Q&A with Libba Bray

Posted by Goodreads on October 9, 2017
October is a month meant for houses that creak and creatures that go bump or boo in the night. Luckily for us, Libba Bray, author of the gorgeously gothic A Great and Terrible Beauty, has just the thing to send shivers down readers' spines: a brand-new ghost story, of course.

Before the Devil Breaks You is the third novel in Bray's supernatural Diviners series, which is set in Manhattan during the 1920s. In another life, Evie O'Neill might be concerning herself with the dazzling parties of the era. Instead "America's Sweetheart Seer" has her hands full with the dead. Along with the rest of the Diviners, she travels to Ward's Island to investigate a mental hospital that's home to mad and lost souls alike.

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Bray answers your questions about why she shouldn't be trusted with magic, how she might live forever (the tears of teen girls are involved), and what she's really thinking about as she writes her scariest scenes.

Stephanie: Dear Libba, you always write such strong, intelligent, and complex female characters. Are there particular women in your life who inspired these characters?

Libba Bray: Well, thank you very much! I have been lucky enough to have this incredible circus of strong, complex, funny, smart, generous, hilarious, weird, opinionated, rock 'n' roll, badass women in my life. I am better for them. I have friendships that stretch over decades, and when you've known people for that long, you really get to see every side of them‐through all sorts of situations.

To me, so much of writing is about humanity in full. It's about writing honestly, from the pettiest of petty thoughts to the loftiest of lofty dreams and desires. It's about trying to peel away the armor that we all put on to get by in this world so that you can find the beating heart.

Jessy: You are one of my favorite writers! What's your secret ingredient for writing your spooky scenes? I mean, I really need to stop reading before I go to bed.… The ghostly atmosphere you create seems so real—as if the real world and all these magical realms and dreams were just separated by a thin layer of air.

LB: Thank you! I'm so glad the spookiness comes through on the page. Those are some of the hardest bits to write because I know what's going to happen, and that takes away the scare factor for me.

I'm eating a big bowl of spaghetti, thinking, "Huh, OK. So after he cuts off the dude's head‐om-nom-nom-nom—then the zombies come in. Hey, this spaghetti needs more cheese!"

What I have to do is remember my sense-memory exercises from drama class: What would this feel like? Smell like? What would my breathing be doing? I have to root everything in the character's experience. And when people are frightened, they get boiled down to all their senses working overtime. (Cue that XTC song!)

Catherine: What has been one of your favorite fan encounters since becoming a bestselling author?

LB: Hmmm. That's a great question. The truth is that it's always a joy and a privilege to get to talk books with readers. And when somebody loves something you've written, when it has meant something to them or resonated with them, it's incredibly moving. Those are the days I feel so lucky to get to do what I do.

I've met people who have told me personal, heartfelt stories. I've been slipped notes that, reading them later in my hotel room, moved me to tears. I've met folks who have told me delightfully corny jokes and made me laugh out loud. I've received messages, art, and small figurines, all of which I have loved and kept. I had some readers who once asked me to do the Time Warp with them, and —gotta say—I KILLED at it. I've heard deliciously weird questions, playful scolding (I'm sorry about the third Gemma book, OK?), and made-me-think stumpers. And I love it when people show up in cosplay.

One of the best, though, was a girl who wrote to me about The Sweet Far Thing. "I know why you did it," she told me. "You are an eco-friendly fembot who survives on the tears of teen girls. With the tears I have shed, YOU WILL LIVE FOREVER!" Dude. I would have that cross-stitched on a pillow for my couch.

Angelica: Thank you for your amazing books, which helped inspire my own writing over the years! I love that you are so vocal and open about your feminism and use your writing as a vehicle for it. Has your ideology evolved, and how has that informed your work?

LB: Well, first of all—go, you! I'm pleased as punch to hear that you are writing your own books. This makes me happy. And what a great question about feminism and evolving ideology.

I would say that I am always concerned with the emotional lives of my characters, digging below those automatic surface reactions and upending the status quo to get at deeper truth. That means upending my own status quo and questioning my own assumptions. It means making myself uncomfortable and accepting contradictions.

But I will say that the election of Trump has made me go harder on feminism in real life. It's made me say more of the things more of the time. I have realized that misogyny is deep and pervasive and often internalized. So, if anything, I am challenging a lot of things that, in the past, I might've let pass by. Because change doesn't happen unless we actively engage, even in small ways.

Bromley: You use so many rich elements from various genres in the Diviners series: fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, and more. Yet at its core, the series is this compelling universal story about a young woman finding her way in the world. What authors inspired you as you wove together all these elements?

LB: I always joke that I want to write a big Cobb salad of a book, throwing in everything that I love. Chicken, bam! Avocado, bam! Carrots, bam! Peanut butter, ba—OK, maybe not peanut butter.

