As unique as her novel Asperfell may be, writer Jamie Thomas is well aware that she’s not the first person to write a Gothic fantasy story. Though she may be the first in a while to do so in Gothic Victorian style. In the following email interview about Asperfell (paperback, Kindle), Thomas not only discusses what inspired and influenced this tale, but also why she couldn’t help but write it the way she did.
Let’s begin with a plot overview. What is Asperfell about, and what kind of world is it set in?
Asperfell is, above all, the story of a woman who discovers the power in her voice, both quite literally in terms of her magic, and in what she chooses to do with it. Briony’s story begins in the kingdom of Tiralaen with the death of the king at the hands of his own son, Elyan, a Mage with a terrifying gift. He is banished through a one way gate to the Mage-prison of Asperfell, and his brother, Keric, assumes the throne. Twelve years later, Briony, possessed of magic kept secret from her all her life, is sent through the same gate in a desperate attempt to restore the exiled prince to his throne and save a kingdom ravaged by civil war as Keric hunts down all magic born. But Asperfell is a mysterious, haunted world of caged madmen and demented spirits, of dark magic and cryptic whispers, and Elyan, rendered bleak and broken after years of exile, has no desire to be rescued.
The kingdom of Tiralaen has a slightly medieval feel, but is far more advanced, in large part due to the presence of magic. The social hierarchy and class system bear some resemblance to Victorian England. I suppose that’s what is so brilliant about writing fantasy. I can do whatever I want…within reason, of course.
Where did you get the idea for Asperfell and how did the plot change as you wrote it?
Asperfell was actually quite smaller and more intimate in scale when I first conceived of it, both in terms of the story and the prison itself. Very early on I knew I wanted to subvert the trope of a prince rescuing a princess in a tower, and I wanted that tower to be dark, mysterious, and full of magic, but in the beginning it was, quite literally, a tower — one single, solitary tower — with only a dozen prisoners or so. They were meant to be an odd, Dickesian bunch, even more esoteric than their final iterations ended up being, and the focus was more on politics and court intrigue than on civil war, or, ultimately, oppression, bigotry, and gender roles. All of this was sort of clamoring about in my head for a while, and the catalyst that led to me finally putting pen to paper — or fingers to keyboard, as it were, was Briony. Her character and her voice were what ultimately shaped Asperfell into what it is now. She’s sort of funny like that, Briony — she never can keep well enough to herself when there are opinions to be voiced.
Asperfell sounds like it’s a Gothic fantasy story. Is that how you’d describe it?
Asperfell is absolutely Gothic fantasy, but it also shares many characteristics of regency era’s comedy of manners, and this was absolutely intentional. It is there in Tiralaen’s societal norms as well as in the interactions and dialogue between the characters.
One interesting thing about Asperfell is that you wrote it in Gothic Victorian style. For people who were English majors in the late-’80s but don’t remember what that means, how would you explain Gothic Victorian style and how is it different from contemporary English?
Well, now you’ve gone and done it. Fair warning, I can and will talk about this all day. Let’s dive in, shall we?
First, let’s separate Gothic fantasy as a genre from Gothic fantasy as a writing style. The genre of Asperfell is Gothic fantasy, but I could just as easily have written it in contemporary English. While it’s true that many of the novels we consider to be Gothic masterpieces were written in the Victorian era (Jane Eyre, The Mysteries Of Udolpho, Frankenstein, The Fall Of The House of Usher, etc.), what made them Gothic wasn’t necessarily their writing style, but the elements that they included — a checklist, if you will, of tropes that any piece of self-respecting Gothic fiction had to have to earn the title.
First, and perhaps most important, Gothic fiction must have an incredibly atmospheric, foreboding, and probably haunted setting. This is traditionally a house or a mansion or, in the case of Asperfell, a Mage-prison, but it is always a place that is so wholly realized through descriptive writing that the reader feels utterly transported. If a Gothic novelist has done their job, the setting should feel like a character in itself, tangible and real.
