Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Libba Bray on History, Her Books, & Herself

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Libba Bray is the author of five and a half plays, a few short stories and essays and lots of things that, in her words, "should never see the light of day." She has worked as a waitress, a nanny, a burrito roller, a publishing plebe, and an advertising copywriter. Raised in Texas on a steady diet of British humor, underground bands, suburban dysfuntion, and bad TV, she somehow managed to escape with only a few serious deranged haircuts. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and son. She is the New York Times bestselling author of the Gemma Doyle Trilogy: A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing.

Find out more at

A huge thank you to Taren for helping me formulate these questions - she took my totally dumb half-thoughts and ideas for questions and spun them into intelligently-worded questions. (And she also, without having ever read the books, threw in her own questions!) Another huge thank you to Amee for looking over these and participating in discussions and other best friend-ly things.

**Beware of trilogy spoilers below.**

What made you decide to tackle historical fiction? Also, even though you’ve answered this countless times before in other interviews, what kind of historical research did you do for the Gemma Doyle trilogy?

I really like history. No, really. I’m weird that way. I also used to have a thing for toe socks, but I got over that. I especially love the Victorian era and all things gothic, and so it was a bit of a no-brainer to set The Gemma Doyle Trilogy in that era. In a way, I just wanted to write a good ghost story.

As for research, whoo-boy. Yeah. I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into or how hard it can be sometimes to find exactly what you need while the clock is ticking. That was one of the reasons I decided to set Spence in an undisclosed location close to London, so I could play a bit and not feel too constrained. I ordered tons of books from Amazon and Amazon UK. I went to London and did research at the British Library and the London Transport Museum, where I got a tour. Whoo-hoo! (and more books). I had an email correspondence with Dr. Sally Mitchell at Temple University. Lee Jackson of rocks my world and answered all my questions. (He also writes great Victorian thrillers.) Lee was fabulous to me, as were Colin Gale at Royal Bethlehem Hospital Archives and Lee Kirby at the Transport Museum. It’s amazing how nice people are, how much they’re willing to help you. Warms the cockles, it does.

I ended up with an entire bookshelf devoted to Victorian research. I think I have a bibliography on my website. If not, I know there used to be one on the Random House site. I think there were twenty-some-odd books, everything from Daily Life in Victorian England by Sally Mitchell (reference) to The Great Mother by Erich Neumann (psychology). Also, the genius of librarians cannot be overstated. Thank Vishnu* for the help of my librarian friends.

*One hour later: Oh, found my bibliography!

The Victorian Lady by Barbara Rees; What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool; The New Girl by Sally Mitchell, Ph.D.; Short Description of Gods, Goddesses and Ritual Objects of Buddhism and Hinduism in Nepal; Manners for Women by Mrs. Humphrey “Madge of Truth”; Moving Millions: A Pictorial History of London Transport by Theo Barker; Victorian London Street Life in Historic Photographs by John Thomson; A World of Girls by L.T. Meade (famous Victorian novelist); Dickens’s Dictionary of London 1888: An Unconventional Handbook; The Queen’s London: A Descriptive and Pictorial History; Daily Life in Victorian England by Sally Mitchell, Ph.D. (she rocks); The Etiquette of Dress compiled by Madeleine Brant; Penguin Classics Early Irish Myths and Sagas; Fodor’s Exploring India; Lonely Planet India; How Young Ladies Became Girls: The Victorian Origins of American Girlhood by Jane H. Hunter; The Great Mother by Erich Neumann; The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell; The Writers Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England From 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes.

I also poked through Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung and The Victorians by A.N. Wilson.

There are quite a number of fantastical elements in the Gemma Doyle trilogy. How did you come up with it all? Did you study any mythology to use as your basis?

Does it scare you that I came up with some of that stuff? Really, no need to be afraid. Oh hey, I just need to snip a lock of your hair… :)

I have a vivid imagination. When I was four, I was mid-bizarro-story when my pediatrician looked up at my mother and said, “You’ll have to send her to Bennington. That’s where all the weird ones go.” I also love scary, creepy things. My great-grandmother used to tell me ghost stories all the time. (Her grandmother was supposedly a psychic who could talk to the dead. She was undertaker, just to up the creep factor there.) I’m also a very visual person. My first loves were art and theatre, so I like to paint and stage with words.

And trolling through myth really, really helps. Yuppers, I love me some mythology. (Please see bibliography above. Took me long time to type. Admire it. Pretty, no?) Mythology is so fascinating to me, the ways in which myths overlap cultures. The minute I start feeling bad about having to go grocery shopping or making a deadline I think, hey, at least no one’s gutting me and hanging me from a tree in a fertility sacrifice. Yet.

