Author Interview: Hanna Howard on "Beautiful Monster"

Ana: Hanna, an excerpt from your novel “Ephemeral” was submitted in the ABNA 2010 contest. You had taken the classic tale of “Beauty and the Beast” and given it a really lovely reinterpretation: instead of the usual fairy-tale characterization of the heroine being perfect and good while her ‘ugly’ sisters are horrible and evil, you deeply and carefully characterized every member of this classic tale. Here, Bella is her somewhat whimsical father’s favorite by the mere accident of being born the ‘prettiest’, and her sisters are ‘greedy’ and unpleasant because they’ve been taught through experience to demand expensive gifts from their father as proof of his love. I love the original and fresh take on the good-sister/bad-sister dichotomy: that personality can be shaped in response to parenting styles and favoritism. Can you tell us more about your novel and where it goes from the end of the excerpt? What sorts of themes do you explore and what do you hope the reader will take away from the experience?

Hanna: First, thank you! Thank you for having me here, and for giving me the opportunity to share my work with your community. I’m so glad you liked what you read last year, and thought of doing this interview.

My novel - which has been rechristened “Beautiful Monster” since last year - is, as you said, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. In addition to being a new take on the classic tale, the story is essentially an exploration of inner beauty, and what makes a person admirable or good.

In the book, Bella - or Yseult, as the reader will eventually know her - takes on the bewildering adventure we all know so well, exchanging her life for a magical coexistence with someone who looks for all the world like a monster from under the bed. But unlike other Beauties, Yseult is already tormented when she reaches our beast, René. She has lived her whole life in the shadow of her exceptional good looks, struggling fruitlessly to be known for her other talents and qualities, only to be condemned at long last to an arranged marriage she wants no part in. And so, when the opportunity arises to escape her life in favor of a dangerous and possibly suicidal quest to take her father’s place in a monster’s castle, Yseult is more than happy to take it. The remainder of the book follows her slow journey to self-acceptance - and eventually, also, to love - as she attempts to determine what makes a thing beautiful, and why.

Since Bella’s plight is such an unlikely one (who, after all, ever complains about being too pretty?), I do not expect readers to identify much with her literal experience, but I think, in many ways, the essence of her struggle is a universal one. How many of us, after all, get our looks irrevocably tangled up with our identities, only to find somewhere along the line that the two do not match? Identity is such an important and difficult thing to discover, and we live in a world which tells girls that they are only as good as they look, and the only way to look good is to look like this supermodel. Beauty is not a bad thing, but it can’t be labeled or confined or put into a box. It must be defined from individual to individual, and take on meaning for each person according to their experiences. I hope readers will leave this book with the same sense of contentment Yseult expresses in the end, when she says, “For the first time in my life, I am exorbitantly happy to be just who I am.”

Ana: I really like that - it's true that personality can often get tangled up with external appearance - if only because the people we interact with have certain expectations of us based on our appearances! What was your inspiration when writing your novel? Were you influenced by a specific author or work that inspired you to add your voice to this genre?

Hanna: I wrote this book because I wanted to tell "Beauty and the Beast" for myself. It has long been my favorite fairy tale, and few things rank higher on my list of “likes” than good retellings. I wrote it in a whirlwind of a few months, and I wrote it entirely for myself - a fact which resulted in many subsequent rewrites and revisions when I decided I wanted to share it with other people. (Insert rueful grin.)

I love fairy-tale retellings ("Ella Enchanted" by Gail Carson Levine is my favorite stand-alone book of all time), and have always been a sucker for fantasy that feels familiar - which, of course, fairy tales do. We all know to expect dazzling Once Upon A Times, rocky and magical middles complete with witches (and sometimes dragons), and enormously satisfying Happily Ever Afters when we crack open a fairy tale. But we also know we should expect to have some deep part of us twisted, slapped, or otherwise impacted by what we find inside, because familiar things have a funny way of showing us the very deepest depths of ourselves. That’s why I wanted to add my voice to the genre: because I felt like we were already a part of one another, and it was my turn to speak up. I wanted to make a contribution to the tradition that has so deeply influenced me.

Ana: I think you've perfectly captured why I, too, like fairy tale reboots so much - the comfort of the familiar mixed with the thrill of darkness and pain that almost always runs through fairy tales. I know that fairy tale reboots are particularly difficult because so many readers come to the story with different interpretations of what the underlying tale “should” be. Authors often have to make tough decisions about what aspects of the body of work to remove, what to expand upon, and what to change. If you could compare your novel to any other existing work, which one would it be and why?

Hanna: My novel is very traditional, in the sense that it does not omit much of the original story. Rather than taking the general idea and making something new out of it, I took the old framework of the story and gave it my interpretation. The differences are in the details, in other words.

