Last week, I reviewed The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding, which I found to be a wonderful fantasy tale for both young and...well, not so young (check out my review and grab the book!). I recently caught up with the author, New York Times bestselling Alexandra Bracken, in the cyber-world to chat about her experience with writing the book, as well as other aspects of her productive career. I found her to be yet another author I'd love to grab coffee with sometime! Please welcome her to the blog!
Melanie R. Meadors: Your newest book The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding was recently released from Disney Hyperion Books. Could you tell us a bit about it?
Alexandra Bracken: Of course! I fondly call Prosper my ode to all of the amazing Halloween movies I grew up with—it’s my pumpkin spice-scented dream, basically. The story is centered around the unfortunately named Prosperity Oceanus Redding, the youngest member of the Redding family of (fictional) Redhood, Massachusetts. His family is basically the Kennedy family of their world, only on steroids. They’ve produced generals, CEOs, presidents, movie stars, you name it—but what they’re really known for is their ridiculously good luck and mega fortune. The only one who doesn’t seem to benefit from it is Prosper.
He feels like the outcast of his rather large family, making him the perfect one to discover that they’ve been harboring a truly terrible secret for centuries: they owe all that good luck, power, and wealth to a deal they made with a demonic little creature (called a malefactor) back in the 17th century. Around the time of the Salem witch trials the Reddings had panicked and tried to break the contract, but didn’t succeed, and now the malefactor back for his revenge—which, regrettably, comes in the form of being reborn inside of Prosper. So Prosper has to deal with a family who will do anything to keep what they have—maybe even kill him to destroy the malefactor—with a side of demonic possession. He’s rescued by his mysterious Uncle Barnabas and cousin Nell and brought to Salem to hide out while they devise a way to remove the malefactor, Alastor, from his body.
MRM: My favorite part of the book is the voice of your protagonist, Prosper. He’s kind of snarky, but has a very real feel to him that I think the middle grade and teen audience can relate to. He’s a very convincing character. Do you have any suggestions for writerly folks who are struggling with finding their character’s voice, or who have a hard time making their book people sound natural?
AB: Thank you! Prosper is my favorite character voice I’ve ever written in; I really do love spending time in his head. He’s warm and funny, but also has a very self-deprecating sense of humor.
You know, that’s a very good question about character voice. For me, especially if I’m writing in first person, I can’t start a story unless I know what that character’s voice sounds like. They really do have to be talking in my ear. Sometimes the sound of it is informed by the character’s background. For example, Liam, one of the characters from my Darkest Minds series, is from North Carolina and I worked hard to capture the cadence and warmth of the accent from that region.
Playing with cadence and syntax can help differentiate characters in dialogue. They can reveal where a character is from, how much schooling they’ve had, any anxious tics, and how they want to present themselves to the world. If you’re struggling with whether or not dialogue sounds natural, try reading the lines aloud—take note of the words you naturally emphasize and where you need to pause to take a breath. It sounds very simple, but it always helps me catch when my characters are talking like robots, not people.
But that’s only one part of character voice. So much of it is anchored in a character’s personality and the emotional they’re going through in any moment. Sometimes I get really lucky and the characters arrive in my head with a strong personality and voice, but, most of the time, I have to really interview the character and practice a lot of free writing in their voice for it to click. Struggling with a character’s voice is usually a sign that I haven’t put enough thought into who they are or how they relate to their world.
Prosper was one of those characters I really had to work with in order to get him talking. When I first sat down to write, I had a really hard time trying to figure out the right tone for him—is he angry? Defeated? Sad? Defiant? One trick I like to use is to use the immediate world around the character as their foil and see if that helps tease out the voice. By that I mean that I already had a strong sense of what Prosper’s family was like: very haughty, into self-mythologizing, humorless, traditional, and greedy. To reinforce the idea that Prosper was the black sheep, he needed to have the inverse of those traits. The character that emerged from that brainstorming was warm, exasperated, lonely, and without much of an ego.
MRM: You alternate points of view in the book between Prosper and Alastor. Did you find it challenging to get into two different character’s heads, especially since one is a contemporary young person and the other is hundreds of years old?
