Actress, playwright, and author Leanna Renee Hieber is the award-winning, bestselling author of Gothic Victorian Fantasy novels for adults and teens. Her Strangely Beautiful saga, beginning with The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, hit Barnes & Noble and Borders Bestseller lists and garnered numerous regional genre awards. This currently out-of-print series will reissue in revised editions from Tor/Forge in 2016 and is currently being adapted into a musical theatre production. Leanna’s Magic Most Foul saga began with Darker Still, an American Bookseller’s Association “Indie Next List” pick and a Scholastic Book Club “Highly Recommended” title. Her new Gaslamp Fantasy saga, The Eterna Files, begins early 2015 from Tor/Forge. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies such as Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, Willful Impropriety, The Mammoth Book of Gaslamp Romance and featured on Tor.com. She is a four time Prism Award winner for excellence in the genre of Fantasy Romance. Her books have been selected for national book club editions and translated into many languages. A proud member of performer unions Actors Equity and SAG-AFTRA, she lives in New York City and works in film and television on shows like Boardwalk Empire. She is also a ghost tour guide for Boroughs of the Dead, NYC.
Iulian: Dear Leanna, I am really glad for the opportunity to chat with you today! To start, tell us a little bit about your life and upbringing: where/how did you grow up, who/what influenced you the most? Did you have a yearbook quote and if yes, did you live up to it?
Leanna: Hello Iulian, I’m so thrilled to be here! I grew up in rural Southern Ohio, the daughter of two incredible parents, both diligent and hard-working teachers, and I was given free rein to follow whatever interested me provided I worked hard, and the arts called to me as soon as I could hold a pen, pencil or paintbrush. When I was exposed to Edgar Allan Poe in grade school I fell in love with his style, poetry, melancholy, and transcendent beauty. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another author more influential to my mind, soul and style than Poe, and every year I can read more layers and nuance in his genre-innovating work, and through him work out my own relationship to my intense and creative ‘dark side’. I fell in love with all the 19th Century Gothic novels, but I wanted in my own work to transcend the Gothic stereotypes of women as plot devices or victims only. That’s been a mission in my work since I first started tinkering with story-telling as a child, even if my mission at that time was hardly clear. I have been a writer and artist by Calling from an early age, I’ve lived fully into this as a mission and identity.
I indeed had a bunch of yearbook quotes as voted “Most Musical, Dramatic,” etc, and I’ve certainly followed those quotes with a full career in drama and the arts. My books are as theatrical in their scope as my time as a classical and Shakespearean actress. I don’t think anything about my quirky, dramatic, intense and hard-working self, young or adult, surprises anyone from any of my associations in the arts.
Your first novel, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, was published in 2009 and it became an instant hit. I’m always curious to learn how that first novel came to be. When did you get involved with writing and how did it feel to see your first work turn bestseller overnight?
I started my first novel around the age of eleven, (it was embarrassingly God-awful, essentially Phantom of the Opera fan-fic) and while that was not a legitimate work to polish and sell, it did train me to consistently be a writer, and I have been writing novels ever since. I started taking my books seriously while working at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, after having traveled to England my senior year of college. I was SO inspired by London, I had to write about it. The timing couldn’t have been worse to become overwhelmed with the need to write, however, as I was working very long hours, six days a week, on five plays at once. But sometimes in that crucible is precisely when you have to put pen to paper, and I obsessively did so. It took me the next several years whilst traveling around the country as a professional actress to finish the draft, and after that, more years to get it agented and sold.
My work was (and sometimes still is) so hard to place, as it was/is so cross-genre. I write with elements of traditional Gothic novels at the fore, then I mix in Fantasy/Paranormal, Mystery, Horror, Suspense, Young Adult, Romance. Thankfully the industry has opened up to cross-genre titles more in the last eight years or so, but placing Strangely Beautiful was so tough, we received lots of responses of “we love this but we don’t know where to shelve it” and so it took a long time (approximately nine years and over twenty two full revisions via critiques from industry professionals, including the man who would become my agent as well as who would become my editor) to finally sell to a small genre New York house called Dorchester which focused on mass-market paperbacks. Because they paid small advances they were willing to take chances on new authors and my heady cross-genre mix really appealed to my first editor, Chris Keeslar. With a launch at the sadly no longer extant Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble, the book did indeed do extremely well, hit Barnes & Noble’s and Borders Bestseller lists, garnered a lot of critical acclaim and awards, went into four printings and sold to several foreign countries all rather quickly. Similar situation with book two. That felt amazing, and I was really proud and grateful for all the fellow genre authors who had given me advice and connections along the way.
