Classic stories beg for retelling. Since the first campfire, we’ve gathered ‘round to hear of mighty deeds, melting hearts, and distant lands full of wonder. Each new voice adding timbre to the tale.
For his YA urban fantasy, The Emerald City, author J. A. Beard doesn’t simply retell the story of Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz. Where’s the fun in that? No, Mr. Beard drops all the magical elements into a dice cup and tumbles out an entirely new narrative.
As a long-time fan of the girl from Kansas, I was intrigued by Beard’s interpretation. After her parent’s tragic death, an orphan named Gail Dorjee masks her grief with a quick a sarcastic tongue. It comes in handy when her aloof aunt and uncle send her to an exclusive boarding school in Seattle called Osland Academy, replete with snotty socialites, conspiring teachers, and a physically oppressive environment.
She can’t leave. Her cell phone never works. The rich-girl clique harasses her. A teacher threatens her life. And try as she might, she can’t even form a proper cuss word.
Osland won’t let her.
To combat the evil forces gathering around her, Gail’s forms allies. Her friends include a timid girl, an unemotional boy, and metaphor mangling roommate. When glass shatters and fountains erupt without warning, she discovers she’s stronger than she thinks. Though strength alone isn’t enough when someone wants her dead.
She needs to go home.
But where exactly is that?
Please join me in welcoming novelist J.A. Beard.
(waits for applause to die down)
ME: The Emerald City is an unusual derivative work. In it you tell a
completely new story but with touch points to the original throughout the
novel. I enjoyed discovering these Easter eggs as I read. How did you
prepare to write it? Did you reread Frank Baum’s books or watch the MGM
J. A.: I reread the original book. Although it’s hard not to be influenced by the film, in general I was using the book as my inspiration. Depending on one’s background, that may cause them to miss certain references. I’ve had several people comment about the lack of anything that seems to reference the famous ruby slippers. This is because in the original book the shoes were silver. There is one rather direct and obvious reference to silver in my book and another that is a bit more discreet, though not buried THAT deeply.
It’s interesting that you asked me this, as I’ve had mixed reactions to writing the book in this way. Some people, like you, really enjoyed the indirect referencing of Oz and “Easter eggs,” whereas some others seemed a bit more off-put that my story wasn’t a more direct overlay of the original story.
I do have a bit of an experiment in mind for a future book similarly inspired by another classic. I think when I write and publish that book I’m not going to mention the inspiration until the end notes.
I’ll note as far as The Osland Trilogy goes, the second book will actually allude to things from The Marvelous Land of Oz. The third Osland book, however, won’t have any real links to the Oz books other than the characters and symbols already established in the first two.
ME: We experience the story world through Gail Dorjee, a sophomore in high
school. How does a man interested in virology, Japanese history, and
Regency England channel his inner teen girl?
J. A.: Perhaps there’s some fancy literature analysis term for this, but I’ll just describe it as a sort of pseudo-“method writing” analogous to method acting. I’ve been out of high school… a while. Although my time on mass transit in the last few years has exposed me to plenty of teens and their conversations, in preparation for the book, I spent time consuming teen girl-targeted media, such as books and movies. I listened to a lot of popular teen music. That sort of thing.
Really, though, people are people, regardless of age. I think if you’re constructing a character and have a handle on their experiences, you can go from there to make a character that people find realistic and compelling.
Plus, many of the issues Gail deals with are universal, even if her particular experiences and particular background aren’t all that common (Wikipedia informs me there are only about 9000 Tibetan Americans in the entire United States). Most people have dealt with grief, with loss, with feeling lonely, having to deal with change, and, for that matter, thoroughly unpleasant people at school, whether adult or fellow student. Bullying, of course, is a perpetual and cross-cultural problem.
ME: Gail and another classmate are both of minority descent. While I never
considered Dorothy a minority, her quasi-orphan status made her different
than most kids. What do you see as the connection between their
J. A.: Both Gail and Dorothy are thrust into a strange new world that is different from what they were used to, and both have to face that challenge without the main forms of love and support they had before and have to gather their own courage to step up to the challenges.
ME: You’ve lived with Gail for some time now. What do you think she learned
during her adventure in Osland? About others? Or herself?
J. A.: Well, lots of things. She learned that love and caring can give you strength long after those who you’ve loved has passed away, the true complementary power of friendship, and just that most fundamental of truths: appearances can be deceiving, in both a good and bad way.
I also played with her background a bit to hit on a theme that though was somewhat Buddhist-inspired, I think is fairly universal: the idea that hatred and negative emotions end up hurting the person who feels them, in the long run, more than the object of their feelings.
One thing I wanted to play with in the book was to have a strong character, who overall, ends up stronger by admitting and accepting her weaknesses and realizing there are ways to accommodate for those that don’t make her co-dependent or weak.
ME: You’re a self-proclaimed restless soul and have lived all over. Was
Seattle one of your prior addresses? Was the homeless nature of Dorothy in
Oz what drew you to her story?
J. A.: I spent several years in the greater Seattle-Tacoma area, though I lived in various cities around Seattle, never Seattle proper. I was inspired to choose Seattle as my setting both because I was familiar with the city and because it just happens to have the nickname, “The Emerald City.” It was too perfect. Once I picked the city, certain plot elements fell immediately into place based on a few unique features of Seattle.
