Libba Bray Terrifies with YA Horror

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.



Victorian Girls Go Wild in A Great and Terrible Beauty

I got a Great and Terrible Beauty as a birthday book, but because of my reading backlog, I’ve just now finished it. Gemma Doyle is an English girl living in India when the book opens. She’s supposed to be celebrating her sixteenth birthday, but instead she’s bitterly wishing that she were in England, going to a boarding school and learning to be a proper Englishwoman. She gets her wish almost instantaneously when she has a vision of her mother being killed. After mother and daughter are separated in a busy Indian market street, Gemma’s mother dies tragically.

Gemma is shipped back to England and escorted by her snobby brother to Spence, an elite boarding school for young ladies in Victorian England, when she experiences her second vision as she sees gypsies alongside the carriage they are riding in. She has an inappropriate response (a very bad thing in Victorian England) but is able to cover it up, and now she knows that there’s definitely something wrong and different about her. At school, Gemma finds out that she’s rooming with Ann, a scholarship student who also happens to be the Victorian version of a cutter. Soon, Gemma is introduced to the in-group at Spence, consisting of Felicity, the leader, Pippa, the beauty, and a few random others who fall off once Gemma infiltrates the group after blackmailing Felicity.

A mysterious diary appears on Gemma’s bed that was written by a Spence student many years ago, detailing her time in a mysterious, magical circle that she called the Order. Gemma and her newly organized in-group decide to bring back the Order, though Gemma resists at first and denies her supernatural powers. As the girls form their friendships and petty rivalries ensue, I was reminded of a modern version of this story, The Craft. After the ladies meet, drink, and witch, they find their corsets restricting and discard them to go swimming. From the minute they wake up in the morning until they go to bed, these proper young ladies are encased in corsets that cinch their waists to as small as sixteen and a half inches, in the case of Pippa. The restrictions reflect society and remind us all, “We’ve come a long way, ladies.” For some reason, this makes me think of the video montage in The Craft that’s become a cliché in teen movies at this point: teen princesses fully tricked out with hair and breasts swinging as they walk down the school hallway as if it were a red carpet. I’d love to see a Victorian version done of this, and A Great and Terrible Beauty is in production right now, so I hope the moviemakers do me proud.

Eventually Gemma reveals her abilities and finds that she’s able to transport herself as well as her friends to a magical fantasyland, where each girl is able to fulfill her most fervent wish. These young ladies are expected to become perfect wives and helpmates, and they must carefully guard their reputations before the advent of this. Unlucky Ann does not have even this to look forward to, being poor, plain, and with no family to speak of. She’s destined to become a governess, but what she wishes for more than anything is beauty. Pippa, on the other hand, is a raving beauty whose chances for a happy marriage are crippled by her father’s gambling debts. She’s been auctioned off to the highest bidder, and he ends up being twice her age and quite boring. Pippa wishes for the romantic love that she’ll never know. Felicity and Gemma have their own wishes too and find them fulfilled in the fantasy world. This fantasyland reminds me of the one created by Peter Jackson in Heavenly Creatures, but so far these girls (this is the first book in a series) don’t seem to be as devilish, maybe because there’s more than two of them. The girls find that they’re able to bring the magic back with them to the real world, though they have been warned not to do so, and serious consequences follow.

I like seeing some strong heroines from the Victorian era who are interested in more things than catching a husband, which seems to have been women’s great sport in the Victorian literature I’ve read. I think these ladies are way more wild than most that I’ve found in Victorian literature. Libba Bray’s series recently appeared in the top 100 Teen Novels list put out by NPR, and future English majors may be surprised later by the females they encounter in Victorian literature.

Libba Bray

Not Enough Life for Too Many Book Series

It seems that lately every time I pick up a book I get mired in a book series—this has happened inadvertently with the last two books I’ve stumbled upon. I finished Camille Läckberg’s The Stonecutter last week, a very satisfying mystery, but when I later went to look up background information on Läckberg, I found out that The Stonecutter is a book midway through her Fjällbacka series. I put the first two series books on hold at the Brooklyn Public Library, but I know it’s wishful thinking believing that I’ll get to these novels before their due dates. On my bedroom floor is the new Jo Nesbø book from the Harry Hole series to review, the first of the George R.R. Martin series, and A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, a book I just picked up that I discovered is the first part of a series.

I’m not surprised by detective series; this is part of a long-standing tradition started by the originators of the detective story, Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. And even Arthur Conan Doyle got sick of his Sherlock Holmes character and tried to kill him off, but his readers wouldn’t let him. I am weary of seeing this trend in other things that I’m reading, though. A Great and Terrible Beauty is a young-adult coven novel that I’m about one hundred pages into, and I just found out that it’s a series book from the friend who gave it to me. Instead of joyously ripping through the book as I had at the start, I find myself going through the pages more slowly and evaluating the characters. Do I like them enough? Am I willing to commit myself to these people for nine hundred-plus pages?

Writers seem to be going more toward series for monetary reasons and to guarantee book contracts. I went to see British writer Glen Duncan read from his book Talulla Rising about a female werewolf, of which there are far too few stories, in my opinion. While sitting there listening, I discovered that Talulla Rising is second in a werewolf trilogy, and I’m leery of picking up the second book without having read the first, afraid I’ll have missed important parts of the story. When Duncan was asked whether he intended for his first werewolf book The Last Werewolf to be part of a series, he said, “I just wrote the book in the hope that somebody would pick it up. I told my agent at the time to pitch it as a trilogy, because well, if somebody was going to be dumb enough to buy one…” He meant this jokingly, but I really think the book industry is pushing this following the popularity of the Harry Potter series and others, hoping that lightning will strike two or five or eighteen more times.

Once Duncan’s trilogy pitch was accepted, he said, “I had not mapped out books two and three really in any way…after I finished the first book. That was sort of hastily scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet when the publisher got around to asking what this trilogy was going to be. I had the sense that it could be a trilogy, but it wasn’t until I actually made a deal, a three-book contract, that I kind of sat down in a sense of shock and thought, Oh right, now I have to write two more of these.”

I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to you, Talulla Rising. I can handle a comic book series where the reading time is far shorter, and a movie that is part of a series is usually only a two- or three-hour time commitment. I can do a few TV series, but I have to be choosy with those. I don’t like to follow more than two or three series at a time. A book, though, is a much larger time commitment—just one can take twenty or more hours to read. I can usually get through a book a week, and if I were to follow through on all of the series books that I’ve picked up this year, the rest of the year’s reading would be planned out for me with no room for surprise. And I don’t want a fabulous character like Erica Falck or Patrik Hedstrӧm to take up residence in my head and then become like an annoying neighbor who won’t leave.