The Mind Behind the Queer “Sword-Wielding Badasses” of the “Shadowhunters” Universe

Author Cassandra Clare chats about Alec Lightwood and Magnus Bane's European adventure in "The Red Scrolls of Magic."

New York Times-bestselling author Cassandra Clare is something of a pioneer in the realm of LGBTQ-inclusive fantasy YA. Since 2007, her Shadowhunter Chronicles, beginning with The Mortal Instruments (TMI) series, have amassed a huge international following. (The books have even spurred a film adaptation and popular TV series, Shadowhunters, on Freeform.) Her most fiercely beloved fictional couple? Gay demon-fighting warrior Alec Lightwood and his partner Magnus Bane, the openly bisexual High Warlock of Brooklyn.

Now, Clare and her co-author, sci-fi writer (and proud Magnus fan) Wesley Chu, are giving #Malec the royal treatment in The Eldest Curses (TEC) trilogy. The first TEC book, The Red Scrolls of Magic, is due out April 9 from Simon & Schuster. (No worries if you’re behind on TMI books, Clare says: “It would probably enrich your experience if you’ve read the first three TMI books. But if you haven’t, you can still pick up Red Scrolls.)

NewNowNext caught up with Clare for the scoop on Red Scrolls—and an insider look at the state of LGBTQ inclusion in the world of YA publishing.

For those who may be new to the Shadow World, can you give us a crash-course and introduce Alec Lightwood and Magnus Bane?

The books are about Shadowhunters, a race of people who fight demons. They have powers that they get from being part-angel, and they have a mandate to be on this earth and fight demons and protect mundanes, which is what they call regular people. There’s also people who are called Downworlders. They’re supernatural creatures we’re all familiar with from mythology and folklore—faeries, vampires, warlocks, werewolves.

So, Alec is a Shadowhunter. He’s a young man who’s very rule-abiding, very serious about being a Shadowhunter, and not very happy. In City of Bones, he meets Magnus Bane, a warlock who’s really free-spirited, fun, and pretty powerful. Over the course of TMI books, they fall in love with each other and form a relationship. Alec comes out … and Magnus has been openly bisexual since the beginning of the series … By where we’re at in the books now, they’ve been together for years, they’ve adopted two children, and they just got married.

Oh, the Lightwood-Banes are iconic. Total trailblazers. Legendary.

[Laughs] It was so fun to write their wedding!

Simon & Schuster

In the past, you’ve said that YA publishers were initially hesitant to publish TMI series because it contained queer characters and a gay romance. Can you tell me more about that?

When I went out with City of Bones, that was back in 2005. I got push-back from some publishers. It was very coded. … No one actually said, “We won’t publish this book because it has a gay character.” They’d say, “Not all of these characters are ‘likeable’; maybe you could cut Alec.” I got that a lot—the idea that there was a likeability issue, but just with Alec. And then I got, “Maybe there are too many characters. You could cut Alec.” So it was very clear to me that that was what was going on. … I would also say that a lot of the push-back I got was actually after publication.

I think I was a little naïve at the time, even despite the earlier stuff. And there was a presumption, I think, back in 2005—you know, pre-Twilight, pre-a lot of things—that YA was a kid’s realm. It doesn’t make it any better, because the idea that kids shouldn’t read about gay characters is a terrible one. But there was a lot more dependence in the industry on things like book clubs in schools, school library support. … When the books actually came out, I had a meeting with the person who worked for Simon & Schuster in the capacity of selling the book to book clubs around the country. And she said, “You know, we can never sell yours.”

Wow, that’s awful.

And I was like, “Oh. No, I didn’t know that.” And she went on, like, “You know, there are certain stores that won’t take your books; there are certain school libraries that won’t take your book.” I do remember once I was in England. I’d been invited to go to this school and give a talk. I was about to get into a car to go to the school, and my publisher came out of the building and said to me, “Sorry, they found out about Magnus and Alec, and they don’t want you to come.” It was such a shocking feeling.

I feel like the climate in YA has changed so much since 2005 and is a lot more accepting of queer characters. Do you agree?

