Monday, January 8, 2018

#AuthorInterview: Heather Webb, author of The Phantom's Apprentice

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Heather Webb back to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her latest release, The Phantom's Apprentice.

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Release Date: February 6th 2018   |   Sonnet Press   |   Historical Fiction/Romantic Suspense
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Welcome back to Flashlight Commentary Heather. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about The Phantom’s Apprentice.
Thank you for having me! The Phantom’s Apprentice is a re-imagining of The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, complete with a historical context of the period—illusionists, spititualism, what it means after we die, music as a means to find one’s inner power, Belle Epoque Paris in all its glory. It’s a sort of mash-up of genres, really; suspense, historical fiction, romance, women’s fiction (if that’s a true category). It’s all about Christine Daaé’s inner life, and who she “really” is—how her story “really” happened, at least in my imagination.

The Phantom’s Apprentice is less a re-telling than it is a re-imagining of The Phantom of the Opera. Why did you opt to make such dramatic departures from the source material? 
It’s funny you say this. I had a couple of publishers tell me it wasn’t different enough, that I had followed the original too closely. My agent and I scratched our heads about it. I can’t tell you how much I wrestled with this element of writing the book. How much canon from the novel do I retain? How often can I stray from the original story? If I strayed too far, it would be unrecognizable; if I didn’t stray far enough, I would be repeating the story that already exists. This was a very difficult thing to balance. My critique partners could tell you how much angst I had about this very thing—it was constant. The other issue is, what is so famous in Webber’s version isn’t necessarily what the book was trying to illustrate at all, so it added another layer of angst. The public knows and loves the play. Do I follow this outline more heavily or the original Leroux version?

In the stage play version of the story, so much is left out that was either touched upon in the novel, or was eluded to (Erik having conjuring skills, for example). I reconstructed that world, expanded it, sort of combining the two versions. Also, I used most of the original cast, but I gave them deeper motivations, as well as created another layer of stakes for each character beyond just “there’s a creep in the opera who is trying to kill us”, or “she’s really pretty, I want to be with her”. There were a couple of new characters that I hadn’t planned on, too, who butted their way into the narrative unexpectedly. When Delacroix showed up, I thought “who the heck is this guy and what does he want?” It led me down the spiritualism path.

Ultimately, this is a question about artistic license, and about what the original means to me personally, where I see its strengths and flaws and how I wanted to flesh out certain elements, how I wanted to add something new to a beloved story that a modern audience could relate to. I found that in Christine Daaé’s voice. 

Spiritualism plays a unique role in the story. Can you tell us a little about the Spiritualist movement and its connection to the world of magic and illusion?
I was absolutely fascinated by this movement, and really wanted to incorporate it as historical context for the novel. First of all, Gaston Leroux lived during this time when the movement was at its height in popularity. He ingeniously weaved in this question of ghosts and spirits, as well as political commentary from the times into the narrative that doesn’t really come through in the play version. 

Spiritualism began with an innocent séance between the Fox sisters in the first half of the 19th century that evolved into a sensation. Did the dead communicate with the living? Had they really passed on or did they live among us, evolving alongside us in the afterlife? This era is when you see the rise of Gothic novels and the occult, as well as the use of mediums and turning tables for séances. Add the technological push and rapid series of inventions and everyone grapples for the essence of what matters—their loved ones, the evolution of their souls, and so on. 

Spiritualism evolved into a religious sect in some circles, and like with any religion, beliefs were tied to its principles and emotions ran high. There was much debate over the validity of spiritualism, and Scientists and philosophers sought to disprove or prove (whatever angle they were coming from), the likelihood that spirits were real. Many magicians/conjurers tapped into this emotionally volatile well and manipulated it for their own gain, especially as advances in projecting images and different types of glass were designed. They could “create” apparitions. Riots broke out after an illusionist’s show from time to time, because viewing the dead so easily in public caused a fright.

Erik could throw voices, used mirrors to deceive, made trap doors, dressed like an illusionist. Leroux was poking fun at the movement while simultaneously giving a nod to its ingenuity. I LOVED this about the novel and thought, how could this have gone unnoticed among modern audiences? We see magicians in top hats as hokey. This is because society today doesn’t understand the era when all of this was happening, how modern technology began, really, during this time, and the way it frightened the bejesus out of people. Major change was afoot. Fascinating stuff that I just HAD to include. 