Most Gothic novels have an innocent heroine, an ingenue, if you will, and an anti-hero, also known as the Byronic Hero, who is tortured by his dark past. There is usually romance between them, though whether it ends well is not always certain. There is usually something sinister, possibly supernatural in nature, lurking at all times, a pervasive sense of foreboding and doom. The use of metaphor is heavy handed, particularly in relation to the mysterious and secret. This sometimes ties to omens or visions of doom, perhaps a prophecy of some sort tied to the setting or the characters. And, finally, emotions always run high in Gothic fiction. Drama abounds, and there is a great deal of wailing and swooning over it.
You know, this is really good stuff. Maybe I should write a manual. Should I write a manual? I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna write a manual.
Because Asperfell is a Gothic fantasy, it also has elements essential to that genre as well, which, I think, is what keeps it from being too dark. Fantasy, to me, is so much about hope and courage and adventure, and Briony certainly embodies all of those things and more. Inexperienced she may be, but damsel in distress she most certainly is not.
So why did you decide to write Asperfell in Gothic Victorian style instead of modern English, and how, if at all, did that impact the story?
As an English teacher and a lover of Victorian and Gothic novels and poetry you are probably expecting to hear that I planned to use a more classical, romantic style all along, but I must sadly disappoint — Asperfell‘s style is only a slightly more formal and loquacious deviation from my regular writing style, which is why I am terrible at business communications. Brevity is not my forte! Really, the comedy of manners aspect of the story influenced the writing style more than anything, and once Briony’s voice was established, the writing flowed naturally.
So are there any writers, or specific stories, that were a big influence on Asperfell but not on anything else you’ve written?
On the Gothic side of things, I owe much to Daphne du Maurier, Charlotte Bronte, Edgar Allen Poe — among many others. But there are also many aspects of Asperfell that are purely homage to Jane Austen, though I’m not sure if I should point them out or leave that to the keen-eyed reader. As far as contemporary influences go, particularly on the fantasy side of things, Naomi Novik, Galen Beckett, Guy Gavriel Kay, Garth Nix, Laini Taylor…
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games? Did any of those have a big influence on either what you wrote in Asperfell or how you wrote it?
Absolutely! I doubt Asperfell would’ve had quite as many umbras and other delightfully eldritch horrors if it weren’t for Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak or Mike Flannagan’s absolutely brilliant The Haunting Of Hill House. There was also a wonderful limited series on BBC at the time called The Living And The Dead — very Gothic, very atmospheric. And I love Penny Dreadful.
Briony herself has so much of my most beloved literary characters in her — Jo March from Little Women, Anne Shirley from Anne Of Green Gables, a bit of Emma, a bit of Lizzie Bennett, but there are more contemporary influences there as well — strong women whose strength comes from their intelligence and wit and courage and compassion and not their ability to wield a sword. I remember telling Rick (my publisher) very early on that no one under any circumstances should give Briony a sword as she will absolutely cut her own face off.
And this is my last question about your influences: You mentioned earlier that you are an English Teacher, but you also, according to your bio, have a “Master’s degree in English Education” who did your “graduate research in the area of gender equality in high school literary curriculum.” So I have to ask, how was Asperfell influenced by your “two enormous dogs, and two mischievous cats”?
I actually wrote one of my cats into the story! There’s a cat known as The Cat roaming the halls of Asperfell. Sadly, the actual cat passed away while I was writing Asperfell, but he lives on eternal within its pages, just as The Cat lives on within Asperfell’s walls. His name was Sebastian and my parents found him in a field by the body of his dead mother when he was just about six weeks old. He and I fell instantly in love — I think I was a college junior at the time, and I wasn’t allowed to have pets in my apartment, but I could not resist. Sebastian was with me for sixteen and a half years and I loved him beyond all reason. Even though he lived a wonderfully long, happy life, I was devastated when he died. The two cats in my bio are an elderly Siamese named Jasper left alone after Sebastian’s passing, and Poe, a kitten I eventually adopted, though I guess I have to revise my bio because now I have three mischievous cats. Poe harassed Jasper so unrelentingly that we eventually “had to” adopt a third kitten, Bronte, so he would ease up and play with someone closer to his own age. It worked, but for a while there I thought my husband was going to murder me. Actually, he still might.