(I figure if no one gutted and hung me after the Kartik incident, I’m probably safe.)

You wrote H.G. Wells in The Sweet Far Thing. So my question is, did you model any other characters after real people at the time?

Hmmm, good question. I don’t think so. But it was fun to have H.G. drop in for a cameo. J

What did you set out to do—what message did you hope to convey—with the Gemma Doyle trilogy? Why did you choose London in the late 19th century as the setting?

I didn’t really set out to convey a message. I hoped to write a crackling good yarn with some truth in it somewhere. I had a small idea of a story, something I needed to tell, and that was the seed, really. Books always spring from something personal.

But the personal is political. And so within that context, I hoped to explore all sorts of ideas and feelings and thoughts and political chewy bits™. (I’ve just trademarked that phrase.) I did want to explore the idea of female sexuality and autonomy, how that still seems to get everybody’s knickers in a twist. Why is an empowered woman so threatening? In what ways do we stop ourselves from having power? How can we change that? What would it mean? Class, race, socialism, capitalism, war, love, friendship, betrayal, family, repression…I wanted to just bite in and chew on all of that. Don’t know if I succeeded, but I learned a few things about myself along the way.

Could you draw a parallel between women in the 19th century and women today? What are the major similarities and major differences you found?

Well, obviously we now have the vote and more power, rights, and freedom than our sisters in the 19th century did. We can choose to wear Chuck Taylors or stilettos. No one thinks it’s scandalous if you work for a living. Becoming a doctor or lawyer or astronaut isn’t crazy talk. (Well, astronaut would be crazy talk in 19th-century England.) Your husband doesn’t legally own you so that you are technically living as a slave under the law. And today, corsets are considered sort of a cool fashion choice instead of a rib-crushing instrument of torture. (I’m still not rushing out to buy one but I appreciate the temporary aesthetics.)

But we still struggle with societal beauty standards/restrictions. We’re still expected to color within the lines of accepted femininity, and women who step out of those lines are usually attacked, whether verbally or physically. Hillary Clinton took a lot of shit on the campaign trail, and it really smacked of “how dare you step out of your place and threaten us with your unapologetic ambition.” Now, we have a woman on the Republican ticket in the VP slot, and for a while, she was being viewed primarily through the lens of traditional gender roles: wife, mother, sex object. And there were certainly plenty of women at the time just like today who openly criticized the inequality and lobbied for more rights. Good to know there are always reformers and fighters in our midst.

It’s also comforting to know that all that human stuff—longing, hopes, dreams, desires, insecurities, perseverance, friendship and family troubles, love—is pretty timeless.

As an add-on to the last question: Most know about how back then, women didn’t have the right to vote or own property, and now they do. However, could you point a few lesser known rights differences you came across in your research? (If any.)

Hmmm, good question. Mostly what come to mind is the great emotional impact of what being “less-than” means.

Just consider that everything a woman had became the property of her spouse—including her body. Her body was his. There’s no, “Not tonight, honey, I’ve got a headache.” There’s no saying no. Unless independently wealthy (widows often), women were completely dependent—first upon their fathers and then upon their husbands. You had better hope that your husband was kind. You also better not screw up and gain the ire of the women in the community because you need them. Really, just living day-to-day knowing that you were never going to have much say in the matter of your life is pretty depressing.

Did you plan everything before you wrote it, or did some things come to you in the writing process? (If so, could you exemplify some?)

(Insane laughter ensues.)

Um, dude? It took me twenty minutes to find where I’d put my keys this morning. Suffice to say, planning isn’t my strong suit. :) Even when I did plan things, the book would change so much in the daily grind that those things would then be jettisoned.

In the original draft for AGATB, I had a whole subplot in which Gemma had a cousin named Jane. Tom was in love with Jane, and she ended up marrying a man who abused her. I was sure this was an important part of the book. Clearly, it wasn’t.

I did NOT have Mary Dowd’s diary in the first draft. That came about in revision. Crazy, no? So much happens for me in revision. I wish I could just skip to that part. :)

One of the criticisms of your work is that the main characters, particularly Gemma, are too modern in their thinking. Did you really project 21st century sensibilities onto 19th century characters or are the not necessarily mutually exclusive and more similar than one would think?

I’ve always maintained that the books are fusion cooking—a mix of this and that, of modernity and history. I wouldn’t want to give anybody the idea that I’m in the same league as Doris Kearns Goodwin or David McCullough. I wanted to subvert a bit. (Again, my first thought for the series was Victorian Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so there you go.)

