Hi all! Anna-Marie McLemore here, and today I get to talk with Elissa Sussman, whose YA fantasy debut depicts a world in which girls are marked by the colors they wear, and traditional notions of fairy godmothers are just the beginning. Here’s a little more about STRAY:
Princess Aislynn has long dreamed about attending her Introduction Ball, about dancing with the handsome suitors her adviser has chosen for her, about meeting her true love and starting her happily ever after.
When the night of the ball finally arrives and Nerine Academy is awash with roses and royalty, Aislynn wants nothing more than to dance the night away, dutifully following the Path that has been laid out for her. She does not intend to stray.
But try as she might, Aislynn has never quite managed to control the magic that burns within her-magic brought on by wicked, terrible desires that threaten the Path she has vowed to take.
Anna-Marie: Thanks so much for joining us to talk about your debut, Elissa! Can you tell us about some of your favorite fairy tales, and which fairy tales influenced STRAY?
Elissa: Some of my favorite fairy tales are a few of the lesser known ones, like the extremely bloody Bluebeard and the romantic Twelve Dancing Princesses (which has inspired quite a few excellent retellings lately, much to my delight). My absolute favorite however is East of the Sun, West of the Moon. The first half is a mix between Beauty and the Beast and the story of Cupid and Psyche, while the last half is a quest in which the heroine has to save the prince. In short, it is awesome.
For STRAY, though, I chose more familiar and popular fairy tales to help develop the world. There are influences from Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and most especially, Cinderella.
A-M: Speaking of fairy tales, STRAY reimagines the idea of fairy godmothers, giving them rich and often tragic pasts. Could you tell us a little about how they came to be such an important and harrowing part of the story?
Elissa: The center of the story has always been the exploration of fairy godmothers, who are common, yet often unexplored characters within fairy tales. Why do these women only use their powers to grant the wishes of others and are capable of extraordinary magical feats, when they aren’t even given their own names?
A-M: Colors play a huge role in STRAY, dividing the characters and determining how others see them and how they see themselves. What inspired you to include this aspect of STRAY’s society, and how did you choose which colors would signify what?
Elissa: Since class is so important to the Path, I really wanted to have something that was a visual delineation of rank. Something that was inescapable for Aislynn and her peers. I wish I had an interesting explanation as to how I assigned each level of society their color but alas, they are just colors that I liked.
A-M: The complex relationships between the many women in STRAY is one of the book’s richest aspects. Can you tell us a little about the process of how these friendships, rivalries, and enmities evolved?
Elissa: I have a lot of amazing women in my life. As someone who didn’t date much as a teenager, it was my friendships that constituted my most important relationships. But the bond between young girls can be really complicated. I wanted to write a story that both acknowledges how our culture supports the idea that all females are in competition with each other, yet explores how much we can benefit from the support and love of other women. And so Aislynn experiences all of that – belief that you can only win if another girl loses, but also the incredibly powerful bond that can develop when you’re able to push past that zero-sum mentality.
A-M: I love that way of describing it—both Aislynn’s journey and what we as readers can take from it. During the story, Aislynn lives in two different academies for young girls, one where she is a privileged but suspiciously regarded student, and another where she works as a servant. How did you build the details of these settings during your writing?
Elissa: It’s interesting, because in my mind, the two academies are very similar, in both their layout and their decor. But because of the change in Aislynn’s position, she sees them from a very different perspective, not unlike the contrast between Sara’s room and Becky’s attic in A LITTLE PRINCESS. So while we’re at the first Academy, we get a glimpse of the luxury that Aislynn is accustomed to. That changes drastically when she is Redirected and becomes a fairy godmother. But similarly to A LITTLE PRINCESS, Aislynn goes from a place that was more privileged, but very lonely, to a situation where she experiences a wealth of friendship and love, despite her more destitute circumstances.
A-M: Bread and baking play important roles in the story; STRAY even includes one of the central character’s recipes. Are you an avid baker yourself, and what inspired this element of STRAY?
Elissa: I am! My love of baking is something I discovered while working in film production. Like writing, making an animated movie is a long, and often frustrating process. Baking, on the other hand, is something that can be started and completed within an hour or two. For me, it’s immensely satisfying to be able to create something within the span of an afternoon. I wanted Aislynn to have something that brings her comfort, yet is both fairy tale-esque and an act somewhat unbecoming of a princess. I also wanted it to be something that I knew about. Because of that the baking scenes were some of the most fun to write.
A-M: What can you tell us about what you’re working on next?
Elissa: I’m currently working on the follow up to STRAY. Set in the same world, BURN will introduce two new characters, while still following the adventures of Aislynn and her friends.
A-M: As we are the Fearless Fifteeners, can you tell us one thing you’re afraid of and one thing you’re not afraid of?
Elissa: I am absolutely (and admittedly irrationally) terrified of sharks. If I can’t see the bottom of a body of water, I’m not going in, despite being an excellent swimmer. However, I am not afraid of going to the movies alone. I rather love it.
Thanks so much for talking with us about your fabulous debut, Elissa!
Elissa Sussman received her BA from Sarah Lawrence College and in a previous life managed animators and organized spreadsheets at some of the best animation studios in the world, including Nickelodeon, Disney, Dreamworks and Sony Imageworks.You can find her name in the credits of THE CROODS, HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG and TANGLED. She lives in Los Angeles with her boyfriend and their rescue dog, Basil. STRAY is her first novel.
|Anna-Marie McLemore writes from her Mexican-American heritage and the love for stories she learned from her family. She lives in California’s Central Valley with a boy from the other side of the Rockies. Her debut novel THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS, a YA contemporary love story with a magical twist, will be released in 2015 from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. You can find her on Twitter @laannamarie.|