It is just hours before her appearance at a sold-out author event, but Sarah J Maas is quick to inform me that she will not be reading from her latest book, Empire of Storms, the fifth instalment of her best-selling Throne of Glass series. "Look I write high fantasy", she says, "and this" – she tosses her long blonde hair ironically – "just doesn't really fit with what people are going to expect. And with my Valley Girl voice, I don't really think me reading aloud does me any favours. But, you know, I'm a writer, which is a solitary thing, and when I'm writing I get to be whoever I want."
When Maas disappears into her home-office in Philadelphia, she is a super-skilled warrior-heroine with magical powers and a certain fate as saviour of the realm. Not for nothing does a life-size figure of Orlando Bloom as Tolkien elf Legolas supervise her writing day.
Maas grew up "a big-time geek" in New York City in the late 1980s. She loved Star Wars, fairy tales and the novels of Philip Pullman. She was a founding member of the Lord of the Rings society at school and wrote Harry Potter fan fiction, posting her stories on the online forum at FictionPress.com. One day, not long after her 16th birthday, while listening to the soundtrack of Disney's Cinderella, she had an idea for an original story, wrote a chapter and submitted it to the site. "I was just looking for feedback. It was the first original idea I had. Was the story worth my while? All of a sudden, strangers were saying they loved it, asking could I write more. Then they were waiting chapter by chapter, and that was a huge motivation and inspiration for me."
Over the next six years, Throne of Glass and its four sequels became the most reviewed stories on the website. "Knowing I had so many readers behind me, who wanted to see the stories on their book shelves as physical books, gave me the confidence to work towards getting published." She secured a publishing deal in 2008 and has published eight novels since in two concurrent series, Throne of Glass and Court of Thorns and Roses; that is two novels a year. "Well," Maas says, " I knew from the moment I started writing it that this was a story that I wanted to see through to the end."
Although Throne of Glass was inspired by the Cinderella story, it is not what most people would expect from a fairy tale. "Most people assume the heroines in fairy tales are victims. But I never thought of Cinderella as a doormat. The prince is really just a vehicle for her to rise above the hardships. When you think about it, she has endured some of worst things a person can go through – the loss of a parent, horrendous abuse – but she has remained kind and kept her heart open to love."
The link between the stories may seem tenuous – Maas’s heroine is Caelena Sardothian, a royal assassin – but the women share a background of social disenfranchisement and use similar skills to win their freedom. “I wouldn’t call it a version, though,” Maas says. “It’s just that it provides a backbone or structure to the story.”
Maas was also, deliberately, trying to create characters that she would like to have seen more of when she was a teenager: namely female protagonists. "I was always pretending to be Luke, Han, Legolas," she says, recounting childhood games, "but I didn't always want to have to be 'the guy'." There were a few seminal fictional role models – Garth Nix's Sabriel, Robin McKinley's heroine Harry Crewe – "but back then novels that had young ladies saving the day were few and far between, and I wanted to read more stories about young women kicking ass."
It was on TV, however, that she found the character "that changed my life. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer started airing I was 12/13 and it was a seminal moment for me. I was at that age when I was really trying to figure out who I was, and she was one of those heroines that defied easy definition. You couldn't put her into the neat box that society likes so much: she was a girly-girly, a cheerleader, but she was also the slayer of monsters. The qualities that society deems feminine are big source of strength to her. You get to see her relationship with her mother and her female friends. And I identified with her. I realised that just because you like nail polish, it doesn't mean you can't like Star Wars. Just because you have great hair doesn't mean you can't kick some ass."
The confidence that Buffy gave her was crucial, Maas says, in persevering with her writing in what is an oft-derided genre. When she submitted some of her work at creative writing class in high school, for example, she was subjected to “a 45-minute rant about fantasy” instead of feedback.
“The attitude was that fantasy is garbage, not real writing. There was such contempt, I couldn’t even respond. Luckily, it just made me even more determined to keep writing. But I was so shocked that someone who is entrusted with encouraging teenagers could say that to a young writer. When there are so many other things a teenager could be doing, picking up a book, any kind of book, writing, any creative pursuit, should be celebrated and encouraged.”
Now, Maas says, there is a lot less literary snobbery. She attributes the change to the film versions of Lord of the Rings and the TV version of the Game of Thrones series. "When I was a teenager you would have been shoved into a locker for admitting you liked Star Wars, but now it's actually cool. People have realised that these fantastical worlds, have so much to offer. It's great," she concludes, "because it means more people are reading. And it means I have more fans."
Empire of Storms is published by Bloomsbury