That said, I was surprised to discover how “modern” many of those late 19-century girls were in their thoughts and feelings. I guess the emotional landscape is the same no matter the time period. And that was what was interesting to me—the emotional lives of these girls.


I think I speak for the majority of your readers when I say Kartik’s death was an unpleasant shock. Do you see any other way for how the ending might’ve played out? Did any aspect of the fan response to his death disappoint you?

I know, I know. You guys hate me. Sometimes Scott Westerfeld and I exchange emails in which I say, “You killed ZANE!” and he writes back, “KARTIK KILLER!”

I thought long and hard about the incident on p.779. Really. I was sensitive to the fact that he was a strong male character and Indian and I didn’t want to say, “The brown guy bites it.” That was a real sticky point for me (in the same way that I was sensitive to the “dead lesbian” aspect of Pippa’s death, though technically, Pippa was already dead and was probably on the verge of starting to smell.) I thought about what it would mean if he lived. Would he and Gemma form a partnership? Would they try to govern the realms together, a new, more equitable government? Would he sail off to India? Would they say, you know what? This crazy romance ain’t gonna work. But we’ll always have the Winterlands. Would he live in the realms and she would come visit him and they would have wild times in the Caves of Sighs? I wasn’t sure. I thought about all those scenarios and many more.

But I just kept coming back to two things: War Demands Cost and Fate versus Destiny.

I know I’ve already gone into this on my blog, but I didn’t feel like I could be so cavalier about war. Only killing off ancillary (I would argue no character is ancillary but for the sake of argument here) characters in whom readers are not as emotionally invested makes it seem as if war is something that happens to someone else, somewhere else. It says war’s not so bad and sort of unreal. It is that bad and very real. Turn on the news.

I understand all the feelings. Listen, I bawled when Cathy died in “Wuthering Heights.” But her death is necessary. One of the conclusions I came to in writing the trilogy was about our responsibility to ourselves and to our fellow human beings. Kartik and Gemma both make sacrifices. I think they both make hard choices. And ultimately, Kartik’s sacrifice not only changes the realms and restores balance, but it allows Gemma to face life as her own woman. (No, I’m not saying you can’t be your own woman and have a partner by your side, too. I’ve had a husband by my side for fifteen years, and his support has made much of my life possible. Just for the record.)

So there was that. But also, it was the whole fate thing, too. Kartik believed in fate. I wasn’t sure if I was going to subvert his belief or not. In the end, I chose to let him do what he felt was necessary.

I was surprised by the intensity of the responses from readers, but I also felt touched that they were so invested in the world of these books. At times I wanted to make it all better. But all I could really do was let people howl and rage. I can take it. :)

And now that I’ve said all THAT, I think I left the whole shebang pretty open-ended. It’s a magical world, so who knows?


We’ve established the 19th century wasn’t a pleasant time for women. However, can you think of any positives about being a woman at the time?

Ummm, no Pussycat Dolls songs?

Sorry. I’m thinking corsets and fear of poverty and no voting rights. Nope. Can’t think of any positives. Except maybe the hats. They had fabulous hats.

Are you inspired by any other periods in history? Can we expect more historical fiction from you?

I love history in general, and yes, I’m already doing the research for the next historical fantasy series set in another time period I love. (Not ready to divulge it quite yet.) I’m not sure if I want to go with straight historical or skew more toward alternate history. If there’s one thing I discovered in doing the former, it’s that you can get boxed in a lot, so it might be more liberating to go alternate. We’ll see. I’m very excited about working on it.

From reading your blog, I know you’re working on your next novel, Going Bovine. How’s that going? Do you have any idea around when the release date will be?

It’s finished! Huzzah! Bring on the cupcakes and DVR’d episodes of “Chuck.” The pub date is Fall 2009, which seems light years away, but it will probably slap my butt and call me Mary before I know it.

I got that quote from William Faulkner, by the way. It’s in the “Serious Writer’s Handbook, Chapter Ten: Proper Decorum for an Interview.”

Last question: Does writing YA rock or what?

It is the college radio of rock, my friend. All the good stuff, none of the filler. And lots of weird DJs speaking to your soul over pizza at 3 a.m.

That made no sense whatsoever. Roll with me, baby. Roll with me.
Thanks, Libba!

Girl Week is a week-long event here on the blog celebrating strong YA heroines and feminism. Find out more about it here.

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Ellie said...

Oh myy gosh this is awesome! I LOVE her!!

Kimberly Derting said...

