Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Second Acts: Leanna Renee Hieber’s “Strangely Beautiful” Success Story

It is a truth universally acknowledged that many actresses feel the tug of the pen as well, turning to writing during, or instead of, their careers on stage or celluloid. Margaret Drabble forsook the boards of the Royal Shakespeare Company to become a novelist and memoirist of renown. Yours truly made the leap to novels after adapting 19th-century literature for the stage. And although he wasn’t an actress, of course, Henry Irving’s stage manager Bram Stoker took a stab at scribbling with Dracula.

And now, enter stage left with a flourish, Leanna Renee Hieber, with her long awaited debut novel The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, a blend of paranormal fantasy and gothic romance with a voice all its own.

It was Leanna’s writer’s voice that grabbed me from the start. That, and a strangely eerie set of coincidences: not only does it turn out that we have mutual friends, but we’ve had similar career trajectories: from striving actress with survival jobs in law firm temp hell to adapting 19th-century works from the page to the stage to ultimately joining the ranks of published authors in the ever-morphing sub-genres of Romance. So, this interview will be a bit different from some of the others Leanna has given, as it will focus on her journey to publication.

USA Today Bestselling author Kathryn Smith described The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker as “An ethereal, lyrical story that combines myth, spiritualism, and the gothic in lush prose and sweeping passion.”

What fortune awaited sweet, timid Percy Parker at Athens Academy? Hidden in the dark heart of Victorian London, the Romanesque school was dreadfully imposing, a veritable fortress, and little could Percy guess what lay inside. She had never met its powerful and mysterious Professor Alexi Rychman, knew nothing of the growing shadows, of the Ripper, and other supernatural terrors against which his coterie stood guard. She saw simply that she was different, haunted, with her snow white hair, pearlescent skin and uncanny gift. This arched stone doorway was a portal to a new life, to an education far from what could be at a convent—and it was an invitation to an intimate yet dangerous dance at the threshold of life and death. . . .

First of all, congratulations on a stellar debut!

Leanna: Thanks so much, Leslie! I’m very grateful for the opportunity; it’s been quite a wondrous ride!

Leanna, according to the bio at the back of the novel you’re a native of rural Ohio. How has that background shaped your career and your imagination?

Out in the middle of nowhere, there are gorgeous dark skies, intense colors, rich sounds of night, the shadows are long and deep, and there’s a keen and overwhelming sense of magic. And there are ghosts. I’ve always believed in spirits. This is how I think of my seminal surroundings. I was born with a wild imagination. Add that to an early and odd fixation with the 19th century, and these aspects remain inextricably tied. I’ve always been a night owl so midnight in the country means a great deal to me and remains my prime time to write, no matter where I am. My imagination thrives as much in nature as it does in a gothic cathedral.

My trajectory has been to find a place where that wildness meets the yearning sense of a city home I felt when I first went to London. I’m country and city mouse in one. I would immerse myself in Gothic novels set in brooding cityscapes or ancient castles and walk the woods to make sense of it, creating my own spin on 19th century tales. As for how this all shaped a career; I’ve more than a little bit of restlessness. I’ve a madcap energy that’s better suited in many ways for a city (cities are, after all, homes of theatre and publishing too), and so while I knew wouldn’t always live in the country, and while love New York, I always look forward to returning to Ohio as it means reconnecting to an old, primal, grounded magic- the place where my muses first took shape.

Although your novel is not exactly realism, did you bring any life experiences to the writing of it, particularly in terms of the characters you created? Is it a coincidence that the eponymous heroine, Percy Parker, has your pale, blonde beauty?

*blush* While I’d not flatter myself quite like that—and—Percy’s absolutely ghost-white skin is far paler than mine even—there is so much of ‘me’ in the book; in every character. I had to remove myself enough so that the characters make the choices they would make, distinctly, but I do feel an incredible kinship with them. I can’t say I’ve ever had the kind of connection to characters like I have with Percy and The Guard. It’s why I knew Percy’s story had to be the one to truly launch my fiction career. There are things in the book that Percy has an absolute, geeky, childishly pure passion about. She and I share those passions, and maintain that wondrous joy about them. There’s a drama about Percy and her situation that comes from being theatre-saturated in my youth and as a professional actress. It’s a very ‘me’ book, from my love-affair with the 19th century, Gothic and fantasy to my life-long love of ghost stories and Greek Mythology. It’s everything I love in one cross-genre series.

You say you began writing as soon as you were old enough to hold a pen: so what trajectory led you first to a career as a professional actress?