All of the genres you mention are genres I love, so why wouldn't I want to play in all of them at the same time? (LOL. Because you will LOSE. YOUR. MIND.) Some of the influences on Diviners include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Stephen King, Alan Moore, The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stephen Sondheim, All the President's Men, Ragtime, Ray Bradbury, Hammer horror films, Langston Hughes, and every creepy ghost story ever told at a slumber party with my friends over a Ouija board (which we then had to stash in the freezer so it couldn't come after us during a sleepless night). So, you know, just one or two influences.

Elisha: What books would you recommend to readers who enjoy your Diviners and Gemma Doyle series?

LB: Mmmm, recommendations! My favorite. I think Kendare Blake writes great horror. Holly Black and Nova Ren Suma write beautifully and eerily.

If you're looking for epic creepiness, there's an adult novel, The Passage by Justin Cronin, that I loved. It's long, so you'll be occupied for a while. I will always love Stephen King's Salem's Lot and The Stand.

Heather: I'm curious about your research process! What kinds of surprising things have you found in your research that may or may not have found their way into your writing?

LB: Oooh! Research! (Aaaannnd that excitement level lets you know I live a sad, sad life.) I've found all kinds of interesting things in research.

For Rebel Angels, one of my favorite finds was about the Bethlem Royal Hospital, aka Bedlam. I spoke with the archivist there, Colin Gale, and read his book—and I found out that the hospital used to host dances for the patients. They'd invite the public, thinking that it would be good for the patients. Never in a million years would I have thought that this was a possibility. That knowledge allowed me to find an interesting way to get my characters in and out of the hospital without being seen because there was a huge dance going on. It solved a plot problem!

For Diviners, one of my favorite fun facts was about the popular "health" drink Radithor radium water. (Look it up and be horrified.) It was an irradiated drink touted as a health serum! Sure, nothing wrong there—"Hey, Timmy, how come your bones are glowing?" Yikes. There was a wealthy industrialist, Eben Byers, who drank it by the case. Not surprisingly, it killed him. But first it rotted off his jaw. He was so full of radiation, he had to be buried in a lead-lined coffin. And that's one of the things that led to our stricter food and drug laws.

So fun fact to share at your next party: "Oh, while you're enjoying that perfectly healthy DIET COKE, let me tell you this story about Radithor…." You'll be so popular, Heather!

Amanda: Do you have any advice on how to encourage reluctant readers?

LB: Oh, I hear you on this. I think my first question for the reluctant reader would be this: What makes you reluctant to pick up a book? Is its length, wordplay, or subject matter intimidating? Do you need to see more space on the page? Is it hard to maintain interest for long periods of time? Do you like shorter chapters? What books have managed to hold your attention or speak to you?

Sometimes I can be a reluctant reader, too, especially when I'm drafting a novel. My head is swimming with words, ideas, and in-depth stuff. Then when I try to look at a novel, I'm like, "Really? More of this?" So I'd turn to shorter things: plays, comics, short stories, graphic novels, essays. Then I could read without feeling overwhelmed.

Above all, I think it's OK to let reluctant readers know that there are many different reading experiences and that all of them are legit. If a book isn't speaking to you, it's OK to put it down and find something else.

Cassandra: I've been a fan for a long time, and asking you a question is really exciting! What would you do with one day in the Realms?

LB: You are the sweetest! Thank you so much. Hmmm. What would I do with one day in the Realms? Well, I'd probably muck it all up! Somehow I feel like it would just be a giant meme of me standing with a nuclear cloud of magic behind me. The caption: "Oops." I'm not sure I should be trusted with that kind of magic. I mean, I have a hard enough time trying to master my tech. I can't imagine what would happen if I were let loose with magic.

But I suppose if I had one day in the Realms, I'd gather everyone I could, hop on Gorgon, and go rescue Kartik from that Tree of Souls.

Faith: Did you always want to be an author? What other career have you always wanted to try?

LB: I did NOT always want to be an author. I'm not sure I really internalized that you could be an author unless you were dead. "Dead Author" didn't seem like a career path with legs! I was such a head-in-the-clouds dreamer of a kid/teenager that I had trouble focusing on any one thing. I wanted to do ten things at once, and I probably half-finished all ten. (In truth, I'm pretty sure I'm ADHD, which can work to my advantage when, say, I'm working on a four-book series with multiple threads.)

I thought I wanted to be an actress or an artist or a filmmaker for a long time. I grew up doing theater and loved being onstage…until I developed stage fright. All along, I was creating funny little stories. I didn't realize that I was already writing.

But if I could try something else, I'd say singer-songwriter or therapist. And if I had the smarts for it—which I do not, sadly—I'd want to be a theoretical physicist and work on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

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