Elizabeth Blackwell’s brand new book, WHILE BEAUTY SLEPT, just came out earlier this month, and I asked her a few questions about it and more! She was kind enough to answer. Please welcome Elizabeth to the blog!
You have a Master’s degree in Journalism, but have you always wanted to be a writer? What made you decide to plunge into fiction writing?
I have always wanted to work with and be around books, but to be honest, it took me awhile to work up the confidence for fiction. My first full-time job after college was as a copy editor for encyclopedias, which got me into a very non-glamorous part of the publishing world, but after a few years I wanted to do something more creative. “Journalist” seemed like a more feasible way to earn a living than “fiction writer.” I scribbled away at book ideas in the evenings, most of them really bad attempts at chick lit or romantic suspense, because I thought those were genres that would sell. It was only after years of writing for newspapers and magazines that I began thinking of myself as a real writer, and that gave me the confidence to start writing the type of stories I wanted to tell.
Hmmm, I have a suspicion that you like faerie tales, since your novel, WHILE BEAUTY SLEPT, is based on the story of Sleeping Beauty. Will you tell us a little more about it, and your heroine, Elise Dalriss?
I am sucker for any story with an eerie, Gothic setting: bring on the creepy castles and overgrown forests! So I’ve always been drawn to the dark elements of traditional fairy tales. The challenge I set for myself with While Beauty Slept was to take the legend and make it feel real, as if these were events that had actually happened, to three-dimensional, believable characters. I figured out fairly early that I couldn’t write the story from the viewpoint of Sleeping Beauty herself; a royal princess would be very sheltered and have a limited perspective on what was going on. So I created Elise Dalriss, a country girl who starts out her life in great poverty but becomes a trusted servant and confidante to the royal family. She sees it all, from the baby princess being cursed to the way the curse plays out, and because she is, in a sense, a part of the family, she has a crucial role in all the events that unfold. Through Elise, I was also able to bring in other non-royal characters: soldiers, tradesmen, other servants–people who could make this fairy tale world more fully-rounded and believable.
What kind of research did you do for WHILE BEAUTY SLEPT? What was one of the most interesting things you learned?
This is such an interesting question for this particular book, because in some ways, I did no research at all. While Beauty Slept is set in a made-up kingdom, during an unspecified time, so technically I could write whatever I liked. But I wanted it this imaginary place to seem familiar and believable. That meant everything had to be historically consistent, so I pictured a place that looked like 16th or 17th-century Europe. I did consult culinary encyclopedias for ideas on what people would eat at that time, and fashion-history books for clothing. But honestly, much of the research also came from years of reading historical fiction and biographies of people like Henry VIII’s wives–I felt like I could summon up what it felt like to live then, just because I’d read so many books set in that period.
Culinary encyclopedias…that actually sounds fascinating! Any dishes that especially caught your eye (or completely disgusted you?)
I did fall in love with the term “hodge-podge,” which was basically a stew with meat and spices, and reminded me of the type of dinner I might prepare in a crock pot—proof that some things don’t really change over hundreds of years. But I still can’t quite understand the medieval fascination with baking birds into pastries. I’m not a vegetarian, but the idea of four-and-twenty-blackbirds baked in a pie isn’t very appetizing, even though it was apparently the kind of over-the-top dish that would have been prepared for a royal feast.
What are a few more of your favorite faerie tales?
I think I’ll always have a soft spot for Cinderella, the ultimate poor-girl-makes-good fantasy. But I’m also fascinated with the idea of Rapunzel. What was it like for her to live alone in that tower? What convinced her to let down her hair for the prince, a man she didn’t even know? That story might have the potential for another book someday.
What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Definitely a plotter. I think that’s why the idea of Sleeping Beauty was so appealing: I knew the general direction the story would go. I knew what was going to happen and how it was going to end (more or less). That said, like any writer, I did shift around characters and storylines when something wasn’t working, which is why the final product isn’t a by-the-numbers retelling of the fairy tale.
What authors have influenced you in your writing?
So many! For this particular book, I was inspired by Diana Gabaldon and her Outlander series. She proved that stories mixing fantasy and historical fiction could sell. George R.R. Martin was another huge influence. Someone recently told me that While Beauty Slept read like a female version of Game of Thrones, and I consider that the ultimate compliment.
What’s one of the first things you can remember writing?
I got a blank notebook for Christmas one year, and I very clearly remember writing a story about a lonely girl who bonds with a mysterious friend who appears out of nowhere and turns out to be—surprise!—a ghost. Of course, when the girl realizes her new BFF isn’t alive, they must part forever, and I fully intended my readers (i.e. my parents) would be sobbing by the end. Clearly, I had a taste for the melodramatic from a very young age.
What are you reading now?
I just finished Night Film by Marisha Pessl, which is sort-of a modern ghost story, and next on my nightstand is The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I’m really looking forward to it because her book The Secret History is one of my all-time favorites.
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be, and why?
I’m going to go old-school for this: I wish I could read some classic Agatha Christie for the first time. I was absolutely stunned by the ending of Murder on the Orient Express and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd when I first read them, and I’d love to experience that same sense of astonishment again. I’m a sucker for a great twist ending.
When you’re not working on your next project, how do you like to spend your free time?
The boring answer, of course, is reading! But I’m also a big believer in finding inspiration away from my desk, so whenever I hit a roadblock work-wise, I love to get outside and take a walk. I think some of my best ideas have come when I was just strolling around my neighborhood, letting my mind wander.
What’s next for you this year?
I’m working on my next book, more of a straight historical fiction story that follows different generations of the same family in the late 1800s and 1920s. Some characters are not quite what they seem, and there’s a spooky house and hidden secrets—all those Gothic elements that I love.
About WHILE BEAUTY SLEPT:
I am not the sort of person about whom stories are told.
And so begins Elise Dalriss’s story. When she hears her great-granddaughter recount a minstrel’s tale about a beautiful princess asleep in a tower, it pushes open a door to the past, a door Elise has long kept locked. For Elise was the companion to the real princess who slumbered—and she is the only one left who knows what actually happened so many years ago. Her story unveils a labyrinth where secrets connect to an inconceivable evil. As only Elise understands all too well, the truth is no fairy tale.