2017 debut author Rosalyn Eves recently sat down with 2016 debut authors Kelly Zekas and Tarun Shanker. (Though to be proper, it ought to have been tea.)
Mild-mannered assistant by day, milder-mannered writer by night, Tarun Shanker is a New York University graduate currently living in Los Angeles. His idea of paradise is a place where kung-fu movies are projected on clouds, David Bowie’s music fills the air and chai tea flows freely from fountains.
Kelly Zekas is a writer and actor living in NYC. YA is her absolute favorite thing on earth other than cupcakes and she has spent many hours crying over fictional deaths. She also started reading Harlequin romances at a possibly too early age (12?), and still loves a good paperback romance.
Tarun and Kelly met in a freshman year writing class at NYU and started writing These Vicious Masks a few years later. It is their first novel.
England, 1882. Evelyn is bored with society and its expectations. So when her beloved sister, Rose, mysteriously vanishes, she ignores her parents and travels to London to find her, accompanied by the dashing Mr. Kent. But they’re not the only ones looking for Rose. The reclusive, young gentleman Sebastian Braddock is also searching for her, claiming that both sisters have special healing powers. Evelyn is convinced that Sebastian must be mad, until she discovers that his strange tales of extraordinary people are true—and that her sister is in graver danger than she feared.
Rosalyn: I love the premise of this book: a bored high society girl who, in pursuit of her missing sister, discovers an aspect of her world she never dreamed existed. How did you guys come up with this idea? When did you know this idea might be “the one”?
Tarun and Kelly: We definitely started with the world first by combining two of our favorite things (Victorian romance and superheroes) and brainstorming character types and their possible powers. When we noticed the list kept getting longer and longer and that the tropes of the two genres clicked together really well, we were committed. It almost felt like a happy accident to find that the themes of identity, responsibility and reputation were at the core of both a superhero’s life and a Victorian girl’s. We wanted to take advantage of that unique angle.
But it’s funny, we can’t exactly remember how we came up with the ‘missing sister’ part of the premise, though it’s been there since that first draft seven years ago. Tarun came from a screenwriting background, so he’s always been one for simple, tangible goals to drive the plot. And when we thought about giving Evelyn’s sister healing powers, we realized how important she’d be to a world where modern medicine still had a long ways to go. So it was probably the best way we could get Evelyn away from her parents and into the superpower world, while providing the story some urgency. We’re also both only children– perhaps there’s a subconscious desire for siblings lurking in here too.
Rosalyn: I’m also fascinated by your collaboration. A lot of times, when writers collaborate, they write alternating viewpoints. But this was a single POV novel, and the collaboration was so seamless–how did you do it? How did you decide to collaborate, and what was your collaborative process like?
Tarun and Kelly: We definitely hope it’s seamless! We sorta fell into the collaboration. Kelly was originally just more of a beta reader and editor. But slowly we somehow were writing it together without quite knowing how. When we edit, one of us usually takes a chapter, character, or plot thread (depending on what we need to edit) and goes through to roughly changes things. Then the other person goes back over and heavily edits. Then it switches, over and over, until we are both happy with all the elements. We do have pet characters and moments, of course – Tarun gives Kent the best lines, and Kelly loves the more romantic/tension-y moments – but there is no paragraph of the book (probably no line!) that was written by just one of us.
In drafting the sequel, we are basically sketching out chapter chunks (Tarun took 1-4, Kelly took 5-9, etc) and then switching. And then we will do the same going back over each other’s to make sure it stays consistent in voice and character.
As for the POV, Evelyn’s character did give us a lot of trouble at first (she had a very different personality in the early drafts) but since the both of us had to know her well enough to write her, we think we ended up giving her more depth and dimension than one of us would have alone. We imagine it’s somewhat like writing for TV. It might take longer to get there, but your characters need enough definition that anyone in the writer’s room can match their voice.
Rosalyn: Your publication path for this novel was a little unusual. Instead of querying an agent in a more traditional way (or even querying a publisher directly), you entered–and won!–a Swoon Reads contest. Can you tell me more about that? What made you decide to enter the contest? What was the process like, from posting your novel on the site to discovering that you were being offered a publishing contract?