If I could compare my story to any other book - and not feel like I should be slapped for my brazenness - I would humbly submit that it is similar in format to Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl. Both stay very true to the original fairy tales they root from, but become unique and new beneath the surface of that template. Donna Jo Napoli’s Zel does the same thing, as does Jessica Day George’s Princess of the Midnight Ball.

Ana: I like that you're going with a rather literal reboot - as much as I like modern reinterpretations of fairy tales, I think the literal reboots are the most comforting to sink into. Is this your first or only finished work, or have you written other novels? If you have written other novels, how do they compare to this one? Do you have any more novels planned, either as a follow-up to this one, or as a completely different novel or genre?

Hanna: Oh my. Yes, I’ve written others, but most of them should be sealed in a secret box and hidden from human eyes for all eternity. However, I have one now that is nearing completion, and I’m pretty excited about it. It is a YA high fantasy called "Sunchild", and it’s about a girl named Siria Nightingale who discovers on her sixteenth birthday that she has a magical connection with the sun. But she lives in a kingdom which has spent sixteen years in cursed darkness, so Siria has never actually seen the sun. As you might expect, it’s down to her to join up with the people who still remember the days before the Darkness, and learn what it means to be a Sunchild so she can restore the light to her kingdom and save the world.

The two books are very different, but both protagonists are young women who struggle to understand their identities even as they face great difficulty and emotional turmoil. Both deal with themes of family and goodness, and draw a great deal from their natural surroundings, but they are quite different in pace. "Sunchild" is a heroic epic, while "Beautiful Monster" is more of a quiet love story.

As far as future novels go, I am always scribbling down new ideas, but I haven’t ruled out a follow-up to "Beautiful Monster". You can be sure I’ll always have a fairy-tale reboot on my radar somewhere.

Ana: I love your description for "Sunchild" - I am always intrigued by"set in darkness" novels because there is so much potential for new "sense descriptions" that rely on more than just sight! I was introduced to your first novel through the Amazon Breakthrough Award contest of 2010. What prompted you to enter the contest, and what were your overall feelings towards the contest in general?

Hanna: I entered ABNA on a whim last year, tossing "Ephemeral" into the contest because I wanted to enter, and it was the most polished completed novel I had. At that point, I had never considered trying to go anywhere with the book; I had other, grander novels I wanted to pursue in the wide world of publishing, after all. But those had so far been nothing but frustrating flops, and here was my little Beauty and the Beast book, just sitting at home doing nothing. Why not enter it? What could it hurt? Nothing, it transpired. I made it to the quarterfinals!

I have very warm feelings toward ABNA, if only for the way it forced me to reconsider my book. After I was eliminated, I decided I wanted to make the novel better and see if I could get a long-coveted agent with it. Over the following months, I revised and revised, took it to the Highlights Foundation Writer’s Workshop at Chautauqua (where Donna Jo Napoli herself reviewed a segment of it), and then submitted it to a handful of choice agents. Ultimately, they all rejected it, but only after a great many helpful connections were forged. I had more full requests with that manuscript than I could have dreamed, and many were returned with helpful criticisms and invitations to submit future material. And though I have decided that "Beautiful Monster" will probably always be my little drawer novel, I am so grateful for the opportunities it has provided me.

And incidentally, the revised version is back in ABNA again this year. The excerpt is on the Kindle store among the other quarterfinalists.

Ana: I hope for our sake you don't shelve "Beautiful Monster" entirely - there's always the self-publishing route even if it's never perfectly polished. Are you currently published or self-published? Where can readers obtain a copy of your novel for them to enjoy? If you’re not currently published, how can readers “sign up” to be notified when your novel does become available?

Hanna: You have probably already deduced the answer by my last response, but I am not currently published. I have had several short stories in online publications, but I remain unagented and unpublished for now. However,"Beautiful Monster" is available on Smashwords if readers would like to meet Yseult and René, and I will always keep followers of my blog updated on any publication developments.

Readers can…
Follow me on Twitter (@hannachoward)
Follow my blog, I’ll Name My Typewriter After the Moon (
Subscribe to the Facebook group dedicated to seeing me to publication (Help Hanna!)
Download "Beautiful Monster" on Smashwords (Please bear with the formatting issues... they are being fixed.)

Ana: Hanna, thank you so very much for being willing to participate in this guest blog interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Hanna: Thanks so much for having me, Ana! I’ve had a blast. You’re a peach. :)


Amie McCracken said...

'because familiar things have a funny way of showing us the very deepest depths of ourselves' love that line. It is so true. Great interview!

Hanna C. Howard said...

:) Thanks for the interview, Ana.

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