The author behind award-winning YA novels (including "The Au Pairs" series), fantasy novels (the "Blue Bloods" series, among others) and cheeky handbooks (including "How to Become Famous in Two Weeks or Less), is now delving into another literary genre: historical fantasy.
Melissa de la Cruz's new novel, "The Ring and the Crown" (Disney-Hyperion, $17.99), is the first in a series of books that explores palace life within a British-Franco empire, during a time when social calendars, social climbing and magic were crucial elements in a girl's life.
De la Cruz, who lives in Los Angeles with her family, tells the story through the point of view of five different characters: Princess Marie-Victoria, heir to the mightiest empire in the world; Aelwyn Myrddyn, a bastard mage; Ronan Astor, a social-climbing American; Isabelle of Orleans, daughter of the displaced French royal family; and Leopold, heir to the Prussian crown.
We chatted by phone with the author about her love for multiple literary genres, her past collaborations with her husband and what inspired her to try her hand at historical fantasy.
De la Cruz will be at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday at 10:30 a.m., appearing on the "Somewhere in Time" panel with Eoin Colfer, Ann Brashares and Tamara Ireland Stone, moderated by Sonya Sones.
You've had a ton of experience writing fantasy novels, but is "The Ring and the Crown" the first time you've written historical fantasy?
Yes! I didn't even know there was that sort of genre. I was just thinking I would do an alternate-history book, with a little bit of a twist. I was inspired when I read Edith Wharton's final novel, "The Buccaneers," and really loved the social climbing elements in it.
I knew I wanted to write about the troupe of American girls going over to England and trying to marry titled British lords. In Wharton's book ... the American girls do go over to England, but it isn't quite what they wanted. The American girls don't know how to do anything their mother-in-laws want them to do; they don't know any of the country's traditions and they don't have heat, plumbing or any of the conveniences that they would have in America. I thought that was a great idea to play with: this belief that marrying a prince would be considered this amazing thing, but really you had to live in a damp, stinky castle. I thought that was a fun, non-fairy-tale idea.
Then I thought, if the book is going to be an alt-history, what would that be like? First I thought, "Well, what if the Americans hadn't won the Revolutionary War? What if we were still a colony?" Then I thought, "What if the English did win over France and created this huge Franco-British empire? -- and what if they owned America and Canada?" It went on from there.
The novel is set in a very specific world and time period. Did you rely on research to accurately portray this world or your imagination?
It's both. I wanted to set it during the early 20th century. ... I did research on the dinner parties, the social life and what kind of schedule somebody from that world would have. It was really fascinating how busy these women were -- they were up at 7 a.m. to go riding in the park, they had breakfast to do and calls to make. They had dinner and supper -- and supper was the late meal. Then the parties would last until about 4 a.m. They had extremely busy social lives.
With the elements of magic that existed in that world, I tried to figure out: If there was magic and technology, but magic superseded technology, what would that be like?
You tell the story through the point of a view of five different characters -- how do you strike that balance between finding each character's unique voice and smoothly transitioning in and out of the different perspectives and plot lines?
I like telling a big story and I like telling it from the point of view of a lot of different characters. ... I usually write a huge outline until I know what the plot is and then I start writing the characters. Once I get to a specific character's story, I write all of his or her chapters. Since it is hard to go back and forth, I won't write one Marie chapter and then switch over to an Aelwyn chapter. Instead, I'll write three Marie chapters and then I'll start writing Aelwyn chapters. That makes it easier to stay in the skin of the character.
In the past, you have often collaborated with your husband, Michael Johnston, when writing your novels. Did he have any involvement in "The Ring and the Crown"?
It's so funny because we were working so intently on a couple of our projects that we just needed some time away. So we didn't work together on this book. He read the outline, went through one edit and added a couple of things. There's one sentence that Mike wrote that keeps being quoted. And I find that so funny; "You didn't write that much of this book, but that's the line that everybody likes!"
Over the course of your career, you have written in many different genres -- ranging from chick-lit to YA to fantasy. Do you ever find it challenging after spending so much time writing in one genre, to leap into a different one?
I think I actually move on from a genre as I get a little burned out. I did a lot of chick-lit books. I did a lot of contemporary, pop-culture, up-to-the-minute books. And I got a little burned out from that, so it was nice to do something darker with vampires. And when I got tired of writing about people in high school, I started writing about witches for adults.
I think I move around because I have to do something different all the time. I feel really lucky that my publishers allow me to do that and allow me to skip around.
"The Ring and the Crown" is the first of how many in a series?
I don't know yet. It's hard to say because sometimes things change with the story and with what your publisher wants. I would say at least three in this series, and then we'll see!