Shivers and Sighs Week: Interview: Leanna Renee Hieber

Leanna Renee Hieber is an author of paranormal romances, with an interest in historical fiction. Her Strangely Beautiful Gothic Victorian series has won two 2010 Prism Awards for Best Fantasy Romance and Best First Book. Her Magic Most Foul series, set in New York City in the year 1880, debuts this year.

IFP: What attracts you to historical fiction?

LRH: Growing up in rural Ohio, feeling a bit displaced in time and sensibility – my obsession with the Victorian Era has long been with me. My first love affair with the age was performing in a production of Oliver in grade school. I was an immediate Dickensian devotee. Then I discovered Poe, the Brontes, Wharton, Collins, Hugo, Austen, all the Victorian poets, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and all the artists (I could go on for days)…It was like I’d come home; they spoke to me as kindred spirits, breathed into my soul and cracked open my imagination. The richness of 19th century language and the fascinating counterpoints of the era held me in thrall; intensely romantic yet stoic and difficult. The complexities and dichotomies of the Victorian psyche remain irresistible. I felt I understood something of the era on a soulful level.

Writing historical fiction was simply something I’d always done, like anyone would pursue a hobby or sport. I was around the age of twelve when, in the questionable throes of prepubescent wisdom, I first sat down and decided to write a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, set in 1888. I tinkered with that for a good decade before I realized that was a terrible idea, and an even worse novel, and burned the entire manuscript in a fireplace in a fit of pique. It seemed a very Victorian thing to do. Not long after, I was seized with inspiration that would become my debut novel, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker. Since I’ve been writing about that historical epoch for over half my life, I’m not quite sure what I’d do without it.

IFP: What kind of research do you perform for your books?

LRH: I started my professional career, not as a writer but as a classically trained actress, so the bulk of my professional career, both in novel writing and in acting, has been spent steeped in historical context. In college, I made sure the 19th century was one of my focus studies, which gave me a chance to do real academic exploration on the subject. I traveled to London on scholarship and returned on research. While in London, I knew I had to incorporate the Jack the Ripper story into Strangely Beautiful and it fit like a puzzle piece into the storyline. The fact that I began adapting works of 19th century literature for the stage was a huge stepping stone in making me comfortable with the language and vernacular.

Per specific research, I do have a library of Victorian resources that I refer to often, but I rely heavily on my background and then on all my fantastical inventions that are set apart from the ‘realistic’ time period. My favourite part of the research has been the ghosts. Nearly all the ghosts in my Strangely Beautiful novels are real, documented London haunts. For the background on the ghost stories, you can visit the Haunted London Blog Tour page on my website, I’ll be launching the third annual tour this May for my next release.

IFP: How did you get your big break? Did you obtain an agent first?

LRH: The journey from idea to the shelf was about a nine-year journey. I queried many agents and editors, and got many lovely rejection letters saying that they found my book intriguing, but that they didn’t know where to shelve it, as it’s a very cross-genre book. Some of the editors and agents gave me feedback, which was very helpful. When I arrived in New York City, unsure about whether I wanted to pursue theatre or publishing more, I started networking in writers’ organizations like RWA (Romance Writers of America). They helped point me towards agents and editors, and through their help, I was able to find both. I did end up with an agent, first, and he helped negotiate the deal with my first editor I ended up meeting at book parties in New York.

The trick was finding both an agent and an editor who weren’t afraid of the fact that I write Gothic Victorian Fantasy/Paranormal Romance with light Horror and with Young Adult crossover appeal. That’s a lot of adjectives. But they’re good at keeping me in line, making sure that, while I might write across many genres, my books are structurally solid and cohesive despite their disparate elements. For both my agent and my first editor, I had to revise and resubmit my work before they signed me. In the end, you just need to find the right team who gets what you’re trying to do and can help you do it better.

IFP: What is the hardest part about writing a series?

LRH: Discerning what conventions to use and when, in order to keep the balance between the deeply human elements of my story and when the moment calls for something huge and paranormally fantastical. My Strangely Beautiful series has so many characters that I’ll get lost having field days with any of my side characters and their rich emotional lives. But I have to make sure every moment is serving the greater story arc and is balanced appropriately with the supernatural content. I also think knowing the character and distinct tone of each book, each unique within the umbrella of the series, is something you can’t exactly know until you’re in it. I know generally where I’m going with a book when I sit down to write it, but never exactly sure how I’m going to get there. It feels, at the end, like magic must have happened during the process, because I’m not a meticulous plotter or structural author. The characters and the atmosphere of the novel tell me where its going. I’m just along for the ride.

IFP: Have you always been interested in paranormal romances?

LRH: Yes, separately and together. I’ve always been interested in the paranormal and the fantastical. Some of my fondest memories are of making up ghost stories to terrify my friends. And I’ve always loved a sweet romantic tale. I was never a category romance reader where the romance is the only focus. Instead, I yearned for stories driven by a huge epic tale, with a love story at the core. I thought if I could just blend the Bronte sisters with Edgar Allan Poe and a healthy dose of Tolkien, I’d have the perfect novel.

