Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Summer Blog Blast Tour with Lisa Mantchev

Today, I'm lucky to be chatting with Lisa Mantchev, the author of Eyes Like Stars and the forthcoming novel, Perchance to Dream, both set in the world of the Théâtre Illuminata, a magical theatre inside which dwell all the characters of all the plays ever written. I am madly in love with the characters in these novels, as you can tell from last year's review of Eyes Like Stars and my recent review of Perchance to Dream, on which I jumped the gun a wee bit, since the actual release date of Perchance to Dream is Tuesday, May 25th. Those of you who like contests or cupcakes (or contests involving cupcakes - and you know who you are!) will want to head over to Lisa's blog, where she is running "The Great Cupcakeathon", a fun contest involving fabulous prizes to celebrate the upcoming release of Perchance to Dream.

1. Which came first, the Théâtre Illuminata or Beatrice Shakespeare Smith?

Bertie traipsed in first... it all started with her full name, and the line about the fairies flying around her on wires. I think I was somewhere in the vicinity of my dining room table at the time, working on a (different) short story project.

2. Your first novel, Eyes Like Stars, is one of those that seems a bit difficult to assign to a particular box. Do you consider it fantasy? steampunk? a mystery? adventure? romance? Does it matter that it can't be easily labeled? Was your mixture of all those things and more (including theatre references in general and Shakespeare in particular) a goal when you started, or something that evolved as you went along?

Looking back at my short fiction, I think ELS continues with my signature mixture of fantasy, magic realism, whimsy and--always--elaborate costuming. Certainly there are elements of a mystery (the identity of Bertie's mother) and romance (the love triangle between Bertie and the boys) but I never set out to make conscious decisions about such things. Maybe I should... it might save me some rewriting later on.

As for the theater and Shakespeare angle, I think when I sat down to write My First Novel, I knew in the back of my mind that the adage about writing what you know would hold particularly true when jumping from short to long fiction. An incredible amount of research goes into any novel... the more I knew without resorting to Google on that first book, the better!

3. So, as a follow-up to that answer, tell me a bit about your own theatre background.

I started doing community theater when I was seven... we got a call from one of the other parents at my school, who directed the local musicals, asking my mom if she'd bring me down to the theater to audition for South Pacific. She left a half-crimped pie crust on the kitchen counter to take me (hence the acknowledgment in ELS!)

After that, I did shows like Peter Pan and Beauty & The Beast, performed in The Nutcracker with my ballet class, and started auditioning for non-musicals with the local playhouse. I started writing scripts for school plays in the fourth grade, directed and produced one of my full-length scripts when I was sixteen, then got a scholarship to study Drama at the University of CA, Irvine.

During college, I spent a lot of time focused on the technical aspects of the productions (which is what happens when nerves get the best of you and you don't get cast in shows!) and my senior year I started writing plays again. I did one more community theater production after we moved to Washington state, then transitioned completely to fiction writing.

4. The second book, Perchance to Dream, remains equally difficult to label. It follows the adventures of Bertie, Ariel, and the four fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream on their quest to rescue Nate from the Sea Goddess. Just as the Théâtre seems to collect characters from all the plays ever written, your stories seem to collect characters from many cultures. My meager knowledge of German tells me that the character Waschbär is named after the German word for "raccoon". The Sea Queen, Sedna, comes from a Native American legend (specifically, from the Inuit people). The Scrimshander is a character whose name comes from the term for people who make scrimshaw (particularly meaningful, given what Bertie wears around her neck); but his characteristics are those of a birdman, which could be drawn from any number of culture's myths and legends.

Was the inclusion of characters from so many different ethnic or cultural backgrounds an intentional choice from the start, or something that evolved as you wrote?