But before I could release the fourth and final book in the Strangely Beautiful saga, in a devastating turn, Dorchester went bankrupt and closed its doors, leaving us authors without rights or funds. I was able to work on another series while fighting to get rights back, The Magic Most Foul saga, but having my first three novels out of print and not generating royalties when I felt I’d just gotten started has been really rough and I’ve battled the emotional and financial fallout ever since. But things happen, the wonderful and the horrible, and one cannot let a difficult business dictate one’s work, you have to write anyway, and keep writing the next book no matter what happens. The industry is hardly fair or kind, it is wildly unpredictable, so one has to exist with that fear and frustration at an arm’s length. At the end of the day, one writes out of love for writing, pure and simple, everything else is just trappings and logistics. And on a joyful note, Strangely Beautiful is far from dead, it will resurrect like the Phoenix featured in its storyline next April, more about that later in the interview!
A lot of your work is inspired from the Victorian Era—what is your connection with that period? What draws you to it and how do you build your characters to fit?
Ever since I was a child I wanted to go “home” to the 19th century. I can’t explain it other than a past life/past lives. I turned that sense of familiarity and connection into direct fuel for my books. I garnered what amounted to a minor in the Victorian Era from college, (I graduated with a BFA in theatrical performance from Miami University) and spent a lot of my theatrical career working in period drama, living in history as best I could. My characters came from a swirling mix of literary and dramatic inspiration, with my desperate need to place women with more agency and determination to be their own people despite the repressive, limiting era, into these often harrowing Gothic circumstances. The Victorian Era was such a difficult, hypocritical and bipolar era, best exemplified by Jekyll and Hyde, and that tension within the Victorian psyche is rife and rich, a consciousness so fascinated by new machines and innovations and yet also terrified. Terrified about God as they “knew” God being called into question via Evolution, and misunderstandings of natural processes and physical phenomena. Their constant quest to understand life after death, in a rich death culture, is the perfect setting for ghost stories. For all the advances the society saw, there were still mass diseases and epidemics. The dichotomy of the age provides rich conflict in which to place my characters, none of whom are progressive beyond their time or anachronistic, but exemplars of the forward thinking men and women who did exist in this restrictive yet grand era. The era holds a complex, intricate fascination for me that has yet to exhaust itself (which is very good considering the next many books contracted in the era!).
You’ve been involved in theater for quite some time; you started with the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. How was that period for you and what did it mean? Did it have an influence on your writing and how you developed as an author?
Theatre and storytelling, on page or stage, has always been entwined in my experience, as I was always doing both with about the same amount of passion and focus. My work is very character and setting driven, and I’m sure that comes from my actor’s viewpoint; from living in and with the stories night after night on stage, especially classical theatre, it’s very all-encompassing and was such a rich creative environment. Due to the commitments of auditioning and stage work, that part of my life has now taken a back seat to my novels, however I remain a proud AEA and SAG-AFTRA member and do the occasional featured bit in a show or film. I am an author who relies heavily on my editor, who I consider the director of my book. I like the ‘team’ aspect of traditional publishing, working with the cast that puts together the show that is your book. I teach a very popular workshop called “Direct Your Book: Theatrical Techniques to a Blockbuster Novel” that breaks down the different viewpoints used in theatre and film that can be of huge benefit to fiction writers of any genre. I think every writer should try to have at least one other art or form of storytelling in which they dabble. With more than one way to consider storytelling, writers’ blocks and manuscript issues can benefit from different insights and perspectives. When writers can look at their stories in the most rich, multifaceted and problem-solving of ways, the story always benefits from more tools in one’s tool kit.
What are the best and worst parts of being an actor? How about a writer?
Acting best: Getting the chance to time travel and channel another soul by harnessing the timeless, raw power that is the artistic experience, and in doing so, help an audience feel deeply and transcend themselves and their limitations.
Acting worst: Opening yourself up to being vulnerable, exhausted, insecure and overwhelmed by the work and the task of doing the above as brilliantly as possible.
Writing: The exact same.
You come up with really cool, long, and complicated book titles. Is this something that just happened and then you went with it, or is there a specific formula behind it?
Well for that you can credit my agent, Nicholas R. Lewis, who felt that the long descriptive titles, of which I was in the forefront in the genre in 2008 when it sold, helped to mitigate the cross-genre issue by being more descriptive of the kind of book I write, more illustrative of the kind of lush storytelling I’m known for. Since then, my titles have been all over the map, many dictated by the publisher, but it was a distinctive way to start out a career and caught my first editor’s eye.
Let’s talk about The Eterna Files for a bit—your first publication with Tor Books. Give our readers a little hook about the universe here and what are your plans for it going forward.
Imagine two X-files like offices, one in New York, one in London, in the year 1882 and imagine them both tasked by the respective grieving widows at the head of each government, to be the first to find the cure for death. This proves to be as disastrous in body count as the bodies it is trying to protect. I’ve two rival teams, the American office headed by an enigmatic young sensitive named Clara Templeton, the British by stalwart, dogged detective and skeptic Harold Spire. Playing these teams against each other is an insidious third party tied to demonic entities. The series is a setting-rich and character-driven trilogy that will focus on the importance of personal fortitude and imaginative magic to fight truly horrific dark forces, all amidst a repressive society awakening to the ‘modern’ world.