AB: Is it weird to say that I love writing in Alastor’s voice, too? I’d never gotten to write such snarky and shamelessly self-important character, so he was a breath of fresh, sulfur-tinged air. I ended up writing Alastor’s chapters in third person to help differentiate that far more formal voice (and make it more easily digestible for young readers) from Prosper’s modern one. Again, I had a ton of fun with playing these two opposites off each other. It wasn’t challenging to move between the two because they had such different goals and ways of seeing the world.
MRM: One of the settings in this book happens to be one of my favorite places, Salem, MA. What made you decide on that? Did you visit Salem to do research, and if so, what was your favorite part of the experience?
AB: Yes! I actually took a short trip to Salem right before I started working on the book. I was already visiting Boston and had the very basic premise of the story in my head. I was so nervous to use the commuter train for the first time (and alone), but the timing of the visit to Salem was too perfect to pass up--two weeks before Halloween, and hoo boy, Salem didn’t disappoint! That is a city that truly embraces its dark history and doesn’t shy away from it. One thing that was really informative to me was seeing how businesses commercialize Halloween and the history of the witch trials. The kitsch is totally joyful and balanced out by the beautiful old streets and pockets of history.
The visit, and the walk I took through the streets, inspired chapter thirteen—my favorite of the whole book! It also inspired Nell and Uncle Barnabas living and working in a haunted house. It might be a total tourist trap like the ones around real life Salem, but it’s also (don’t tell the customers!) legitimately haunted…
MRM: What is your favorite thing about The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding? And did anything about the project surprise you when you were writing it?
AB: Honestly, I really love the characters—Nell, the witch-in-training, Prosper, Alastor, and Prue were so fun to spend time with. I also got to play quite a bit with folklore that’s always fascinated me and rework nightmarish creatures that came clawing out of fairytales. I think what ultimately surprised me about the project is how carefully the humor came to be balanced with the darker, spookier moments. My initial vision of the story was rooted more solidly in humor, but the themes that emerged from it about breaking cycles and escaping your family’s history ended up requiring some emotional weight. The humor is meant to hold your hand as you walk into the shadowy corners of the story, and then help guide any anxious readers back out before things get too scare.
MRM: What made you decide to write for teens and middle grade people? Was it a conscious choice, or was that just how the books came out?
AB: I think some people will find this hard to believe, but I’ve only ever wanted to write for kids and teens. I’m pretty sure it’s rooted in the fact that I started writing right around the same time I was falling in love with reading independently, which was third grade. And, really, who wants to write about boring adults? (Just kidding…)
I’d been dying for the right middle grade project to pop into my mind and I’m so grateful this one came along. The audiences for YA and MG are incredibly passionate and awesome. More than that, though, I think middle school and high school are such interesting times in everyone’s lives—you really start shaping yourself into the person you want to be, and you start forming your own opinions about the world. You can really maximize a character’s growth within a story, because people cross so many emotional boundaries as they mature. It’s super, super fun to play with that concept and use powers or supernatural situations as a metaphor for it.
MRM: You have an adorable friend named Tennyson. Tell us a bit about him!
AB: You mean the child emperor who graciously allows me to live in his handsome abode? Hah! Tennyson is my two-year-old poodle mix who makes up for his diminutive size with a huge personality. I grew up with dogs and have never had one who was such a study in contradictions. One minute he’s a total boss and trying to outsmart me to get what he wants, the next he’s crying and wanting to be picked up because another dog is two blocks away on the other side of the street and what if he comes toward us?! He’s a funny little guy, and I’m glad he’s willing to put up with me spending hours in front of a keyboard in exchange for playing twenty minutes of fetch every day.
MRM: You’ve written a Star Wars tie-in novel for young readers, The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farmboy. Not only is this a Star Wars novel, but it’s the more in-depth telling of A New Hope. Did you find this to be intimidating at all? What was your reaction to being tapped for such an awesome project?
AB: I grew up with a Star Wars collector for a father and read Star Wars books almost exclusively between the ages of eight and twelve, so saying this was an intimidating project is a huge understatement! I put a ton of pressure on myself to get it exactly right. This is, after all, the story that taught me so much about storytelling at a young, impressionable age. (Seriously, though, I watched the films so many times that I just sort of… absorbed all of the Hero’s Journey story beats and archetypes.)
I get very anxious when I’m starting a new story and usually get around that by writing the first few chapters out by hand in a notebook. For whatever reason, it feels like less pressure—maybe because, in that notebook, only I’ll be able to read it? Well, in any case, I wrote the entire book out by hand before transferring it over to a Word document. That’s how nervous I was!
