A Conversation With Libba Bray

by Claire E. White

Libba Bray grew up in a small town in Texas, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and an English teacher. She always loved books, writing and the dramatic arts; growing up, she was always involved with the theatre.
Photo of Libba Bray
She wrote her first short story in the 5th grade. As Libba relates it, "I grew up on a diet of Sonic Drive-In tater tots, Monty Python reruns, The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight, and impromptu gatherings of the Unofficial Sardonic's Club." But tragedy struck her family when her father came out as gay and her parents divorced. Then, at the age of eighteen she was in a major car accident which required having her entire face rebuilt. It took six years and thirteen surgeries. Writing and her incredible sense of humor helped her emerge from these terrible events a stronger person.

In 1988, she graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in theatre. With the grueling reconstruction surgeries behind her, Libba was ready for a change. As a playwright, she felt that New York was the best place to pursue that career. So when her childhood best friend, who was already living in Manhattan, called saying that she was looking for a roommate, Libba moved to New York with $600.00 in her shoe and a punchbowl (it was a gift from her grandmother) under her arm.

Libba quickly landed a job in the publicity department of Penguin Putnam, followed by 3 years at Spier, an advertising agency specializing in book advertising. In New York, Libba met her husband to be, Barry Golblatt, a children's book agent. After a whirlwind romance, they got married in Florence, Italy. As she tells the story: "My husband and I were in love but totally broke, so we eloped and got married in Italy, where he was going on a business trip. We had to pull a guy off the street to be our witness. It was incredibly romantic. Florence is still one of my favorite cities in the world."

She had never stopped writing, commenting that "I'm one of those people who has to write. If I don't write, I feel itchy and depressed and cranky. So everybody's glad when I write and stop complaining already." Encouraged by her husband, Libba began to write a young adult novel she had been thinking about for some months. A lifelong Anglophile, she had always loved ghost stories and anything to do with the late Victorian era. Her first Young Adult novel, A Great and Terrible Beauty was published by Delacorte. Set in Victorian England , A Great and Terrible Beauty tells the story of Gemma Doyle, a young woman who saw her mother brutally murdered in supernatural fashion when the family was living in Bombay, India. Devastated by her mother's death, Gemma desperately tries to fit in at the Spence Academy, the posh boarding school where her father sends her after the family returns to England. Forced to keep the strange circumstances of her mother's death a secret, Gemma discovers that she has some unusual powers which allow her connect with the spiritual realm. Gemma and her friends, Pippa, Ann and Felicity begin to experiment with Gemma's newfound powers, but their experiments turn dangerous. A Great and Terrible Beauty is a stunning first novel about the repression and rigid caste system of the Victorian era, growing up, and learning about the power of the choices that we make in our lives. There certainly are gothic elements in the story, but there is also magic, humor and deep emotion. The book is the first in a trilogy. Kirkus calls A Great and Terrible Beauty, "A Gothic touched by modern conceptions of adolescence, shivery with both passion and terror." Publisher's Weekly says, "The pace is swift, the finale gripping. A delicious, elegant gothic."

When she's not writing, you might find Libba at her at a local coffee shop, doing research, traveling, spending time with her husband and five year-old son, or exploring New York City. Libba talked with us about A Great and Terrible Beauty, her road to publication, and why a sense of humor is the most important asset a writer can have.

When you were growing up, what kind of books did you like to read?

If you ask my mother, she'll tell you that I watched so much TV that I probably would have watched test patterns. (Actually, one of my party tricks is to quote the Calgon commercial that was on between Edge of Night and Dark Shadows. It's a sad party trick, but it's mine.) But despite that, I did read quite a bit growing up. The first book I remember loving was Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban. I identified with Frances so much. Well, except for the fur and the badger aspect. But the rebellion? The chutzpah of ordering only bread and jam, dammit, for breakfast? Oh yeah. Bring it on. I also loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, the Half-Magic books and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I remember crying at the end of Charlotte's Web. And according to my third grade book report about Winnie-The-Pooh (I really need to throw some stuff out), I wanted to be like Pooh because "he was always happy with whatever he did, even if it was a mistake, and I would like to be like that." My god, angsty at eight; no wonder I'm a writer. I read tons of mysteries -- The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, The Happy Hollisters, Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes. That's still my genre reading of choice.

