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Editor’s Corner: Allison Wortche Talks to Author Jane Nickerson

March 13, 2013

In a mini-review of debut young adult novel Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson we shared earlier this week, Erin said:

This exciting debut from young adult author Jane Nickerson is full of romance, mystery, and danger. A re-telling of the Bluebeard fairy tale, set in the pre-Civil War south on a lush plantation, it’s a quick, juicy novel I couldn’t put down. Sophia is a red-headed beauty, and an orphan taken in by her mysterious godfather Monsieur Bernard de Cressac. She is soon seduced by her new life of luxury, full of gorgeous clothes, rich food and staff to wait on her hand and foot. But her benefactor’s dark moods scare her, and the plantation feels full of history and ghosts. As she gets to know Cressac better, she starts to uncover the truth about his wives, all missing or dead, all crimson-haired like herself. This will appeal to older teens and to adults who enjoy well-written, Gothic romance.

Today, we’re happy to welcome Jane and her editor, Allison Wortche, to the blog to share more about the book, Jane’s inspiration, the editorial process, and what’s next from this exciting new author! We hope you enjoy this special editor’s corner. Strands of Bronze and Gold is now available in bookstores, online and at your local library!

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AW: What drew you to the “Bluebeard” fairy tale? What was it like turning a very short (and extremely creepy!) tale into a lush and fully-developed novel?

JN: There is a piece of me that really enjoys the macabre—which is odd because I’m a nice, happy person who loves sunshine and children and pets. Of course I never wish to really meet a serial killer or a ghost, and I’m too squeamish to dabble in the grimmest and goriest horror stories, but there’s something deliciously shivery about being home all cozy and safe while reading (or writing) something scary. So that must be what drew me to “Bluebeard.”

Fairy tales provide great scope for the imagination because the stories are so bare-bones—a writer can hang all sorts of flesh on them. It was interesting to figure out the personalities of the main characters—Monsieur Bernard de Cressac and Sophie Petheram—their backstories and motivations. When I began to think about writing Strands of Bronze and Gold I knew the beginning and the end, but not how to get to it. It was so interesting to feel the story and the characters blossom. Even though it’s a retelling, so everyone knows the mystery, Strands still held some surprises for me because it became so character driven. Wyndriven Abbey itself became another character, and so did the forest. Michael and Talitha’s story needed to be included. The ghosts of the wives took on a life (so to speak) of their own. And I wanted Sophie’s love interest, Gideon, to be an extra good man to balance the evil of M. Bernard. To me, he became a wonderful person, full of honor and integrity and courage.

AW: What made you choose the setting you did for this story?

JN: I actually started out writing it in some generic Western-European setting. However, at the time I had recently moved to Ontario, Canada from small town Mississippi, and I was a bit homesick for the South. One morning I woke up and the thought was in my head: You need to set it in antebellum Mississippi. I tried to tell myself to hush because I was halfway through the first draft and felt lazy about practically starting over, but the thought wouldn’t go away. I love the South and its people and it lent itself beautifully to the story.

AW: There are some deliciously creepy scenes in Strands of Bronze and Gold. I will admit (and my former roommate can attest to this) that the first time I read this, as a submission, I was sitting on the edge of the couch yelling, “Do not go in there! Do NOT go in there!!!” I’m curious—as you were writing, did you ever find yourself scared of your own novel/characters?

JN: For the character of Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, I studied charismatic womanizers, abusive partners, and psychopaths. As I was doing so, it made my flesh crawl because of the horrible people that really exist in the world. As I was writing and could feel the fascination of Bernard’s personality, at times I was scared of him and the things Sophie would have to go through. I hated to turn little Sophie over to him, and to put her through everything, but those experiences are what grew her up and made her into the woman she was to become. It’s funny, but one of the hardest things for me to do was to have Sophie’s cat, Buttercup, die. One of the reasons that was especially difficult for me was because once when I was a kid in Southern California, and went to play in the orange grove across the street from my house, I nearly walked into a dead cat some beast of a person had hung from a branch. It was one of the more traumatic moments in my childhood. Writing about Buttercup brought it back so that I could hardly bear to let that happen to him. But alas, poor Buttercup…

AW: Wyndriven Abbey is filled with dark secrets, but it’s also an incredible place of grandeur and beauty. If you were in Sophie’s shoes, do you think you would have been charmed by M. de Cressac and the Abbey for a while?

JN: I’m afraid I would have been. I’m quite naïve where people are concerned. I can never believe, until it’s proved otherwise, that some people are simply not good and decent. As I was writing about M. de Cressac, I was charmed by him in the beginning—even though I knew what lay ahead! And I think my head would have been turned by the riches of the Abbey at first. Who could help it?

AW: I especially love your descriptions of clothing and food in this novel (mmm, ice cream with peaches). Did you have fun with all these descriptions? And if you could wear one of Sophie’s outfits, which one would it be? (I claim the “lavender poplin with apple green ribbons appliquéd about the hem.”)

