Interview with Leife Shallcross (THE BEAST’S HEART)
Leife Shallcross’s first novel, The Beast’s Heart, a “luxuriously magical retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale”, will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in May 2018. She is also the author of several short stories, including Pretty Jennie Greenteeth, which won the 2016 Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Short Story. Leife has a bit of a thing for fairy tales, and is particularly inspired by those characters that tend to fall into the cracks of the usual stories. She can be found online at leifeshallcross.com and on Twitter @leioss.
Hi Leife, welcome to the Hive.
Your debut The Beast’s Heart, is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, told from the Beast’s POV. What sparked your imagination to delve into this well known fairytale? Was this something you had always wanted to do?
Beauty & the Beast has always been one of my favourite fairy tales. The romantic in me loves the idea of these two people gradually getting to know one another and falling in love over the course of a year. But it also poses a bunch of really challenging questions that I wanted to untangle. The big one is about the character of the Beast himself, which is why I wanted to look at the story from his perspective. When you start with a person who has done something so terrible a fairy took it upon herself to lock him up in isolation for a century, how is it possible to then rehabilitate him into the romantic hero of the story? I always wondered What has he done? And how do you come back from that?
We’re known to ask difficult questions over on the Hive, so we must ask, what are your top three fairy tales? (Yes, you can only choose three!)
Argh, you monsters. So Beauty and the Beast, obviously. I’m going to say Cinderella as well (and a bunch of variations on that story, like Donkeyskin – am I allowed to do that?) because of its timeless themes about transformation and empowering the powerless. And secret identities. I am such a sucker for a secret identity.
And my third fave is a Norwegian fairy tale called Tatterhood. The main character is a princess who is a total troublemaker. She wears rags and rides a goat and beats up trolls with a wooden spoon, and the story is about her quest to help her sister (who is super princessy, but very sweet), when trolls swap her sister’s head with a cow’s head after attacking the castle. It doesn’t stop once she restores her sister’s head though, because they decide to go adventuring instead of going home.
You’ve certainly lucked out on cover design – your book is gorgeous! What did it feel like when you first saw your novel in a bookstore? What was your reaction?
I have been so blessed by the gods of cover art! I am not ashamed to say that when Hodder & Stoughton sent me the design for the UK edition (the blue one) I cried with joy. Authors don’t often get a lot of say in what their cover looks like, but I could not be happier. It is so close to exactly what I fantasised the cover would look like, but even more beautiful.
After that I was honestly a bit worried that the US edition would be a disappointment in comparison, but Berkley/Ace came up with something very different, but just as beautiful. It makes me think of Seventeenth Century embroidery, which is just perfect. Again, picture my little author heart just dissolving into glitter and tears of delight. I still get a thrill every time I see either of them.
So huge shout outs to my cover designers Daren Newman & Jo Myler (Hodder) and Lisa Perrin (Berkley/Ace). They’ve excelled themselves.
Where do you fall on the intense-planning / organic-plot-development scale?
I am definitely up the organic, make-it-up-as-you-go, just-jump-in-and-wing-it end of the spectrum, which is fun but can be frustrating when everything comes to a screeching halt because I’ve either run out of plot, or the bits I do have aren’t working. The only way out of these situations seems to be to grit my teeth and get into some proper hard core plotting and planning. But I’m not the kind of writer who can come up with a plot idea and just make it work. I think I’m like one of those mad mechanic types grabbing stuff and shoving it into place and yanking it back out and throwing it away when it doesn’t fit, until I find exactly the right widget. For me, planning exercises are really just more structured ways of coming up with the next plot epiphany I need to get the story working again. I am trying to get better at plotting things out, at least a bit, because I know I write better and faster when I actually know where I’m going with something.
Since this is our Women in SFF month, who were the women in SFF (or beyond) that influenced or inspired you? (Authors and/or characters!)
Oh, god, there are SO many.
The first book I picked up (probably when I was about 12) that really showed me fairy tales weren’t just simple stories for children, and really opened my eyes to how dark and delicious they could be was Tanith Lee’s Red As Blood; or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. Robin McKinley’s wonderful Beauty was the first novel-length fairy tale retelling I read and probably sowed a lot of the seeds that became The Beast’s Heart. Then as an older teenager I discovered the series of anthologies of retold/reimagined fairy tales produced by editors Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and that taught me that fairy tale retellings weren’t locked in amber, but are a living art form. That people were out there writing them now.
These days a lot of my favourite writers working serious magic with fairy tales are in Australia! Some of my personal faves are Angela Slatter, Kathleen Jennings, Kate Forsyth, Margo Lanagan, Tansy Rayner-Roberts and Angie Rega. If you’re into fairy tale illustration (which I am; huge source of inspiration), definitely check out Kathleen Jennings’ illustration work. And also look up Lorena Carrington, Spike Deane and Erin-Claire Barrow.
