A Conversation with Libba Bray about A Great and Terrible Beauty
Q: From the beginning, you envisioned Gemma as a heroine who kicks butt and takes names–all in a corset and crinoline. What changed about the character after you began writing the book? What stayed the same?
A: It’s hard to believe, but I actually envisioned Gemma and the book as being much lighter and funnier. Yeah, right, because dealing with supernatural visions, secret societies, and lots of not-quite-dead people is always a real laugh riot, right? Okey-dokey. Moving on . . . I did always see Gemma as sardonic, a social commentator in the vein of a Jane Austen character, and I think that stayed the same. But as often happens in the course of the writing, the character took over, and I discovered that Gemma was much more vulnerable and conflicted and infuriating and all those yummy things that make people into people. And for that, I am glad.
Q: Gemma is accepted into the most powerful and mean-spirited clique at Spence only because of blackmail–she keeps a secret that could destroy Felicity’s future. But as her friendships with Felicity, Pippa, and Ann develop, she begins to love and trust them. And she is offered, in turn, love and trust, anger and mistrust. The only rule of the Order is that the girls must always tell each other the truth. Their friendship is ultimately as dangerous as it is passionate. As you wrote about Gemma, Felicity, Pippa, and Ann, did you have anyone you know in mind?
A: Yes and no. To a certain extent, I drew on my own adolescent friendships, which were very powerful and important in my life. I felt rather estranged from my family emotionally as a teenager, and those friendships were everything to me. But at some point, the characters take on a life of their own and become who they are, and you, the writer, are just along for the ride. For me, it’s more about recalling the dynamics of certain relationships and the feelings involved (What does it feel like to be the new kid? How is it that one day you’re best friends and the next, you’re fighting like mad? What is it like to stand on the precipice of doing something you know could get you in big trouble?) rather than focusing on, say, when Felicity says this, it reminds me exactly of my old pal So-and-so. That sense of discovering your characters and how they react is part of the joy of writing fiction for me. It teaches me about human nature, and I’m always interested in that.
Q: Your story is rich in Victorian period detail, yet the characters feel real and immediate, as if they were alive today. How were you able to get inside the heads of girls who lived over a hundred years ago?
A:Uh, well . . . I cheated. There’s definitely an element of “fusion cooking” at work here. I wanted to have all the trappings of that era, which fascinates me. I wanted to have that feeling of girls near the dawn of a new century, of girls who are torn between two worlds in so many senses: adolescence and adulthood; sexual awakening and sexual innocence; the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries; the lives afforded their mothers and teachers and the more daring lives they might themselves be able to live. But I wanted them to have a universality to them, too; a sort of modernity of feeling. However, in doing research, in reading novels and correspondence of the time, I discovered that girls are girls, feelings are always feelings, whether it’s 1895 or 2005. Those feelings–the desire to be loved and understood, the fear of disappointing others, longings and yearnings, fear of and curiosity about the unknown–are timeless. The difficulties of growing into selfhood are the same, in many ways.
Q: Gemma and her friends feel invisible, as if they don’t count in the world they inhabit. In reference to the qualities a man looks for in a wife, Gemma’s brother, Tom, puts it, “Above all, she should keep his name above scandal and never call attention to herself” (p. 27). When Gemma and her friends bring power from the Realms back to the real world, they become literally invisible and are able to do things they couldn’t before. Gemma says, “Oh, God, the great and terrible beauty of it” (p. 334). This is a bit of a delicious irony. What did you mean by giving the book the title A Great and Terrible Beauty?
A: Wow, will this be on the test? Was this on the review? Who’s coming up with these questions, anyway? Okay, let me put down my potato chips and really think about this. I suppose I meant that having power is both an awesome and a terrifying thing. It is awesome in that one gains confidence and freedom. But it is terrifying in that there are consequences, and one must accept the terms of this agreement. It’s like Spider-Man says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” You can’t have one without the other. Empowerment and choice: great, terrible, and beautiful. Talk amongst yourselves. Potato chip, anyone?
Q: On AGreatandTerribleBeauty.com, you mention that Kartik is based on a boy you used to have a crush on. Does the real Kartik know you’ve written about him?
A: Why, did he call you? Seriously, I have no idea. I haven’t seen him since my waitressing days in Austin, Texas. It was the proverbial summer crush. Oooh, he was such a cutie! Kartik also shares qualities with another friend from my college days. He was half Indian, and we had a rather passionate friendship. We argued as much as we laughed. But there was a real meeting of the minds, and he challenged me in some very good ways. Sadly, I lost contact with him, too. I keep hoping we’ll connect again because I still owe him $250. You’d think he’d want to collect. Christopher, dude–I’m good for it now!
Q:What do you think of the term chick lit? Would you categorize A Great and Terrible Beauty as chick lit?
A:Argh! Okay, here’s the thing: I hate the term chick lit because it feels demeaning. Nobody calls the work of John Updike and Philip Roth old white guy lit. By and large, the writing of men is not categorized and compartmentalized in this way beyond specific publishing genres, i.e., mystery, horror, science fiction. I have the same problem when movies are referred to as chick flicks. It’s dismissive; it says that the themes that often show up in women’s novels and films and the perspective of women artists are somehow less than. I think that was what stuck in my craw about Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) dissing the Oprah show. I felt that what he was essentially saying was “Oh, she champions those, you know, ‘women writers’ and I don’t want to be lumped in with them.”