Now, fantasy stories are sometimes stand-alone tales and sometimes part of larger sagas. What is Asperfell?
Asperfell‘s first iteration, with its small cast of characters and single, solitary tower, was meant to be a stand-alone fairytale of sorts. But by the time I completed the first outline, I knew it was far too vast a story to be contained within one book.
So what’s the new plan?
I have always intended Asperfell to be a trilogy of novels with a possible fourth book that I cannot talk about because it would completely spoil a good deal of the second book and all of the third book. If I do write the fourth book, it will probably be after I take a break from the world of Tiralaen and the world beyond the Gate and focus on a couple of other projects I have waiting in the wings. For now, I am a little over halfway through the manuscript for the second book in the trilogy, called The Forest Kingdom, which I believe will be published in 2021.
As you know, some people wait until every book in a series is out before reading any of them, and some of them then read all of the books back-to-back. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait for the other books to come out before reading Asperfell?
I think the end of Asperfell is not so desperate a cliffhanger that it would cause readers to avoid it until The Forest Kingdom is released, or even Book Three. The themes and messages of Asperfell are so timely right now, as is the need all of us are experiencing for not only entertainment in our lives, but hope and courage and the indomitable will possessed by those who try to make a difference, no matter how small, and no matter how small they see themselves. So definitely don’t wait.
Earlier I asked if Asperfell had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting it into a movie, show, or game?
This may come as a bit of a shock, but I am actually a (currently) non-agented writer, so that is probably quite a ways down the line if ever, but I would absolutely love to see Asperfell adapted — depending entirely on who is doing the adaption. I love Asperfell, and so much of me is present within its pages, that I would only feel comfortable handing it to someone who I knew would do it justice. I would rather see it remain a book only than see it altered in a way that was not true to the story or its messages.
Do you have a preference what form it takes?
I believe Asperfell would work best as a TV show or limited series, but, again, I suppose that would depend on who was adapting it. Because Briony’s story has a clear beginning, middle, and end, I don’t think I would like to see it spin off into something episodic like The Magicians (which I adore, by the way) and break away from the overarching plot, so a limited series would probably work best.
And if that happened, who would you like them to cast as Briony, Keric, and the other main roles?
I would prefer the leads to be relative unknowns so that they bring little with them to the roles. But I’ll be honest, I’ve probably created a headache for any casting director because Elyan is so, so, so tall — at least 6’6″ or 6’7″ — and very sharp about the face. Very angular. Difficult to cast.
I did, however, have a few actors and actresses in mind while I was writing Asperfell as inspiration for some of the characters. Master Tiberius was always Derek Jacobi [Murder On The Orient Express], and [Halt And Catch Fire‘s] Annabeth Gish was Mistress Philomena. I also think that Anya Chalotra [The Witcher] would make a wonderful Phyra.
Finally, if someone enjoys Asperfell, what Gothic Victorian novels of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
Well, if you want traditional Victorian Gothic (sans magic), absolutely read Jane Eyre and Villette by Charlotte Bronte, The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall by her sister, Anne, and for a satirical play on the genre, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
One of my favorite novels of all time that just happens to be Gothic though decidedly not Victorian is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Her prose is unreal. It crawls under your skin and stays there long after you’ve turned the last page. Also, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow Of The Wind is unbelievably beautiful and I love The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova as well.
Oh, I liked that book, too.
As far as fantasy goes, I absolutely adore Galen Beckett’s The Magicians And Mrs. Quent trilogy — these are the books I recommend to anyone and everyone even if they haven’t asked for a recommendation. It has absolutely everything: Magicians, witches, illusionists, Gothic settings, Recency comedy of manner circumstances and dialogue, political intrigue, mystery…I cannot recommend it enough.