In late August, Forward Unto Dawn interviewed Cassandra Rose Clarke, author of Halo: Battle Born and Meridian Divide, about her work and the Halo franchise. What follows is a condensed and formatted version of that conversation; you can listen to the full interview on the Forward Unto Dawn Podcast, episode 31.
Forward Unto Dawn: Thanks for joining us.
Cassandra Rose Clark: Of course.
What got you into writing in the first place?
I have always been someone who loves to write. I was writing when I was little kid. I was also really into art, so coming up through high school and into college, I was sort of like, “Do I want to be a writer? Do I want to be an artist?” In college, I took a creative writing class and that sort of made the decision for me, and so I just started pursuing writing from there. I was taking workshops in college, and then I went on and got a graduate degree in creative writing. I’ve pretty much just been writing consistently since then.
When did you realize that writing was something you could make part of your career?
I feel like that’s kind of a hard question for me to give a specific answer. I know I started kind of taking it seriously after grad schools, or even getting into grad school was a huge boost to me and sort of legitimized it. […] That was one of those thing where—lots of people who are creative probably have gone through this—you feel like the people around you don’t really take it seriously just because they’re like, “Well, how are you going to make money with that?” And then getting into a creative writing program, like the one at University of Texas-Austin, suddenly, it makes it real. It’s like, “Oh, wow, this is actually a thing. Like, someone other than you said that you could do this.” So that was a huge boost for me. In terms of really thinking of it as a career, that was probably when I sold my second book to a totally different publisher, that was what made me really feel like, “Oh, hey, there’s actually something here. This could actually be a job for me.”
What was your awareness of the Halo franchise before working on Battle Born?
When I was in college, my friends and I were obsessed with Halo. This was the early 2000s, and I believe the second one had just come out. We were in the dorm and everybody had a copy, and if you didn’t have a copy, you’d sneak into your friend’s room and play it, and so it was a huge part of my life all through college, just constantly playing with my friends.
When I was offered the chance to write Battle Born, I was really excited because I don’t actually play a lot of video games; Halo is one of the few that I did play and was pretty involved in, to the point that I actually wrote a paper about Cortana and how women are at the forefront of the game world, so I was really excited of all the video game franchises to be offered the chance to write a book for, it was Halo. It was the one that I did know fairly well, at least the first two games.
How did the Halo book deal come about?
They just reached out to me. There’s two branches with the books: there’s the book publisher side, and then there’s the Halo/343 people. The publisher actually reached out to me because she knew one of the other editors that I had worked with, and she said they were looking for someone who had a science fiction background, and would be able to write a book for the franchise that would bring in people who were not necessarily fans of the games, so my editor had suggested to the publisher, “Hey, check out Cassandra Rose Clarke.” They really liked one of my books that I had written, which was Our Lady of the Ice, and so they reached out to me. I got a random email. I was actually at the Worldcon in Finland, which I always remember because it was in this weird place and I got this crazy email, and it was this awesome opportunity.
Your books are the first explicitly branded young adult fiction for Halo. What got you into young adult fiction and writing for that in the first place?
I actually kind of fell into it. My first book that I ever published was actually the second book I ever wrote. I didn’t write it as a YA novel. I was just like, “Hey, I want to write a fantasy novel,” and so I wrote one, and it got picked up by this publisher along with another book that I had written that was an adult novel. They were like, “Hey, we’re actually going to publish this as YA. We’re starting a new YA imprint,” and I was like, “Okay. I guess it’s a YA. I wasn’t thinking of it like that.” So I just kind of stumbled into it. Most of my books have actually been adult. I have another YA book coming out next year, so I kind of dabble with it, but I mean, I think most people have read YA. I certainly read it when I was younger. I read it now, occasionally. There’s a lot of kind of interesting YA out there. For a long time, it was doing a lot of really cool genre-blending stuff that I really liked.
A 2017 report found was 55% of young adult fiction readers are actual adults, but young adult fiction generally has had a stigma surrounding it. Do you think that’s still a problem?