A little of both. With ELS, I wanted to strengthen and deepen the character of the Sea Witch (from The Little Mermaid) by also making her Sedna, the Sea Goddess of Inuit legend. Various incarnations of her story are told throughout the Arctic circle, but I chose to focus on the version in which she—as a young princess—fell in love with and ran away to be with a fulmar, a bird. Then the medallion that Nate gave Bertie (previously drafted as a gold disk) became a piece of scrimshaw... so appropriate, as they were often carved by sailors during their months at sea, and also an art form I'd read online that Native Americans such as the Inuits were carving as early as 100 to 200 AD.

Waschbär is indeed my raccoon-man character and this came about when I was researching the various totem animals in Native American legends. Raccoons are wily and mischievous, and their masks conceal many secrets. I went hunting through various languages for a name that meant "raccoon" because I adore giving characters names that have a particular meaning and ended up in Germany... fitting because I'd studied the playwrights Brecht and Goethe extensively in college.

There's also the Innamorati circus troupe to consider, if we're speaking about international influences... they are most certainly an amalgam of the Italian commedia dell'arte tradition and the French-Canadian Cirque du Soleil.

I guess the short answer is: the more cultures, the merrier.

5. The leading men in the books are interesting choices: Why Ariel from The Tempest? And why Nate from The Little Mermaid? Did your choice of men representing the elements of air and water have anything to do with Bertie's own elemental composition or parentage (about which I will say no more just now)?

Ariel was most certainly a deliberate choice, due to the character's innate desire for freedom. It was intriguing also because the character doesn't have a identified gender in the original manuscript (Shakespeare only calls Ariel "an airy spirit" in the text) and it gave me quite a lot of leeway to turn him into who/what I wanted him to be... little did I realize I would find him nearly as exasperating as Bertie, because his voice is incredibly difficult for me to write.

As for making Nate a pirate... He showed up with that accent and his earring and his boots, and I was also having far too much fun typing him up to rewrite him as someone else!

Their elemental representations were not deliberate; by the second book, I spent a lot of time boggling how many puzzle pieces fit together by luck and happenstance (or my brilliant hindbrain. :P)

6. Beatrice Shakespeare Smith is quite an interesting character. I particularly admire how both books have been (in different ways) about Beatrice's struggle to learn her identity, which continues to evolve. In Eyes Like Stars, she learns the identity of her birth mother; in Perchance to Dream, the identity of her birth father, but it's clear that neither of those things completely define Beatrice. In Eyes Like Stars, Bertie comes to realize that she has her own magical power, which she attempts to define and control in Perchance to Dream with somewhat mixed results. In the second book in particular, there's a third level of personal exploration, however, involving Bertie struggling to find out who she is on her own, leading men be damned. (Boy, do I love that, by the by! It's a refreshing change from those YA fantasy books in which a female main character struggles to define herself only in reference to a particular boy – and yes, I'm talking about the Twilight series here, although it's not alone in doing that.)

Um, I know I have a question here – I started to run afield into fangirlness, didn't I? Ah – the question: Is your decision to establish Bertie as her own person, separate and apart from anyone else, in any way a reaction to those books where the heroine seems to "lose" herself in a relationship? Why or why not? (Man, Lis, this is kind of a crap question – I really want to figure out, though, whether feminism is in play here, and to what extent. Can you save me from my own inept question with a terrific answer?)


[[I totally get the question here... maybe you want to just start with "Is feminism in play with your novels" or somesuch and then explain a little about how it's mostly Bertie's story?]]

I think I did have a gut reaction to a few other books (and movies, and magazines, and TV shows, and commercials!) on the market, as a writer and as a woman and as a mother of a young girl. About mid-way through writing the first book, it became more important to me that Bertie make her own decisions--even if they have unexpected or negative outcomes--and that her definition of self did not entirely rely on her relationships with others. She's in a unique position to do that, actually, with the utter lack of blood family about her and a rebellious streak that means she's willing and able to test those around her on a near-constant basis.

