Monday, July 28, 2014

An interview with Lisa Jensen, author of the historical/fantasy novel Alias Hook

I'd like to welcome Lisa Jensen back to Reading the Past for a conversation about her new release, Alias Hook. This beautifully imagined tale inverts the story of Peter Pan by depicting the eternally young Peter as the pompous child ruler of Neverland and his nemesis, Captain Hook, as an intelligent Georgian-era pirate captain who's weary of battling Peter and his tribe of Lost Boys for centuries on end.  When an Englishwoman named Stella Parrish dreams her way into Neverland, to the astonishment of everyone there, it serves as the impetus for Hook to re-evaluate his circumstances, try to escape from the curse laid upon him, and, perhaps, fall in love.

Both action-filled and thought-provoking, and alternating between historically grounded and magical settings, the genre-bending Alias Hook is a delightful mix of contrasts.  Since I'd never been a big admirer of the traditional  story Peter Pan seemed too selfish to be likeable I found myself preferring Lisa's version.  Hook's journey to freedom and self-understanding is also deeply romantic, and, unlike the original, it's definitely for grown-ups!

Do you remember your first encounter with the story of Peter Pan as a child, and what you thought about it?

I probably saw the old Mary Martin version of the stage play on TV before I was old enough to go see the Disney movie in a theater, but I don't actually remember. But I DO know that I always loved Captain Hook—he was funny and silly and sneaky, and the story perked up whenever he was around!

How did you choose the timeframes, the early 1700s for the beginning of the Captain’s story, and 1950 for Stella’s?

J. M. Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan (as well as Peter and Wendy, the novelization of his famous play) tells us that Hook sailed with Blackbeard, so that roots him in a very specific historical era. Blackbeard was killed in 1718, and roughly the 1690s—1720s are considered the "Golden Age of Piracy," so there was a lot of historical material available. (Although in my book, James Hook laughs at the idea that he would ever actually sail with Blackbeard, who was a lunatic!)

For Stella's timeframe, I wanted her to have been though something cataclysmic, like a world war, to make her long for what she imagines will be a world of perfect childhood innocence in the Neverland. I wanted her modern enough to be completely different from any woman Hook has ever known before. (She wears trousers, drinks and swears.) But I didn't want her to be too modern, didn't want to burden her with technology like cell phones and instant access to information. She comes from an era where life can still be slow and mysterious and private.

In Alias Hook, Peter Pan is a dangerously spoiled and power-hungry little brat, but there’s a little more to him than that. How did you develop his character?

Barrie tells us who's who in the Neverland, but not why or how, so I had to make up the "rules" that govern the place on my own. As soon as James Hook took up residence in my head and started telling me his side of the story, I knew that Pan would have to be the antagonist. Not the villain, he's just heartless and cruel, in the manner of children who don't understand the consequences of what they do. But it can't all be non-stop fun, not even for Pan, the eternal child. He's the necessary figurehead in the Neverland, which provides a safe place for the world's children to dream, but he's paid a price for his position. He's suffered losses over time that he doesn't quite remember, but there's a darkness in his psyche that makes him extra aggressive toward his enemies, the grown-ups—especially Hook.

How has your longtime experience as a professional film critic influenced your approach to writing fiction?

It may be that I envision things in more cinematic terms, like the placement of figures in a scene, or the composition of elements in the landscape. Readers have told me the book is very visual, that they "see" it in their mind's eye, so that's probably the influence of the movies! Also, analyzing hundreds of movies in the reviewing process has hopefully taught me how to structure a successful narrative.

George R. R. Martin has said: “I have always regarded historical fiction and fantasy as sisters under the skin, two genres separated at birth.” Do you agree? Did you find similarities in the world-building process you used to create both your historical England and the imaginative Neverland?