Of course, Gail and her friends don’t get out much into the city during this book (though when they do, it’s a big deal), but I intend to have them wandering around a bit more in the second book.
I was actually inspired to do an Oz story after watching a performance of the musical Wicked, which, incidentally, tacks much closer to the original Oz in terms of setting (the movie version in particular). When I was watching the show, a light bulb went off, and I had this seed of an idea involving a modern-day Oz story.
The big word these days in fantasy is that “portal fantasies” where a young person leaves their world to enter a new one are a dying breed and don’t resonate as well with a lot of modern readers (young adults or otherwise). There are various theories for this, but you can accomplish the same thing in contemporary/urban fantasy by just introducing the person to a world they didn’t know existed. So, I took the Oz portal fantasy, flipped it into a contemporary fantasy, and ran with it.
Things changed a lot, though, as the story progressed. Originally, for example, Gail was going to be a bit more of a juvenile delinquent. She was going to be sent to Osland after her rich aunt and uncle cut a deal with the local authorities. In that version, Gail steals a “Tornado” sports car from some guy she meets at a bar after sneaking in with a fake ID.
The idea was that she had fallen into that sort of behavior after the death of her parents. Although things would have been interesting in a different sort of way, if I’d kept Gail the Delinquent, I wanted to isolate Gail more emotionally by presenting her aunt and uncle as just distant people who didn’t care about her and not as people who had a legitimate gripe with a girl who was committing grand theft auto while possibly drunk underage. Even if they still were jerks in that version, the emotional texture would have ended up more muddled than nuanced, I believe.
ME: I understand you’re a closet pie man, what’s the secret to a great pie?
J. A.: I don’t really know if I’d say I’m a “closet” pie man. I’m pretty open about it. The secret is a great crust. Foundation is everything.
ME: What’s your favorite? Any recipes you’d care to share?
J. A.: Oh, I’m really not sure. It really depends on my mood, though I tend to be more partial to fruit-based pies in general. I don’t really have any particular great recipes. I’m still working up my skills at this point.
ME: You’re writing a sequel to The Emerald City, and you’re about to release
a paranormal Regency romance and a fantasy, both for adults. What can you share with us about these two works?
J. A.: My paranormal Regency romance, A Woman of Proper Accomplishments, is my attempt to preserve the flavor of an English Regency with the plausible insertion of public magic (even if the people in the story mostly insist what they are doing isn’t magic). I tried hard to present something that would alter history in subtle ways, but not completely overwhelm the setting (at least in this book). Part of that was accomplished just by making the magic very rare, overall, in the setting.
The story follows unmarried Helena Preston. She’s interested in “unfeminine” things such as scholarship and, in particular, spiritus, the ability to imbue life into non-living objects. When a handsome, unmarried spiritus scholar visits her area, she naturally finds herself attracted to him.
After she’s attacked in the woods and the evidence begins to point towards him, she finds herself struggling with how to confront the man and her own growing attraction to the handsome militia captain who saved her during the attack. So a touch of magic, a touch of mystery, and more than a touch of romance.
Just a note, I was inspired by Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, so readers shouldn’t expect any bodices to be ripped or steamy love scenes.
This is the first in my “A Proper Woman” trilogy. Each book will focus on a different heroine (all of which appear in the first book) in the same general Regency plus magic setting with the my slightly alternative version of the Napoleonic Wars becoming more important in the next couple books. The second book will focus on a friend of Helena, a vivacious Francophile named Cassie. The third book will focus on Helena’s younger sister.
I am planning to release A Woman of Proper Accomplishments mid-November.
I also have another book slated for release soon, Mind Crafter. This is a more traditional “second world” fantasy. It focuses on a woman named Shala who is a “mind crafter,” a type of mind mage. When she stops an act of terror in a marketplace perpetrated by members of the genocidal Cult of the Cleansing Gods, she’s drawn into a web of intrigue at the imperial palace. All the while she’s having to deal with strange nightmares that are slowly grinding her down.
This is the first book of a planned series. The sequel, actually, has mostly been written, so I might get that one out sometime early next year.
I am planning to release Mind Crafter in mid-December.
ME: Your background leans academic. What has J.A. Beard learned about being
an indie novelist?
J. A.: I learned the following: Take your time. Take your time. Take your time.
If you try to rush something out, you’re going to get burned and it’s going to cause twice as much stress as you scramble to fix it vs. if you just would have spent the extra weeks to begin with.
Creative writing is ridiculously fun and fulfilling. Honestly, if I started selling really well, I’d have no problem quitting my job and doing this full-time. I’ve never really felt that attached to anything like that before other than my family.
I’ve been writing on and off for years, but only started getting serious these last few years. The act of creating a story and sending it out is pure joy. Heck, seeing other people like your work is great.
Now, obviously, we all get people who don’t like our books for whatever reason. Dealing with that sort of thing though has taught me the importance of writing stories with a definite audience in mind and not obsessing over trying to get everybody to like it. I’ve had people say they disliked my book for the same reasons other people loved it.
Most importantly, I’ve learned just how much hard work is involved in getting a story ready for publication. I wrote a decent amount before The Emerald City, but it was never going anywhere, so I was able to just have the fun of writing without the struggle of making something truly publication-ready.