I have a new crush! On Libba AND on her I just have to read them!!! *sigh*

Anonymous said...

You're on fire with all these interviews this week!

I love it!

And I love Libba! I'm always curious of what grabs a writer's attention into the stories that they write. I've heard tons of good things about her books, but this interview has made me want to read them more!!

sammyjones57 (at) hotmail (dot) com

Unknown said...

Awesome Interview, Steph! I was so upset when she killed off Kartik too!

And Westerfield with Zane! yeah! they rock!

Anonymous said...

Great interview!
Though there were parts of it that are now spoiled for me since I haven't finished the series. haha.

Becky said...

What a great interview! I'm loving Girl Week!

Amee said...

I know I read this once before (haha, yes, the perks of being Steph's bestest bud), but I had to read it all through again just to soak up Libba's awesomeness. ;)

WannabeWriter said...

She's so funny! Especially when you put her and Maureen Johnson on a couch together. That video was epic. Anyway, great interview!

Khy said...

Yay Libba Bray! -fangirls-

Shalonda said...

Libba Bray is super cool! I love her videos on YouTube.

She's got an awesome sense of humor!

Khy said...


I love Libba Bray so much that last year I told the kid sitting next to me all about her. I told her where she lives, what her husband and kid's name is, and that she has an artificial eye. (Don't look at me like that, people. If you read the acknowledgements of books you can learn a lot. You can also learn a lot by reading Maureen Johnson's blog.) (And yes, I really did tell the kid who sat by me all this. He looked at me like I was insane and wanted to know where I got my information, but I would not reveal my sources.)

"I really like history."

And someone finally agrees with me! Everyone thinks I'm loony for loving history. Well, I am loony, but not for loving history. Everyone loves Libba even though she loves history. They don't think she's crazy, because she's so awesome. If I could only be as awesome as Libba Bray.

Steph said...

For the record- I asked Khy to be a bit creepy. It didn't come naturally. I'd need to interview David Levithan for that.

Anonymous said...

love the interview <3

A.S. King said...

This is awesome!!

jocelyn said...

This is a great interview! Except I accidentally read the spoiler and I haven't finished the trilogy. But that's my fault, not yours, and I'm not militarily anti-spoiler, anyway, so I'll be fine.

Anonymous said...

She sounds so awesome! I'm a bit Holden Caulfield when it comes to authors and books; I like books which after you finish reading you're itching to be friends with the author because you just want to pick up the phone and give them a call.

...I need Libba's number!

Amazing interview, Steph. I have to say, Girl Week is the best idea I've seen in the YA reviewing world.

And YAAAAAY, contests! INTERNATIONAL contests! =DDD

Sarah Woodard said...

Great interview.

Em said...

Fantastic interview! It was fun learning more about Libba. :)

Heather Zundel said...

This girl week of yours is hitting off like a firestorm! Congratulations! And terrific interview. I never knew how much research Ms. Libba put into her trilogy. And as for her next piece, can I hope for Roman times? (Another favorite time period). Keep it up Steph!

Unknown said...

That was a great interview. Even though I haven't read her books yet, I definitely want to.

Libba seems really sweet and fun.

Beth Kephart said...

Jeepers, Steph. These are some huge interviews! Congratulations! Well done!

ellie_enchanted said...

*sigh* I love finding out that authors are funny. Though I kind of found that out a few days ago, reading Libba's blog. BUT yeah...

Anyway, this puts the 'rule' in RULES!!!

OK. That was sad.

B said...

Loved this interview. The Gemma Doyle series is beautifully written. I enjoyed it immensely!

Lenore Appelhans said...

FINALLY! I have been waiting to read this interview forever. Totally rocked of course.

Chelsea said...

That was, quite possibly, the best interview I've ever read. You two rock hardcore.

Alessandra said...

I'm not reading this interview because I haven't read the Gemma Doyle trilogy yet and I'm afraid of possible spoilers. But I'm sure Libba Bray is fantastic.

Anonymous said...

I tried to hold off on reading this interview because you warned of spoilers (not too bad, I still want the books LOL), but I'm glad I didn't. That was one FANTASTIC interview. Loved it. (Libba makes it look so easy and, trust me, interviews are *not* that easy.)

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Hey! For some reason, this embedded comment form makes most people click twice before the comment is processed and published. It's not you - it's just that it's a new Blogger feature with kinks and all that. (But I adore it and don't wanna get rid of it!) I removed Captcha to make the process easier. You don't have to rewrite the comments twice; just click on SUBMIT twice and it should work. If not, email me. Thanks! -Steph