A Few Words from Libba Bray on the "Making" of A Great and Terrible Beauty

One question I get asked is, ďWhat does a girl from the flatlands of Texas, a girl who grew up on Monty Python, Cheap Trick and keg parties, know about Victorian schoolgirls in England?Ē In a word? Nothing.

But for some reason, this story about a girl named Gemma who sees things, a girl with a dead mother, a lot of guilt, strange friends, and a mysterious destiny . . . well, it just wouldnít let me go. It might have nothing to do with my own life, but I had to write it anyway.

But a period piece? Set in England? Where girls never say, ďohmigodĒ? How would I do this? Well, the truth is: I love the Victorian period. All that sensuality and repression. Those spooky old estates where things go bump in the night. A culture consumed with appearances but also with spiritualism and sex and class and knowing your place. Apparently, Dickens, the BrŲnte sisters, Bram Stoker, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had more of a hold on me than I realized. Iíd been steeping in Victoriana, like a very strong Earl Grey, for most of my life. And, okay, Iím a sucker for the accent.

So how did this book come to be? What was the process, from start to finish? Well, climb into my hansom cab and Iíll take you along on a ride through my diary and reveal what it tookóthe good, the bad, the desperate, and the sugar highsóto make A Great and Terrible Beauty.

January 5, 2002
Just got off the phone with Wendy Loggia, my editor and new best friend. Book is due in June. Outline due end of February. That leaves plenty of time to start new exercise regimen and healthy diet. I will be thin. I will be healthy with glowing skin. I will write an absorbing Gothic read and turn it in ahead of schedule.

January 15, 2002
Outline #154 not panning out so well. Lots of creepy atmosphere. Very little plot. Also, note to self, bag of Tootsie Rolls washed down with Diet Coke does not equal breakfast. Why am I not feeling the Dickens muse?

January 31, 2002
Itís official: I cannot outline. For me, an outline is like a corset on the mind. I am a plunger, okay? Iím ďorganic.Ē I am just going to have to jump into this book with both feet and see where it takes me. And hopefully, thatís somewhere I want to be.

February, 2002
Iím quitting my day job and becoming a professional Victorian researcher! Who knew the 1890s could be this much fun? Iíve devoured the book, Daily Life in Victorian England, approximately eleventy-two million Web sites on Victorian England and India, and The New Girl, a feminist/sociological study of 19th-century school girls by Victorian scholar, Dr. Sally Mitchell. I now know enough arcane factoids to entertain people at parties for years to come. And I can kill at Trivial Pursuit. Still, there are some things I canít seem to find. I wonder if Dr. Mitchell is open to crazed emails from desperate writers in Brooklyn?

February 12, 2002
Dr. Mitchellóor Sally, as I like to call her here in the privacy of my own homeóis lovely and accessible and doesnít seem to think Iím a weird stalker type. She just emailed me answers to my questions and suggested I check out L. T. Meade, a Victorian novelist who wrote exclusively of girlsí boarding schools. She even says thereís a Canadian bookseller who has Meadeís A World of Girls advertised for $7.00 on the Internet. I love my job.

February 18, 2002
Book arrived today. Wow, these girls had their naughty moments. They even cavorted with a gypsy woman who managed to supply them with contraband food and drink. Hmmm, I think I need to explore the gypsy angle. Thatís very interesting.

February 21, 2002
Overheard in neighborhood coffee bar hangout. Two women:

ďIím thinking of designing a whole gypsy look, you know, big jewelry, red scarves . . .Ē

I interrupt. ďActually, a proper gypsy woman would never wear red. That would have been considered really scandalous and bad luck to boot. Oh my god, isnít this chai so yummy?Ē

Silence. In the distance, a car backfires. Note to self: not everyone is as excited about Victorian research as I am.

March 1, 2002
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Thatís what keeps running through my head. Why do we do this to our girls? Why do we spend a lifetime whittling them down into bite-sized nuggets, something easily digested that will upset no stomach? Why canít we allow them to ask for what they want, to express the whole ROYGBIV of emotion? Yeah, we say we do, but we donít. Not really. Have we really moved very far in a hundred years?,

All right, Gemma. You get in there. You find your destiny, kick some butt, take names, and donít let anyone stop you . . . especially not yourself.

March 25, 2002
Problem . . . Kartik seems to disappear mid-book. Heís MIA for, like, 150 pages. Maybe no one will notice. Yeah, right.

Kartik. That name. Deep and mysterious and romantic. Who needs to know that Kartik is a guy I used to wait tables with in Texas? A guy I had such a crush on that he had to tell me everything twice, because the first time I was sure I heard, ďWill you marry me and bear from your loins my brood of exotic, beautiful children?Ē and it wasnít until the second time that I actually heard him say, slowly and precisely, ďCan you please take the bread to table A4?Ē

April, 2002
What are the Realms like? They need to be otherworldly, but in a Victorian sense. Theyíre sort of dreamy and light-filled, like a Maxfield Parrish picture come to lifeóbut a Maxfield Parrish picture that's been painted over a piece by Hieronymous Bosch. Dark and dangerous, pretty and fairy-tale-esque. Very Victorian. Very much like life.

May, 2002
I have scarlet fever. Iíve been writing about Victorian stuff for so long that Iím actually contracting Victorian diseases. And hello, itís kicking my booty. Bring on the very un-Victorian Zithromax, please. Letís hear it for progress.

June, 2002
Very near the end of this draft. Keep getting up to check the refrigerator. Either Iím developing OCD, or Iím close to writing an emotional truth that makes me very uncomfortable and I just donít want to sit with it. Truth hurts.