Was reading a big part of your childhood?

Huge! My parents always read to us, and we were encouraged to read on our own. We were taken to the library regularly, and my mom, who was an English teacher, often recommended books to me. Some of my favorite books from my teenage years were handed to me by my mom: Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar, A Separate Peace, To Kill a Mockingbird, Without Feathers. I also went through an existentialist period in high school -- lots of Beckett and Camus and Sartre. But then I realized that I liked riding in cars and eating at Sonic far too much to really claim the existentialist tag. I was very involved in theater, so I read a lot of plays. If you put a circular for the Piggly Wiggly in front of me, I will start to read it and search for deeper meaning or inspiration in the frozen foods discounts.

What was the first thing you ever wrote?

Besides a letter to Santa? I guess it would be a short story in 5th grade. It was a graphic novel/horror comic-style tale which included colored pencil illustrations of buxom, semi-clad women being ravaged by vampires. No one was alarmed. In fact, I think I got an A. This is why I thought David Lynch was a documentary filmmaker for a very long time, folks. The next year, my sixth grade class "published" our own books. Oblivious to the Beatles, I entitled mine, "Help!" It's a riveting, also illustrated tale (don't get between me and my colored pencils, folks) of a girl whose family is kidnapped by murdering, vengeful thieves with guns and knives and cigarettes. The thieves all looked like they'd escaped from The Doobie Brothers. For the second time, no one was alarmed.

What reaction did you get from the people who read it?

Not much of one at all. Come to think of it, Santa never brought me that Barbie Dream House, either. I don't know if this writing thing is working out for me.

As a native Texan, what prompted you to pack up and move to New York?

Good question. I blame it all on That Girl, a seminal show of my youth. I thought I would move to the big city and fly a kite down Fifth Avenue, and people would be charmingly exasperated by me. People do get exasperated with me, but they don't seem charmed. At the time, I was a playwright, and I thought I could move to New York, fall in with the Wooster Group and be "discovered" as the next Edward Albee. That position is still open. Feel free to discover me. At the time, I had just graduated from college and was writing plays and waiting tables when my best friend called from NYC to say that her roommate was moving out -- did I want to come to the big, bad city? I think I was packed within the hour.

What things do you miss about Texas?

Good Tex-Mex. Chicken-fried steak. Free iced-tea refills -- and that's sweet iced tea. The way everyone from the guy who bags your groceries to the lady sitting next to you at the beauty parlor will talk to you as if you were an old friend. Blue skies. The interstate stretching out across the land like a ribbon of possibility. Lazy, late-spring days after school cruising around in cars, listening to rock 'n' roll and waiting for something -- anything -- to happen. And some really good friends. Visiting Texas is always a bittersweet experience. But after fourteen years in New York, it's safe to say I've put down roots here.

Let's talk about A Great and Terrible Beauty. Please tell us about your road to publication.

Cover of A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
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I met my editor, Wendy Loggia at Random House, when I was writing series books for a book packager (17th Street Productions). When I had the proposal for Beauty, my agent, Barry Goldblatt, showed it to her and she bought it on faith, because that's the kind of gal she is. It changed dramatically from the original proposal to the finished piece. It started off a bit lighter, and the more I worked, the darker and creepier it got. The pace was pretty relentless; I think I wrote the first draft in about four months. I'm an incredibly disorganized writer, and so there was a lot of cleanup involved in the revision process. I chucked about two-thirds of the manuscript in the two-month revision round. I keep thinking I need a better, more streamlined system of writing. I seem to write books the way Francis Ford Coppola approaches filmmaking: I'll shoot five hundred hours of film for one, two-hour movie.

The book has a really beautiful and intriguing cover -- not the type of cover I associate with current YA titles at all (in fact when I picked up the book I had it pegged as a literary historical novel, or perhaps an adult romance title.). Did you have any input as to the cover? What are your thoughts about cover art for novels in general? What kinds of covers would make you pick up a book in a bookstore?

