Author Spotlight: Jessica Brody & Joanne Rendell talk Sky Without Stars (System Divine)
I'm beyond thrilled to spotlight Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell on today's blog!
Jessica Brody is the author of more than 15 novels for teens, tweens, and adults including The Geography of Lost Things, The Chaos of Standing Still, In Some Other Life, Better You Than Me, A Week of Mondays, 52 Reasons to Hate My Father, the Unremembered trilogy, and the forthcoming space opera, Sky Without Stars. She's also the author of the Descendants: School of Secrets series, based on the hit Disney Channel original movie, Descendants, as well as the non-fiction plotting guide, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. Her books have been translated and published in over 23 countries and Unremembered and 52 Reasons to Hate My Father are currently in development as major motion pictures.
Joanne Rendell is the author of three novels and holds a PhD in English Literature. She teaches fiction writing to teens and kids and is a board member for the youth Shakespeare company, New Genesis Productions.
Check out the synopsis for Sky Without Stars below!
In the tradition of The Lunar Chronicles, this sweeping reimagining of Les Misérables tells the story of three teens from very different backgrounds who are thrown together amidst the looming threat of revolution on the French planet of Laterre.
Three strangers, one shared destiny…
When the Last Days came, the planet of Laterre promised hope. A new life for a wealthy French family and their descendants. But five hundred years later, it’s now a place where an extravagant elite class reigns supreme; where the clouds hide the stars and the poor starve in the streets; where a rebel group, long thought dead, is resurfacing.
Whispers of revolution have begun—a revolution that hinges on three unlikely heroes…
Chatine is a street-savvy thief who will do anything to escape the brutal Regime, including spy on Marcellus, the grandson of the most powerful man on the planet.
Marcellus is an officer—and the son of a renowned traitor. In training to take command of the military, Marcellus begins to doubt the government he’s vowed to serve when his father dies and leaves behind a cryptic message that only one person can read: a girl named Alouette.
Alouette is living in an underground refuge, where she guards and protects the last surviving library on the planet. But a shocking murder will bring Alouette to the surface for the first time in twelve years…and plunge Laterre into chaos.
All three have a role to play in a dangerous game of revolution—and together they will shape the future of a planet.
Power, romance, and destiny collide in this sweeping reimagining of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Misérables.
And now, here's my chat with Jessica and Joanne!
Hi, Jessica! Welcome and congrats on the release of Sky Without Stars. Can you share a little about the story and what inspired it?
Jessica: Back in 2014, I was on tour with a group of authors and during the tour, two of them taught a retellings class to a bunch of writers. They handed us each a worksheet. On one side they told us to write down any and every classic story we’ve ever loved. Among many, I wrote “Les Misérables”. Then on the other side, they told us to write down a list of interesting settings. Among many, I wrote, “space.” (See picture below.) I literally drew a line between the two and a shiver ran through me. Les Mis, set in space? Could it be done? Not by me, was the immediate answer that came back. I wasn't versed enough in the classics, I didn’t know the story well enough. I wasn't a good enough writer to tackle what felt like such an epic and daunting undertaking.
Then, two years later, I was having dinner with Joanne (one of my BFFs!) and the topic randomly came around to the French Revolution (as it does!) and naturally from there, Les Misérables. Joanne, who happens to have a PhD in literature, said that Les Misérables was one of her favorite novels. A second later, without warning, out of my mouth flew the words, “Do you want to write a retelling of it with me set in space!?” And a second after that without warning, out of her mouth flew the words, “I would love to!”
We started brainstorming immediately that night. And about 6 months later we had a two-book deal from Simon and Schuster! It’s been a super exciting and wild ride! I can’t believe the book is finally here!
What’s your best tip when it comes to plotting a re-telling or re-imagining?
Joanne: Free your mind! The original story that you’re retelling or reimagining has so much to offer in terms of ideas, but don’t get bound to that story. Allow your own imagination to take inspiration from the original story, but then let it spin out in interesting and unique directions. At the same time, though, if you’re ever stuck for ideas or need a new idea for a character or plot point, it’s worth going back to the original story too. Jess and I would sometimes return to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (all 1300 pages of it!) when we were blanking, and we would find small plot points or scenes that we’d forgotten about and they would prompt whole new and unique ideas for our own story.
How did you approach your collaboration on Sky Without Stars? Did you split up scenes/chapters/etc.?
