Two historical fiction authors talk reimagining classics through a feminist lens
Two exciting new titles in historical fiction are reimaginings of classic tales: Olivia Twist by Lorie Langdon (Doon) and The Phantom’s Apprentice by Heather Webb (Becoming Josephine).
Langdon’s Olivia Twist is a gender-flipped version of Charles Dickens’ famed novel, out March 6. In Langdon’s revision, Olivia was forced to live as a boy for her own safety until she was rescued from the streets. Now 18, Olivia finds herself at a crossroads: revealed secrets threaten to destroy the “proper” life she has built for herself, while newfound feelings for an arrogant young man she shouldn’t like could derail her carefully laid plans for the future.
Webb’s Phantom’s Apprentice, meanwhile, takes on The Phantom of the Opera, already both a landmark novel from Gaston Leroux and an iconic musical from Andrew Lloyd Webber. The new book (out now) is centered on Christine Daaé, who sings with her violinist father in salons all over Paris, but she longs to practice her favorite pastime — illusions. When her beloved Papa dies during a conjurer’s show, she abandons her magic and surrenders to grief and guilt. Life as a female illusionist seems too dangerous, and she must honor her father’s memory. Concerned for her welfare, family friend Professor Delacroix secures an audition for her at the Opéra de Paris — the most illustrious stage in Europe.
Langdon, a YA author, and Webb, a veteran of adult historical fiction, decided to sit down together and compare experiences: what it is they love about writing historical fiction, the challenge of taking on beloved classics, and why it’s weirdly freeing to write women in these relatively restrictive and confined time periods. Their conversation, exclusive to EW, is below and covers a range of fascinating topics that should be of interest to any historical fiction reader. Check it out below.
LORIE LANGDON: Hi Heather! I believe the last time I saw you, we were in Galway, Ireland, touring ancient ruins, staring out over the Cliffs of Moher, and dining at a (purportedly) haunted castle, all while teaching a writer’s workshop. What’ve you been up to since our grand adventure?
HEATHER WEBB: Hello, my friend! I wish I was back on that cliff… though, publishing a new book always feels a bit like that, doesn’t it?
LANGDON: Uh… yeah. That’s a great analogy for sending a book, which is really a piece of your soul, out into the world for people to love and cherish or kick around like a bag of trash. But I think we continue to do it because we love sharing our characters and stories in the hopes that they will bring a bit of light into reader’s lives.
WEBB: Speaking of cliffs and sharing our characters, we are both about to launch our latest books — two retellings of classic stories. You’ve written a continuation for the characters from Oliver Twist and I’ve written a reimagining of The Phantom of the Opera. I’d say we’re brave women, wouldn’t you? We took on some larger-than-life stories and made them our own. There are some definite advantages and pitfalls in attempting this sort of project. What were some for you?
LANGDON: For me, the advantages outweigh the pitfalls. I absolutely love putting a fresh spin on classic tales that live in all our psyches and making them new again. Olivia Twist is my second retelling after the Doon series, but there’s one major difference between Olivia Twist and Doon. Doon is loosely inspired by the concept of Brigadoon; a Scottish village that only appears to the outside world once every hundred years. While Olivia Twist was inspired by the characters. I needed more from the Artful Dodger and Oliver (or Olivia in this case), and to find out what happened to them after “the end.” Telling their story as older teens, caught between the world of high society and their dark pasts, was a bit like writing fanfiction for me. A passion project for sure!
WEBB: In writing The Phantom’s Apprentice, I have to admit, I felt a bit of trepidation. The original novel by Gaston Leroux is one of the most widely read in history, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage version has amassed over one billion views. The Gothic setting of the story, the unrequited love, the tormented characters, have engendered serious “phans,” and many of them are quite vocal about their opinions. Could I take on a project like this, reshape such a famous character and make her my own without burning down the opera? Every step of the way I questioned myself. But the Muse insisted, so I gave Christine Daae a voice, a more modern sense of agency, and, therefore, more relevance to today’s reader. Balancing canon of not one version, but two — the novel and play, which differ — as well as my own ideas, proved to be no easy feat. How much of the original do you incorporate? How do you balance your own creation with another that is so well loved? You could call this a major pitfall. You could also call it a wonderful challenge. It was one I knew I had to take.
LANGDON: The balancing act is tricky and going into it with a solid vision is key. I just realized both of our retellings incorporate inspiration from a book and a musical! In my case the Dickens’ classic and the musical Oliver!, which are also vastly different from one another.
WEBB: I’m a huge musical fan. Just about every time I’m in New York, I make it a point to see what’s hot. I’m lucky to live so close to the city. Speaking of luck, I feel lucky to be able to spend loads of time reading and doing on-site research for each book, one of my favorite parts of writing historical fiction. Lorie, what’s something that surprised you while researching for Olivia Twist?