I had too much energy for one art, just about every type of art has had its hooks in me at one time or another. All that energy exploding into a mainly solitary form like writing just wasn’t working for the social creature that I am. For much of my life, my writing was absolutely private, a closely guarded secret, I thought people would think I was crazy for the obsessive, love-struck discipline I took to my early novels. I wrote easily for classes, but those were assignments- those were different. I wrote stories that were mine, my escape and favorite hobby, I didn’t dream of making a career of it, it was just something I did, something I’d always done. The theatre was public rather than private and I could let directors and teachers mess around with my theatre craft, it didn’t mean quite as much to me on a spiritual level, it was all fun and drama and took up most of my neon-bright energy, while my books were my secret, more intense passion that took up my daydreams and nightmares. But in the end, as the Bard would say “the truth will out”.

I feel like writing is my ‘long haul’ love and will be my most sustainable passion, though I’ll never entirely hang up my actress hat for good- besides, speaking actress to actress here, training and flair comes in extra handy for doing staged readings of your writing, doesn’t it?

Like many striving artists you worked more than few “survival jobs” along the way. Tell us a bit about them. Did any of your bosses or coworkers inspire some of your characters or otherwise influence your writing?

I’ve been a tour-guide, receptionist, paralegal, barista, teacher, errand runner, stage manager, office assistant, dunked repeatedly in a pond at a Renaissance Faire, a museum guide, a play-screener, a showcaser of all sorts of promotional items I myself couldn’t afford, etc.

My first piece of published writing was recounting my harrowing (and humourous) day inside a Pillsbury Dough Boy suit, trying hard to make rent while living as an actress in the Twin Cities (Dramatics Magazine, 2004). Ask any actor and they’ll give you tons of random jobs just like mine for a good laugh.

My connection to Dramatics Magazine came from a director of mine in the Twin Cities, where I’d gotten a theatre job and liked the city so much I decided to stay for a while. He noticed that every day after rehearsal I’d go bury myself in my novel (at this time the first drafts of Miss Percy Parker). He wasn’t connected on the book front but as he appreciated my diligence as a writer, he connected me to the magazine and then suggested venues to publish some short plays. Becoming a published writer in these smaller venues gave me a huge boost of confidence to continue. It didn’t, of course, open New York publishing doors for fiction, but it was the start of me taking myself seriously, because my director, my “boss” did. And I’m really grateful for the people who have helped and encouraged me along the way. As for the setting of Miss Parker and how that was influenced by my working environment, I’ll answer that next.

How and when did you begin to write The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker and what was the journey you took from premise to published?

I began the Strangely Beautiful series while working as a performance intern for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company my first year out of college, having graduated a BFA performance major with a focus in the Victorian Era. I worked very long hours at CSC, six days a week, several productions at once (all the Shakespeare references in the book were inevitable and fun). It was a wonderful backdrop, having the Bard in my head all day as I stole moments away from rehearsal or performance to flesh out this Victorian Gothic. Although Miss Parker couldn’t have had worse timing to breeze into my mind in some ghost-white vision, I was overworked to say the least – the energy of falling in love with the characters kept me going as if they were coffee mainlining my bloodstream.

The journey. Oy. Juggling the professional regional theatre circuit, I bounced around the country while working on many drafts of the manuscript. Because I was focusing on theatre foremost, the novel took slightly second place throughout the next several years, but once I got a lot of accolades on my short plays, I began to think of myself as much as a writer as an actress, and that felt right. I had been, after all, a writer before I ‘was’ anything else. While Strangely Beautiful was sitting places awaiting judgement I published a novella with a small-press, Crescent Moon Press, titled Dark Nest, which won the 2009 Prism Award for excellence in Fantasy/Futuristic/Paranormal Romance. This further shifted my career sense as I kept waiting to see what would happen with Strangely Beautiful, fingers crossed, anxious as could be.

The difficulty with the Strangely Beautiful series is that it’s a cross-genre series. It could sit on several different genre shelves and not be entirely wrong. It has been described in various places as any combination of the following: a Historical (Victorian) Gothic Fantasy Paranormal Romance with Suspense, light Horror and YA cross-over appeal. So while I received compliments from editors and agents on the ideas, style or characters, marketing departments had no idea what to do with it. But I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, make the series into any one of those genres alone. I just needed to have a tight, good book and the right house. And so it took me many rewrites and a publishing house like Dorchester, no stranger to cross-genre initiatives, to give me a chance. But I appreciate it all the more for the nearly nine year long haul from idea to the shelf.