Tarun and Kelly: Yes! It is a different story, for sure. Swoon Reads accepts unsolicited manuscripts for young adult and new adult romances of any genre. Then people read, comment, and rate manuscripts. However, it isn’t quite a contest! The team at Swoon Reads doesn’t just choose the top three highest rated at the end of each deadline. They use the ratings and comments to guide their decisions, sort of like a curated slush pile, and pick however many manuscripts they feel strongly about.
As for us, we had been querying for a long time and changing the book over and over with revise+resubmits that never went anywhere. We were instantly intrigued by Swoon Reads and their platform, but worried they didn’t want a trilogy that wasn’t fully about the romance. We were shocked when they emailed us and asked to set up a call! Probably one of the best moments of our lives. They have been an incredible team, guiding us through the whole process. We love Swoon Reads quite a lot.
Rosalyn: Creating an alternate world opens up lots of possibilities for straying from historical fact. What kinds of research did you do to create the world for this book–and how did you decide what details to use, and what to make up? What might surprise someone who actually lived in 1882 England about the world of your book?
From the beginning, we knew that we didn’t want to go fully in the direction of creating an alternate world and a different history for the years leading up to 1882. The main appeal to the concept for us was having a familiar Victorian England with a superpower world hidden in the cracks. So for the non-fantastical elements we generally tried to be as historically accurate as possible. We really liked having Evelyn visit specific public places that actually existed because it helped make the fantasy parts of the story feel a bit more real to us, grounding it in the history and geography of London. For that research, we used the Internet the most. The Dictionary of Victorian London and the Victorian Web were our two favorite websites and we supplemented that with whatever scans of Victorian maps, travel guides, newspapers and medical journals we could find.
But at the same time, we knew we had the safety and flexibility of making subtle divergences. The story was the main priority, so if a plot point required fudging the history a little bit, we’d go for it, while keeping a believable reason for it in the back of our minds. One specific business in the story was actually shut down in 1878, but we still really wanted to use it, so we just imagined how a powered person might have helped it stay open. It’s like building the world from the inside, in a way. There’ll probably never be an actual explanation for that within the text, but if it’s within the realm of possibility for the world then it’s a gap a reader could fill in with their imagination– and that’s often more fun anyway!
That’s probably also what a person who lived in 1882 England would do if they read our book. They’d start filling in gaps and find themselves surprised by the possibility of these superpowers explaining other oddities in the world, from freak shows and seances to the era’s biggest scientific and technological discoveries.
Favorite Victorian accessory:
Kelly: A fan – what can’t you do with a fan?
Oddest job you ever had
Kelly: Nothing too odd, really! But maybe personal assistant jobs can get a little strange at times.
Tarun: Tagging hundreds of films and TV show episodes for some mysterious database. I had to read reviews and full synopses of whichever ones I was assigned, spoil them for myself, and assign them relevant keywords from a massive reference list.
What were you reading at sixteen?
Kelly: A Great and Terrible Beauty & Sloppy Firsts
Tarun: X-men comics and Charlie Kaufman screenplays.
Plotter or pantser?
Theme song for THESE VICIOUS MASKS? (Alternately, if that’s too broad, a theme song for Evelyn?)
It gets used for anything with a tough female character, but Bad Reputation by Joan Jett is kind of perfect for Evelyn.
If you could have any magical power, what would it be?
About the Interviewer:
Rosalyn Eves is a writer of romantic, lyrical, atmospheric young adult fantasy novels. Her first novel, THE BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, a historical fantasy set at the height of the Austro-Hungarian empire (with magic!) debuts Spring 2017 from Knopf/Random House.
In an alternate 19th-century Europe, after 16-year-old British gentlewoman Anna Arden is exiled to Hungary for spell-breaking, she finds that nothing about her world or her own lack of magic is quite as it seems. Fissures in the Binding that holds her world’s magic are expanding, and the ancient creatures bound by that spell beg Anna to release them. As rebellion sweeps across Hungary, Anna’s unique ability to break spells becomes the catalyst everyone is seeking. In the company of nobles, revolutionaries, and gypsies, Anna must choose: deny her unique power and cling to the life she’s always wanted—or embrace her ability, destroy the Binding, spark a revolution, and change the face of magic itself.