Now, that said, can we please, please move away from this recent spate of navel-gazing, whining, shopping-obsessed superficial novels in which guys are just accessories like the right shoes, and the deepest feelings encountered are a sort of self-absorbed sulkiness on the part of the heroine? Puh-leeeze. People, I did not march for NOW in my teens for this crap. Okay, rant done. Carry on.
Q: In A Great and Terrible Beauty, there is a secret women’s society, the Order, whose job is to guard the Realms and pass along knowledge of it, and a secret men’s society, the Rakshana, whose job is to prevent women from using the Realms at all. Did you see these battling groups in terms of men versus women? Do you believe there is a battle of the sexes going on today?
A: Wow. Tough question. While I was writing Beauty, I thought a great deal about how historically, governments, the medical establishment, and religion have sought to keep women from having access to real power. Women who had some sort of power–midwives and herbalists, let’s say–were viewed with distrust and even hunted down and burned. So I suppose I did see the Rakshana as any religious group that views women as “other” and wants to hold the reins on them. That said, I think that any group in power, no matter who they are, does not want to relinquish said power.
As for the second question, I think we’ve become more of a polarized society in general, and that saddens me. I think what concerns me vis-à-vis the “battle of the sexes” is more a societal shift toward these rigid gender roles. You know–flip on MTV and in the majority of videos, the guys adopt this macho posturing and the women are all about sex and fashion. I don’t think I’ve seen the cover of any recent magazine aimed at youth that did not involve a scantily clad nymphet staring at the camera, all wide-eyed and pouty-lipped, as if to say, “Gee, this is all I know how to do. I meant to put on clothes and, like, have interests, but, you know, like, it was just so hard to figure out how the straps work on my bra.” Snarl.
It just seems like there’s got to be more middle ground. I’ve always cherished my male friends as much as my female friends. We are different. We have different things to contribute, and that is great. We also need to be aware, as women, that we often hold ourselves back. I often say that the most radical question a girl or a woman can ever ask is “What do I want?” We are not conditioned to ask that. But only by asking yourself that, by knowing what you want, can you really go and get it. Only by knowing what you want can you stop waiting for other people to supply it for you, which just leads to frustration and a feeling of powerlessness. What you want is valid. What you care about is important. Who you are, all of it–not just the “nice” qualities–is important. And if anybody wants to photograph you for the cover of a major magazine wearing only a thong and an expression like you’ve gotten something in your eye, just tell them to . . . well, just say no.
Q: Miss Moore says, “There are no safe choices. . . . Only other choices” (p. 267). What does she mean by this? Will we see more of Miss Moore in the next book?
A:I think that as a society, we are very consumed with the idea of safety and security. It drives our economy. It builds our gated communities. But safety is an illusion. There’s really no such thing. I think anyone living in this world today knows that, on some level. (This is not to say that you should test this theory by jumping off a cliff or going without your seat belt, okay? There’s illusion and there’s stupidity. Don’t cross the line.) We want to know that we are making the “right” choice, the money-back-guaranteed choice. The thing is that every choice carries with it a sense of personal responsibility and accountability and a degree of insecurity. You have to live with that and step outside the fear. You will definitely see more of Moore in book two. (More of Moore? Yikes.)
Q:You’ve had many jobs–waitress, nanny, burrito roller, to name a few. Do you believe that these widely ranging experiences helped or hindered you on your path toward becoming a published author? What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
A:Every experience you ever have as a human being on this planet–from the mundane to the absurd to the sublime–goes right into the old writing bank. I like to use them all. At least, I’d like to think I can salvage something from that soul-sucking six months of saying, “Would you like hot sauce or a side of queso with that? Thank you, drive through, please.” (I’ve long argued that everyone in this country should be forced to spend at least two years in a service-related industry. We might end up with a nation of people who say please and thank you and tip twenty percent. But that’s another story.) My advice to aspiring writers is pretty straightforward: (1) Read everything. Read what interests and moves you. Read what challenges you. Read for pleasure. Read for craft. Read instead of watching reality TV. Just read. It just might change your life. I know it has mine. (2) Live your life. Writing’s all about that, anyway. And no one’s living your life, seeing things the way you see them, but you. You are unique, and this is a beautiful, beautiful thing, grasshopper. (3) You can write about anything you want, just don’t lie. (4) Have fun, for heaven’s sake! It’s not brain surgery. You won’t kill anyone if you choose the wrong words. You can just fix ’em later. Writing is power. You are in control of it. You are able to say whatever you need to say, long to say, must say. And that is an amazing feeling.
Q: The last line of the novel is perhaps the most powerful: “Because I want to see how far I can go before I have to stop.” In the course of the story, Gemma learns a lot about herself. But she has yet to fully understand the role she will play for the Order–and the role she will play in her own life. Can you tell us anything about the road Gemma will travel in Rebel Angels, the companion to A Great and Terrible Beauty?
A: I could tell you. But then I’d have to kill you.
From the Trade Paperback edition.