Today’s special guest is Elizabeth Vail, author of The Duke of Snow and Apples. Ms. Vail is here to tell us more about her recent release, a bit about her ideas and writing style, and the challenges facing a new author.
1. What inspired you to write “The Duke of Snow and Apples” and is there any particular message that you want your readers to grasp?
Well, I’ve always loved fairytales, but I always had to read them with a sort of cynical understanding of the antiquated gender roles they originally supported. The quiet, patient, pretty women wound up with a prince and the talkative, ugly, evil women were rolled down a hill in a barrel full of nails (yikes!).
So I thought, what would a fairytale romance be like if the roles were completely reversed? I picked Snow White because of all the popular fairy tale characters, she is particularly vulnerable and frequently infantilized in literature – what would it be like if the Snow White character was a man, forced to flee his privileged life and live in servitude? As a servant, he would have to be the quiet, patient one in order to keep his job and remain in hiding. And how would Princess Charming, as a woman, be able to help restore his happiness? The story developed naturally from there.
I don’t think I wrote it with any particular message in mind (at least at first), other than, “Don’t piss off the people who cook your food and clean your sheets.”
2. The title “The Duke of Snow and Apples” obviously has important connotations once someone has finished reading the book. How important are the other names in your book? Were those names chosen because you liked the way it sounds or do the names have some sort of special meaning?
Some names were chosen just because they sounded interesting (Mr. Littiger) while others were used because they seemed to fit the character (like the odious Lord Noxley). Frederick’s best friend belowstairs is called Tall John because John is such a common name for footmen (whether they’re named John or not!) that he would need that extra adjective to distinguish himself from John the gardener and John the potboy, and so on.
In Charlotte’s case, I wanted a name that sounded as close to “Charming” as possible – along with the name of Charmant Park, where Frederick and Charlotte meet.
As for Frederick’s full, aristocratic name, well, it’s actually comprised of the names of all of my favourite romantic heroes from Mary Balogh, Jennifer Crusie, and Laura Kinsale novels.
3. Did you picture anyone in particular when crafting your characters’ physical or emotional attributes? If you could cast your characters in a movie, who would play your characters?
I visualized the general features of my characters, but I don’t think I pictured anyone in particular while I was writing my novel. What’s weird is that when I’m reading romance, I totally cast the hero and heroine and reenact the novel as a movie in my head. All my romance reviews have a Dream Casting for the hero and heroine.
Wait – that’s not true. While I was writing the novel I did occasionally think of Craig Olejnik. He’s the star of a Canadian show called The Listener and he has absolutely the most gorgeous eyes I’ve ever seen, and Frederick’s eyes (due to the nature of his magic) are a powerful aspect of his appearance. Unfortunately, despite his peepers, Olejnik has all the charisma of a wet loaf of bread and I stopped watching that show after a few episodes. In hindsight, I’d probably cast Felicity Jones as Charlotte, and a younger Matthew Goode as Frederick.
4. What were some of the challenges (research, psychological, etc.) in drafting your book?
I had two major challenges while writing this novel: the research and the staging.
Yes, my book does take place in a fantasy realm, so I had a bit of leeway with the accuracy of my portrayal of a period that mirrors 19th century England. For me, however, the research wasn’t for accuracy, but for details. The details of that period are what flesh out the story, ground it in believability, and lend it colour and depth.
My favourite historical romances are the ones whose stories rely on aspects of their time period (the laws, the social situations, etc). Nothing bores me faster than reading a wallpaper historical where the conflict could take place anywhere and anytime and is just dressed up in Regency apparel to look pretty. Researching the lives of servants provided the background and the details and the ideas that filled out my novel beyond the basic “lower class boy with a secret falls in love with forbidden upper class girl.”
The second challenge I had was handling all the characters! As this is a retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, I had Frederick working for seven Dowagers – and in the earlier drafts, all seven Dowagers (and their families!) were present for the house party, along with all the servants belowstairs that Frederick had to deal with. That’s a lot of people to manage and keep straight during group scenes, and ultimately I realized I would be asking far too much of my readers. Eventually, I narrowed it down to the four Dowagers who impact the story the most (and wrote the other three as being away on their own adventures).