Not your mom's Oldsmobile, eh? I contemplated calling the book, "Watch out -- I'm coming for your daughters" but decided against it. I did have some input on the cover, and my one suggestion was to use a corset since it was representative of the constraints placed on these girls as well as the sexuality and sensuality in the book. But truly, the editorial and art departments at Random House deserve the credit here. They did a fantastic job. The cover is sensual and provocative and representative of the book, and I think that's what you hope for as an author. Having worked in publishing for years, I'm very interested in cover art. It's like code: suspense, romances, legal thrillers -- they all have a "look." And that look changes over the years. Romance covers used to be Fabio-heavy. Now, they tend to feature a single image, like a fan or a piece of ripe fruit. One of the most arresting images I remember seeing on a book jacket was for Bastard Out of Carolina. They used that achingly gorgeous Dorothea Lange photograph, cropped in an askew fashion, against that pink background. It really stopped you cold. Of course, the book more than lived up to the cover. I'm always going to read the jacket copy to see if it's a book I'm interested in, but I am drawn to bold, clean, iconic images. I remember when I first got a job in publishing, Chip Kidd's star was on the rise, and I used to play a game where I'd go into a bookstore and see if I could pick out the Chip Kidd covers. Usually, they were the ones that drew me in.

The book is set in Victorian England and India. What attracts you to this time period?

For some inexplicable reason, I have always been obsessed with this time period. I'm a total Anglophile, and I'll read or watch anything that has to do with England in the late Victorian era. On a flight back from London, where I was doing research, Virgin Atlantic had a Victoriana channel. So there I am wolfing down airplane food and gleefully watching some graphic documentary on cholera epidemics and the building of the London sewers. I'm a fun date. I think it's a fascinating time period. Victoria's reign spans sixty years and encompasses monumental change. There's also a great deal about Victorian England that reminds me of my experience growing up in the American South. Both cultures place a great deal of importance on keeping up appearances. There are "old families" and rigid class structures, repression, unwritten codes of behavior, and yet they are such incredibly rich cultures, too. They are both marked by an overt sentimentality about religion, family, and home that is often at odds with the darker shadows of those institutions. There was some documentary I saw on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, I really am this much of a geek) in which they quoted a passage from Hound of the Baskervilles or Sign of the Four -- it escapes me. Holmes and Watson are traveling by train through London's suburbs. Watson finds it cheery and comforting to see these homogenous cottages, but Holmes finds it depressing. He tells Watson that we never know what horrible things are going on inside those cheery homes. Now, Conan Doyle's father was an abusive, raging alcoholic, and he had, in fact, lived that statement. I just remember being struck by how modern that was. There's a fascination with the dark side in Victorian literature, and I find that comforting. You know -- give me the bad news straight up.

The heroine of the story is Gemma, a young woman who has just lost her mother and who is struggling to accept her own power and place in the world. What was the greatest challenge in writing Gemma? Was there anything in particular that you were trying to avoid with her?

The greatest challenge was to keep Gemma human. By that I mean giving her faults and idiosyncrasies and keeping her interesting when she has to do the telling. The other characters aren't burdened with that, and my fear was that Gemma might end up being less interesting than the others simply because she is our guide, our compass. I was trying to avoid having her know too much or be too ethical to make mistakes. I wanted her to be torn between wanting to know about her power and wanting to shut the door on it.

Gemma's friends, the beautiful Pippa, the headstrong Felicity and the outsider Ann, are all complex and interesting characters; there is both tragedy and joy in all of their stories. Pippa's story is especially interesting -- she ultimately has to make a terrible choice, as did the Lady of Shalott in the Tennyson poem that prefaces the novel. Why do you think that Pippa made the choice that she did? Was she escaping or was she taking matters into her own hands?

I would say that you can argue it both ways. This came up recently in a discussion I was having online with some readers. I stated that, unlike Gemma, Pippa isn't a fighter. They argued quite passionately -- and persuasively -- that Pippa made the only possible choice she could in order to have what she wanted. They argued that she is imprisoned by her society. In making her choice, she makes a stand and escapes the fate that her parents and society have planned for her. So there you go. I could see their point entirely.

