Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Welcome Alex Flinn, author of the new young adult novel Beastly!

I am a beast.
A beast. Not quite wolf or bear, gorilla or dog but a horrible new creature who walks upright—a creature with fangs and claws and hair springing from every pore. I am a monster.
You think I'm talking fairy tales? No way. The place is New York City. The time is now. It's no deformity, no disease. And I'll stay this way forever—ruined—unless I can break the spell.

Alex Flinn, author of such acclaimed YA novels as Breathing Underwater and Fade to Black pens a new twist on the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, set this time in contemporary New York City. Kirkus Reviews says ""Teens will race to see if the beast gets his kiss, lifts the curse, and lives happily ever after." We are pleased to welcome Alex to the Cafe!

Tell us about your newest book, Beastly.

It's a modern, urban BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Kyle Kingsbury is a prince in his upper-crust New York prep school, handsome, athletic, and son of a network news anchor. He's also a jerk. He meets Kendra, a goth scholarship student at his school and plays a mean trick on her. She gets revenge by turning him into a beast. He has two years to find true love to transform him back. When MySpace doesn't work, he must try other means.

Fun fact: My mother wanted to name me Kendra.

What was your inspiration for this story?

Beauty and the Beast, of course. There were certain things that bothered me about it -- specifically that the Beast has no family. Where are the king and queen? Did they abandon him and move to the summer castle because of his beastliness? Also, it bothered me that in most versions of Beauty and the Beast (not the Disney version, I tell the kids at school visits -- the Disney people must have been bothered by it too), Beauty's father breaks into the Beast's garden to steal a flower. When the Beast catches him, he says he will kill him unless he lets the Beast have his daughter. While the father always goes, "No, no, I can't do that," a few days later, he's always there, giving his daughter over to a beast. This seems like highly irresponsible parenting to me! So I conceived of Beauty and the Beast as a story of two lost souls who found each other.

In general, I felt sorry for the Beast and wanted to tell his side of the story. I have always told stories in the "wrong viewpoint" and this was another. I really felt attuned with the character and couldn't stop thinking about him.

Do you remember writing the first words? Are they still the same?

No. The first words I wrote were, "I was not always as you see me, skulking in doorways and behind garbage dumpsters, searching for my one true love." The whole thing was very gothic, as I initially envisioned it. It became more modern in later execution, almost realistic except for the whole witchcraft thing.

What kind of research did you have to do for this story?

Well, not the same type of research I had to do on my other, realistic, books. With those, I am often researching life and death issues such as school violence, AIDS, and domestic violence. This came more from my mind, but since it took place in New York City, I had to do a lot of research about that. I know all the subway routes, for example. Okay, "know" is probably a strong word. I'd probably still get lost. But I learned them for the book. Also, I went through the real estate ads and found a brownstone for Kyle to live in, his castle. So when people asked me about the layout of the house, I knew because it was a real house. I still have the floor plan and photos. Also, I had to research rose gardening because Kyle has a greenhouse with a ton of different kinds of roses.

Finally, I reread many versions of Beauty and the Beast because I didn't want my story to take too strongly from any one version. Many versions are similar with elements like red flowers, a magic glass, etc. That said, the main basis for my story is the le Prince de Beaumont version, which is the most familiar version to American audiences. It's the longest, most fully-realized version of the story, so it just seemed right to me.

I also researched other fairy tales.

What is the hardest part of writing for you?

Sitting down and doing it on days when I'm not that inspired.

Ain't it the truth. What one question do you wish an interviewer would ask you but never has?

Oh, I don't know. I can think of one question that everyone asks and I really hate answering because the answer never sounds satisfactory to me ("Why did you give up being a lawyer?") and you haven't asked it, so I think we're doing pretty well.

What are you working on now?

I just started a manuscript about a hit list and how it affects a middle school. We'll see how it goes. There seem to be a lot of hit lists in middle schools lately. I visited two schools last year that had hit list issues. They mostly turn out to be jokes, but of course, the school has to treat them seriously and it causes a lot of turmoil.

Tell us something about you that no one knows.

I'm really bad at sports, always have been. I think I'm actually afraid of getting hit by the ball because I am less bad at softball, where you have something to hit back with (but I can't field). When I was in law school, my then-boyfriend, now-husband and I joined a volleyball team through a club we were in. These two women, sisters, teased me mercilessly about what a bad volleyball player I was. I was really upset and quit the team. When I got home that night, it dawned on me that I was 23 years old, I had never enjoyed team sports, and I could go the rest of my life without playing a team sport again if I didn't want to. So I never have.

How did you become a writer?

I always thought I would be one, but I always did other things too. When I was in college, I started writing a YA manuscript, which I then lost and didn't think about. I was on vacation with my parents when I wrote it, so it may well be somewhere in Arizona. A good ten years later, when I had my first daughter, I thought, "I should try to write that book again." So that's what I did, and it eventually became a very different novel, which got published.