Jessica: Joanne and I spent a lot of time together planning and tightly plotting the novel before we started writing. We then drafted chapters on our own – I took Chatine’s, Jo took Alouette’s, and we fought like cats over who got to write the first drafts of Marcellus’s chapters!! Then, once we had drafts of the chapters, we handed them back and forth, editing and tweaking. My strengths are dialogue and plot, while Jo is the queen of “illustration.” In other words, she’s great at going to town on all the descriptions of the world and the people in the book.
The worldbuilding in Sky Without Stars is so intriguing! Did you run into any surprises when it came to fitting Les Misérables in a sci-fi setting?
Joanne: At first glance, Les Misérables might seem like the last story you could reimagine in a sci-fi or futuristic setting. It’s a period piece, after all, set at very particular point in French history and starring characters who are very much of their 19th century time. But once we “freed our minds,” we realized that Hugo’s book was a great source-story for an epic re-imagining! One of the first ideas was to mesh Hugo’s story with the story of the French Revolution (Les Mis, of course, is set forty years after the revolution). This then gave us the idea to reimagine our futuristic planet divided into three Estates, just like France was divided before its revolution. From there, we imagined the elite First and Second Estates living in a luxurious and climate-controlled dome, while the poor Third Estate live in the rusting and leaking remains of 500 year-old spaceships. All sorts of other ideas then came to us. For example, we re-imagined the dogged and ruthless Inspector Javert from Les Mis as a cyborg! We reimagined Cosette, who lives hidden away in a Catholic convent in Hugo’s book, as Alouette who in our story lives in a secret underground Refuge that protects the last surviving library on the planet. (Basically, a secret society of “librarians!”) Like I said, once we freed our mind, all kinds of surprising ideas emerged from and evolved from the original story.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that every story teaches the writer something new, so what did writing Sky Without Stars teach you?
Jessica: This was my first time writing an “other-world” sci-fi, where we had to invent so much of the world ourselves. I think Joanne and I both had to learn how to be flexible in the early stages of this process and let go of ideas that didn’t serve the world or that no longer worked. The world of Laterre was always changing at the start. For example. When we first started writing the book, we were convinced that we wanted to have a sci-fi hybrid animal that was a cross between a goat and a llama. We thought this would be super cool and functional. It would be an animal that gave milk and wool. We called them “gllamas.” Well, it took our agent to point out that this was a ridiculous idea (not to mention a ridiculous name!) So we got rid of the gllamas and replaced them with just regular llamas. But that word kept making us laugh because it reminded us too much of our gllamas, so we just replaced them with sheep. Haha!
What are you reading, watching, or otherwise currently infatuated with?
Jessica: For TV, obviously we’re BOTH obsessed with the new BBC/PBS miniseries adaptation of Les Misérables! It’s the first time we’ve seen some of the smaller elements of the original book put into an adaptation! It’s been super exciting to watch. I just finished watching The Americans, which I loved. I’m having a serious Game of Thrones withdrawal and trying to compensate with by watching Mr. Robot, which I’m also enjoying a lot. And for reading, I’ve recently challenged myself to read 30 books by Labor Day (3 months.) So far, I’ve read…1. But it’s early! I’ve been obsessed with Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction lately. I just love anything Plantagenet/Tudor related!
And finally, what advice do you have for writers who may be thinking about co-authoring a book?
Joanne: A writer once said to me that they loved writing fiction because it was like getting to play dolls as a grown up! To this day, Jess and I still talk about how delighted we are that we get to play “Sky Without Stars” dolls together every day. The key to co-authoring is finding a co-author you’re going to be compatible with. You might both be the most incredible writers in the world, but if you don’t have the right chemistry, a similar work ethic, and the ability to listen and “let go,” then you probably won’t make a good team. Jess and I are lucky. We’re both good at being flexible and letting go of “our darlings.” One rule we established early on, and that we’ve successfully stuck by, is the following: “If the other person is not happy with a word or sentence or scene, you must tweak and change, not insist it can’t be changed.” I believe the ability to compromise and work to your respective strengths is the key to successful co-authoring. Plus, a shared love of “playing dolls”!
Many thanks go out to Jessica and Joanne for taking the time to tell us more about how Sky Without Stars came to be, their co-writing process, and plotting a re-imagining. Be to sure to add this fantastical YA to your Goodreads list, or (better yet!) order your copy (WRITE) NOW from retail sites like Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, or request it at your library, or local independent bookstore!
For more information, follow Jessica and Joanne on the sites listed below.
And, as always,