And on the paranormal historical front, there’s nothing better than a Victorian ghost story. The Victorians perfected that art, so for me, the paranormal was always tied to my favourite era, which was also a very romantic and elegant era. All my favourite things in one. I simply can’t seem to write a book without something supernatural occurring.

IFP: We are here for Valentine’s Day. So, let’s talk about love. What makes a good romantic lead?

LRH: Well, I write Gothic novels. So, I like my heroes intense, dark, tortured, foreboding, commanding, and generally delicious for all their icy façade, betraying a burning, passionate interior. Just like Anne Shirley said in Anne of Green Gables, that she wouldn’t marry anyone who actually was wicked, but that could be wicked and wouldn’t. And yet, I also like for my characters to have a sense of themselves and forces that chafe against these oft-stereotypical traits. For example, in the Strangely Beautiful books, my Guard of spectral police endlessly tease my hero, Alexi, about his brooding, stormy ways, never giving him credit for his own quirky sense of humour. And I think he’s all the more fun and delicious because of these things. My heroine sure thinks so. I think good romantic heroes and heroines compliment each other in ways that no other character could. We see the two people we most root for in a story discover things in each other that are, in the best cases, surprising and lovely.

I also like leads outside the norm, persons struggling with more than the average human load. My heroine of the Strangely Beautiful series -Miss Percy Parker – for example, is entirely without colour: colourless hair, skin, eyes. For all Victorian purposes, she’s a freak. We love Alexi all the more for being able to rally her, encourage her and find her utterly breathtaking. My heroine in my upcoming Magic Most Foul series suffers from Selective Mutism, and would certainly also be considered an ‘unfortunate’, though Natalie’s indomitable spirit shines through. When these women of adversity, with unique strengths and gifts in their own respective right, come into their own and fall in love with their dashing heroes who each bring out the best in each other, it’s all the more exciting for being so much more hardfought.

IFP: Favourite romantic heroes? Any genre. Spill the beans.

LRH: John Thornton in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South. Rochester in Jane Eyre. Every Jane Austen hero that ever was, but yes, particularly Mr. Darcy. Dr. Kreizler in Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and Angel of Darkness. Edward Scissorhands. Lucien from the Underworld films. And last, but never least, Severus Snape.

IFP: What is your dream project?

LRH: Well, to my shock, good fortune and gift from God, I’m kind of working on it now: a musical adaptation of my novel that, if all goes to plan, will eventually mount on Broadway. Earlier last year, a production company, including creative talents that work on Memphis and Wicked (both Tony Award winning shows), among others, approached me with an option agreement for The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker.

If you’d have told that 12-year-old me, a girl obsessed with The Phantom of the Opera, that someday, she’d be working on her own show of her own novel, she wouldn’t have been able to contain herself. And I’m still a giddy girl about it, despite the fact that there are a million steps (and dollars) between drafting up a show and it hitting the stage. A first draft of the script including musical numbers has been put together, we’ll have readings and workshop pieces of the show this year, and the full production would likely workshop outside of New York first. Let’s just say it’s been a thrilling ride so far, no matter what may happen.

IFP: What are you working on right now?

LRH: The script for said musical; the last edits for the next Strangely Beautiful novel; a prequel releasing May 2, called The Perilous Prophecy of Guard and Goddess, full of ghosts and Mythology set in mid-Victorian Cairo and London; and editing my new Young Adult series Magic Most Foul, for November release. Both my series, while told in very different formats, have my binding Gothic Victorian Fantasy voice and are good crossover novels for both adults and teens.

IFP: Anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

LRH: I have a very exciting year of new releases and reissues, so I hope you’ll check in with me for updates, either on Twitter @LeannaRenee, or Facebook, follow my blog: http://leannareneebooks.blogspot.com, or check in at my website: http://leannareneehieber.com, which lists all current and upcoming releases, as well as links to my events and conferences around the country. Cheers, I hope you’ll come along on my eerie, Gothic Victorian adventures…Strangely Beautiful Blessings and have a very happy Valentine’s Day!

Bio: Award-winning, bestselling author, actress and playwright Leanna Renee Hieber graduated with a BFA in Theatre, a focus in the Victorian Era and a scholarship to study in London. Her novella Dark Nest won the 2009 Prism Award for excellence in Futuristic, Fantasy or Paranormal Romance. The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, first in the Strangely Beautiful quartet of novels, hit Barnes & Noble’s bestseller lists, won 2010 Prism Awards for Best Fantasy and Best First Book and the rights have been sold for adaptation into a musical theatre production currently in progress. In addition to new Strangely Beautiful releases, a new Paranormal series set in 1880s New York City begins 11/11 from Sourcebooks Teen Fire. A member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Romance Writers of America and International Thriller Writers, she’s thrilled to be RWA NYC’s 2010 Author of the Year. A member of actors unions AEA, SAG and AFTRA, Leanna works often in film and television. When not writing or on set, she’s a devotee of ghost stories and Goth clubs, adventuring about NYC, where she resides with her real-life hero and beloved rescued lab rabbit Persebunny.

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IFPShivers and Sighs Week: Interview: Leanna Renee Hieber