Another theme in the book is the ways in which women were repressed in Victorian times: careers were practically non-existent and making a good marriage was the main goal for girls. Any signs of passion or creativity were also discouraged in girls. What attracted you to this theme? Did you ever feel repressed or suppressed in any way when you were growing up?

"Motherhood has been possibly the greatest influence on my writing. It is an ongoing revolution. Without it, I don't think I would have gotten on the stick about making it my career, nor would I have understood the human condition as well. I would not have understood both the fragility and resilience of that kind of extreme love."
Care to see my therapy bills? (The author laughs ruefully...) Hmmm, you think there's a correlation between my being the Southern-born-and-bred daughter of a Presbyterian minister in small-town Texas and themes of women being repressed/suppressed? Why, perish the thought! There was definitely an emphasis in my family on ignoring the pink elephant in the room and on not inducing any unwanted feelings in anyone. While my parents were liberals, they were also Southerners brought up in a certain age, and they were very concerned with appearances and propriety and extreme courtesy. I was -- am -- a color-outside-the-lines chick by nature. I felt enormous conflict between my desire to conform and be "good" -- this kind, sweet, gracious, pretty, ethereal and pious being, the "good daughter" -- and my desire to live large, to rock 'n' roll with the guys and have my own adventures, damn the cost. I think once I discovered Chrissie Hynde and Erica Jong it was all over. The fat lady had sung. Culturally, I think women are trained not to be direct, not to show anger. Anger equals unattractiveness. I swallowed a lot of anger growing up. I think it's why I may have identified quite strongly with male protagonists as a teenager -- the Holden Caulfields of the world -- because I was drawn to their anger. I always say that the most radical question a woman can ever ask herself is, "What do I want?" We are trained to answer that only after we have satisfied the question, "What does everyone need from me?"

My family situation was also unique in its repression. When I was fourteen, my parents divorced after my father came out to us as a homosexual. He was still working within the Presbyterian church as a journalist, and so the message from my parents was, your father is gay and that's okay, but you cannot tell a living soul or he will lose his job and we will face scandal and heartbreak and live in ruin for the rest of our lives. I became my parents' protector at that point. I was indoctrinated into a culture of secret keeping. But as I soon discovered, most of my friends were secret keepers, too, whether it was drug abuse, alcoholism, sex abuse, what have you. We seemed to find each other like heat-seeking missiles. We formed our own girl Rat Pack, really. We were quite feral in those years, and whatever roles we had to assume within our families or among our peers to get by, within our group, we let it fly. I think I am always drawn to the subtext of situations, what's not being said. Perhaps it's why I find the British so familiar. There is so much said in the silence. But writing, for me, became a way of fighting the repression, of protecting no one, of saying everything. I began to write to save my own life.

One character that really intrigued me was Miss Moore and her comment in particular that "there are no safe choices; only different ones." Will we see more of Miss Moore in the next book? She's very mysterious.

She is a mysterious lady, isn't she? Yes, Miss Moore comes back in book two in a big way.

The descriptions in the novel are so vivid -- they conjure up very specific images when you read them. Do you consider yourself to be a very visual person? Do you picture scenes in your head when you write -- or do you hear the dialogue in your head?

I'm an extremely visual person. Perhaps it's the theater background. You can't always trust what a character is telling you. They may be unreliable. But details about a person or a place can tell you a lot about what's going on. Sometimes, I need the visual details to get me into a scene. Other times, I need the dialogue, the interaction, to draw me in. It just depends.

Do you have strong feelings about what you do or don't like to see in a heroine in a novel? Are there any types of female characters in novels which really turn you off?

I must confess that the whole "chick-lit" movement sets my teeth on edge. That it's called "chick-lit" is annoying enough, but the whiny, superficial heroine who likes to give a rundown of what's in her closet every few pages and somehow manages to snag the Holy Grail, i.e., the guy, at the end of the novel...oy vey, Maria! Honestly, except for the sex and martinis, you could cast Doris Day circa 1960 in any of the plots. I find it banal and cynical. I don't care if a heroine is a serial killer who set fire to a busload of nuns as long as she's complex, believable, and doesn't pull any punches with me.