I’m not sure if it’s still an issue now. I definitely noticed that when the Battle Born came out, I got a lot of comments from people on Twitter who were like, “I liked this more than I expected.” I think they went into it thinking it was going to be like Twilight. I think that a lot of people just kind of have that idea that YA means a kind of sappy romance with a love triangle, and that it’s very much something that’s directed at teenage girls, and so, “I’m an adult man and I’m not going to want to read it,” but YA is really just an age group. It really just means these books are about teenagers and they’re for teenagers, but I mean, everybody has been a teenager at some point, so there’s something to get out of it even if you’re an adult now.
Over the course of writing these Halo books, what would you say would be the main challenges or even surprises that you’ve encountered?
I guess it wasn’t really a challenge but a surprise, but I discovered how amazing the Halopedia is, which is the fan-run Wiki for the Halo universe. I knew it existed. I never really looked at it, but the 343 people were like, “You should just check that out. It’ll help you with your book,” and it really did. It was amazing to see how dedicated the fans are, and just being able to look up something fairly obscure and finding this whole article on it, and all of this background, and just realizing how expansive the world had gotten since I had been playing it.
Because that was one of the things I had to do. You know I was very familiar with the first two games and the storyline of the first two games, and then, by the time I’m working on Battle Born, we’re much farther further along in the storyline and a lot of things are different, so just seeing how much that world that I had been so fascinated with had grown in the time I’d been away and being able to just explore it through the Wiki, and then also just through watching cutscenes on YouTube and that kind of stuff, that was really fun.
How much in the way of specific details or mandates did 343 give you, versus what you were able to create yourself?
Right. What they did was they gave me a pitch, and they said, “This is what we want for the book.” The pitch was, “It’s the movie Red Dawn, but it’s set in the Halo universe.” That was pretty much what they gave me. Then they’re like, “There has to be a Spartan in it,” and I was like, “Well, of course.” That was really all I was working with. Now, obviously, as I was getting into the process of outlining and writing the books, they came back and we had to discuss canon and stuff, but other than that main pitch and then also saying that they wanted it to take place around the fall of Meridian, those were really the two main thrusts that they gave me. Mandates, I guess. Everything else I got to really kind of play around with.
Something that was really fun for me was that they actually gave me a bunch of internal documents about Meridian specifically that hadn’t been released. There were a lot of details about the history of the world that hadn’t actually made it into any of the canons thus far, so I had a lot of fun taking those details and kind of working them into Battle Born and then later into Meridian Divide. It was just a really fun kind of world-building experience to take what had been planned but not really executed yet and seeing how much I could slip in. I mean, they directed me towards the Wiki, I think, just because it was easy, but they did give me some internal information as well that I got to work with.
So would you say, then, the canon restrictions in your case for these two stories, they weren’t really restrictions, that you felt a bit more liberated working within that kind of framework?
Yeah. Actually, I’m a writer that loves having restrictions. I think it’s really fun to basically be told, “Okay, you can do this, this, and this, but you cannot do this,” and see what I can come up with. I actually really liked working within those canon details and working with the canon people, because I would write stuff and they would be like, “Yeah, this is not possible. A teenage girl cannot fight these guys on her own,” so it was like, I had to obviously pull some of that stuff back, but it was fun because it made me go back and be like, “Okay, how can I reconfigure this and keep the feel of it without messing with the canon and just making it whatever I want?”
How long did the process take from when you were initially approached to write the book, and when you turned something in?
I was initially approached in 2017, so there was definitely kind of a gap there as we were working out the negotiations and I was writing the original draft. The drafts for both of the books I actually wrote in about a month, which sounds really crazy, but they only had to be about 60,000 or 70,000 words, so it was basically NaNoWriMo, so it wasn’t that bad. But I also had to get an outline approved, so especially with the first book, there was a lot of discussion with people about what exactly do we want it to be about, what are the frameworks, and then I had to have an outline approved. Then I have to, of course, have the draft approved. I felt like there was a bit of a delay when they released it as well so that they did get this quick release with Battle Born comes out, and then 10 months later, Meridian Divide comes out as well.
