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Alexa Donne Talks with Roger

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

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“Jane Eyre in Space,” said the email from the publisher suggesting this Talks, and I can’t tell you how tickled I was by the title, Jane Eyre in Space. You would think I’d be better by now at recognizing pitch-speech when I read it! But Brightly Burning, Alexa Donne’s first novel, does have a unique spin — orbital, even — on everybody’s favorite Victorian novel.

Roger Sutton: What can we infer from the two hooks of your book — Jane Eyre and space — about your own reading? What brought you to write this book?

Alexa Donne: I love classics, of course. Specifically I love Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, who were ahead of their time. Jane Austen was writing female-centered novels — not just romances, because they’re really social commentaries. And Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre — I think — was the first YA novel. At least it reads like one: it’s in the first-person, the protagonist is eighteen, she goes on the same journey that we know and love in YA fiction. I also love sci-fi and fantasy — I love anything genre in YA, especially set in space, high-concept with speculative twists. I watch a lot of television, and one of my favorite shows is Battlestar Galactica.

RS: Which means nothing to me.

AD: The dregs of humanity live on a fleet of spaceships in various states of disrepair. There’s lots of political intrigue and tension and drama. There are also space battles, but that’s not really my thing. I like people in confined spaces and extreme situations and the social dynamics that come from that. That’s essentially what Jane Eyre is. I love the gothic elements of the isolated manor, creepy things in the corridor, that undercurrent — it’s not supernatural or paranormal in Jane Eyre, but there’s a feeling that it could be, though it turns out to be something very human and awful. I love the build-up of the mood and the tone and then the twist.

RS: Did you have any trepidation in taking on Jane Eyre? Were there rules you didn’t want to break?

AD: I actually sat on this project for about two years because I wasn’t sure that I could do it justice. At first I thought I would have to write a pretty book, to write like Charlotte Brontë, who I can’t hold a candle to. I also wasn’t sure how to make changes that would work for contemporary YA, because you can’t have a contemporary YA novel with a love interest in his forties. Everyone brings their own expectations to a retelling of a beloved classic: “It’s not a Jane Eyre retelling without X.” I had to make my own choices and follow my gut. I hope that people love it, but honestly, if Jane Eyre fans don’t like something I changed or a direction I took, I understand.

RS: Is there anything about the original that you wanted to “fix”? The way we have Little Women fanfiction where Jo goes off with Laurie?

AD: I definitely wanted to change the “crazy wife in the attic” trope. I know that is such an important part of Jane Eyre, but I’ve never liked how Bertha is painted — she tricks Rochester into marrying her by hiding her mental illness. In that era, Rochester would have been doing her a kindness by keeping her at home in a fairly safe environment. But in modern times, hiding someone in an attic is really gross. And the fact that it was his wife: “My wife has a mental illness, so I’m going to ignore the fact that I’m married and hook up with this eighteen-year-old.” I also wanted to change St. John. He’s annoying, and he doesn’t respect Jane as a person. Generally speaking, I made changes to give my Jane Eyre character, Stella, more agency in the story. And Blanche Ingram is such a stock villain, I wanted to redeem her a little bit, make her a bit more rounded. I’m not a big fan of girls hating each other.

RS: And they do reconcile. Girl power.

AD: When I was seventeen, it was easy to be like, “Oh, the pretty girls don’t understand how hard it is for me, they have everything, they’re so lucky.” But when you actually have real conversations with people outside of high school, it’s illuminating. It can be wonderful, especially building relationships with women and ignoring a lot of the social baggage of judging women by what they look like and making assumptions about the kind of people they are. So I wanted to show that in the book.

RS: What was your own teen reading?

AD: The Giver was a really big, game-changing novel for me. I read it when I was eleven or twelve. I read Goosebumps, Fear Street, Baby-Sitters Club, and then I “upgraded” to Sweet Valley High. There was this series of cheesy romance novels, called Love Stories. I can’t remember who the publisher was, and no one’s ever heard of them. It was the precursor to what we know now as the high-concept contemporary YA romance. I read a lot of those. But I wish I’d had books like The Hunger Games when I was a teenager, or even Harry Potter. I came to Harry Potter a little bit late. I was seventeen when I read it, and it was life-changing for me, but I was barely still a YA.

RS: But you became involved in the Harry Potter fandom.

AD: The Harry Potter fandom was a huge part of my life. I worked on fan conventions, I read fanfiction and I wrote a little of it. I was thinking about Harry Potter and talking about it and connecting with other people about it almost every day for eight years.

RS: What part do you think that plays in creating a writer? That’s so different from when I was young, where writers would mostly grow up in isolation. We didn’t have these worldwide communities that could talk amongst themselves in microseconds.

AD: It definitely helped develop me as a writer in the sense that it gave me a space to experiment and push and fail in a very positive, supportive environment. Mostly positive and supportive; there’s always drama in fandom. But I was surrounded by people who loved the same thing that I did, who also wanted to explore the nooks and crannies of someone else’s fictional world. We were able to do that together, come together with a baseline of: we all love Harry Potter, so now let’s play with character and world and style and voice together. Let’s read each other’s work and give each other notes. I was able to develop confidence in my fiction-writing skills in a very safe place. But also, fandoms are microcosms. The Harry Potter fandom reminds me in a lot of ways of the current YA industry, in that there are a lot of people very passionate about the writing that they’re doing in one space, and there’s a lot of content to read. There are mini-celebrities within fandom worlds, and you learn humility when you’re not mega-famous within yours. I have a pretty seasoned perspective on the whole thing. I write because I love it, and I know that there are different readers for different books. You can’t be everything for everyone. I learned that from fandom.

RS: Yeah, I watched your YouTube video about reviewing [“Authors! Reviews Are Not for You!”]. Not out of any self-interest of course. But to find out how a writer can deal with reactions to her work.

AD: Yes. It’s easier said than done. I stand by everything I said, but I also read all my reviews, and it’s really interesting when you start to get the colorful negative ones. I’m cool — I’m not going to respond; the reviews are for readers. But it’s definitely tough. I did learn in fandom that you cannot make everyone happy, and engaging always makes it worse. Picking a fight never makes it better.

RS: No, it can’t help. And now you’re moving into this world of institutional reviews, like The Horn Book, Kirkus, Booklist, and School Library Journal.

AD: I’m excited about that. Reader reviews are fantastic, but you feel like you’ve arrived when you get a trade review, whether it’s good or bad. It’s so flattering to have a professional review your work.

RS: Well, it could be a very interesting journey. What are you going to do next?

AD: My next project is a retelling of Persuasion, also set in space. It is set in the same universe as Brightly Burning, but at a different time.

RS: As I was coming to the end of Brightly Burning, I was wondering if you, like so many, were setting me up for a sequel, but it doesn’t really seem like that would be possible with these characters.

AD: Yup, no sequel.

RS: Hallelujah.

AD: It stands alone. And Persuasion in space will also completely stand alone. Because they’re based on different classics, they each have a different tone. Brightly Burning is the romantic, gothic mystery. And Persuasion in space is, much like Jane Austen’s Persuasion, all about feelings.

RS: Will any of the same characters be in both books?

AD: There’s a little bit of crossover. Readers will pick out surnames that sound familiar. There are little connections that I’ve threaded through. But the stories take place far enough apart that there’s no direct overlap.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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