Are you still acting? Have you discovered that you prefer writing to acting (and if so why)? Or have you found that practicing one artistic discipline feeds the other one?

I’m still active in the industry as much as I can be, especially to make ends meet, though I’ve taken myself off the audition circuit for the time being as it just isn’t where my heart is. I was at a Broadway call-back a few years back and all I could think about was my book, so that was a clarion call to my priorities. I remain a proud member of Actors Equity, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. I work often as a background extra for film and television and that’s a great, flexible job that’s perfect for a writer with downtime in which to do edits, write, etc (it feels so weird to call the entertainment industry my ‘day job’).

Everything I trained in theatrically, everything I used in putting on a show, utterly feeds into how I write. I put on the hats of Cinematographer, Director and Actor every time I sit down to write. I’ve begun teaching a workshop on using theatre techniques to further your book and it’s a great joy to knit my passions together.

The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker has been compared (and quite favorably!) to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and it’s easy to see why: your novel includes an unusual school whose teachers possess special powers, and you make generous use of unique symbolism and supernatural elements—although you have a very distinctive writer’s voice that is nothing at all like Rowling’s. Was . . . Percy Parker in any way influenced by the Harry Potter books?

Absolutely, I’m obsessed with Harry Potter. But like all of my obsessions, I take them into my heart and they inspire me to make something entirely of my own. But I credit Harry Potter to cracking open my imagination and transporting it to that same wild and furious place as when I started my first book so many years before. I was tossed anew into a fresh whirlwind of creativity, but this time, I had a long love of 19th century fiction to fall back on and fall into as my baseline, a better sense of craft, and added my love of fantasy and Myth on top. I suppose you could say HP is sort of a glaze, or frosting on all my cross-genre influences. J

Many authors, especially those who are also actresses, love to fantasize about their “dream cast” if their novel were to be made into a movie. Do you have such a dream cast? I have a feeling I know who you’d love to see play Alexi Rychman, but I want to hear you say it.

*giggle* I didn’t hide my dream hero in the least, did I? All right, I’ll say it again, Alan Rickman. (He’s hardly ever been given a lead hero, I felt it was my duty). The entire cadre of fine British actors and actresses have paraded around in my head as the Guard. But alas, by the time they were to make a movie the Guard would have to be younger than Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, etc. Alexi needs to be an intense stage/screen presence. So my vote currently goes to Richard Armitage. He’s got the right brood-factor to tenderness-capability ratio. If you don’t know who he is go out and buy the BBC’s North and South. Do it now! I’ve been a bit stuck on who could play Percy but then Emma Watson could do nicely, couldn’t she? Dakota Fanning? Someone who can do timid and awkward yet powerful when need be. But the chemistry has to be right between Percy and Alexi otherwise it’s all moot.

Did you have a specific location in mind for the Athens Academy? As I was reading the book I kept thinking of the Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury.

Indeed, the Bloomsbury area just felt right. Since I wasn’t basing Athens on a specific institution, I gave myself some liberty and had to imagine the area in Victorian times, and also give Athens a bit of mystery around its locale. (I do love the Russell Hotel and it factored into my consciousness—good call!) Every city I’ve ever lived in has had some sort of mansion or theatre in the Richardson Romanesque style (those beautiful, red-brick or red-sandstone, dramatic buildings—much like the Russell) that just takes my breath away and so that just had to be the setting—not to mention it fits with the neo-classical themes of the book. As much as I love Gothic architecture, the Richardson Romanesque style is very distinct and also distinguishes Athens from the clearly Gothic setting of Rowling’s Hogwarts.

What’s next, and when will it be published?

The Strangely Beautiful series continues with The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker (end of April 2010). It picks up exactly where the first book leaves off, with Percy and Alexi remaining in the focus and greater insight to the rest of The Guard. Prophecy was just the beginning; next it’s all-out spectral war. And the series continues again in October 2010—see below!

What are you writing now?

A Strangely Beautiful novella to be included in a Dorchester Fantasy Christmas anthology, October 2010, starring Headmistress Rebecca Thompson and Vicar Michael Carroll (the Guard make their inevitable appearances, of course). Miss Percy and resident spirits get a bit Dickensian with the unrequited couple. J I adore working on it.

Thank you, Leslie, for the opportunity to share my story with you, I very much appreciate your time and your thoughtful questions. I had such fun answering them. We can’t wait to have you as our guest at Lady Jane’s Salon in February!

* Lady Jane’s Salon was founded in late 2008 by the aforementioned founding authors and launched Feb. 2009 as NYC’s only reading series devoted to romance fiction.

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