5. The magic system in the book seems pretty varied in what people are able to do with their abilities, but certainly hierarchical in the sense that some magic is more respected or revered than others. When crafting Frederick’s abilities, did you always know what he would be able to do or did it arise organically from the writing and story you wanted to tell?
As a long-time fantasy reader, I knew I had to have stellar and consistent world building for the realm of Allmarch. The magic system and the social system had to make sense and explain each other – hence I developed a hierarchical, bloodline-based magic system that motivates the equally hierarchical and bloodline-obsessed society. The upper class exclusively support this type of magic because it reinforces their standing in society, and they ignore “foreign” or “inexplicable” magic – leading to the hero’s confusion over his unusual powers.
This all sounds exceptionally fancy and clever, but honestly, I made up a lot of this as I went along and the magic system towards the end wound up very different from the magic system at the beginning, because I was constantly coming up with new ideas. However, once I finished the first draft and had a more solid, big-picture idea of how all the magic was going to work, I could write and revise the second draft to make sure all the dots connected in interesting, consistent, and meaningful ways.
I honestly didn’t always know what Frederick’s powers were going to be when I started out. It wasn’t immediately relevant to the story – I knew he needed a reason to run away from his aristocratic life, it had to be a magic he wasn’t sure he could completely control, and it had to be a magic with potentially awful implications as well as a positive side. I went through a lot of different ideas – mind-reading, telekinesis, etc, and I eventually landed on his empathic magic. Not only because it made him more compassionate towards other people, but because it fit his role as a servant – knowing his employers’ desires before they do.
6. Each emotion Frederick can see has a corresponding color. Was there a particular system you used to assign these colors?
Ha, not really. It ultimately came down to “this sounds like an angry colour” or “this colour reminds me of fear.”
7. Do you have a favorite character from your book? Why? What is it about this character that speaks to you?
I like all of my characters, but I am especially fond of Frederick. I like alpha male heroes fine, but I love the beta males. They’re the dark horses of the romance world and I’ve always wanted to write one of my own, and contribute to the idea that you don’t have to be aggressive and controlling to be attractive and romantic.
8. Can you give us some fun or interesting facts about your book, this world, and its characters?
I actually had to age this novel before I succeeded with it. I originally wrote this novel four years ago, and after a rapid burst of successes (I had an agent request a partial and a publisher request a full) followed by failures (nothing but rejections), I sort of tucked it under the metaphorical bed. When I got a new laptop, I came across the file while transferring data, and I read my manuscript for the first time in three years. Those three years gave me the distance, objectivity, and perspective to figure out how to fix the issues I had with the novel and submit a stronger final draft that was finally accepted.
And that’s ultimately my advice for young writers – if you feel you have to put a failing project aside to work on something new, fine, I get it. But don’t throw it away. Hold onto your writing, and maybe the answers will come in time.
9. Will you continue to write in this world or do you wish to write standalone books? What can we expect from you in the future?
I initially intended this to be a series of gender-swapped fairytales, centred around the children and grandchildren of each of the Dowagers. I thought of Viscount Elban for a Rapunzel retelling, Mr. Oswald for Beauty and the Beast, and Lord Noxley for The Frog Prince. However, it’s been over three years since I initially wrote Duke and planned the series, and since then I’ve moved on to other genres like Young Adult.
10. Before you go, please give us a snippet from “The Duke of Snow and Apples.” It can be your favorite part of the book or something meant to tease and tantalize us.
I particularly love this paragraph from the novel, when Frederick really starts to loosen up under Charlotte’s influence and appreciate himself and his remarkable talents as well as Charlotte:
“She tasted of lemon fizz and salt, laughter and tears. Her mouth opened under his, whether in surprise or invitation Frederick wasn’t sure. All thoughts of his cold place vanished as heat exploded within him, searing every nerve joyfully alive. The frozen parts of him melted, expanded, stretching and uncoiling with delirious abandon. His eyes burned as, no longer contained, emotions boiled out of him, joy and pleasure and deep, deep wanting. They flowed from his eyes in spirals of gold, streams of rich purple, blooming stars of crimson. His head pealed with magic, high trilling notes.”
Thank you for the opportunity to address your readers, Ms. Vail! It has been a truly enjoyable experience. ~Nikita