I do. I had a lot of anxiety leading up to the promotion of [TMI books] because I felt like it was important to have Alec and Magnus in this book. It was important to get these books into the hands of kids, and I felt like I constantly had to walk this line where I had to make sure there was enough Alec and Magnus in the book for them to be fully realized characters that people would care about and love. Yet, I had to be careful. I feel like now, I can be less careful. And I am less careful … There are ways I can express what’s going on—words I can use upfront—that would have been a problem in 2005 in terms of just getting the book on shelves.

I mean, we’re living in a post-marriage equality world. Things are far from perfect, but the cultural conversation at large has shifted dramatically since 2005.

It’s definitely made a huge difference. I mean, it was still the Bush administration [when City of Bones was published!] We had years of progression with Obama; we had marriage equality; and we also have a new generation with different attitudes.

I also read that you purposefully left this gap in the chronology hoping you’d get the chance to write this story. What excites you so much about Alec and Magnus’s adventures in Red Scrolls?

Partially, it has something to do with my own life: The first thing I ever did with my first serious boyfriend was take a trip across Europe. [Laughs] So with Magnus and Alec, I thought, Okay, I want to give them that really fun experience that I had. And I’m going to reference it here in this book, and I know that I can come back to this someday and do it. … I also love this category of fiction. It’s almost a rom-com, this book; it has a different tonal feel than the rest of TMI books because it’s a little bit lighter. It’s like a lot of movies I love—Charade, The Bourne Identity—where two people are racing across Europe, trying to escape the police or solve a crime, and they’re falling in love. It’s just a storyline that I adore, and I thought, I would love so much to write this story about these characters. I hoped there’d be a time where I could do that, and I’m so happy that time came.

It’s especially exciting to me as a queer YA lover to see LGBTQ characters not fall prey to the “bury your gays” trope.

Exactly. You know, getting the book that is the indulgence of a wonderful fantasy that’s romantic and fun—and none of characters are suffering simply for who they are—it’s not as common as we’d like it to be. And so, why not? If I’m going to have the one book in this series that is kind of a fun adventure, it should be Magnus and Alec’s story.

Simon & Schuster

I feel like Red Scrolls gives readers a really intimate look into Magnus’s inner psyche—like, beyond his “freewheeling bisexual” exterior. Is he as fun to write as he is to read?

People often ask me if I have a favorite character, and I always say “no.” It would be like picking between your children! So I usually say I don’t have a favorite character, but Magnus is the most fun to write in a lot of ways. His interior and his exterior are … very different. When we first meet Magnus, he’s immensely confident. And one of things I do love about him is that he is willing to put himself out there exactly how he is. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have insecurities—no questions, no shadows in his past. Everyone does. In this book, we see some of the things that have made Magnus the person that he is now, some of the times he passed through when he was younger and wasn’t as confident as he was now.

Speaking of LGBTQ characters, we also get quality time with future wives Aline Penhallow and Helen Blackthorn in Red Scrolls. What was it like diving into the #Heline origin story?

I love them. They’re so much fun! I got to write about them a bit in Queen of Air and Darkness, but again, they’re really secure—they’re married, they’re dealing with outside threats … Because [Red Scrolls] is a book that focuses on romance, I figured it would be so much fun to explore when they first met each other. I love them both—I just love how Aline says everything she’s thinking.

Oh, she’s such a chaotic lesbian. I love it.

And that’s what I love about [Aline and Helen] in Red Scrolls, too—that Aline just tries to cover up how much she likes Helen from the minute she meets her. She’s attracted to her, attracted to her personality; she thinks she’s fantastic and brave and awesome. She’s trying to hide that, but she can’t.

Can you speak on creating LGBTQ characters who aren’t solely defined by their sexuality?

I can only say that when I created Alec, he’s based in part on a friend of mine who I had growing up. We loved science fiction and fantasy books—that was what we loved to read, what we loved to talk about. And he’d tell me, “I never see myself in these books… Just once, I’d love to read about how [a gay character like me] is a sword-wielding badass.” And I was really struck by that. So when I set out to create Alec, I wanted his sexuality to be a part of his life, but not the only or even main part of his story.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.
@slmjournalist