Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Interrogation Room #45: Julie Berry, author of THE SCANDALOUS SISTERHOOD OF PRICKWILLOW PLACE

We have a repeat offender in the Interrogation Room today: acclaimed author Julie Berry! We hauled her in this time last year to talk about her Edgar-nominated YA mystery ALL THE TRUTH THAT'S IN ME. Julie just can't seem to stay out of trouble, and now she's surrounded by scandal, with the release of her new middle grade mystery, THE SCANDALOUS SISTERHOOD OF PRICKWILLOW PLACE -- out today from Roaring Brook/Macmillan Kids!

We have lots of questions for Julie today, but here's a bit about the new book (whose title we'll abbreviate to SSPP, since we love abbreviations and acronyms here at SSA!):

There's a murderer on the loose—but that doesn't stop the girls of St. Etheldreda's from attempting to hide the death of their headmistress in this rollicking farce.

The students of St. Etheldreda's School for Girls face a bothersome dilemma. Their irascible headmistress, Mrs. Plackett, and her surly brother, Mr. Godding, have been most inconveniently poisoned at Sunday dinner. Now the school will almost certainly be closed and the girls sent home—unless these seven very proper young ladies can hide the murders and convince their neighbors that nothing is wrong.

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is a smart, hilarious Victorian romp, full of outrageous plot twists, mistaken identities, and mysterious happenings.

And now, here's the transcript of our second interrogation of Julie! (Plus, her mug shot!)

SSA: So here you are, a repeat offender . . . we last saw you in here one year ago, when we summoned you to answer questions about your YA historical mystery, ALL THE TRUTH THAT'S IN ME.

JB: When do I get to call my lawyer?

SSA: Not so fast. You're a slippery one, Ms. Berry, and we need answers. It seems you've been trespassing into different genres. In short succession, you've written TWO unconventional and historical mysteries -- one in experimental form, and now this new one, a farce. Can we see your poetic license?

JB: Yes, right here.

SSA: Ah. Okay. Well, we've noticed the two books couldn't be more different in tone as well as time periods. How did it feel to go from Puritan America in ALL THE TRUTH THAT'S IN ME to Victorian England in SSPP? And did you learn anything about mystery writing from writing ALL THE TRUTH that helped you with the new novel, despite the vastly different content?

JB: It's kind of fun to go from promoting one novel with a very serious tone to peddling one this playful. I like to mix things up. Both stories have some darkness to them, I'd say, but the flavors are very different. I definitely do think that ALL THE TRUTH gave me invaluable craft practice. I learned how to be very disciplined about clues, details, mechanics, pacing, motive, and what to reveal when. I think these will be useful for any book I write in the future, whether overtly a mystery or not.

SSA: What appeals to you about farce? And what's challenging about writing farce?

JB: Comedies yield laughs, but farce done right threatens the audience with death by laughter. It's one big crescendo of crazy humor, and I love it. I grew up on writers like P.G. Wodehouse (and later, Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels), and on films like Arsenic and Old Lace and His Girl Friday. Nowadays, my family does a lot of community theater, and I've watched more British farces than you can shake a stick at. Over time, I began to deconstruct them to try to understand what makes a farce a farce. Slamming doors? Mistaken identities? Corpses? Or was it more than that?

There's a lot more. Farces have a particular energy and pace. Timing is everything. Careful plotting is crucial. A sort of everyman (or everywoman, or everykid) protagonist is confronted with an unplanned, improbable, twist-of-fate dilemma, and a series of characters who represent extreme stereotypes until the protagonist is totally destabilized by dealing with such loonybirds--until he or she becomes, in essence, one of them. In the process, though, they become less flat-vanilla, and more human, more round, more likable. Miraculously, things work out, balance is restored, and everyone can go on about their lives, but old assumptions, old walls, have been broken down a bit. Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace may flee from his insane relatives, once he learns he was adopted, shrieking, "I am not a Brewster!" but his bug-eyed stare proves he's become at least a bit of one.

SSA: We understand you did quite a bit of research to bring this 19th-century British boarding school to life. (Not to mention other harrowing scenes, like burying a dead body!) What is one of the most deliciously fascinating facts that you uncovered?

JB: I got to read some wonderfully gruesome accounts of crimes, poisonings, and medical investigations during the Victorian era. Since I've never personally poisoned anyone with cyanide (I swear, I haven't!), I needed to read lots about it. There were some wonderfully lurid poisonings going on, and some truly dastardly poisoners. The relatively recent innovation of life insurance, combined with easy-to-buy poisons and as-yet underdeveloped techniques for detecting them, turned, I regret to say, certain people's unpleasant relatives into solutions for their shopping addiction. Or opium addiction. Insert your addiction of choice.

SSA: How did you get the voice in this novel so pitch perfect? Did you watch a lot of British period dramas on PBS? Read numerous Victorian novels? Or -- our suspicion -- are you actually a time traveler from Victorian England?

JB: I'm the Doctor. Take a look. It's bigger on the inside.

The real Julie Berry!
Guilty on all counts. Who doesn't love Dickens, or the Brontes? I think I was born in the wrong century sometimes. Except that I would never want to have to wear what the Victorians wore underneath all those poufy-sleeve dresses, if you catch my drift, nor visit their doctors if I was ill, nor attend their finishing schools (except maybe this one), nor tolerate their prevailing views of the roles of girls and women. But we owe a great debt to a number of women during this era who made tremendous strides.

SSA: What do you hope contemporary teens or tweens take away from this novel? Is it pure entertainment, or do you think there are bridges they can find to their modern lives?

JB: Pure entertainment is always my goal. My job is to divert you. I wouldn't mind it at all if readers came away with a bit more of an affinity for these genres I've played with, and go hunting on their own for drawing-room mysteries and farces, past and present, to enjoy. If a little girl empowerment was sniffed around the edges, so much the better, but truly, I really just want you to laugh and keep the pages turning.

SSA: Is there anything scandalous about your writing life that you'd care to confess?

JB: Alas, I was scandalously late turning in my most recent manuscript. And I sometimes go scandalously long between showering. Working from home will do that to you. Other than that, my actual writing life is fairly boring. Anything colorful going on in my writing life, to quote the immortal Mr. Tweedy of the Aardman film Chicken Run (who, incidentally, makes a teensy cameo as a constable in my novel), is "all in me head." 

SSA: Thank you for answering our questions, Julie! We'll let you off the hook again. Stay out of trouble -- or rather, stay in trouble -- we love the creative risks you take, and we can't wait to see what you're cooking up next! 

You can track Julie down at her website, on Twitter (@JulieBerryBooks), and on her Facebook fan page
You can buy THE SCANDALOUS SISTERHOOD OF PRICKWILLOW PLACE and Julie's other books on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or at Independent bookstores near you.

Please enjoy this fabulous trailer for SCANDALOUS SISTERHOOD, and then . . .  enter our giveaway! One lucky winner will get a signed hardcover of Julie's new book!

Intrigued? Enter our giveaway on this Rafflecopter thingy below! This giveaway is open internationally. Must be 13+ to enter.
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1 comment:

  1. I'm so excited for this book - I love a good middle grade novel with strong kid power - so I loved reading this interview! As for a scandalous reading secret of mine, I've never read a Jane Austen novel. Everyone tells me I need to read Pride and Prejudice and need to watch the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, but novels based primarily on romance rarely appeal to me. Maybe some day I'll give it a shot.


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