With the advent of DVDs, film lovers get to see scenes which never made it into the final film. Are there any scenes from A Great and Terrible Beauty that didn't make it into the book? Would you share them with us?

Oh boy. I think most of the scenes left on the cutting room floor have a well-deserved place there. In the first manuscript, there were scenes at Gemma's grandmother's house in the country and at her mother's graveside. There was a cousin named Jane who figured prominently but whose story ultimately took us nowhere. There was a scene I really liked that took place at the British Museum, a sort of sexual threat scene, but after review, I realized that it was pretty lame. Trust me, you aren't missing any hidden gems.

I'd like to talk about the mechanics of writing. When do you write your fiction and what are your surroundings? (Do you write on the computer, do you listen to music, do you work at home, etc.)

"There was definitely an emphasis in my family on ignoring the pink elephant in the room and on not inducing any unwanted feelings in anyone. While my parents were liberals, they were also Southerners brought up in a certain age, and they were very concerned with appearances and propriety and extreme courtesy. I was -- am -- a color-outside-the-lines chick by nature. I felt enormous conflict between my desire to conform and be 'good' -- this kind, sweet, gracious, pretty, ethereal and pious being, the 'good daughter' -- and my desire to live large, to rock 'n' roll with the guys and have my own adventures, damn the cost."
I write while my son is at school. Having a five-year-old pretty much dictates your writing schedule, which is good, because otherwise I'd probably fritter away a lot of time. ("What do we want? Procrastination! When do we want it? Later!") I have a part-time, freelance job writing book jacket copy for a publisher, so that takes up a day or two. The closer it gets to my deadline, the more hours I'll put in. The three weeks before a book is due, I look like Bill the Cat. Probably smell like him, too.

When I'm working on a rough draft, I usually write most of it longhand in a spiral notebook. I go to my favorite coffee house across the street, the one where the college kid baristas play these multiple-personality music mixes that range from old Dusty Springfield to the Grateful Dead to electronica, and I won't be bothered by a ringing phone or piled-up laundry. There's something comforting and stimulating about being surrounded by people but being in my own head at the same time. If I get stuck, I can people watch for a bit, and that usually sparks something. When I'm revising or if I have the house to myself, I work at my computer in my bedroom, often with my headphones on. I like to listen to music. It helps set a certain atmosphere. For Beauty, I listened to a lot of Kate Bush and Tori Amos, lots of trippy music. It seemed right for a fever dream of a novel.

How has becoming a mother affected your writing? Has your perspective changed in any way?

Motherhood has been possibly the greatest influence on my writing. It is an ongoing revolution. Without it, I don't think I would have gotten on the stick about making it my career, nor would I have understood the human condition as well. I would not have understood both the fragility and resilience of that kind of extreme love. I wouldn't have understood how you can love someone so much and want to duct tape them to a chair at the same time. Motherhood gives you a backstage pass to all the murky feelings you think you've locked away -- doubt, vulnerability, rage, humility -- and just dumps you there to experience them in full. It means living without insulation. I always compare parenthood to going to Florence for the first time. You get there and you see the Baptistry doors or David up close; you see the sun glinting off the Arno, and the red-tiled roofs dotting the hills, and you are awed beyond speech. The blues are bluer; everything feels so exciting and alive.

And then you try to take a train to Rome.

The trains are all late, and you get on one only to discover that it's actually going to Naples, because they just felt like changing it on a whim, so screw you, and besides, you don't speak the language so you have no idea what the hell is going on. After an hour of this, you're ready to throw yourself on the platform and cry. You'd pay anybody any amount of money if they'd Just. Take. You. To. Friggin'. Rome. Fortunately, you do make it to Rome. Maybe not the way you thought you would, but you get there. And it's mostly beautiful, and then you're glad you didn't miss Rome. I think there is a misperception that children are one size fits all. But of course they are not. They are complicated little beings -- just as complicated as adults. And they respond to books in the same way that adults do. They want a good story. They want to laugh or feel sad or go on an adventure. They do not want to be taught a moral or a lesson. They just want a damn good story.

