Libba Bray had a tumultuous childhood, growing up in Texas after her parents moved there when she was three. Her father was a Presbyterian minister, who was also gay, and her mother a high school teacher. Starting when she was fourteen, Bray helped her family cover up her father’s homosexuality because they were afraid of him losing his job. It was the thing they didn’t talk about: a secret.
Bray lost her eye when she was in a serious car accident at age eighteen, and during the next six years, she went through thirteen surgeries to repair her face. She went through a terrible depression during this time, but writing was her lifeboat. “It literally saved my life,” she says.
She’s been writing and reading horror for as long as she can remember. Her first horror story was written in fifth grade. “It was a graphic novel/horror comic–style tale, which included colored pencil illustrations of buxom, semi-clad women being ravaged by vampires. No one was alarmed. In fact, I think I got an A,” says Bray. And Bray says that some of her favorite books when she was growing up were Helter Skelter and Catcher in the Rye, which she calls “the preferred tome of serial killers and dysfunctional stalkers…” But “Salem’s Lot is the book I have reread above all others.”
It’s two young adult series that combine horror, historical fiction, and fantasy, which have made Bray’s reputation. There’s the Gemma Doyle trilogy, which she has already completed, and The Diviners, where she’s published two of the intended four-book series. She also has two stand-alone YA novels, as well as others that she ghostwrote while under contract with the book packager 17th Street Productions.
Writing YA literature was an easy choice for Bray to make. She married children’s book agent Barry Goldblatt, and he encouraged her while she was writing her first solo novel. When asked how she feels about young adult lit, Bray says, “I just read this great quote by Junot Diaz, he was talking about true intimacy, and he was saying that it was the willingness to be vulnerable and to be found out. That’s what I felt that YA did. It wasn’t pretentious, and it wasn’t hiding its heart. It wanted to be found out…”
When it comes to genre, Bray says, “Horror has always been my genre of choice. The creepy, the spooky, the phantasmagorical—all catnip to me. Summers when I visited my superstitious, Pennsylvania Dutch great-grandmother, she would regale me with ghost stories about my great-great-great-grandmother, an undertaker’s wife and psychic who could, allegedly, see and speak to the dead. Then she’d send me to sleep in the attic. This is why I have issues.”
Bray says she was inspired to create the Gemma Doyle series (A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet and Far Thing) because “I wanted to write a gothic creepfest of a Victorian story with a heroine who could kick butt and take names all in a crinoline and corset—sort of Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Henry James and Charlotte Brontë.”
Now Bray’s immersed in her four-book series The Diviners, which she describes as a “supernatural historical series set in 1920s New York City. It’s taking me back to my love of horror and sprawling, historical dramas. By that I mean that when I realized my historical story was becoming a sprawling mess, I felt a sense of true horror. It is filled with all of the things I love: creepy things, politics, history, serial storytelling, New York City, and good versus evil.”
Bray’s writing process is often long and painful, and sometimes she ends up scrapping half of what she’s written. “When I’m working on a rough draft, I usually write most of it longhand in a spiral notebook. I go to my favorite coffeehouse across the street, the one where the college kid baristas play these multiple-personality music mixes that range from old Dusty Springfield to the Grateful Dead to electronica. There’s something comforting and stimulating about being surrounded by people but being in my own head at the same time. If I get stuck, I can people watch for a bit, and that usually sparks something,” says Bray.
But she stumbled when writing her follow-up to The Diviners, Lair of Dreams. “One of the wonderful parts of writing a series is that you really get to immerse yourself in the world you’re creating. You get to spend a great deal of time digging into your characters, getting to know their wounds and strengths, reaching greater understanding over time. As someone who really enjoys the serial as a form, this is terribly exciting and addictive,” says Bray.
“The negative aspect is that series, by their very nature, require stringent scheduling. Anyone who has ever waited five years for the next installment of a beloved series can understand how that feels. But sometimes, the novel isn’t cooperative with your time frame. And then the panic starts.”
Eventually Bray found a way through Lair of Dreams, but it took a lot of heartache. “I asked two of my good writer buddies, writers I trust implicitly, to read the first three hundred pages. As delicately, but honestly, as possible, they confirmed what I felt in my gut: The novel was a stone-cold mess…,” says Bray.
“I tried organizing scenes on note cards.
“I wrote out emotional arcs on paper.
“I tried writing scenes that come later in the book, hoping that the deeper emotional wounds of those scenes would lead me in a circuitous route back to what was wrong with the first three hundred pages.
“When that didn’t work, I went back to the beginning and wrote my sixth new opening chapter, carefully crafting it to set up the reworked plot so that it could segue seamlessly into the new, restructured second chapter, which had previously been the tenth chapter.”
Lair of Dreams was finally ready after Bray wrote a seventh new opening chapter, and she’s now hard at work on the third novel in the series.