LANGDON: While researching some of the darker sides of Victorian London, I discovered that the word “treadmill” comes from a device used in workhouses and prisons, where individuals were forced to walk a wheel for up to eight hours a day in order to crush grain or pump water. Some people were literally walked to death!
WEBB: Wow. That’s how I feel on a treadmill — walked (and bored) to death. For The Phantom’s Apprentice, I think the thing that stands out most in my mind is the spiritualist movement — a religious movement that spread across Europe and the U.S. rapidly. It all began with a seance conducted by two young sisters. During this time, many believed you could contact spirits beyond the grave, and salonnieres would host seances as a party game. More interesting still, was the way in which advancements with mirrors and electricity, in conjunction with the spiritualist movement, gave magicians the ability to “call upon the dead.” When spirits appeared on stage, riots broke out at many of the conjurers’ shows.
LANGDON: That’s fascinating! Did you incorporate this phenomenon into your novel?
WEBB: I did! The way in which Erik, the phantom, “haunts” the opera house with trap doors, throwing his voice, and a series of mirrors inspired me to look into illusionists and their popularity during the Belle Epoque. It also inspired me to find a way to take those past events and somehow make them — as well as the characters — more relatable to a modern audience. How did you handle this aspect, Lorie? Did you find it difficult to create relatable historical characters, in particular, the males?
LANGDON: Throughout much of history, men were raging male chauvinists. (Sorry guys! We know you’ve come a long way.) So for me, it’s important to incorporate some of these beliefs into my male heroes and then have my heroines blow their perceptions out of the water. In Olivia Twist, the Artful Dodger has limited experience with strong females, and then he meets Olivia, who doesn’t allow the constraints of society stop her from accomplishing her goals…she just finds creative ways around them. As a storyteller, it’s a wonderful challenge to write characters who are relatable even when the world they live in is not.
WEBB: I’d have to agree with you, here. You can’t change history, but you can show layers to your characters; show how the males struggle to understand a different point of view or toss them in the middle of some difficult obstacle that forces them to change. As for women, one of the best ways to make a historical female relatable is to show her sense of agency. She can enact her dreams, plans, or goals in small ways, which is sometimes all that is accurate for the era. It’s important to remember, however, that though a female character is confined by societal rules and expectations, her inner life doesn’t have to look the way her outward life does. What is in her heart is precisely what modern readers can relate to, regardless of the era. Human nature and human needs don’t change.
LANGDON: For an author, these cultural disparities can become problematic. Which brings up another interesting question; why write historical at all? For me, it starts with my love of building worlds. And even more so when I can bring historical periods to life for my readers. Placing my characters into strict social constraints, that we have a hard time conceiving in modern times, adds another layer of conflict and tension to any plot. In the past, life was more elemental, and I think in these days of technology overload, we long for the simplicity of hearth and home, human connections, and surviving on our wits alone. Another element of historical settings that I love is the lack of modern communication and how it can turn a simple situation dangerous quickly. I heard the creators of Stranger Things talk about how a throwback to simpler times was one of the reasons they placed the show in the 1980’s. Before cell phones and the Internet, when you left the house your parents couldn’t track you on GPS or stalk your social media to see what you were up to. You were on your own. And anything was possible!
WEBB: We’re on the same page, my friend — I adore the world-building and conveying past conventions, especially the strange, the shocking, and the fascinating. Historical writers, ultimately, really love to learn as well. You’ll hear many of us say the best part is the research — traveling, reading, taking notes, sifting through information to find the gems that spark our creativity. I love spending all that time in another time and place, filling my head with details about inventions and social mores and clothing. Never mind hygiene and food. There’s so much to know! All of this digging into the past helps me understand why and how our world functions (or doesn’t) today. I think I read somewhere that looking into the past is really a window into the future — I couldn’t agree more.
LANGDON: Beautifully said, Heather. Don’t even get me started on historical fashions! Let’s suffice it to say that research is the fuel that lights my creative fire. Now to something a bit more fun. While in Ireland, we spent hours cooped up on a tour bus talking about—
WEBB: I think you mean, what didn’t we talk about. Ha! But there was an awful lot of bookish discussion from stories we love to craft, to the one thing so many authors dream of: having our books developed for film or TV. Am I right?
LANGDON: Oh yeah! I think you and I agree that one of the best historical book-to-film adaptations is the Pride & Prejudice film starring Keira Knightley. (Highly debatable, I know). But as you may have guessed, my absolute fave is the 1968 musical Oliver! The music, the characters, the acting… timeless! It won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. If you haven’t seen it… find it… download it… watch it tonight!
WEBB: Absolutely! I adore that version of Pride & Prejudice. I also really like the 2011 version of Jane Eyre with Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska, as well as Great Expectations with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke.
LANGDON: Hmm, a Great Expectations YA reimagining… I could get behind that! (Runs off to start researching…)