Sunday, September 29, 2013

BOOK CLUB INTERVIEW: Leanna Renee Hieber

One of our young adult book clubs read Darker Still by Leanna Renee Hieber. Ms. Hieber was kind enough to do an interview with us and explore the world and creation of Darker Still. For those of who haven't read/don't know about the book, it's fantastic. It's in diary format, with stellar writing, and is inspired by Gothic Literature. The book itself is set in the 19th Century with a protagonist who has Selective Mutism. But the story begins when a very peculiar painting arrives at the 10 year old Metropolitan Museum... 

I was obsessed.
It was as if he called to me, demanding I reach out and touch the brushstrokes of color swirled onto the canvas. It was the most exquisite portrait I'd ever seen--everything about Lord Denbury was unbelievable...utterly breathtaking and eerily lifelike.
There was a reason for that. Because despite what everyone said, Denbury never had committed suicide. He was alive. Trapped within his golden frame.

I've crossed over into his world within the painting, and I've seen what dreams haunt him. They haunt me too. He and I are inextricably linked--bound together to watch the darkness seeping through the gas-lit cobblestone streets of Manhattan. Unless I can free him soon, things will only get Darker Still.


Author, actress and playwright, Leanna grew up in rural Ohio, graduated with a BFA in Theatre, a focus in the Victorian Era and a scholarship to study in London. She adapted 19th Century literature for the stage and her one-act plays have been produced around the country. She is a 4 time Prism Award winner for excellence in Futuristic, Fantasy, or Paranormal Romance.

In our last book club meeting, a topic that came up was repetitiveness in YA-literature. We picked Darker Still because it was a little something different than the average supernatural/paranormal romance. Do you see the same repetitiveness the girls do? Do you try to steer clear of those plot lines? 

LRH: I do. And I get just as tired of the same trends. What I try to do, as there's no "new" story really, (Shakespeare pretty much wrote every basic plot-line one way or another, he stole from the classics before him) all of us are just trying to apply our unique voice to the same basic tropes and great tales of all time. But there shouldn't be just one common formula. (The prevalent love triangle for example. Darker Still is entirely devoid of it). I introduce characters that interest Natalie in the sequel but it never becomes a love triangle. Anything that appears 'overdone' should be avoided and instead I try to apply my unique spin to the classics instead. I pay homage to stories that have come before me, like The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula, the tales of Poe, but I do so inserting strong women into that picture and making sure their stories are heard.

The girls really like when authors drop clues throughout the book, but they aren't able to guess the mystery until the very end. Do you have a technique for dropping clues without making things too obvious, or does it just come naturally while writing the story through your protagonist's eyes? 

LRH: I try to be conscious of dropping hints but not to over-think it. I knew Natalie's nightmares would be the key to a lot of the plot so that was the thing I tried to always keep in mind, and that's been consistent even as I'm currently writing and serializing book 3 chapter by chapter on my site. We all know everything is leading to a big confrontation, it's the how we get there that for me is the most thrilling part to discover. Natalie is such a strong heroine that once I built and created her and knew her spirit and feisty nature, she really ran the show on her own and I just followed along writing it all down. :)

Was there anything special or opportune about picking this time period to write in for Darker Still? Or do you just like the late 1800's? 

LRH: I've been obsessed with the 1880s since I was a kid. I can't explain it other than I believe I had several past lives in the 19th century. Nothing else explains my obsessive draw to the era and the way I feel I can make sense of it for a modern audience. It's an era I studied extensively in school, college and in my years as a professional actress, the time period is my muse. It's a difficult time full of conflict and innovation, grit and grandeur, of science and spiritualism, of romance and horror, a time of great change and new ideas, of progress at the same time of oppressions. It's a bipolar age of extremes that is endlessly fascinating to me.

What was your favorite part about writing this book? 

LRH: I think coming up with Natalie's nightmares. Her last nightmare really scared me. When you can scare yourself and you're the one writing it you know you've got something. Also, I just love Natalie and her relationship to Mrs. Northe, and how that's just as important a relationship as the one she develops with Jonathon. It's not only about falling in love. Life is a lot more than that. I love that Natalie knows that and can bring that to light for the reader.

What was the most difficult part about writing this book? 

LRH: Writing Jonathon so that he's empowered and interesting because I've done him the disservice of being trapped in a painting, he doesn't have a lot of opportunity to prove himself. He gets to in the sequel, but in book one he's really the inversion of the 'damsel in distress', he's the 'knight in distress' as it were and its up to the damsel to save him. :) I love that aspect of the book but I did have to make sure that Jonathon takes an active part in helping solve the mystery and give him whatever action items I could as he's so limited by his situation.

Why did you decide to make Natalie mute? 

LRH: It came to me as a part of the conflict. I always wanted to write a haunted painting story where there was a world on the other side of a canvass, and so creating a place where my heroine could have access and gifts in a way she couldn't outside was important. I don't think enough stories, TV shows, movies, etc, feature people with any kind of disability often enough. Disabled persons of any kind deserve to be a part of popular culture just as much as anyone, unquestionably. The theme of "finding your voice" literally and metaphorically is so important to me and Natalie's Selective Mutism was a way to bring out that theme and explore the conflict of a young woman without a voice in an era that did not respect her voice even if she could use hers. Despite these doubled obstacles, her strength and determination conquers all.

What do you like most about Gothic Literature? 

LRH: I love the extremes and the sweeping, intense nature of it. Horror and beauty can share such intimate spaces, I feel such freedom to explore the darkest places because I know there's love and passion on the other side. There's a bit of reckless abandon you get in Gothic, and I love playing with that kind of delicious fire. I can't get enough of it. However what I wanted to do was infuse stronger women into the traditional Gothic trope, story and framework because a lot of the traditional Gothics feature women more as victims rather than the active heroes.

What kinds of things can we look forward to in the sequel, The Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewart? (That sounds so ominous!) 

LRH: It picks up exactly where DARKER STILL leaves off with the following excitements: Trains! Escapes! More dark magic! New exciting characters! More pretty dresses! More danger! Reanimation! Nightmares! Thrills! Kissing! Carriage rides! Seances! Epic battles of will! Crazy demon stuff! And for you Minnesotans, a trip to St. Paul! - Are you excited yet? ;)

Was there any fun deleted scene or aspect of the book that was cut during edits but you wish could have stayed? 

LRH: Not really in Darker Still, I ended up adding more than subtracting really. In the sequel I had to cut a few rhapsodic passages about historic St. Paul that I'd love to have kept but slowed down the plot. (But don't worry, my Minnesota friends, St. Paul is still a part of the book!)

Anything else you'd like to tell us? 

LRH: Yes! Firstly, thanks for reading, you folks are the reason I do what I do and I love you for it. Never stop reading, never stop dreaming. If you're writers too, never stop writing.


  1. I LOVE THIS SERIES!!! And this interview was so much fun to read!!! I totally agree that it really is so much fun to be able to pick up clues along the way without truly knowing the ending! And these books definitely do that!!!
    GREAT INTERVIEW!!! So many great questions! :-)

  2. YAY! I'm so glad someone else likes this series as much as I do! The girls in the book club really liked it, and most bought the sequel after the meeting. Plus, Leanna is AWESOME!


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