Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Interview with Rosamund Hodge, author of Cruel Beauty

I am thrilled to welcome to the Inkpot Rosamund Hodge, whose debut YA fantasy CRUEL BEAUTY was released earlier this year. I am completely in love with this spectacular book. If you like fairy tale retellings, complicated heroines, unique worldbuilding, or tough romances, this book is for you. (Even if you don't, it might still be for you. It's that good!)

Cruel Beauty read to me like a re-telling mash-up of Bluebeard, Persephone, and possibly some other fairy tales as well. Did you plan it that way? If so, which legend was the spark that started the story?

Oh, yes, the mash-up was completely intentional—crazy potpourri is one of my favorite styles of writing—and the spark was realizing how some of the legends were connected.

True confession time: when I was a child, I actually was not a big fan of Beauty and the Beast. I liked it just fine, but it felt like nothing special to me. (Heresy, I know.) What I did love was the Greco-Roman myth of Cupid and Psyche. Briefly—an oracle tells the king he has to sacrifice his daughter to a “monster.” But the daughter, Psyche, isn’t devoured by a beast as she expects; instead, the wind carries her to a strange palace with invisible servants who tell her that she is a bride. And every night her husband comes to visit her—but he forbids her to see his face. When her jealous sisters persuade her light a candle anyway, she discovers that he’s Cupid, the god of love. But because she broke his command, he becomes a prisoner of his mother Venus, and Psyche must complete a series of impossible tasks—ultimately going to the Underworld—in order to free him.

As much as I loved the story of Cupid and Psyche, I never planned to write a retelling of it. In a way, it felt too perfect: what could I add? Then a few years ago, I read the fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, which is basically a half-and-half mix of Beauty and the Beast with Cupid and Psyche. (The girl marries a polar bear, who turns out to be an enchanted prince trying to escape the princess of trolls.) Suddenly I realized that all three stories were the same story, working itself out in different ways. That was when Beauty and the Beast became truly interesting to me, and that was the birth of Cruel Beauty.

I didn't even realize East of the Sun, West of the Moon was in there! That's another of my favorite fairy tales.

The world-building in Cruel Beauty is really unique (side note: seriously, everyone, you will not find anything like it anywhere). Its basis, though, is ancient Greece. How did you decide to base your world there? What kind of research did you do?

This is going to sound terrible, but I didn’t actually do much research. That’s because the world-building in Cruel Beauty isn’t intellectual so much as aesthetic. It’s an alternate Earth, but it isn’t the kind has a rigorously worked-out alternate history (like in Kate Elliot’s marvellous Cold Magic, for instance). Instead, the purpose of the world-building is to provide an appropriate atmosphere for the story. 

I knew the world had to be vaguely Greco-Roman, because of the Cupid and Psyche elements. But I also knew that it had to be vaguely Victorian, because Cruel Beauty is a mad, passionate melodrama, and you can’t do that properly without corsets and brooding Victorian houses. So I just threw all those elements in a blender. My “research” was basically a core dump of all the Greco-Roman material I had absorbed through a childhood obsession with mythology and a high school/college career that spent a lot of time on the Classics.

It doesn't sound terrible at all - it sounds refreshing! I tend to agree that the primary purpose of world-building is to serve the story. (And by the way, I've heard Megan Whalen Turner say more or less the same thing...)

I absolutely love your fierce main character. How did you manage to write a character simultaneously so full of hatred and so likable?

That’s kind of a funny question to me, because when I was writing Cruel Beauty, I actually tried very hard not to make Nyx too likable, and I ended up breaking my original outline to do it! But I did still want her to be sympathetic, and I guess the main thing I did was try to make her aware of when she was being hateful. I ended up drawing a lot on my own teenaged experience when writing her. I had a very happy childhood and my parents hardly ever sold me to demon princes. But I did have a bad temper, so I had a lot of experience with being furious while knowing I had no right to be furious. Back then, I would have loved to read about a heroine who struggled with her anger the way I did. So I tried to create that with Nyx. 

I think you did a great job. I also love the character of the sister, especially the way my perception of her changed throughout the novel. Any insight into her?

I have issues with the “sweet young innocent” character archetype. It used to be that a lot of authors and readers idolized them because they were too preciously good for this world. (Think of almost any 19th century novel.) Now a lot of authors and readers seem to hate them because they’re too stupid and weak for this world. (Think of how most people talk about Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.) 

I dislike both approaches, because they both assume that being innocent and kind means you have no interior life. You’re just a symbol, either of purity or stupidity, and either way you’re not a person. And that’s pernicious nonsense. Being innocent and sheltered does not make you less of a person. It also doesn’t mean you escaped psychological damage, or that you have no capacity for darkness.

So when I wrote Nyx’s sister Astraia, I wanted to create a character who was not only innocent in many ways, but who had been treated by her family as the precious, sacred innocent to be preserved at all costs—and who had been damaged by that protection almost as much as Nyx was damaged by trying to give it. 

Finally, I know you're working on a new book -- are there any hints about it you can share?

The new book is called Crimson Bound, and I just finished edits on it last week! It’s not connected to Cruel Beauty at all, except that it’s another fairy tale fusion. In this case, it’s inspired by Little Red Riding Hood and The Girl With No Hands. The heroine is a girl who trained all her life to fight the dark magic overtaking her world, only to end up bound to it instead. Then she gets one last chance to fight back.

I can't wait! Thank you so for a fascinating interview.