My initial reaction to being asked was… to immediately go into panic mode and want to say no. It just didn’t seem possible that I could live up to all of the stories I had devoured as a kid. Another huge factor was that my dad had passed away a few years before, and I associated him so strongly with Star Wars that I hadn’t even been able to watch the movies without him. Ultimately, though, I took it as a sign from the universe that I was supposed to come full circle as a fangirl and try to produce a book that could potentially hook new Star Wars fans and bring them into the universe I love so much. And, actually, delving into the script and rewatching the movie had the exact opposite effect I was expecting and ultimately made me feel close to my dad again.
Working with Lucasfilm was incredible, and they really wanted me to find my own way of retelling the story. Because I love writing character-driven books, I split the narrative between Leia, Han, and Luke’s close third person point of views. This let me fill in a bunch of plot gaps and really explore the emotional lives of the big three characters (well, as much as I could without spoiling future reveals they want to make in the upcoming movies). I got to invent a few “off camera” scenes, too! How cool is that?
MRM: Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication? Do you have a day job or are you a full time author?
AB: Sure! I knew from a really young age that I wanted to write professionally, and stubbornly—like a true contrarian!--held onto that dream in the face of everyone asking me what my real major was going to be, what my back-up plans were, and so on. I practiced my writing through fanfiction in middle school and high school, but didn’t start writing my own original material until I was in college. I had an intense fear of failure (and still do, on bad days), which, up until that point, had kept me from trying to write a novel, but I decided, almost on a whim, to try NaNoWriMo my freshman year. After I hit my first 50,000 words, I was hooked.
I did try to query agents with that first book and I am so very grateful that it will never see the light of day. It was a YA fantasy that had just about every single cliché packed into it—it was like my brain was vomiting them up to get them out of my system. No joke, I think every agent in the children’s book industry rejected me.
The hundred-odd rejections made me refocus on school for a few months and accept that law school was my future. But--and I’m sure other writers will get this—once you have the writing bug, you can’t always shake it off that easily. One day I had a flash of an idea that took root in my brain and wouldn’t leave me alone until I started writing it. That became my debut novel, Brightly Woven. This was one of those magic books for me: everything came together so easily, from the characters, to the plot, to the query letter.
I half-heartedly sent out queries and, almost immediately, got a much better response from agents. I was offered representation on my 21st birthday (I got the call during birthday dinner at Carrabba’s and to this day the sight of a Carrabba’s fills me with sparkling joy, haha). I revised the manuscript for about half a year with my agent, and then sold it my second semester of senior year.
I look back now and I’m amazed I pulled it off—I wanted it so badly I was willing to wake up every day at 6 AM to revise before class a few hours later, I was willing to give up on going out with friends, and I somehow managed to turn around edits during finals my senior year. I think about that time whenever I’m feeling lazy, or I don’t want to work—like, twenty-two-year-old Alex would be ashamed of you!
After college I actually worked in the publishing industry for about six years as my day job, first as an editorial assistant, and then in marketing. I wrote the whole Darkest Minds series after work and on weekends. I really, truly, loved my career on that side of industry and was sad to finally leave when it became too much of a headache to try to balance that gig with my quick deadline turnarounds. I’ve been a full time writer since 2014 and wake up every morning in disbelief that I get to do what I love.
MRM: What can readers look forward to seeing from you next?
Right now I’m working on two different projects, one I can tell you about and one I can’t! I turned in a draft of Prosper’s sequel last month, but I’ve turned my attention to drafting the YA that’ll be out next year and plotting out the one that’ll be out in 2019. The film version of The Darkest Minds will be out next September so I’m trying to get all my drafting in before next summer.
MRM: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat!
AB: Thank you so much for having me!
Alexandra Bracken is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Darkest Minds series. Born and raised in Arizona, she moved East to study history and English at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. After working in publishing for several years, Alex now writes full-time and can be found hard at work on her next novel in a charming little apartment that's perpetually overflowing with books. Visit her online at www.alexandrabracken.com and on Twitter @alexbracken.
Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy stories where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her fiction has appeared in Circle Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, and in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis. She's the co-editor of the anthology MECH: Age of Steel and editor of Hath No Fury, and she is a blogger and general b*tch monkey at The Once and Future Podcast.