Oh, boy, I have something in common with George R. R. Martin! I feel like fantasy and historical fiction have a lot in common. In both cases, the writer is taking readers some place where they have never been—and where they can never possibly go. Some place where the customs, clothing, and "rules" are completely alien. And it's the author's job to make this alien landscape come to life for readers, either by drenching it in the minutiae of vivid historical detail, or else making it all up! In one way, making up fantasy worlds might be easier, but in both cases, the story and characters must be firmly rooted in recognizable human emotion. That's what creates drama.

Back in the guest post you wrote for my site two years ago, you’d written that “pirate stories have always been my favorite guilty pleasure.” This is your second novel to feature pirates and their daring adventures at sea. Where did your interest in pirates and pirate stories come from?

All those hours watching old Errol Flynn movies on TV with my mom in my formative years! From a writer's perspective, I think pirates are a metaphor for freedom, the freedom of the open sea, far away from the social order on land, with its rules and regulations and strict moral code. Then, of course, there's the wardrobe—who doesn't want to wear those boots!

Many of the settings within Neverland are beautifully enchanting. The scene of the fairy dell during their revels, with its shimmering palace, is probably my favorite. If you were offered the chance to visit one of the regions of your Neverland (assuming you were guaranteed safety!), which one would it be?

I'm kind of partial to the cavernous grotto beneath the Mermaid Lagoon, with its phosphorescent, gemstone-colored rock formations. In photos of deepwater fish and plant life that exists far away from the sun, the colors are extraordinary! But the shimmering white palace of the Fairy Queen is pretty amazing too, with its hall of giant silver mirrors reflecting not necessarily what's real, but the inner fears of anyone looking in. But I'd need a trail of breadcrumbs, or something, to find my way out again!

I just reread your short story “Proserpina’s Curse,” from the sadly defunct Paradox Magazine, which recounts Hook’s backstory and the very beginning of his adventures. It works very well as a standalone story, but how much of the novel had been written at the time it was published?

I think I had completed an early draft by the time that story was published in Paradox, but, of course, it was nothing like what is now the finished novel of Alias Hook. I'm the kind of writer who has to slog through many, many drafts before I finally figure out what my story is about! But I have to say, getting such a positive response from Chris Cevasco at Paradox was a real turning point for me. It encouraged me to tear back into the manuscript and get serious about a full-length novel.

Since you’re a known movie enthusiast, I have to ask – who would be your ideal casting choices for a film of Alias Hook?

Well, I didn't have anybody in mind while I was writing the book; I always saw James Hook as his own person. But if I had to pick a movie star to play him, how about Hugh Jackman? He's certainly got the musicality for it, because, in my book, James Hook is very musical. That's why losing his hand is so traumatic. I like Rachel Weisz for my heroine, Stella. She's serious, spirited and mature, but she also has a goofy side (if you ever saw her in The Brothers Bloom). As for Pan...well, considering how long it takes to get a movie made, that actor probably hasn't been born yet!


Alias Hook was published in hardcover in July by Thomas Dunne, an imprint of St. Martin's Press ($24.99/C$28.99, 368pp).  The UK publisher is Snowbooks (pb, £7.99).


  1. Good interview. The characterization of Peter Pan and Captain Hook reminds me of ABC's Once Upon a Time's Peter Pan and Captain Hook for they seem very similar. Have you watched the show, and did it give you any ideas when writing the novel?

  2. I completed the final draft of "Alias Hook" at the end of 2012, when the Captain Hook character had just been introduced on OUaT. But I was writing my story for years before that, so the TV show wasn't really an influence. (And considering how long it takes to get a book published, I would have been REALLY depressed to think that someone else had come up with the idea of making Hook sympathetic!) Lots of readers have mentioned that they envisioned the OUaT Hook while reading my book, however, so I guess that's been helpful.

  3. Very interesting interview. Love the discussion of the relationship of Fantasy and HF genres.

    1. It's a fascinating subject, isn't it, how the genres share similarities and sometimes overlap. I'll have a guest author later on talking about this subject as well.

    2. This subject might make an interesting panel for the 2015 HNS conference in Denver.

    3. I agree. I'd attend that one.

  4. Great interview. The author defiantly answer all of the question in a well thought out manner.