What is your favorite line, passage, chapter from Beastly?

The one I got Harper to excerpt on the back cover. Chapter 6, page 123. Kyle has become a beast and changed his name to Adrian. He has given up hope of ever finding true love and, instead, has devoted himself to books like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (my favorite in high school), The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Phantom of the Opera. And he says (in part):

"I lived in darkness now. I started sleeping during the day, walking the streets and riding the subways at night, when no one could really see me. I finished the hunchback book (everyone died), so I read The Phantom of the Opera. In the book -- unlike the dorky Andrew Lloyd Wibber musical version -- the Phantom wasn't some misunderstood romantic loser. He was a murderer who terrorized an opera house for years before kidnapping a young singer and trying to force her to be the love he was denied.

"I got it. I knew now what it was to be desperate. I knew what it was to skulk in darkness, looking for some little bit of hope, but finding nothing. I knew what it was to be so lonely you could kill from it.

"I wished I had an opera house. I wished I had a cathedral. I wished I could climb to the top of the Empire State Building like King Kong. Instead, I had only books, books and the anonymous streets of New York with their millions of stupid, clueless people . . . I scared me."

Was there any part that you struggled with or avoided writing?

This book flowed very easily to me. If anything, there were scenes (like the ending) which came to me out of order. I wrote them in the back of the notebook and went on to writing in order.

One challenge was the chat scenes -- which were fun to write but required a great deal of wangling. The book has some chat room sections where Kyle chats with other fairy tale characters who have transformed or, in one case, are thinking about transforming. All their stories are told within the book. It took me a while to choose which ones to include in that. I included the Frog Prince and the Little Mermaid as a matter of course, because they are the most familiar transformation stories. Then, I added the Bear Prince from Snow White and Rose Red, which was a story I liked as a kid, but which I thought would be less familiar to most readers. I had wanted to include Lampwick, Pinocchio's friend who was transformed into a donkey, because it really appealed to me to have characters from so many different places (the mermaid from Denmark, the bear from Germany, Lampwick from Italy, and my beast in NYC though the story is French), but it got unwieldy to have so many characters chatting, and also, Lampwick couldn't type very well, due to having hooves, on top of another character with webbed feet. I had also included a pair of selkies, but again, it got unwieldy.

What's on your nightstand right now?

I'm reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which is an adult book, though the protagonist is a teenager so far in my reading. It's actually one of those books that sort of annoys me because no way would a real kid or teenager think like this character, but because it's an adult book, it's okay. But it is an interesting premise, about a boy who receives an out-of-print book from his father and is then stalked by a mysterious, disfigured man bent on destroying all copies of this author's work. The writing is very beautiful.

Next in line is Deadline by Chris Crutcher. I read the first chapter, and it looks good. But I have to finish the other first, because it's for my book discussion group.

Besides writing, do you have any other passions?

My kids

What are your hobbies?

Cooking, baking (I like decorating cakes too, and I designed a special Naruto-themed cake for my daughter's birthday recently and a flip flop cake for the other daughter), running, and biking. I need to do the second two to manage the first two.

Have you ever wanted to quit writing? Why?

When I was about a year into getting my first book finished and published, I thought, "It wouldn't be so bad if I quit." Then, I thought, "Yeah, if you did that, what you'd have accomplished in the past year would be reading a lot of teen books." So I kept going.

If you could be anything else besides a writer, what would it be?

A Broadway musical theater star. As a teen, I used to fantasize about dying my hair red and being the next Angela Lansbury. Dance was my downfall, which is why I switched to opera, but I never had the same level of passion for it that I had for musical theater.

What were you like as a teen?

I was Jerry Renault, a maverick. I had a leather-bound, gilt-edged copy of GONE WITH THE WIND which I used to bring to school to read, and kids would tease me about it because it looked like a really big Bible. Did that stop me from bringing it to school? Nope. On one occasion, I used this white nail polish, which no one had ever heard of at that time. People made fun of that too, saying it looked like Liquid Paper . . . so I wore it for a week because I didn't want anyone to think they could tell me what nail polish to wear. Oh, and I sang opera and had an encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater, but absolutely no knowledge of what normal people were listening to. Like Caitlin in my book, DIVA, I used to listed to AT40 to try and figure it out, but that didn't work.

One of my college professors, Dr. Wagner, used the word "maverick" to describe me. At the time, I was arguing with another professor because the computer had misgraded a test paper of mine. Dr. Wagner said if I'd been nicer, he could have gotten her to regrade my paper. I said, "But I want her to regrade everyone's paper because it wasn't only mine she got wrong." That's when he called me a maverick, and I guess he was right. Still sort of am, but I try to pick my battles more now. I try.

Cafe Note~~ As a regular part of our interviews, featured authors will pop back in for one week after their interview is posted to answer any other questions blog readers may leave for them. So if you have any questions or comments for Alex, post them in the comments. She'd love to hear from you! And don't forget to visit her website.