If you’ve ever wondered how 101 Dalmatians’s Cruella De Vil came to live up (or down) to her famous name, the latest novel in Disney’s Villains series is here to provide the devilish details. Evil Thing is the seventh book in the popular series by Serena Valentino, who’s previously delved into the backstories of Snow White’s Wicked Queen, Ursula the Sea Witch, Rapunzel’s Old Witch, Maleficent, and more.
But Cruella’s story comes with an interesting twist. “Evil Thing is the first novel in the series that’s designed to feel like an autobiography,” Valentino says. “Everything is from our villain’s point of view, and it really gives our readers so much more insight into what really makes this lady tick. She’s such an interesting, layered person, and a lot of her sass came through in this story because I was able to tell it in her voice.”
It’s also the first nonmagical story in the series, which was exciting for the author. “I really enjoyed telling a story that was firmly rooted in our world,” Valentino says, “with a villain who truly felt like someone we might know or have encountered. For me, at least, it made Cruella feel more real and therefore much more villainous.”
Evil Thing is a darkly funny tale that explores the early life of one of Disney’s most infamous fashionistas, cleverly setting up Cruella’s love of fur coats and revealing her affection for her doting father and neglectful mother, a socialite who is largely absent from her life. “Her bond with her mother is very intriguing to me, because her mother doesn’t deserve Cruella’s devotion,” Valentino says. “It’s heartbreaking seeing her strive for her mother’s approval, love, and attention and never really getting it.”
The hidden motivations behind a villain’s dark deeds have proven to be catnip to readers, who have made books like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked so successful. “We want to feel like these characters are real people,” Valentino says, “and we want to know what led them down such wicked and sometimes heartbreaking paths.”
While Disney boasts a vast and varied collection of villains, Valentino admits that Cruella is one of the most interesting evildoers she’s explored to date. “She is so un-self-aware,” Valentino says. “I don’t think I’ve ever written a character so disassociated from her own feelings and motivations. She’s an interesting psychological study.”
In describing her writing process for the books, Valentino says, “With each character I sit down and ask myself why they became the person they did. I love becoming them for a time and letting their story take me on an unexpected journey.” But the author also admits it takes a ton of research to get into the right headspace. “I watch the films far too many times to count,” she says. “I watch particular scenes again and again to make sure I have all the details just so. I read the original fairy tales or books the Disney version is based on, I read interviews with the creators and filmmakers, sometimes with the actors who played the roles, and I watch other versions of the stories. I also listen to music I know that will put me in the frame of mind I want for that story.” All that prep work has obviously paid off.
Beloved by middle grade, YA, and adult readers alike, Valentino’s Villains novels have incredibly engaged fans. “I am so lucky to have such loyal readers,” Valentino says. “They’re really a wonderful group and a fantastic community who seem to respect and enjoy each other.” Valentino says she enjoys connecting with readers on social media. “I put time aside as often as I can to chat with them, answer their questions, and read their feedback,” she says. “They’re so supportive and amazing.” She’s even interacted with fans in the voice of Cruella. “It’s fun for my readers, but I think even more fun for me!”