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

One question I get asked is, “What 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?” 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 wouldn’t 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, “ohmigod”? 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 Brönte sisters, Bram Stoker, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had more of a hold on me than I realized. I’d been steeping in Victoriana, like a very strong Earl Grey, for most of my life. And, okay, I’m 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 I’ll take you along on a ride through my diary and reveal what it took—the good, the bad, the desperate, and the sugar highs—to 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.

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?

It’s official: I cannot outline. For me, an outline is like a corset on the mind. I am a plunger, okay? I’m “organic.” I am just going to have to jump into this book with both feet and see where it takes me. And hopefully, that’s somewhere I want to be.

I’m quitting my day job and becoming a professional Victorian researcher! Who knew the 1890s could be this much fun? I’ve 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 can’t seem to find. I wonder if Dr. Mitchell is open to crazed emails from desperate writers in Brooklyn?

Dr. Mitchell—or Sally, as I like to call her here in the privacy of my own home—is lovely and accessible and doesn’t seem to think I’m 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 girls’ boarding schools. She even says there’s a Canadian bookseller who has Meade’s A World of Girls advertised for $7.00 on the Internet. I love my job.

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. That’s very interesting.

Overheard in neighborhood coffee bar hangout. Two women:

“I’m thinking of designing a whole gypsy look, you know, big jewelry, red scarves . . .”

I interrupt. “Actually, a proper gypsy woman would never wear red. That would have been considered really scandalous and bad luck to boot. Oh my god, isn’t this chai so yummy?”

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

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s 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 can’t we allow them to ask for what they want, to express the whole ROYGBIV of emotion? Yeah, we say we do, but we don’t. 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 don’t let anyone stop you . . . especially not yourself.

Problem . . . Kartik seems to disappear mid-book. He’s 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, “Will you marry me and bear from your loins my brood of exotic, beautiful children?” and it wasn’t until the second time that I actually heard him say, slowly and precisely, “Can you please take the bread to table A4?”

What are the Realms like? They need to be otherworldly, but in a Victorian sense. They’re sort of dreamy and light-filled, like a Maxfield Parrish picture come to life—but 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.

I have scarlet fever. I’ve been writing about Victorian stuff for so long that I’m actually contracting Victorian diseases. And hello, it’s kicking my booty. Bring on the very un-Victorian Zithromax, please. Let’s hear it for progress.

Very near the end of this draft. Keep getting up to check the refrigerator. Either I’m developing OCD, or I’m close to writing an emotional truth that makes me very uncomfortable and I just don’t want to sit with it. Truth hurts.

I’m stuck. Why didn’t I outline this stupid thing? This isn’t “organic.” It’s chaos! I don’t know what I’m trying to say. I don’t know where I am or what I’m supposed to discover. I’m just like Gemma. Oh, funny that.

Hmmm, four girls from troubled families. Four girls with secret dreams and very real wounds. Four girls who can’t 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 I’m sure that’s 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, I’d like to say that I nailed the first draft, and I didn’t 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 passion—like a good Victorian lady. It was time to do with the book what I was asking my characters to do—be bold and true to themselves. Round two wasn’t just going to be a revision. It was going to be a total renovation. I threw out so many scenes—a dangerous encounter in the British museum, a vision at an estate in the English countryside, a book of magic, an abused cousin—that 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
I’m 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, it’s 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 won’t because the inflation is out of control. From the quiet-as-the-grave Maps Room, I’ve just ordered several brightly colored maps from 1895, as well as charts, atlases, and an amazing, thick book of photographs called The Queen’s London: A Pictorial Descriptive Record by Cassell and Company.

It’s incredible to step back in time and see London this way. There’s Newgate Prison, where murderers were buried with lime in their coffins under a flagstone graveyard with only initials to mark their graves. There’s Ladies’ 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 lady’s ankles from salacious looks. I have so many notes I could write twelve books. I actually want to write twelve books. I can’t wait to get started again. Bring on the Earl Grey tea and scones. The game’s afoot.

I have no title. This is a bit problematic, as I don’t think That Victorian Book by the Chick from Texas is gonna cut it. My Victorian experts suggest a five-word title—it 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 time—their boldness and sexuality, what it can buy them, what’s 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 that’s 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 can’t get back to sleep. Oh well, might as well write.

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 doesn’t want it to end. It’s 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 girls—Gemma, 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 can’t 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 I’d started thinking about
Two-and-a-half years ago was finished for now. I’d gained 11.2 pounds and a rash from all the sugar. I’d 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. It’s 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. It’s 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 isn’t an option. It’s 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 girls’ lives had a lot to show me about the story of my own.

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


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