How much of the characters are informed by either yourself or people you know? Are any of the characters ones you relate to?
I’ve never been a writer who really bases directly on people that I know, mostly because I discovered early on that can get you in some trouble if people that the characters are based on read the story. With this one, though, I definitely did pull from my experiences when I was a teenager. One of the characters in Battle Born is in a band. I went to a lot of local punk rock shows when I was a teenager, so I was really trying to capture that vibe of these local bands, and just how excited you are and how cool you feel when you go to those local shows, so that really informed a lot at the beginning where we’re just seeing them before the invasion has actually happened. I think of all of the characters, because there’s four teenagers in the books, I probably relate the most to Evie, who’s sort of like the nerdy one. She’s very like a bookworm, and that was definitely how I I was in high school, so she’s definitely probably the closest to me.
Were there any differences in the writing process between the two novels?
There really wasn’t. With each book you kind of write it differently a lot of the times, but with this, I felt like I got a really good process down with Battle Born. The way we set it up for [that novel], I was like, “That works perfectly for Meridian Divide.” That was, basically, get an idea, write a pretty detailed outline, which is something I don’t normally do, and then get that outline approved. Then, once I got the approval, then I can start drafting and send it off. Then I get feedback on canon and on just normal story stuff. Do the revisions. So that process was pretty much the same for both books.
As we head up to the release of Meridian Divide, is there a part or something in the book that you’re most excited for people to read?
Yeah. In this one, it takes place in the aftermath of the fall of Meridian, so I had a lot of fun really exploring what that would look like. One of the fun things about writing these books has been, what does the Halo universe look like from a civilian perspective? At one point, the characters have to go to this city that’s been completely destroyed. Writing about that and what that would look like from a civilian point of view, as opposed to soldiers who are either been conditioned to deal with it or used to it, that was just fun for me as a writer. I also got to play around with Forerunner technology and make up a new, crazy piece of Forerunner tech, so I think I’m really excited for people to read about that as well.
Well, that’s one thing they’ve released. There’s already the first couple chapters, I think, of Meridian Divide out there. We’ll put a link in the show notes so people can read. But as you said, the first book is these kids, punk rocker, nerdy people who kind of get thrown into this war. In this book they kind of are becoming soldiers, which is something that I don’t think, as with civilian perspectives aside from the Spartans themselves, who are definitely an atypical case, you don’t have much in the way of what it’s like to grow up and start training for this kind of war.
So what’s it been like getting back into Halo after all these years?
It’s actually been really interesting. I know when I first got back into it, it was just really cool. The first time I heard the music, the chanting, it’s just so iconic, and I was just like, “Oh my god, I remember this,” and so it was just kind of a nostalgia trip for me. I went to the Outpost Discovery in Houston, and that was really, really cool because they have a, I can only describe it as a Halo museum set up, where they have models of an Elite soldier and a Master Chief and weapons and stuff, and they’re in glass cases. That was just really, really cool to be able to just wander around and to just to kind of be like, “Man, if you had told me when I was in college that I would be in this position to be at something like this, that something like this would even exist, I wouldn’t have even believed you.”
And then to be like, “Oh, hey, not only are you going to be at this conference, or this convention, that’s dedicated to Halo, you’re going to sign autographs for people of Halo merchandise and Halo games that you used to play.” That’s very surreal to me, so yeah, it’s been really fun, and it’s just been really fun kind of reconnecting with the fandom, which I wasn’t super connected with the first time around. It was just sort of like a local, just me and my friends, so it was really cool seeing how much this affected people.
It’s really cool to me because I feel like I contributed such a very small piece of Halo lore. You know, I wrote a couple books. They weren’t even that long, but just the way people are just like, “Oh, hey, wow. You’re a part of this thing that I love. Could you sign this helmet for me?” It’s just like, “Uh, sure, but I mean, I feel like I’m as much just like a fan as you are.” I feel like we’re on an equal footing. So, yeah, because that’s just been really surreal and really fun, and it’s just really cool to be reminded of how important these games can be to people.
Meridian Divide releases October 1, 2019.