What are your favourite kind of female characters to both read and write?
And competent ones. I love a character who is really good at something, and not afraid to just do that thing, whether it’s sword fighting or research or embroidery. Possibly I have a bit of a competence kink, because characters who are just really skilled and confident make my toes curl. I think we’re very used to seeing male characters portrayed as competent, even if they don’t recognise it in themselves, but it is just so satisfying seeing a woman be competent and confident with it.
I think curiosity is often important in a story, as well. I like characters who go interesting places or end up in interesting (possibly disastrous) situations because they couldn’t curb their curiosity.
Lastly, I think my favourite characters all tend to be kind. It’s maybe not the most obvious characteristic, but it probably makes a difference between a character I think is cool and one I genuinely come to love.
What’s a good SFF book (written by a woman) you’ve read recently?
Oh wow, where do I start? So for SF, I’ve just finished the Murderbot series in audiobook by Martha Wells and they were great. I gave them to my 18 year old daughter and she’s literally on her 4th read through in about a month, so they were a hit with her, too. For fantasy, I’m about to dive into the last installment of K A Doore’s The Unconquered City, which is the final book of her Chronicles of Ghadid trilogy. That’s a fantastically immersive series full of assassins and necromancers and djinn and magic and politics.
If you could co-write or co-create a series, which author would you choose to work with and why?
It is absolutely an ambition of mine to try a collaboration at some point! I had great fun in my 20s collaborating with friends to come up with RPG stories, and I’ve been involved with a couple of collaborative story-telling events with my local writers group. I find that kind of team brainstorming environment a lot of fun. I’d really like to work with a graphic artist or illustrator on a graphic novel, for example. My daughter (an exceptionally talented artist – and I know I have to say that because I’m her mum, but she is, really) and I have bounced around a few ideas for a web comic that we might pull together one day. It’s about a boy who really likes magic and gets signed up for knight school and a girl who really likes swords who gets signed up for magic school and the inevitable shenanigans that thence ensue.
That sounds like an excellent story idea!
What piece of advice have you found the most useful during the process of writing?
It almost goes without saying, but write what you love. I spent so long waiting to grow up and start writing “real” stories, I was well into my thirties before I realised that wasn’t going to happen and all I wanted to do was write about magic and curses and nasty fairies and secrets. And kissing. ☺ (Which are all “real” stories, for your information Past Leife *frowny face*)
I offer one bonus piece of advice, though: if you are into writing, find your writing tribe. Writing can be such a lonely art form, and the art part of it is just the beginning. It’s also an industry, and learning about how that works is literally just as important as crafting beautiful words (and a whole lot harder). I’ve been very lucky and fallen into friendships with some really wonderful writers who’ve mentored me and supported me in all sorts of ways (critique, plot-doctoring, career advice, whisky, having a familiar face to glom to at a convention). I would have been lost without my tribe.
What do you most love to do, other than writing?
Well, reading is a big one. My TBR pile is a disaster, though [whose isn’t], and if there’s an earthquake it may collapse and kill me. I also love cooking. I think my Instagram is about 70% delicious food. But lately I’ve been completely geeking out over the She-Ra reboot and the C-drama The Untamed. So sometimes TV steals my brain. In my defence, it’s all about great stories and compelling characters. And witty repartee. So, you know. It’s professional development or research or something.
What can readers expect to see from you next, Leife? What future projects are you working on? Can we expect more fairy-tale retellings?
Yes, you can! I don’t think I’ll ever stop trying to re-tell or reimagine fairy tales. At the moment I’m working on a reimagining of Cinderella. In this story she’s faked her father’s death to try and get him out of his disastrous marriage to her horrible stepmother and ends up entangled in a plot against the crown.
I’m also in the early stages of a series set in London in the middle of the 18th Century with angels and demons and murder and dissolute viscounts and runaway heiresses disguised as boys. I think of it as my queered-up Georgette Heyer fanfic project.
Lastly, and of course we save the most important question for last! What is your favourite fantastical creature? Which would you ride into battle on?
Well, my favourite fantastical creature is a unicorn. As a kid I was obsessed with the animated movie of Peter S Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. But the unicorn in that story is quite a fierce and delicate creature, so I’m not sure she’d take kindly to being ridden.
And I really like Jackalopes as well, but again, not super practical for riding into battle. Unless, maybe you’re a teeny pixie riding into a fairy war.
Kraken are cool. I could ride a kraken into a sea battle?
You’d need to talk to Tasha Suri about the kraken fleet.
Thank you so much, Leife!