Author Spotlight: Alisa Kwitney talks Cadaver & Queen
I was lucky enough to get to meet Alisa Kwitney at the NYC Teen Author Festival back in March, and I'm thrilled to be hosting her on the blog! In addition to working as an editor at DC Comics/Vertigo, Alisa is also the Eisner-nominated author of graphic novels, romantic women’s fiction and urban fantasy. She was one of the authors of A Flight of Angels, which made YALSA’s Top Ten List for Great Graphic Novels for Teens, and the YA graphic novel Token, named a highlight of the Minx imprint by PW.
Alisa's YA debut, Cadaver & Queen, has been described as a 'thrilling and ingenious riff on the Frankenstein legend' and it's in stores right now!
And now, here's my chat with Alisa!
Hi, Alisa! Welcome and congrats on the release of Cadaver & Queen. Can you share a little about the story and what inspired it?
Cadaver & Queen started out as a pitch for comics. I had just written Token, a contemporary YA graphic novel for Shelly Bond’s Minx line, and I wanted to write something that was dark and moody and historical, with some weird science thrown in. Unfortunately, Minx folded, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea of a female medical student in Victorian England. Since I enjoy the conflict of romance, the idea quickly grew to include a love interest who is both the brilliant, ambitious medical student of Mary Shelly’s novel—and also the monster.
When people ask what the story is about, my very short answer is “Feminist Frankenstein meets Grey’s Anatomy,” because it’s part re-imagined Frankenstein and part medical school drama. If the person wants a slightly longer answer, I say that the female protagonist, Elizabeth Lavenza, is the only female medical student at a school that manufactures Bio-Mechanicals—mechanized and reanimated cadavers intended to serve in Queen Victoria’s army. Bio-Mechanicals aren’t supposed to have any thoughts or feelings, but Lizzie discovers one who seems to have self-awareness—and memories of his former life as Victor Frankenstein, a former student who died under mysterious circumstances. Now that Lizzie knows about him, she is in danger, too. He is the other protagonist of the book, by the way, so we get his POV as well. And there’s romance in the book, so if you don’t like romance in your horror, this may not be your cup of ichor.
As an author of YA graphic novels, what was it about Cadaver & Queen that led you write it in book form? The methods must be very different?
I’ve written contemporary (and somewhat humorous) adult prose novels, but the challenge for me was to write a story that was historical and dark and needed to be intensely visual to work. I used my graphic novel writing experience to try to describe scenes and settings as if I were describing them to an artist—the part of a comic most readers never see! Since I was writing prose, though, I was also able to get deeply into the characters’ heads—which allowed me to explore the psychological terror of not knowing exactly what has happened to you.
What part of the writing process do you find most challenging and how do you tackle it?
I loved writing all the scenes where Victor was waking up and gaining awareness of himself. As a kid, I devoured Anne McCaffery’s SF novel Restoree, which is about a college student who gets abducted by aliens. In that novel, the heroine has confused flashes of disturbing memories of the spaceship, and then finds herself in a new and more beautiful body, tending someone who appears to be a mental patient. So, on the one hand, the protagonist is reinvented by outside forces…but also reinvents herself through her choices. I definitely borrowed that dynamic for Victor. And speaking of influences…I also loved writing all the scenes where Victor is at odds with his left arm, which comes from a different person and has its own set of memories—and its own sense of self-preservation. I was inspired by an old B-horror movie version of Frankenstein that had an arm, crawling across the lab to attack Victor Frankenstein, but I was also thinking about the ways in which we can unconsciously become influenced by other people. In a sense, we all Frankenstein ourselves from different sources.
Tone is vital when it comes to horror. Do you have any tips for writers looking to enrich the horror elements in their own stories?
Funny you should ask that! Just the other day, I was talking to a group of 6th, 7th and 8th graders in a small, rural school building when the winds outside began to blow with incredible force. The emergency broadcast system blared a warning—we were in the path of a potential tornado. People were calm—I actually had some students reading some of the parts in my book with me—until the wind picked up and we started to hear the rattling of hail striking the metal roof. The building had no basement and we weren’t sure what was happening, so students were instructed to get under the chairs and cover their heads. I’m still not sure if it was a tornado—we think one touched down nearby—but it was strange and unsettling and some of the students were really terrified. Once they were able to come out from under the chairs, I said to them: This is what you can do with this feeling of fear—you can use it in your writing. Focus on what it felt like to be really frightened—what did it feel like in your body? Did it change your vision? What thoughts went through your head? Good writing feels authentic because it draws on real emotions and evokes sense memories, even if the situation isn’t one the writer actually experienced.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that every story teaches the writer something new, so what did writing Cadaver & Queen teach you?
Cadaver & Queen was such a departure from the other books I’ve written that a lot of people tried to convince me that it might not be the best project for me. Then, when I got some initial rejections from editors, I thought that the naysayers might have been right. A lot of editors had confused and confusing reactions—they loved it, but it wasn’t for them, or they loved some aspects, but not others. One editor told me the multiple points of view (there are two in the book) made it confusing. It took me a while to accept that I had learned a lot from writing the book, and that it’s never a mistake to pursue the ideas that really grab you. It was only when I had really and truly given up hope that the book would find a publisher that I got not one but two offers on the book. The whole process just reminded me that in the end, the important part is to tell the story you want to tell as well as you possibly can—and then move on to the next story.
You’ve mentioned that you’re working on a companion novel to Cadaver & Queen. Is there anything about it that you can share with us?
I’m working on the sequel to Cadaver & Queen, which features some of the same characters and some new ones. The new book is set in the East End of London, and the main protagonists are Aggie, the gin-drinking nursing student from the first book, and Dodger, a philosophical pickpocket. And yes, that’s Dodger as in the Artful Dodger—we also meet other characters from Dickens, including a disguise artist named Faygie and a drug-addled body thief named Twist.
What are you reading, watching, or otherwise currently infatuated with?
Watching: I love watching Evan Puschak’s vlogs on film, music, art and society on Nerdwriter1, Brian Bitner’s film analyses on Lessons from the Screenplay, and Tony Zhou’s Lessons from the Screenplay.
Reading: Gail Simone’s Crosswinds, a graphic novel about a hitman and a housewife who freaky Friday into each other’s bodies and lives, is pure gold. An Enchantment of Ravens, by Margaret Rogerson, made a long plane ride feel less like the innermost circle of hell. I’ve just ordered The Death of Stalin graphic novel which inspired the new film, and I’ve just started reading Life at the Dakota, New York’s Most Unusual Address and The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer.
I’m also really into improv and love going to the Upright Citizen’s Brigade in NYC—especially on Harold night.
And finally, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far in your writing/publishing career?
The most important lesson I’ve learned is that you need to approach writing with the same enthusiasm, creativity and ability to shrug off failure that the contestants on the Great British Baking Show display while attempting a technical challenge.
Many thanks go out to Alisa for taking the time to tell us more about Cadaver & Queen, as well as its upcoming sequel, and for sharing her tips on how to set the tone for horror, and for dipping into her own story of perseverance.
Be sure to add Alisa's feminist Frankenstein book to your Goodreads list, or (better yet!) order your copy RIGHT NOW from retail sites such as Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Or you can always request it at your library, or local independent bookstore!
And, as always,