Upon reflection, I thought about myself at that age, and what my daughter might be like at that age, and handed Bertie as much courage and stubbornness and sense-of-self as I could, then expressed it through Mrs. Edith's line about naming Bertie after Much Ado About Nothing's Beatrice:

"...of all Shakespeare's heroines, she best speaks her mind and is put upon by no one. Perhaps the name will gift that strength of spirit upon you."
7. Thus far, what I know about the final book in the trilogy is that we will again see Bertie, the fairies, Ariel and Nate, and that there is a turtle somewhere in the book. What, if anything, else can you tell us about the third book in the Théâtre Illuminata series?

A turtle?! *wonders what I've said on LiveJournal or Twitter to allude to such a thing* I do have a random turtle, but he's currently wandering through my steampunk novel, trying to decide if he's going to stay put or not.

Let's see... I'm currently revising the third book, which is tentatively titled So Silver Bright. It's the first title of the series not pulled from Hamlet. This one is from King John.

King John? Does anyone actually read that play?

I sure as heck didn't. I used an online search function to find a three-word Shakespearean quote with "silver" in it. (Other search words for Book 3 included "mirror" and "glass"...)

Their armours, that march'd hence so silver-bright,
Hither return all gilt with Frenchmen's blood.
Sounds really ominous, no? There's more Bertie needs to cope with, as far as her parents go, a recurring theme of masks, revisiting some of the Alice in Wonderland imagery, and a punch-you-in-the-guts ending, if I do it correctly.

8. In addition to the Théâtre Illuminata series, you've written quite a lot of published short stories for the grown-up market. Do you have a favorite among them? What advice do you have for aspiring short story writers? Do you foresee writing short stories for the YA market?

I think one of my absolute favorites is called "The Girl With Blueberry Eyes", which was published some time ago in Fantasy Magazine, and which I would dearly love to turn into a picture book. And I would love to write some short fiction for the YA market, although most of what I see published in that format is in invitation-only anthologies.

My best advice for ANY kind of writer is that you need to treat it like a job... put in the hours, behave professionally online and at conferences and conventions, try to learn a new bit of craft or technique with every new project you undertake. Read everything that's out there, in your genre and out.

9. What's next?

I have my contract for the three theater books, and I'm currently percolating a Tiny Doom (baby) who is due in August, which seems like more than enough on my plate at the moment. I also have a YA alt-history Retrofuturist NeoVictorian novel beckoning to me from the wings!

Speed Round:

Cheese or chocolate?
I'm pregnant, I get both! You can't force me to choose!

Coffee or tea (if you weren't carrying a Tiny Doom just now)? Nine times out of ten, coffee, although I just got a lovely tin of Mango Ceylon for Mother's Day.

Cats or dogs? We have inside dogs and outside cats. Also an inside rabbit and an inside fish. [KRF: Whimsy, Lisa's Very Fuzzy Bunny is pictured to the right]

Favorite color? To wear: black. To decorate with: blue or brown. Hair dye: burgundy!

Favorite snack food? Crunchy nibbles like popcorn or crackers, unless you're offering me a personal chef, then I want hot canapés that ooze cheese and raspberry compote, or somesuch.

Favorite ice cream? Homemade vanilla (cranked out on the porch at my Grandma's house, preferably.)

Water or soda? I'm supposed to say water, aren't I???

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? Absolutely nothing... I've needed a lot of quiet lately.

What's the last movie you memorized lines from? I was actually repeating quotable bits from the new season of Doctor Who. "You're not scared of anything! Box falls out of the sky, man falls out of a box, man eats fish custard, and look at you!" and "You're Scottish, fry something!" and "Beans are evil. Bad, bad beans."

Other stops on the SBBT:

Matthew Reinhart, pop-up architect extraordinaire, at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Jenny Boylan, author of Falcon Quinn and the Black Mirror at Fuse #8

Tara Kelly, author of Harmonic Feedback, at Shaken & Stirred

Donna Freitas, author of This Gorgeous Game, at Bildungsroman

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