Ashley Poston on Writing a Different Kind of Fairy Tale Retelling

Posted by Sharon on October 1, 2020
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Ashley Poston made her name with Once Upon a Con, a contemporary series set in the world of fandom, and her two-part space opera, Heart of Iron. Now she’s adding fantasy to her repertoire with the fairy tale–inspired Among the Beasts & Briars, the sweeping story of Cerys, a gardener’s daughter, who must brave a forbidden forest to break the mysterious curse that imperils her kingdom.
Cerys has always been safe in Aloriya, working with and preparing to succeed her father. But threats lurk in the wood bordering the realm, a dark and dangerous place that killed Cerys’ friends and mother and left her with a strange curse in her blood. When a new queen is crowned, the forest’s “woodcursed” ghouls are unleashed, and Cerys, along with the fox that follows her everywhere, embarks on a death-defying quest to save both themselves and their world.
While Aloriya may be a far cry from the nerd-packed convention halls of Geekerella, book one of Once Upon a Con in which geek girl Ellie indulges her obsession with the sci-fi series she’s always adored, self-described full-time fangirl Poston has often looked to classic tales for inspiration. Geekerella was a Cinderella retelling, and its sequels drew upon The Prince and the Pauper and Beauty and the Beast. Heart of Iron, meanwhile, was inspired by the story of Anastasia.
Poston’s new book similarly began life with its roots in Beauty and the Beast. But as Poston, who’s also a prolific fanfic writer, worked on the story, it grew into something “very divorced from the fairy tale.” The South Carolina–based author tells interviewer Catherine Elsworth how she developed her beast- and briar-filled world, reveals why she’s more of a “pantster than a plotter,” and discusses the importance of including LGBTQ+ characters in her work.

Goodreads: Among the Beasts & Briars is a departure from both the Once Upon a Con series and your sci-fi duology. What was behind your decision to do a straight-up fantasy book?

Ashley Poston: So, Among the Beasts & Briars was basically a labor of love. I wanted to do something that was reminiscent of the fairy tales that I really loved as a kid but with a new twist on it. Also, I like stretching my writer muscles and trying new things.
I had previously written a space opera (Heart of Iron), and there was magic in that, and in fairy tales I really like the idea of transformation and curses and how not all curses are bad. So I wanted to dig into that in a fantasy setting because I hadn’t done a fantasy before and I wanted to see if I could do one.
A lot of the fantasy books I’ve read, especially in YA, have been really dark and scary and haven’t had a very happily-ever-after ending. That’s why I love Margaret Rogerson’s An Enchantment of Ravens and A Sorcery of Thorns. I love her endings, she nails them so properly. So I wanted to see if I could do that as well. I wanted to re-create that feeling of “Oh, these characters are in a lot of danger and I’m rooting for them and I don’t know what will happen,” but I like the satisfaction of knowing that they are going to be OK at the end.

GR: What was it like to write in this genre and remove yourself from the trappings of modern life?

AP: It was great, actually. This book took a lot longer to write than my contemporaries—I think this story has been with me for about eight or nine years now. So I was writing Among the Beasts & Briars while I was also writing and editing The Princess and the Fangirl and Bookish and the Beast.
So whenever I went back to Among the Beasts & Briars, it felt like a palate cleanse—I get to do something fantastical, something where I don’t have to worry about whether this is something that could happen in real life, because I’m making all the calls myself in this world-building. So I really liked that aspect of it.
The only challenging part for me was planting seeds in the beginning so I could do some of the more fantastical things I wanted to do later on in the book. In a contemporary, I don’t have to think about that because the world-building is set up already and I just work within those constraints. But writing a fantasy book, there really are no constraints. The sky’s the limit. So that was the hardest part for me.

GR: Can you talk about the world-building, because it’s such a rich, complicated world not only in the setting but its history and mythology. Did that all come at once or was it a long process?