Speaking of magic, the narrative is filled with numerous illusions and tricks. Were these techniques inspired by any particular magician or popular performances of the period? 
Yes, they were inspired by many illusionists that were popular during the time. I mentioned a few of them by name in the book. If you’re curious, I’d recommend reading Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer. It’s a terrific book about the history of magic and the world’s most popular magicians. I read a few others, but this one was, by far, the best.

Do you have a favorite scene in The Phantom’s Apprentice? 
Hmm. I’ll just say my favorite scenes to write were when Christine sees Raoul for the first time at Carlotta’s salon, when she confronts Carlotta near the end, and also the masquerade ball when she discovers a few unsavory details about all those she has cared for and trusted.

How funny! The confrontation scene was my favorite while reading the book. 

Is there a character you felt particularly close to while writing The Phantom’s Apprentice? 
Interestingly, I’d say Claudette. As much as I enjoyed giving Christine Daaé a backbone, I just really loved Claudette’s voice. She popped up unexpectedly and I thoroughly enjoyed her. At times, I wanted the story to be more about her. 

As a side note, I had trouble with Erik. I had to really scale him back because every time I started working on a scene with him, he wanted to take over the story. He’s a larger-than-life figure in our minds and I had to remind myself again and again that it wasn’t his story, that he already had a story. This was Christine’s. 


Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing The Phantom’s Apprentice?
YES! Initially, I toyed with the idea of setting up a framing device that was in Gaston Leroux’s voice. My intention was to show how he became inspired to write the original through things that happened to him and around him in society. I tried and tried to make this work—Leroux was kind of a wild man, and was the original and first celebrity journalist—but it just didn’t fit so I had to ditch it. I’m still mourning that. It just didn’t happen. Incidentally, I’d love to write a book about him.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you invite and why? 
I assume you mean in The Phantom’s Apprentice and not from all of my novels? I think I’d choose Monsieur Delacroix. He was incredibly intelligent and had loads of baggage as well as some interesting views on things. I’d like to pick his brain. 

If you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of The Phantom’s Apprentice, who would you hire? 
I would hire Amber Heard for Christine Daaé. (In the novel, she was a blond, Swedish babe, not the brunette we’ve come to recognize in the play.) For Raoul, Liam Hemsworth, I think. I see Erik being played by someone with a middle-aged, slightly creepy affect like Kevin Spacey. I have no one in mind for the others. If Mariah Carey were an actress, I’d cast her as Carlotta. Ha!

What do you hope readers take from their experience of The Phantom’s Apprentice? 
I usually like to allude to something meaningful about being alive and struggling as people on this earth. In The Phantom’s Apprentice, the struggle is about finding a place of your own, about discovering the bravery inside of you to face hardships that life throws at us. It’s also about using that bravery to strike out, do something meaningful in our short time on this planet. We should not grieve forever about what is lost, or we also lose our present and our future. It’s also about spirituality. What do you believe about souls and the afterlife? Is it scientifically-based, or do you believe in a higher power? Do they go hand-in-hand?

Finally, I was heavily inspired by The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, one of my very favorite novels. That novel, to me, is much less about plot and so much more about atmosphere. It’s an experience, almost, rather than a story. I aimed to channel some of that essence in The Phantom’s Apprentice. I wanted to create a lush, Gothic ambiance that was so unique to the era, make the book an experience of its own. Most of all, I just want to entertain my readers! 


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When Josephine Bonaparte appeared to Heather in a dream, she switched gears from fun-loving high school teacher to author & history nerd on the prowl for fascinating stories.

To date, her historical novels have sold in multiple countries, received national starred reviews, and have been featured in print media including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Cosmo, Elle, and more. In addition, RODIN'S LOVER was chosen as a Goodread's Pick in 2015.

Her recent release, LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS, an epistolary love story set during WWI, she co-wrote with NYT bestseller Hazel Gaynor with lots of laughs, tears, and trans-Atlantic phone calls. It's available in stores everywhere.

Stay tuned for her up and coming, THE PHANTOM'S APPRENTICE, a Gothic re-imagining of Phantom of the Opera from a newer, stronger Christine Daae's point of view. Out February 6, 2018.

When not writing, Heather flexes her foodie skills, geeks out on pop culture and history, or looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world, (especially her beloved France).

Website   |   Facebook   |   Twitter   |   Goodreads

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FLASHLIGHT COMMENTARY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FANS OF HEATHER WEBB:

Rodin's Lover
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆


Becoming Josephine
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Fall of Poppies
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
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