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I just finished reading "Queen of Hearts: The Crown," due out this Friday (of course), and was tickled to have a chance to talk with author Colleen Oakes about her delightful "Alice in Wonderland" retelling, which explores the story from a rather new point of view. We've seen dozens of Alices over the years, but one person we haven't seen humanized is the infamous Queen of Hearts, who, when you think about it, is kind of an enigmatic and fascinating figure.
What made the Queen the way she is? Colleen Oakes set out to play around with that in a three book YA series that made me have new sympathy for the woman who's always calling for people's heads.
xoJane: Your decision to explore the world of "Alice in Wonderland" from the perspective of the Queen of Hearts makes for a compelling and fascinating story -- I have to confess that I never gave the Queen much thought as a reader! What inspired you to explore her story?
Colleen Oakes: I have always been interested characters that lurk behind the scenes -- villains, sidekicks, henchmen, discarded love interests. Each of these characters is a full person with a entire story behind them. Who wouldn't want to explore that? Whenever I was young, I would watch "Alice in Wonderland" and I remember thinking "Why is that lady so mad?" The idea came to me as I was driving one day -- I thought, "I wonder what her story is."
Later I went home and began researching and stumbled across a quote from Lewis Carroll where he referred to her as "An embodiment of blind fury." That description was so tempting, I knew then that I wanted to write her story, and when I did, it would have to be an epic story of love denied.
xoJane: This is just volume one in a series, of course. How many more books are planned?
Colleen Oakes: There will be three books in the series: The Crown, The Wonder and The Heart. They are all finished, in fact, Queen of Hearts was originally one novel, but my fabulous publisher decided that they would be best as a three part fantasy YA series. It works great in this medium, and I am so happy with that decision.
xoJane: Without giving too much away, it's intriguing to see familiar anthropomorphized characters showing up in a slightly different form. Are we going to be seeing more of their animal side in future novels?
Colleen Oakes: Without giving too much away on this side, I can tell you that the animal sides of these people will be explored mainly through their personalities. When I laid out my Wonderland, I wanted a realistic and brutal place, and I couldn't have talking animals in that. Therefore, they became people, and their animal tendencies turned into very interesting character traits.
xoJane: I note that you're working on a series called Wendy Darling -- with a title like that, I can only hope we're in for a Peter Pan retelling! I'm fascinated that both of your re-imaginings of classic literature focus on the women -- the Queen of Hearts and Wendy Darling -- who are often neglected in the retellings department. Can you talk a bit about their stories and why they're so important? And are there any other pieces of classic children's literature that you have your eyes on?
Colleen Oakes: As a woman, I am mostly interested in telling stories from a woman's point of view, though I can tell you that my favorite characters in my books -- aside from the main characters -- are men. For "Queen of Hearts," I wanted to explore a woman who became a villain. As a pretty ferocious reader, I can tell you that I am bored to death of reading perfect female characters who never do anything wrong, never make bad decisions, or hurt anyone.
Occasionally, when a female character does actually make a bad decision, they are never treated to the consequences of those choices. They can do no wrong, and it's mind-numbingly dull. I wanted to see a girl do some bad things, and I wanted her to pay for them.
As for "Wendy Darling," I can tell you that writing Wendy has been a completely different experience than writing Dinah, the Queen of Hearts. Dinah thinks "I will burn this kingdom to the ground!" and Wendy is like "I think I will have tea, Papa, thank you!" One is a stick of dynamite and the other is a calm sea. Wendy's story is important because I think there are so many important ideas floating around Neverland regarding women and their place in that world.
xoJane: Parts of this book are quite macabre and gruesome -- which I think is a great extension of Carroll's rather peculiar tradition -- were those parts tough or intense to write? Do you feel like you've aged up "Alice in Wonderland" a bit?
Colleen Oakes: As for the macabre and gruesome parts, I would say that those are among my favorite parts to write. It's strange, I really don't like gore in movies or TV shows -- I have to turn my head away from about 70% of "The Walking Dead" when I watch it with my husband -- but I really enjoy writing it. I have a twisted part of me that loves to be a little bit terrified and a little bit dark without going too far over the edge. Movies like "Coraline," "Sleepy Hollow" and "The Others" are just my cup of tea because they creep but not scare -- and I think that's my approach to gore.
I did age up Wonderland a bit, considering that these stories are about children, and I wanted my stories to be about young adults. "Queen" was open from the get-go for me to determine how old they were, but for "Wendy Darling," I actually changed the age of the characters so that I could explore some different things in terms of relationships and budding attraction.
xoJane: While you're an established author, this is your first YA novel. What led you to YA as a storytelling medium, or did it just kind of happen?
Colleen Oakes: It's funny you should ask, because I never saw "Queen of Hearts" as YA when I was writing it. It wasn't until my editors pointed out that it was YA that I realized I had written a YA Fairytale retelling. It's funny, as a writer you as so engrossed in the world you've created that when you look up every once in awhile your book might be a very different place than you intended.
xoJane: Finally, a key question for our readers: cake, or pie?
Colleen Oakes: *Wicked grin* Tarts.
I highly recommend baking some celebratory tarts and settling down this Friday with "Queen of Hearts," though I warn you that when you finish it, you're going to be gnashing your teeth to find out what happens next...