Author Interview: Alex Flinn on Beastly

From HarperCollins: “Alex Flinn loves fairy tales and made her two daughters sit through several dozen versions of Beauty and the Beast while she wrote this book…then quizzed them on how they thought a beast would meet girls in New York City. She is the author of five previous books: Breathing Underwater (HarperCollins, 2001)(author interview), an American Library Association Top 10 Best Book for Young Adults; Breaking Point (HarperCollins, 2003)(author interview), an ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers; Nothing to Lose (HarperCollins, 2005), an ALA Best Book for Young Adults; Fade to Black (HarperCollins, 2004); and Diva (HarperCollins, 2006). She lives in Miami.” Read an author essay by Alex.

We last spoke in September 2005, after the release of Fade to Black (HarperCollins, 2005). Could you briefly remind us what it’s about?

Fade to Black is about a hate crime against an HIV-positive students. 17-year-old, HIV-positive Alex Crusan has moved to the town of Pinedale and pretty much been ostracized. One Monday morning, an assailant attacks his car as he’s driving, breaking the windows and sending Alex to the hospital. The book is written in multiple viewpoints–suspect, victim, witness.

Do you have any updates for us on this title?

Fade to Black, like Breathing Underwater, has become a popular school read, particularly among reluctant readers. It was recently chosen as an International Reading Association Young Adult Choice, a list I particularly relish because it is 30 reader-selected books, so making the list is a guarantee of teen appeal. Here’s the full list (PDF).

At that time, you were looking forward to the release of Diva (HarperCollins, 2006). Likewise, could you tell us about this novel and update us on its release and life to date?

Diva is about Caitlin, who just lost thirty pounds and also broke up with her abusive boyfriend, Nick, and is trying to make a fresh start by trying out for a performing arts high school. She is an aspiring opera singer. The novel follows Caitlin’s first semester at the school, along with her relationship with Nick, food, and her mother. It is a companion to Breathing Underwater.

It was just released in paperback with a really cool “Extras” section, including an “Are You a Diva?” quiz, as well as a section about how the book relates to my own life as a teen opera singer and performing arts school attendee.

Congratulations on the publication of Beastly (HarperCollins, 2007)(excerpt)! What is the book about?

Beastly is a modern Beauty and the Beast, set in New York City, Manhattan and Brooklyn specifically. Kyle Kingsbury is a prince in his upper-crust prep school, popular, handsome, wealthy, son of a network newscaster. Then, he angers a girl in his class, who turns out to be a witch. She changes him into a beast and tells him he will remain that way forever unless he can find true love in two years. Desperate and abandoned by his wealthy father and his friends, he tries various means (including MySpace) to meet his true love.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Being a mom, I’ve spent a lot of time on fairy and folk tales, including Beauty and the Beast. The traditional story left me with a lot of questions, including, “Where was the Beast’s family when all this was happening?” and “Why would Beauty’s father allow her to come and live with the Beast?” Generally, I felt bad for the Beast and wanted to give him a voice.

When I was a teenager, I enjoyed books with the theme of beauty and ugliness, particularly The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). I included these books in Beastly and hope that, in this way, younger readers will discover them.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I started writing the book in 2005. It was one of those books that sort of took on a life of its own, with scenes coming to me, out of context, at odd moments. It is the only book I can recall writing where every moment was really pure joy.

I finished much of the first draft by candlelight, following Hurricane Wilma in October, 2005, and wrote the final chapters in a hotel room in Kansas City, Missouri, where I was attending the YASIG conference (For some reason, I’ve done some good writing in Kansas City–I’ve only been there twice, but I also remember writing pivotal scenes in Breathing Underwater when I went there as a lawyer). Revision took about a year after that.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The biggest challenge was making it true to the original tale while still being special and different. I used the French le Prince de Beaumont version of the story as the main basis, which is probably the most familiar version to American audiences, but I also read numerous other versions, particularly Betsy Hearne’s excellent book, Beauties and Beasts.

Certain elements are common to most versions–the Beast’s garden; an act of thievery (usually of a red flower, but in my version the flower is not specifically what is being stolen) on the part of Beauty’s father; Beauty being offered to the Beast in exchange for the Father’s freedom; a magic mirror, or sometimes, reflective water in which one can watch others, and in which Beauty eventually sees her father; the Beast unselfishly allowing Beauty to break the agreement and return to her father.

In some versions, the Beast has servants, and I knew Kyle would have them in my version because he was otherwise so alone and because he needed wise elders from whom to learn. The book is, essentially, a book about selfishness and learning to be unselfish, so Kyle must learn that selflessness from somebody.

You’re well known as an author of contemporary realistic young adult fiction. Why did you decide to write a fantasy novel?

Because it is the novel I wanted to write. I couldn’t get it out of my head.

That said, I think this book will probably appeal to readers who liked my other novels. It is realistic in every way except one.

How was the process alike and different from writing your previous manuscripts?

Oddly, the main difference between writing this book and writing others was that this book took place in New York, so I had to learn about locales I hadn’t written about before. I knew the Beast would have a castle, so I searched New York real estate ads for the perfect Park Slope brownstone (You can find photos of the Park Slope neighborhood in Mo WillemsKnuffle Bunny books (Hyperion)). I also learned a lot about the New York subway system, which baffles me every time I visit the city, but which my character, of course, knows like the back of his hand.

