New Voice: Leanna Renee Hieber on Darker Still

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Leanna Renee Hieber
is the first-time YA author of Darker Still: A Novel of Magic Most Foul (Sourcebooks, 2011). From the promotional copy: 

I was obsessed. 

It was as if he called to me, demanding I reach out and touch the brushstrokes of color swirled onto
the canvas. It was the most exquisite portrait I’d ever seen–everything about Lord Denbury was unbelievable…utterly breathtaking and eerily lifelike.

There was a reason for that. Because despite what everyone said, Denbury never had committed suicide. He was alive.
Trapped within his golden frame.

I’ve crossed over into his world within the painting, and I’ve seen what dreams haunt him. They haunt me too. He and I are inextricably linked–bound together to watch the darkness seeping through the gas-lit cobblestone streets of Manhattan. 

And unless I can free him soon, things will only get Darker Still.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year? 

1848 “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype of Poe

From a very early age I was attracted to Dickens, Poe, Austen, Wilde, 19th Century writers. I adored ghost stories and some of my earliest memories are of telling them, so Edgar Allan Poe really spoke to me from my very first encounter with his poetry and stories.

The more I write, the more I feel Poe’s influence.
I can’t explain my intense attraction to the era from such an early age–maybe a past life?

I started my first novel when I was about 12 years old, it was set in 1888, so this has always been “a thing” of mine. The 1880s has always felt like home and while I love my modern life and always have, I’ve always felt as though I am a child of that era too; that I hold an echo of it in my soul and I feel it whenever I read literature from the 1800s, enter a building from that era, listen to music of the time, or put on clothing from the time.

(Yes, my Victorian wardrobe is also “a thing”).

I’ve always been charmed by the rich language of the Victorians, by their beautiful clothing and elegance, and also horrified by the conditions so many lived in and by the arrogance and double standards.

Yet the contrast of the era is fascinating, the grit and grandeur of the era holds endless questions and curiosity for me.

Also, big words are sexy. That’s become somewhat of a mission statement for me as a writer.

Darker Still: A Novel of Magic Most Foul, set in 1880 New York City, is my tribute to my favorite writers.

It includes shout-outs to Gothic and atmospheric tales like The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, the nightmarish visions of Poe and more, all my favorite classic works that have defined me (I like my classics with a scary edge).

I’ve always wanted to write a haunted painting story, so this is my chance.

The sequel, The Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewart, continues the Gothic adventure this November 2012.

As a historical fiction writer, how did you capture the voices of the era? What resources did you turn to? Did you run into challenges translating the language for today’s young readers? What advice do you have for other authors along these lines? 

I didn’t choose this era, this era chose me. As a pre-teen I fell in love with Edgar Allan Poe and the Gothic style. I loved Victorian ghost stories.

I was about 12 when I started my first novel; a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, set in 1888. The aesthetics were the first things to draw me in; the whole look of the time period, the music, the language, the literature. I studied the era in college and after graduation took to adapting works of 19th century literature for the professional stage. I acted in Victorian-set productions and got a chance to ‘live’ in the era every night on stage. I traveled for research to various Victorian sites, and I read (and continue to read) a lot of 19th century fiction.

So I’ve “experienced” this past time period in as many ways as I possibly can, so I honestly don’t think too hard about “capturing” the voices of the era. I’ve been living and breathing those voices all my life and have to trust in all my homework.

Some people suggest it’s a past life that drives me. I’m not sure; all I know is that the era is my muse.
Because I live in a modern world but feel a Victorian one within me, I feel there’s a natural fusion between the modern ear and my internal Victorian voice.

The most important resource is reading the work of the era, watching carefully researched films of the era (and on that count, I only trust the BBC for accuracy) and then distilling the density slightly for modern audiences.

Pacing has to be adjusted, too. Watching films is helpful because there’s already a more edited version of the language in a screenplay.

Author Leanna Renee Hieber by gaslamp.

In writing for teens, its important to never talk down to the teen reader, I want to challenge every reader with rich language and big sexy words.

The most important thing in writing YA is to keep in mind the themes that appeal to teens and make sure they are universal ones, themes and conflicts that will ring true no matter the era.

My editor is vital, I could never write books without editors, and we go several rounds on a book to make sure both the voice and themes are firing on all appropriate cylinders. (One of my pitfalls is always pacing.) I get reined in here and there and have to be reminded to spread out historical detail so that it’s evenly dispersed and not just little lectures. (It’s hard, because I think historical details are like gems and I want to throw them in everywhere).

But the important thing is to make sure details are doing at least double duty and telling us something not only about the era, but about the world-building, character development and or plot.

Thank you so much for the privilege of being here, Cynthia, keep up your wonderful energy and talents! Every blessing!

Cynsational Notes

Find Leanna Renee at Facebook and Twitter.

Readers, have you ever imagined yourself living a past life? What era(s) call to you?

6 thoughts on “New Voice: Leanna Renee Hieber on Darker Still

  1. I have got to quit coming here; I keep finding more good books to read. This title looks like a real gripper; just the kind of thing that many of my gals will like to read—me too!
    Thanks to you both.

  2. I had a chance to read this already – a prize from the YAmazing Race by the Apocalypsies — and it's fantastic! I read it in two days and I can't wait for the next one!
    It's so, so, so good!

  3. Happy reading, Leah Rae!

    Laura, I did, too. So exciting to see authors well read in the classics reinventing that sensibility for today's teen readers.

    Bonnee, I think we should all post "big sexy words" over our keyboards.

    Margie, it's all my evil plan. To hook you on books and never let go!

    Thanks for the recommendation, Ms. Snip! So glad (but not surprised) that you loved the book.

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