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The Dragon

We chat to Nicky Drayden about her new Minecraft novel!

As its title suggests, Nicky Drayden’s The Dragon heavily features one of the fiercest and most mysterious Minecraft mobs – one that I plan on admiring exclusively in other people’s playthroughs and the cover of this novel. However, there’s much more to the book than that. It tells the story of Zetta, a young alchemist living in the desert town of Sienna Dunes, who finds herself in quite the pickle in her pursuit of knowledge. Her father disapproves of magic, so she goes to her aunt Meryl, a hermit who lives outside town. However, things quickly escalate when Meryl goes out to gather ingredients and Zetta accidentally hatches a dragon egg. Oops!

I won’t spoil what follows – instead, I’ve decided to chat to Nicky to get some insight into how the book came to be and the various themes it tackles. But first, let’s get to know her better. Nicky is not only an award-winning author with an affinity for turkey jerky, but she also works as a Systems Analyst! You might be thinking those are two very different talents, but you’d be surprised…

Nicky: Coding and writing are similar in a lot of ways! They both require creativity, logic, and the ability to work through sticky problems. Debugging and untangling plotlines are similar as well: you know you have a problem somewhere in your code/story and have to play detective to figure out where things went wrong. And when things go right, it’s the best feeling in the world!

What made you interested in writing a story set in Minecraft? What are the perks and the challenges of writing in the Minecraft universe?

Nicky: I’ve been playing Minecraft for over three years now, and I’ve always been fascinated with how deep the game goes. On the surface, it seems pretty simple. You mine. You craft. You fight some zombies. But then you start discovering all the little secrets and nooks and crannies and tricks and OTHER DIMENSIONS?!?!?! 

That means there’s so much built-in lore to draw from when writing a story, which is great. (Like dragon eggs!) But all the mechanics can be a lot to keep up with, too. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent staring at potion recipes...

The Dragon isn’t just the story of Zetta growing up – it also tackles more profound themes like family secrets and how they affect the people involved. Is there a specific reason or story behind Zetta’s family dynamic? 

Nicky: I was interested in playing with family dynamics where there was both a lot of caring and a lot of conflict coming from both sides. Zetta is keeping secrets from her father and he’s keeping secrets from her, and we get to see how that strains their relationship. There are a lot of raw emotions for them to deal with, but they have to get comfortable with being vulnerable and telling the truth about how they feel.

It’s interesting that you decided to set the town in a desert biome. It seems to have bred a hardy bunch of people. Was it informed by your own experience of trying to play in such an inhospitable place? 

Nicky: In my normal gameplay, the desert biome is the one I avoid the most. Minecraft life is already a challenge. Why make it harder? 

But in the story, having characters dealing with limited resources offered the opportunity to explore a community that makes the most with what they’ve got. It was fun adding little details based on what they have in abundance: namely sand and cactus. Like the town’s old library was converted into a cactus nursery, and the few books that remain are titles like 101 Things to Do with Sand and How to Raise a Happy Cactus.  

I even got to make up a little song about their rocky relationship with desert life, which I’m still so tickled by. It warms my heart to know Zetta and her friends and family love their little town of Sienna Dunes, despite all the hardships. 

There’s nothing like a song to bring people together! Have these hardships of living in the desert had a role in shaping the townspeople’s conservative mindset when it comes to magic?  

Nicky: Being secluded in the desert definitely has insulated Zetta and her town from many of the wonders of the world. They’re stuck in their old ways as the world around them changes, sometimes for the better, and sometimes not. Like when hostile illagers start attacking Sienna Dunes, the adults want to keep fighting them with swords and arrows, like they’ve done in the past. But the mobs are getting fiercer. And scarier.

Zetta realizes they need to adapt and try new solutions to take on this new threat, like using potions and redstone contraptions, while the adults insist on doing things the way they always have. Everyone wants what’s best for the community, but no one can agree upon what that is, which makes for some great tension.

Speaking of tension, despite her father’s aversion to magic, Zetta is quite drawn to it. Do you see this as an outcome of her youthful curiosity or something deeper? 

Nicky: Zetta’s lineage probably had something to do with it. She’s inherited her mother’s natural inclination to curiosity and questioning the status quo. But she also sees the world with youthful eyes, and can imagine a future where they aren’t limited by the way things have always been. Zetta knows you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.

While we’re on the subject... why in the world did Meryl keep a dragon egg in her home?! I like to think it’s just her eclectic taste in décor, but I’m also wondering if she had any plans for it before Zetta made it hatch. 

Nicky: Zetta’s Aunt Meryl is a bit of a recluse, but she also has an intense curiosity about the world around her. You’re just as likely to find her quietly tending her garden as fighting ghasts in the Nether. And as for what she had in store for the egg, that’s a secret she kept tightly guarded. 

I could only dream of being as cool of an aunt as her! It seems like the dragon is a neutral force of destruction that can’t really be tamed, despite its cuter moments. That’s quite a lot to deal with for a group of kids! What made you choose this “personality” for the dragon and what effect does it have on the kids? 

Nicky: Who doesn’t love baby animals in Minecraft? Is there anything cuter than a baby pig or sheep or wolf? Those too-big heads and innocent eyes? A baby dragon would have to be cute in the extreme! 

But we can’t for a second forget about what that cute baby is destined to grow up into. The kids definitely struggle with this, but soon realize that just because they can teach the dragon to sit and stay and heel doesn’t mean they can control its fierce and destructive nature.

Ashton seems like the free spirit of the kids’ group, and he urges Zetta to step out of her comfort zone a lot. Did you have a particular inspiration for his character? 

Nicky: Definitely! My kid, Alex, introduced me to Minecraft, and he’s a genius at it, honestly. I’m always amazed with the wild contraptions and inventive scenarios and beautiful structures he creates. I love how his imagination is so free within the game. 

He’s a wonderful storyteller, as well. I remember the first time he told me about the End and the Ender Dragon, and I thought to myself, Nah, that can’t be real. You’re just making that up. But it was! 

Soul sand has some very interesting (dare I say spooky) properties in the book. Can you tell us more about that and how you got the idea? 

Nicky: As a player, soul sand seriously creeps me out. But the writer in me wanted to know where this sand comes from. Who are the souls trapped in it? How long have they been there? What are they whispering about and what power do they have? Turns out some people are more influenced by the whispers of those trapped souls than others. One of those people is Zetta, which nearly turns into a very costly mistake!

Writing an epic story that people can relate to is not easy – and you’ve written so many! Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?

Nicky: Have fun with it! Write a story that makes you happy and also challenges you. I got my start writing during National Novel Writing Month, which offers community, goals, and support to help you get those words on the page. And their Young Writings Program is great as well!

Thank you so much, Nicky!

The Dragon is out now, so make sure you check it out!

Cristina Anderca
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Cristina Anderca
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