JN: I love clothes and I love food, so yes, it was tons of fun to conjure it up in my head and describe it. When I was a kid I was literally homesick for the 1800’s. If I was plopped into the past with what I know now, I wouldn’t actually like the food—we have much better desserts nowadays—but the clothing is another story. In the sixth grade, for a class project, I made paper dolls with garments from that century, and the 1850’s to 1860’s were my favorites. So romantic and feminine. I loved describing Sophie’s dresses. In fact (as you know, Allison), I had to cut out quite a few descriptions because every time Sophie turned around, she was describing her gown as if she were on a runway. If I could wear one of Sophie’s gowns (and had a waist that would fit it), I would pick Sophie’s ball gown of “fine white linen lawn with long purple silk taffeta ribbons and streamers down the back.”

AW: Who was your favorite character to write in this novel? Do you have a favorite scene?

JN: Oh, Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, of course. He’s so complex and twisted. He wasn’t meant to be a bad person, but too much wealth and power, selfishness, the events of his life, and mental illness crept in and turned him into a monster. (There, see how he’s a real person in my mind?) The “Bluebeard” fairy tale only reveals that he’s rich and killed many wives, so I had to figure out what sort of person he was. He had to be dangerously attractive in order to make several women trust him and fall in love with him. He had to hide his true self, but bits of it would slip out. My favorite scene is when he’s confused and hurt by what he has done and he lays his head in Sophie’s lap and she comforts him. This scene shows that he has a vulnerable side and that he doesn’t understand the evil that lurks in his heart. And it shows Sophie’s compassion even after she has become disillusioned.

AW: What research did you do to get the historical details right in Strands?

JN: Because I’m a fan of the 1800’s, I have years of reading about that time period to draw from. My favorite sources are period letters, journals, and the narratives that were interviews with former slaves. I like reading those because they’re straight from the horse’s mouth, without modern people interpreting the past. Of course in every chapter there would be things I had to look up. I tried to be careful because I hate anachronisms in historical fiction. The editors and copyeditors also worked hard to catch anything that wasn’t historically accurate, such as word usage. For instance, I bet you didn’t know that the word “footwear” didn’t come into usage until the 1870’s.

AW: What is your writing process like?  Do you have a specific place, or a specific time that you write?

JN: I’m telling stories in my head constantly—which can be very annoying to the people around me since I often don’t hear what they say. I also find that chores like lawn-mowing and snow-shoveling are conducive for thinking. When I’m ready to get serious about a long book, I put together a notebook with the whole thing outlined and carefully-marked sections such as “Characters” and “Descriptions I Want to Use” and “Research.” Then as I go along, the notebook gets messier and messier, stuffed with all the bits and pieces of paper I’ve scribbled ideas on. I sit at a desk in our book-lined study and write about four hours a day, five days a week. Evenings and weekends, my husband gets the computer and I get to read other people’s books.

AW: What about your revision process?

JN: It takes me several months to churn out a first draft in which I do a lot of re-reading and re-writing, including reading out loud so I’ll know how it sounds. Once that’s finished, since there’s always things I can’t see for myself because I’m too close to the story, I send the manuscript to my beta readers, who are family and friends whose opinions I value. I read their notes and incorporate the suggestions I agree with. Next, my agent, Wendy Schmalz reads it and makes her suggestions. After that, if it’s accepted for publication, it goes to the editor. Because you, Allison, are such a wonderful, discerning editor, it’s obvious to me the moment I read your editorial notes that you’re absolutely right about everything. Often the big things that need to be changed are aspects I was uncomfortable with, but I was hoping other people wouldn’t notice because they’re difficult to incorporate. I’m trying to learn to make those sorts of changes without being told. Finally, there’s the copyeditors’ revisions. So there is writing, re-writing, and yet more re-writing. But the finished product is worth it. It is a lovely, lovely feeling to see that beautiful hardcover book sitting on my desk—a lifetime dream.

AW: What advice would you offer to aspiring authors?

JN: Write for the joy of writing, write a lot, force yourself to finish stories, and then polish them—even if no one else is going to read it. If you cannot rest without trying to be published, realize that some of the fun leaves, and the labor and the rejections begin, when you work towards that goal.

AW: And what can readers look forward to from you next?

JN: The Mirk and Midnight Hour, which is a companion book to Strands of Bronze and Gold comes out in spring, 2014. It takes place in the same Mississippi County during the American Civil War, and is based on the “Ballad of Tam Lin.” The knight in the old Scottish story is a captured Union soldier in my retelling, and the fairies are voodoo practitioners. It has more magical elements than Strands. I am currently nearly finished with the first draft of a third companion book, which takes place in Wyndriven Abbey a few years after the war’s end. The abbey has been turned into a girls’ school and its former residents do not all rest in peace.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2013 8:25 am

    Sounds like a great read! Very atmospheric!

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  1. Wortche, Allison | Writing for Children and Teens

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