AP: It was a very, very long process. I think I wrote Among the Beasts & Briars eight times before I got the world-building right. Every time something would be wrong or missing. I know the first four iterations of this book didn’t have an enchanted wood; it was just a regular old forest. And Cerys’ curse did not come out until much later as well.
Also, in earlier drafts the character of Fox was completely different. So it was just me finding the right placements for them. I always knew the relationship between Fox and Cerys and how I wanted them to interact with each other and the world around them, but I didn’t know what parts they would play in the world. As I figured that out, I also figured out the world-building for the world. So I think I took the long way ’round because I didn’t just sit and think about it at first.

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GR: Were there any particular stories or books that were influential as you were writing this?
AP: I always call Among the Beasts & Briars my very divorced Beauty and the Beast retelling because I started writing it as a Beauty and the Beast retelling, but then it evolved into what it is, which is very divorced from the fairy tale. But that’s where it started because there’s a dark wood and there is—well, I can’t say what else because there would be spoilers, but it was that and I took a lot from a lot of other books as well.
Like I said, I love Margaret Rogerson’s books. I took a lot of the character development from Diana Wynne Jones because I love the way she writes characters and the way they interact with each other. I wanted to try to emulate that as much as I could because [in] her entire work that is something that I really love and enjoy.
GR: Some of the imagery, especially with the forest monsters, is pretty scary. You also capture the violent aspect of magical transformation. What was it like coming to grips with that dark side of fantasy, the pain and the creepiness?
AP: I knew I wanted to write something that was light and fluffy and happily ever after but still had the grit of the darker YAs that a lot of people like. So I knew that things couldn’t just be bright and golden and wonderful. There had to be some pain.
I knew that the transformations and how characters got from one point to another would have to be grueling, because the way I tackle character development is through earning something, like they can get to that happily ever after, but they have to earn it. So I guess I turned that up to 11, and I was like, let’s do this as hard as possible and then there will be comfort at the end.
I come from the world of fanfic, so I know a lot of fanfics have the hurt/comfort trope. I really leaned into that because I’m also a fan of that trope. So I guess it was innate for me because I had read so much fanfic. So I was like, “Oh, this has to happen so this can happen.”
Whenever I want to shock or scare a reader, I think [about] what would scare me and write that: So let’s have this person sprouting thorns from their skin, that sounds like fun. Those scenes were so much fun to write, but I also had to walk away every five minutes and go and think of something nice before I could come back to it!
GR: Several Goodreads reviewers have commented that this is the story they feel they need right now, a good, old-fashioned fairy tale. One person said: “Thank God books like this are getting published to soothe our melancholy pandemic souls.” How does that make you feel?
AP: I am really happy and honored that they have picked up my little book about two idiots on a hike through the woods. It feels really great. I’m so happy to know that the book is finding its audience and people are finding solace in it.
I wanted to write a book that did that, and I’m happy that it seems to be doing the job. It feels so great because I’m like, “Oh, you’re sad, too? So am I! Let’s go to sad island together and just be happy for a little while.”
GR: You worked as a graphic designer in publishing. How did you first start writing?
AP: Yes, I worked as a cover designer for a while, and then I was Bloomsbury’s marketing designer. When I was a cover designer, I already had my agent, Holly Root, and when I went to Bloomsbury and moved to New York, I was already on sub [submitting a manuscript for publication consideration] for Heart of Iron. I was also working there when I got pitched for Geekerella because Geekerella is an IP [intellectual property].
So I’ve always been writing, and that was always my first love, but I never expected things to go from zero to 100 so fast. In the last four years I have written six books, so it’s been a lot, but I’ve always really loved writing.
I started writing fanfic when I was nine or ten, and I’ve just never stopped writing. I don’t write for the fame or the clout of it. I just really like writing, and I like telling stories, and even if I didn’t have contracts or an agent, I would still be writing. It might be a lot of fanfic, but I definitely would still be writing because it’s my way of finding some joy in the hot mess that is reality.

GR: Do you still write fanfic?