On the practical side of things, being a mom means I have less time to myself. It's often a struggle to find the balance between being there for my work and being there for my child. I'm amazed at how much time I used to waste waiting for the muse to strike. Now, it's simple: I've got two or three hours to work and I'd better get down to it. I've learned to make time for myself in the margins. The wool-gathering is constant. I write in my head while running or standing in the grocery line or watching my son hang from the monkey bars. Really, though, I've come to the conclusion that if you can make it through seven hours of "natural" childbirth on Pitocin...for heaven's sake, you can write a novel.

When you're not writing, what is your favorite way to spend a free afternoon and evening?

My absolute favorite way to spend a day by myself is to walk around New York City, daydreaming and people watching, then meet good friends for lunch or coffee. I also enjoy picking my son up from school and taking him to our local bakery for treats and hearing about his day. And if the Cowboys are playing football -- that is, playing well -- that's a nice way to spend an afternoon.

How important is humor to you in your writing, and/or in your life? What tv shows, books or people do you find funny?

German Expressionist stand-up comics. That's what brings me to my knees.

Humor: it's more important than deodorant, isn't it? It's my favorite survival tool. Well, after eating live rats and drinking my own urine. I came from a pretty funny family -- a nothing-is-sacred kind of family. I think you got extra points if you managed to make someone crack up at a funeral. My brother and I grew up reading Mad magazine and National Lampoon. My all-time favorite TV show is Monty Python's Flying Circus. Black Adder makes me laugh. There was a TV show on for a nanosecond before it got cancelled called, G vs. E, which I thought was deliciously weird and funny. Unfortunately, I'm sort of the anti-Nielsens: things I love tend to disappear pretty quickly. Favorite funny movies include Monty Python and the Holy Grail, This Is Spinal Tap, Harold and Maude, early Woody Allen. I'm a big fan of Steven Wright, Steve Martin, Tracey Ullman, The Marx Brothers, David Sedaris, Christopher Guest. One of my favorite writers is George Saunders, who manages to be both devastatingly funny and just plain devastating. And The Daily Show with Jon Stewart keeps me from the brink of despair at times. I like it smart and political and twisted. Gallows humor. Hey, to me Beckett is funny. I'm a little warped.

Since Valentine's Day is approaching; what's your idea of the perfect romantic vacation?

"I must confess that the whole 'chick-lit' movement sets my teeth on edge. That it's called 'chick-lit' is annoying enough, but the whiny, superficial heroine who likes to give a rundown of what's in her closet every few pages and somehow manages to snag the Holy Grail, i.e., the guy, at the end of the novel...oy vey, Maria!"
Well, you know, as a mother AND a writer, time alone is the most intoxicating and romantic idea outside of sleep. I haven't checked, but I feel fairly certain the Geneva Convention specifies my right to read at least one article in the Sunday New York Times without torture-by-constant interruption. But I digress. You asked about romantic getaways. I'd have to say a week in a centuries-old villa in Tuscany with my family and several close friends and their families. We'd let our children run wild and watch their shoulders freckle in the late-day sun. We'd share these long, passionate conversations about politics and books and ideas and why the movies of the 1970's were so good. There would be lots of food; people would drink wine and mineral water out of glasses the size of Dixie cups. No one would talk about diets. My husband and I would sneak away from the party to go for a walk under a sky littered with stars. And neither of us would need to say anything. Just a nice, nonverbal walk.

What are your pet peeves in life?

People who are chronically late. Tourists who meander five abreast on New York City sidewalks, making it impossible to pass when I actually need to be somewhere. CDs that are hard to open. Insurance companies. And there is a tenth circle of hell reserved for telemarketers.

If you could magically teleport back in time to have a chat with 16 year-old Libba, what advice would you give her?

Do not do the home perm two days before your junior prom. I'm not saying, I'm just saying.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Read everything. Write even if you don't feel like it -- especially if you don't feel like it. Write what interests and moves you without regard to how it will be received. Don't be afraid to go to the dark places or toward what scares you as a writer. Put a little blood on the page -- a book should cost you something to write. Otherwise, you're better off watching The E! True Hollywood Story. Actually, that sounds pretty good right now.

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