How did it “grow” you as a writer?

It taught me to go where my muse took me. I really balked at writing this book because it was not what I write and, to a degree, I felt I was abandoning my core audience.

As it turned out, I think this book will appeal to that audience–at least from the reaction I get at schools I visit–so I was able to do something different while still appealing to my core reader. I do firmly believe that the book you want to write is always the right book to write.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

Looking back, I’m actually pretty pleased with who I was as a beginning writer. I knew nothing about the market, so I just wrote what I wanted and what I would have liked to have read when I was in seventh or eighth grade, which is pretty much the advice I give beginning writers I meet.

If anything, I’d like to be able to un-know the stuff I know now. I enjoyed writing so much more before I really knew about reviews and committees and all the adults your book has to impress to get to the reader I envisioned.

What recent books would you suggest for study and why?

Some books I really loved include Inexcuseable by Chris Lynch (Atheneum/Ginee Seo, 2005) and The Rules of Survial (Dial, 2006)(excerpt)(author interview), as well as the fantasy titles below.

And on fantasy specifically?

The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsly (Atheneum, 1999)(author interview) is the book I most often mention to writers as a must-read YA fantasy. I love how the author plunges the reader directly into the character’s world (which is populated with both selkies and gremlin-like folk) and makes it seem almost like historical fiction, rather than fantasy.

Generally, I’ve never been a big fan of the type of high fantasy that features characters in magical worlds, doing battle with forces of evil or creatures of different types (Narnia, the Hobbit). I’ve read a lot of these books, but they’re not my favorite.

I love books that take place in the sort of real world, with some element off-kilter. Rick Riordan‘s Percy Jackson series (The Lightning Thief, etc.)(author interview), in which the characters are descended from mythological gods, is a prime example, and also a rare fantasy book that appeals to virtually every element of the YA audience. It is non-intimidating, even to reluctant readers. I hope Beastly can be that way.

Recent retellings I’ve particularly enjoyed include Gregory Maguire‘s Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (both HarperCollins), Mette Ivie Harrison‘s Mira, Mirror (Viking, 2004) and The Princess and the Hound (Eos, 2007)(which, the author tells me, was not meant as a retelling, but which contained elements of both The Princess and the Pea and Beauty and the Beast), and Gail Carson Levine‘s Fairest (HarperCollins)(author interview).

We first talked in 2001 about the publication of Breathing Underwater (HarperCollins, 2001), which was your debut novel and one of the break-out books of the year. What changes–for better or worse–have you seen in publishing since then? How have you adapted or stayed the course in response?

When Breathing Underwater was published, the main market for hardcover YA was libraries and schools. Yes, the books were carried in bookstores but bookstore sales were more of an added side dish than the main course. Now, there are bookstore sales for YA, but generally only for certain types of YA, typically high fantasy or chick lit, which appeal respectively to gifted kids and/or girls.

The market for books like I write is still the same as it always was, but I worry that that market is now a disappointment to publishers, due to the higher bookstore sales of these two genres. I commend my publisher and some others, who continue to publish books like mine, particularly books which appeal to boys, which are never going to sell 100,000 hardcover copies but which are still needed in the world and which teachers and librarians can recommend to kids.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

I fit everything in where I can, and sometimes, it is overwhelming.

What one promotion tip would you like to share with fellow authors?

A lot of authors I know do not like to do bookstore signings. I am actually a big fan of the things, because they can have reverberations which the author might not even realize when they are doing them.

If you look at a bookstore signing purely as far as books sold at the event, it is never worth the author’s time. So you really can’t look at it that way. What you have to look at it as is goodwill and relationship building–getting to know the bookseller, who might be a bookseller at a conference and recommend your books there or who might tell bookseller friends in other towns about your books, which he only read because you were speaking at his store.

Also, if a teacher attends the signing and, based on seeing you speak, decides to use your book with her class, that equals hundreds or even thousands of copies over the years. And if it goes well with her class, she might tell her friends, and they tell their friends, and so on, and so on.

Even if people don’t actually attend the signing, the bookseller’s promotion of the signing (assuming they did some) will publicize your book and may cause people to buy it at another time. One local bookseller I know has authors sign fifty stock copies at every event–and they sell them. So, to me, getting yourself out there and putting your book in the universe, is definitely worth a few hours.

That said, I don’t do bookstore signings unless I feel the bookseller has some plan to get people there or I can get people there myself. I’m also not eating my heart out over my publisher not sending me on a multi-city tour because the cost/benefit analysis of bookstore signings is different if you have to devote substantial amounts of time to the event.

I generally only travel out of town for paid events or large conferences such as NCTE or ALA. However, I do local signings and signings in neighboring counties, and if I happen to be in a city that has good bookstores, I try to set up an event. I think it’s worth it.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I read a lot. I have a book discussion group which I recently founded (or, actually, jump-started–we were a group who had met through a mothers of preschoolers organization, but now that our kids are older, we hadn’t been meeting).

This month, we are reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Penguin, 2005), and yesterday, we went to see “The Jane Austen Book Club” as a group. It was kind of fun because the ten of us were the only people in the theater, so we talked a lot about the movie, during the movie (which, obviously, I can’t approve if there are other people present).

I also enjoy running and biking.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I am working on a modern Sleeping Beauty retelling. After that, I plan to write another realistic book.