AP: I definitely do. I write fanfic these days when I am in a rut, when I am between books, or when I can’t get a chapter out. I go to a fanfic and I warm up a little, and then I’m like, “OK, I think I can do this now,” and then I go back to the chapter that I was working on. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of writing, and I’ll probably get carpal tunnel in the next five years, but you know what, YOLO!
GR: As you say, you’re very prolific. Can you describe your average writing day?
AP: My writing day is usually admin work in the morning and then in the afternoon, after I have had about six cups of coffee, I open up my Word document and look at the bullet points I left myself from my last writing session. Because that’s what I always do: Whenever I leave a manuscript, I always put bullet points for future me so that I know exactly where I’m going.
Because I’m more of a pantster than a plotter, I plot out the main outline of the story, but I don’t really get to the meat of it until I’m in the work. So having bullet points for a future me really helps a lot, knowing where I need to go and what I need to do. If I’m stuck on a scene, then I’ll jump ahead, but I’ll highlight where I was and I’ll just keep going, and then the highlighted bit will be for a future me again.
GR: Do you often sit down to write and suddenly find hours have passed and it’s dark outside?
AP: All the time! It’s a lot harder now because the news cycle is just 24/7, so I have to put my phone on mute and disconnect from the internet, zone out for a few hours. I can usually get in about 5,000 words a day if I’m uninterrupted, but if I am, then [I'll write] about 2,000 words.

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GR: Has this year been good for you, writing-wise, or has it been too distracting and troubling?
AP: I’ve gotten about the same amount done. I tried very hard at the beginning of the pandemic to write a lot, and it burned me out very quickly. Burnout takes me a long time to recover from because I am working so much and all the time, and that’s always really bad, especially on deadline. Thank goodness I didn’t have a deadline earlier this year, so I could just veg out and play Animal Crossing for nine hours. But then I had to come up with a daily schedule so I didn’t burn myself out again, and that’s been working really well for me.
GR: Would you say you prefer writing in one genre to another or do you like trying different ones?
AP: Oh gosh, I like writing in almost every genre about equally. My agent is like, “Can you stick to one genre?” And I’m like, “No.” So that’s a lot for my agent to figure out. I like writing in every different genre, and I like trying new things.
I think the throughline for me isn’t one genre or what the trappings of the world are but the relationships between the characters. I really like books with strong friendships and found families and will they/won’t they romances, so that’s what I like to bring almost every book that I write regardless of genre.
GR: Your work, including this book, frequently features LGBTQ+ characters, and they are always such a seamless and natural part of the story. Is that part of your fiction landscape?
AP: Yes, so I am also queer. I wanted to create books and stories that don’t really deal with “Oh, this person is gay.” I didn’t want that to be a landmark thing. I wanted to create worlds that reflect that it’s normal, because it is, and not draw too much attention to it because it is normal.
I take comfort in writing worlds like that, and I know readers take comfort in thinking into worlds like that. I recently read The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune that also does it seamlessly, and the entire book is a warm hug. I just love that kind of setting where it doesn’t matter how you identify, you are here and you are welcome.
GR: Can you tell us about some books you’ve read recently and loved or are excited to read?
AP: Absolutely. Like I said, I loved The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J.Klune. It had the best Diana Wynne JonesHowl’s Moving Castle warm hug feel. It was basically Diana Wynne Jones mixed with Good Omens, and I just loved it.

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn is fantastic. It’s a retelling of Arthurian legend, and it was just so good. I also just read A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, which obviously I am going to always recommend because I pull a lot of inspiration from Novik’s Uprooted.
GR: What’s next for you?
AP: I do have new things in the pipeline, but they haven’t been announced yet, so I’m not sure what I can say about them right now!


Ashley Poston’s Among the Beasts & Briars will be available in the U.S. on October 20. Don’t forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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Melissa ~ Missy (FrayedBooks) Great interview, I can't wait to read Among the Beasts and Briars!

message 2: by Rhianna (last edited Oct 15, 2020 11:38PM) (new)

Rhianna Stephenson This has definitely gone on my to-read list! Ace interview too

message 3: by Viv (new)

Viv I'm so excited for this book 💛 and I loved this interview :)

message 4: by Aqeelah (new)

Aqeelah Ally i'm definitely getting my hands on this book asap! it sounds amazing :)

message 5: by Mary (new)

Mary This book is fantastic! Everyone should definitely find a copy asap!

Jolaawof olufunmilayo The book is nice

message 7: by Stefanie (new)

Stefanie Great interview! I'm looking forward to this book!

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