The Strangely Beautiful saga is getting a makeover from Tor.com. How cool is that you were able to do that? Can you give us an idea as to where the series is going? As I understand, you are planning at least two more books to continue the story.
Yes! I’m so very blessed by this! Strangely Beautiful is the title for the omnibus edition containing books one and two in the series, in new editions, freshly edited, with brand new scenes and bonus content. These books are the ‘books of my heart’ and their being out of print has been devastating for me, so this second chance at their life, with the skilled hand of senior editor Melissa Singer at the helm, is a real dream come true. It’s a huge, rare opportunity for an author to “fix” a few things about their first works. These books are a whole new treat for new readers and old fans and I’m so thrilled to introduce and reintroduce these beloved characters. Book three in the series was published just before Dorchester’s collapse but will be reissued in 2017, with the fourth and final book in the saga which was never released to finally come out the following year, this has been a long awaited tale from a very loyal readership. I do hope everyone here will join me for this sweeping, lyrical saga about Victorian Ghost-busters infused with Greek Mythology in a rich Gothic setting.
Do you envision any of your books being made into a movie? If yes, which one and who would play your main characters?
Oh, goodness, that would be a dream come true. I’ve thoughts on all of them, and I’ve large casts so I’ll stick to the main few characters. I think Tom Hiddleston or Richard Armitage would be a magnificent Professor Rychman in Strangely Beautiful, and I’ve envisioned Martin Freeman as my stalwart and long-suffering Harold Spire in Eterna Files. For my female leads I see Eva Green (Penny Dreadful) as secondary lead Rebecca Thompson in Strangely Beautiful (she could also play several supporting roles in Eterna Files), but for both Strangely Beautiful and Eterna Files heroines, between Miss Percy Parker and Miss Clara Templeton, it’s so hard for me to pick an actress as I’ve always dreamed of playing them myself. *Grin*
In our issue #10, we’re including your story “Sea Found.” What’s the story behind the story?
This story was actually my first piece of published fiction, published by a boutique small press in 2008. I’d written several short tales trying to get a publishing credit, this was the first to gain any traction. I’m not a prolific short story writer, so I don’t have as many of them to my name as I’d like, but I’m thrilled this Twilight-Zone sort of tale is finding its way into the world again. I love nothing more than good ghost stories, especially those with twists or inversions of power dynamics. I’d been reading Lovecraft and Poe a lot before writing this story, (I hope that is evident) and this remains my only contemporary-set story to date. I’ve found I’m more comfortable writing in the past or future, but this one contemporary tale had to be told and I’m glad it slipped through my Victorian filters to icily creep its way into your world.
You are a young author who reached success pretty fast and I can see your career continuing on this upward path. What is your advice for the young writers of today who aspire to follow your steps?
Thank you for those kind words, and I’m always happy to offer encouragement as I received a lot of encouragement along my path. I had a dream of seeing my first New York-published book in my hand by age 30 and I was able to do just that, the Advanced Reader Copies arrived on my birthday, but that came after nearly ten years of revising and learning the industry. The key is to write, keep writing, write more, revise, and keep a close small circle of trusted critique partners who “get you” but won’t automatically praise everything you do. Don’t rush to self publish. If you can’t take criticism and revisions, get out of the business now as you are not a writer. Writers revise and are edited. Your desire to see your book or story out in the world has to be greater than your fear of rejection or a bad review. Embrace whatever your writing process is, as everyone’s process is as unique as a fingerprint, but do learn what your process is specifically so you can tend to it and write with regularity. More direct industry advice is on my website under the “Free Reads and Extras” page. Keep the faith, don’t be discouraged, write the stories only you can write, as there can never be enough stories in the world; it’s one of the primary reasons we have language.
What else can we expect from you over the next year and is there anything else you’d like to add? Can we find you at any conventions in the near future?
I’ll be hard at work on the next Eterna Files novels, book 2, titled Eterna and Omega, launches next fall, and I’ll be developing some additional tie-in material that will complement the saga, and I’ll be working hard on promoting the Strangely Beautiful reissue (April 2016, I hope you all will pre-order this dear work that’s been through so much, thanks! Http://tinyurl.com/strangely2bn ), as well as tending to my Etsy shop of Steampunk, Gothic and Neo-Victorian accessories which keeps me sane between book deadlines: Https://www.etsy.com/shop/torchandarrow
I attend lots of Northeast Steampunk Conventions, and I know for sure I’ll be a featured Guest at Anachrocon in Atlanta, at International Steam Symposium in Cincinnati, at Authors After Dark in Savannah, at Motor City Steam Con in Detroit, at DragonCon, and I hope to be at Steampunk World’s Fair and TempleCon in Rhode Island. Hope to see your readership there!
Please follow me on Twitter @Leannarenee, at facebook.com/lrhieber and of course all information about my books, art and appearances is at http://leannareneehieber.com
Leanna, thank you so much for this interview and all the best from FSM!
Thanks, FSM! I dearly appreciate this opportunity and I look forward to sharing more tales with you in the future!
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