Thursday, July 26, 2018

Interview with Lisa Jensen, author of the historical fairy-tale retelling Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge

Lisa Jensen, who I'd spoken with in 2014 about her historical fantasy Alias Hook, has returned to the literary scene with another new twist on a familiar story. The original fairy tale upon which Beast is based should be apparent from the title, but this isn't the familiar Beauty and the Beast story we all know; tweaking the perspective makes all the difference. Opening long before "Beauty" comes on the scene, Beast is seen through the eyes of a young chambermaid, Lucie. Soon after she comes to work at Ch√Ęteau Beaumont, home of the handsome chevalier Jean-Loup, a terrible event spurs her to take revenge — resulting in dramatic transformations involving Lucie, the cruel Jean-Loup, and a beautiful young woman named Rose. The story is set in early 17th-century Burgundy, France, and is geared toward mature YAs and up.  Please read on!

Your previous novel Alias Hook took a new look at the story of Peter Pan, while Beast reworks the traditional Beauty and the Beast fairy tale in new and creative ways. What appeals to you about recasting old stories in a different light?

It usually arises out of my dissatisfaction with the original, and my craving as an author to rewrite it! I always found Captain Hook far more interesting than Peter Pan, so in Alias Hook, I wanted to explore what it must be like for a grown man to be trapped eternally in a world run by beastly little boys.

In the same way, I always adored the Beast character in Beauty and the Beast. But the moment all thinking women dread is when the magnificent, noble Beast turns into a bland, boring handsome prince in the end. Beast does all the work of wooing Beauty. It's Beast she falls in love with. Why should the Prince get the girl?

I thought Beast, in all his soulfulness and sensitivity, deserved to be the hero in his own tale.

While Beast is set in France’s Burgundy region during the reign of “Henri Quatre,” it also successfully conveys the timeless nature of the fairy-tale realm. How and why did you choose the historical period?

Beauty-and-Beast tales (and many other so-called Animal Bridegroom tales) have been around at least since the Greeks. But this particular fairy tale is very French in origin. The first version to be written down was by a French authoress, Mme. de Villeneuve, and published in 1740. It was a bit long and rambling, but the essence of the story was there. A shorter, streamlined adaptation was published by another Frenchwoman, Mme. de Beaumont, in 1757. This is the version of the tale we recognize today.

I had spent some time in the Burgundy region of France, so that was the area I picked. I discovered that everything in rural France looks like a fairy tale, even today! And I decided to use the Henri Quatre period (short window though it was), ca. 1600, because I wanted my book to take place at least 100 years before those other published editions. I think of mine as the origin story from which all future versions of this tale might have evolved.

How did you research the historical setting and locale?

Backwards! I started out with the date, working backwards from the publication dates of those first two version of the story. Then I studied up on what was going on in France around that time. Eh, voila — Henri the Fourth, quite an interesting character in his own right. I decided that my Prince character, Jean-Loup, Chevalier de Beaumont, had earned his knighthood fighting with Henri, then the Prince of Navarre, against the Spanish invaders. And since I was already familiar with the villages and churches of Burgundy, that's where I chose to place the enchanted chateau.

Servants can make insightful narrators; they can observe everything around them while their behavior and feelings often go unobserved by people from the upper classes. At what point during the writing process did you realize that Lucie the chambermaid, rather than Beauty/Rose, had to be the heroine for the story you wanted to tell?

My idea was always to create a heroine worthy of Beast, another woman on the scene who had the sense to fall in love with Beast as he was. So it couldn't be the Beauty character, who is so willing to forget the Beast she says she loves and waltz off with the Prince, a complete stranger! And I always knew the story would be told from Lucie's viewpoint, my protagonist, as we watch her evolve from lowly servant into heroine.

In my story, Beauty (Rose) is more like the antagonist. When she comes to the chateau, the traditional fairy tale plot kicks in. Her appearance interrupts the relationship beginning to develop between Lucie and Beast, and when Lucie realizes Rose has the power to break the spell that created Beast — that Lucie might lose him forever — she'll do anything to try and stop it!

Not to give too much away, but some of the action is seen from the viewpoint of a candlestick. How easy/fun, or how complicated, was it to place her in locations where she could see what was happening?

It was a challenge, but it was also fun! This character narrates the story, in and out of human form, so I had to keep that voice consistently strong from page to page — even during the time the character is inanimate. And the sheer necessity of moving the character around to comment on the action led to some serendipitous moments — as when the silver candlestick is stolen, prompting Beast's enraged reaction! Why does Beast get so angry when the old man plucks a rose from his garden? Now we know!

What was the experience like in writing your first book for a younger audience?

Originally, I wrote this book for adults. I wanted some distance from the fairy tale we all think we remember from childhood, to create a new perspective, a new way of looking at the story. But, as it turned out, a YA editor fell in love with the book and bought it for Candlewick Press. We spent two years editing it to make it age-appropriate (my editor, the intrepid Kaylan Adair, is very thorough). But be warned: there are still so many ways my book is not the Disney Version!

Thanks very much, Lisa!

Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge was published this month in hardcover and ebook by Candlewick Press.

4 comments:

  1. I recently read and reviewed this one and thought it was so wonderful! I love her reason for keeping the Beast as is--I can't even say how disappointed I always was at the end of the Disney movie when he turned into a human. This entire interview was so fascinating, there were some wonderful questions. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks, Jordan, I'm happy you enjoyed the post. I'm not generally a fan of Disney movies - this version was much better!

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  2. I have recently read a new novel from the Beast’s viewpoint, The Beast’s Heart, by Leife Shallcross. It’s set somewhat later than this one, though the hero is fairly sure he has been a real beast out in the forest for about a century, and when he returns to his chateau magic creates updated clothes for him.

    I assume the candlestick in this book isn’t related to the one in the Disney version? :)

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    1. I haven't come across The Beast's Heart - sounds like an interesting take. The two candlesticks aren't the same or related, other than that they're both sentient and bright :)

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