Iím stuck. Why didnít I outline this stupid thing? This isnít ďorganic.Ē Itís chaos! I donít know what Iím trying to say. I donít know where I am or what Iím supposed to discover. Iím just like Gemma. Oh, funny that.

Hmmm, four girls from troubled families. Four girls with secret dreams and very real wounds. Four girls who canít really trust anyone, but turn to each other anyway. Four girls. Like the summer I was sixteen, and everything was in shambles, when I had three very close, very unpredictable friends. A foursome of girlish drama. But Iím sure thatís just a coincidence. Like I said, truth hurts.

* * *

Are you still with me? Did you stop in the caves for a little candlelight ritual? Well, Iíd like to say that I nailed the first draft, and I didnít have to do a lick of work after that. No chance. That was just round one. At the end of November, I got a five-page editorial letter from my beloved Wendy, filled with insightful questions that dared me to go deeper and really write the book I wanted to write. It seemed I was holding back a bit on my passionólike a good Victorian lady. It was time to do with the book what I was asking my characters to doóbe bold and true to themselves. Round two wasnít just going to be a revision. It was going to be a total renovation. I threw out so many scenesóa dangerous encounter in the British museum, a vision at an estate in the English countryside, a book of magic, an abused cousinóthat I ended up jettisoning two-thirds of the original manuscript. Was I out of my mind? What would I write in its place? And would there be enough chocolate to sustain me?

I needed something more. I needed to gather my frequent flyer miles and go to the source.

* * *

March, 2003
Iím in London, city of Dickens, Queen Victoria, gaslights, and the Ripper, a place filled with centuries of living, breathing history, dangerous streets, restless spirits, and moody weather. Hello, itís 60 degrees and sunny! They have the Gap and Starbucks. Where are my foggy moors? Where are my horse-drawn carriages? Where are my cobblestones and knife-sharpeners and omnibuses and four o'clock tea?

Thank heavens for the British library. Everyone here is so helpful and polite. And have I mentioned how much that accent works on me? I want to buy them all lunch, but I wonít because the inflation is out of control. From the quiet-as-the-grave Maps Room, Iíve just ordered several brightly colored maps from 1895, as well as charts, atlases, and an amazing, thick book of photographs called The Queenís London: A Pictorial Descriptive Record by Cassell and Company.

Itís incredible to step back in time and see London this way. Thereís Newgate Prison, where murderers were buried with lime in their coffins under a flagstone graveyard with only initials to mark their graves. Thereís Ladiesí Mile in Hyde Park at the height of the London season, where the fashionable ladies dot the landscape under a sea of parasols.

There are the carriages kicking up dust along the newly built Victoria Embankment. And the omnibuses with their modesty boards placed strategically at ankle height to protect a ladyís ankles from salacious looks. I have so many notes I could write twelve books. I actually want to write twelve books. I canít wait to get started again. Bring on the Earl Grey tea and scones. The gameís afoot.

End of March, 2003
I have no title. This is a bit problematic, as I donít think That Victorian Book by the Chick from Texas is gonna cut it. My Victorian experts suggest a five-word titleóit feels Victorian, like The Wings of the Dove. I need something that conveys the awesome power girls feel when they discover themselves for the first timeótheir boldness and sexuality, what it can buy them, whatís possible if they throw off the restraints.

But it also needs to hint at the consequences that come with that power. If we have choice, we also have responsibility. And thatís a little scary. You know, I just need a title that says all that in about five words. Yeah, sure.

3:00 a.m.
A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY. Eureka! Houston, we have a title.

3:30 a.m.
Houston, we canít get back to sleep. Oh well, might as well write.

April, 2003
Back in rainy, moody, cold Brooklyn. This is it, the home stretch. Part of me just wants to be finished so I can sleep for a week. But another part of me doesnít want it to end. Itís hard to say goodbye to the dark halls of Spence. To the maids in crisp white pinafores tending quietly to the fires. To the promise of the realms, where anything can happen. And especially to these girlsóGemma, Felicity, Pippa, and Ann. I feel I know them as well as I know my own friends. Every day, when I sit at my computer with my fingers poised over the keys, I canít wait to see how they will surprise me, shock me, move me, and inspire me. I feel what they feel. And worry about the choices they make. But if mothers have to one day let their daughters go so that they can experience themselves fully and independently in the world, I guess I will have to endure letting go of my own, even if I want to give them an extra parasol and an amulet before I do. Goodbye, girls. Best of luck. Stiff upper lip. No, forget the stiff upper lip. Just get out there.

* * *

So it was done. This strange journey into another world that Iíd started thinking about two-and-a-half years ago was finished for now. Iíd gained 11.2 pounds and a rash from all the sugar. Iíd also gained a 405-page book that felt like someone I loved deeply, even when she exasperated me. I had finally delivered A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY.

This book that takes place in 1895 at a boarding school in England and so of course had no relation to my own life was actually chock full of it. Itís a story about uneasy but necessary friendships and survival, aspiration versus duty, breaking away and falling apart, coming to terms with yourself and your past. Itís about good girls realizing that sometimes being bad is better. That actions have consequences. That power brings responsibility, but running away from your own power isnít an option. Itís about dysfunctional families and the damage life inflicts, the terrible burden of carrying secrets, and the hope that lives inside everyone, refusing to give up its perch. The story of these girlsí lives had a lot to show me about the story of my own.

But I might not have known that if Iíd tried to outline it first.

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