Q&A with Dhonielle Clayton

Posted by Goodreads on February 14, 2018
Imagine a world where everyone is born grotesque, but a revered group of young women can transform that ugliness into beauty. They can change the way you look, from your hair to your skin color to the shape of your body—for a price. This is how author Dhonielle Clayton describes the premise of her hotly anticipated young adult fantasy novel, The Belles.

Combining elements from Scott Westerfield's Uglies series and the opulence of Marie Antoinette's court, the world of The Belles is a place where Clayton says "decadence, frivolity, and excess are valued above all else." But beneath its glimmering surface lies a growing malignancy. A darkness that Camellia Beauregard—a Belle vying for a place at the royal court—must confront, both in herself and others.

Prior to writing The Belles, Clayton cowrote Tiny Pretty Things with Sona Charaipotra. As she prepared to release her first solo debut, we asked Clayton to tell us how she unpacked the ever-changing concept of beauty, the value that our society places on it, and why it resonates so deeply with her audience.

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Goodreads: In what ways is the world of The Belles a mirror of our own? In what ways is it different?

Dhonielle Clayton: I wanted to unpack the beauty economy in our own world—trending hair colors, body types, hair styles, eye colors, fashion looks, products, makeup—and create exaggerations in a secondary world fantasy so we could explore them at a safe distance. Discussing bodies and beauty and obsession can be triggering and painful for many of us, so I wanted to create another place where we can have those complicated conversations. Orléans is pretty at first glance, luring you in—as I feel our current beauty culture does—and then dives headfirst into exploring its dark edges.

The world of The Belles is different from our world because through European colonization and imperialism their beauty standards have dominated and shaped what is beautiful throughout our world. I chose not to define beauty standards in The Belles as one definitive look, but rather explore how the beauty economy could shift quickly to accommodate and capitalize on all sorts of looks being prized.

GR: What urged you to tell this particular story, and why tell it now?

DC: When I was a pimply, puffy-haired preteen in the mid-1990s, I overheard a conversation at my local suburban mall between several men about their respective girlfriends' bodies. They were thumbing through a popular magazine as they discussed how much better their girlfriends might look if they had longer and leaner legs, bigger breasts, different hair textures, a more slender frame, softer skin, etc., and comparing them to the celebrity women voted the most beautiful women in the world that year. This conversation broke something deep down inside of me and made me ask a lot of questions: Why didn't I look like the girls in those magazines? Were there ways I could achieve those looks? Was there a way to be the most beautiful woman in the world?

All of this anxiety led to the creation of the world of Orléans—a place where you could change yourself down to your bones—your skin color, your hair color, your hair texture, your body shape, your facial structure. I wanted to work out that obsession that my preteen self had—and, let's face it, still my adult self. What would I do if I could change myself completely? How far would I go? How ugly could it get, and why? Is there a way to be the most beautiful person in the world?

Given the explosion of social media, I thought this was the right time to have deep conversations about what we're willing to do to our bodies.

GR: The characters in your book have the ability to change everything from their skin color to their mannerisms. What are the advantages of this? What are the dangers?

DC: The advantages of this magical adaptation mean that you can essentially try on any look you want. Your outer shell becomes fluid and almost meaningless. The dangers of this ability are that one can lose a sense of who they are and undervalue their natural template.

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GR: At one point in the book, your main character, Camellia, expresses a desire to make the people "love themselves." What does this mean, and why is this important for her?

DC: As a teen, I didn't love the way I looked or my personality. I always wanted to look like someone else, be like someone else. I thought the women photographed in magazines were living their best lives, with their smooth, poreless skin; white teeth; and perfect smiles. The bubbly girls were always the most popular, and my teen self was a little ornery, sarcastic, and less friendly. I wanted Camellia to be an ambitious girl who wants to try to leave the world of Orléans a little better than she found it. I think that's what teens should strive to do.

GR: Although rivalry and competition are strong themes in your book, there is also a strong sense of sisterhood and female friendship. Can you tell us more about this juxtaposition?

DC: I value female friendship and companionship, and I wanted to lean into some of the dynamics that I've witnessed and/or experienced in mostly female spaces. I also wanted to dig into many of the things that divide us as women—our access to power, the patriarchy, and our relationships with our own bodies.

GR: You mentioned that your world-building was influenced by New Orleans, France, and Japan. What fascinated you about these places? How do they define and express beauty?

DC: The concept of beauty in those three specific cultures has always fascinated me. I lived in both France and Japan and have traveled a lot to New Orleans. I love the attention to detail, the history of decadence and opulence, and their robust culinary traditions.

GR: Traditionally, the magic (arcana) of the Belles is gifted to women. Can men be gifted with this kind of magic as well?

DC: I wanted the arcana of the Belles to be only for women. I'm interested in exploring magic and femininity and what the intersections of those two things produce.

GR: You mentioned that you'd like readers to examine the value they place on physical beauty, especially among women and girls. Where is the line between striving for an ideal and wanting to feel good about yourself?

DC: Balance is key, and placing an emphasis on strength, health, and vitality has helped me conquer my own demons surrounding the desire to attain an ideal look.

GR: The Belles has been consistently slated as one of the most anticipated young adult debuts of 2018 and has received a fantastic response from other young adult authors (Angie Thomas, Holly Black, Rick Riordan, to name a few). What has it meant to you to have this kind of reaction?

DC: I am overwhelmed and humbled by the response. The book sold in 2014, and I was fortunate enough to have the time to get this book right. I believe that writers are readers, and all those authors who have loved The Belles are writers with books that have had profound influences on me.

Dhonielle Clayton's The Belles is now available at a bookstore near you. Don't forget to add it your Want to Read shelf! Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

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