop when you get out of adolescence.
NW: In your opinion, what book (for teens or adults) best addresses this issue?
LB: I think Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell does this wonderfully sneaky, powerful thing: it shows us how Eleanor views herself (and the brutal way she assesses herself—her accute self-consciousness will be familiar to a lot of readers). Then Rowell gives us Park’s perspective, and we see how very wrong Eleanor is about the way he views her. The desire he feels is so direct and authentic, so tightly tied to the very physicality causing Eleanor pain. That shift in perspective is more powerful than a hundred “love yourself” lectures could ever be.
NW: I really did feel the difference in that book between Eleanor literally looking down at herself, and having this weird perspective on her own body (which we all do), and Park looking at her with an element of remove—he sees her as a whole, in many ways, and it’s always difficult to see ourselves that way.
LB: I love that Park is attracted to her body and all of her lovely parts. It’s not just about inner beauty, but about physical desire as well and I think that’s important. We’re too frequently taught that our “imperfections” are something to be looked past or overcome, rather than that we can be desirable body and soul.