Brigid Kemmerer has been publishing novels for teen and adult readers for years, but her most recent series, a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling featuring a girl from modern day Washington, D.C., who finds herself in the cursed kingdom of Emberfall, landed her on the New York Times bestseller list this year. The sequel, A Heart So Fierce and Broken, hits shelves in January and has already garnered plenty of prepublication buzz. Kemmerer spoke with PW about writing within multiple genres, exploring and rewriting a favorite childhood fairy tale, and the advice that led to the publication of her breakout novel.
What draws you to writing stories for teens?
When I was growing up, one of my favorite things was knowing what happens. I love stories and gossip. My father used to joke that everyone told me everything because I was a good listener. He always said I would grow up to be a therapist, but I grew up to be a writer instead. I think there’s something amazing about stories that brings people together, that we can safely explore anything in and out of this world. Teens feel like the audience I connect with the most. Sometimes people think teens aren’t as intelligent, but that’s not true; teens are just inexperienced humans. They feel the same emotions adults feel, they’re just feeling them for the first time.
You’ve written books that fit into multiple genres: how do you define the type of stories you write? What connects them across categories?
People often ask me how I navigate between fantasy, supernatural, and contemporary, but I don’t feel like I’m navigating at all. All my stories, at their core, are really about family: the family that you’re born into, the families that you make, and the people you choose to surround yourself with.
A Curse So Dark and Lonely, which started the Cursebreakers series, is a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” Why did this fairy tale speak to you?
When the Disney movie of Beauty and the Beast was coming out, I was the kid who stalked the television for every chance to see the preview. There’s something that’s really fascinating about falling in love with someone for who they are rather than the exterior impression they give the world. The person you fall in love with often is the person who sees you for who you truly are. I love that idea. One of the things that always bothered me about the “Beauty and the Beast” story was that there was a prince and cursed kingdom, but there was never any explanation as to why. The entire royal family is gone—but people aren’t noticing? As I started writing, I saw an opportunity to explore that.
What does your writing process entail?
I am a very loose plotter. I generally write myself a two-page synopsis, just so I have the key plot points. From there I just start writing. Part of the magic for me is the discovery I experience during writing. I will, each time I resume writing, sit down and plot out the next few chapters.
Since you have written both standalones and series, how does your writing process differ when creating a story that is complete in one volume vs. many?
Not really. Even in series, I try to make sure my books can stand on their own. I realize that in a series there are things that you’ll need to know, but even then I try to make sure that I cover enough that, if a reader just picked up that second or third book in a series, they would still feel they’re getting a whole and complete story.
The Cursebreakers series has been well received among readers, with the first book hitting the NYT bestseller list and the second securing the #1 spot for most popular book in the YA category for January 2020 on Goodreads. How has the success of this first book impacted your writing life and career?
As far as my writing life, things are mostly the same. I’m still telling stories and I still love writing; none of that has really changed. I love that my stories are finding a wider audience, nationally and internationally, and that I’m able to connect with so many readers. It’s truly magical how stories bring people together.
It could be argued that A Curse So Dark and Lonely was your breakout novel. Can you speak about your publication journey and career up to this point?
I always think of the interview in which someone is asked, “How does it feel to be an overnight success?” and the interviewee responds: “To you it’s overnight, for me it took 10 years.” There’s something profound about that. My first book was with a smaller publisher, then I sold Letters to the Lost and More Than We Can Tell to Bloomsbury, which allowed me to reach a broader audience with school placement and state reading lists. But I think there’s something about fantasy, especially fantasy that ties in a contemporary element, that works well. So much of publishing is about timing and luck, so I’m glad A Curse So Dark and Lonely struck a chord with readers.
What advice would you give to writers who might feel stalled or that they aren’t successfully reaching their audience?
At the end of 2015, I was working a full-time day job and was in a weird dark zone with publishing. I had sold Letters to the Lost, edits were done, and there wasn’t a lot happening until publication. My sixth book was done and coming out with Kensington and its release date had been moved to December 28, which is a rough release date. I was working 12-hour days and Christmas was approaching and I was really down. I remember coming home one day and telling my husband, “I don’t know if I can keep doing this.” I’d been chasing this dream of being a full-time author for so many years now and I feel like I’m going to wake up and my kids will be adults and I’ll have spent their entire childhood working two jobs. He sat me down and said, “When was the last time you wrote something that was just fun? Something that reminds you of why you love writing?” It made me realize that I hadn’t worked on anything in a while, where I didn’t worry whether my editor or readers would like it.
I had started A Curse So Dark and Lonely back in 2012 but had shelved it after a few chapters. I loved the idea of it, but, at the time, I was told no one wants a portal fantasy. So I pulled it out and scrapped what I had written before but kept the idea. I wrote about 50 pages and sent it to my agent, who loved it. We wrote a synopsis and went out on submission. My agent ended up selling it for enough for me to quit my day job and give it a shot. Then the book came out this year and hit the Times list. That conversation with my husband has reminded me, with every single book, to question whether I’m writing with passion in my heart. When I was really struggling with edits for A Heart So Fierce and Broken, I ended up going back and rewriting the second half of the book [with this in mind]. Now, every time I sit down to write, I think about the importance of fun in writing.
What is your hope as this second book, A Heart So Fierce and Broken, becomes available to readers in early 2020?
I hope readers who enjoyed A Curse So Dark and Lonely will enjoy this part of the characters’ journey. I know they will see some characters in a new light, and I hope that they hang in there to explore the different motivations and fears each character experiences.
Have you had the opportunity to meet and interact with fans?
I try to do a lot of in-person events because I know how special it is to be able to put a face and voice to the writer behind the story, but I also know it can be hard for readers to travel to in-person events, so I try to be responsive online, too. It’s usually the first thing I do in the morning! I wake up between 4:30 and 5 a.m. and go through messages. I know that, at some point, I might not be able to respond to everyone, so I do my best to now.
What strikes you about the way fans are connecting to this story?
Right now, it feels like people are looking for ways to make a difference in the world. I think Harper’s character comes into the kingdom of Emberfall, where Rhen feels like everything is hopeless. She’s an ordinary person who comes in and says, “You can do something!” In small ways you can help people. I think right now, that’s relatable.
What is “Curse Day” and how can fans get involved?
Curse Day was a couple months ago, on September 23, the first day of autumn and the first day the curse in the novel begins, but I hope we can do it again next year! We had a fun celebration with global video chats, image and graphic sharing, and participation by the street team. It was a lot bigger than I thought it would be!
I worked with Bloomsbury to create the street team, which is open to all fans. There’s a lot of fun, exclusive content. Bloomsbury creates graphics to share, there are giveaways, chances to have your name in a future book, and more ways to get involved. Fans can sign up anytime!
What do you have planned for 2020?
I’ll be finishing up the third book in the Cursebreakers series. The title isn’t public yet, but it’s a really good one! I recently turned in the first draft of Defy the Night, too, which is a totally new fantasy series that will be coming out in fall 2021. It’s different from Cursebreakers, but it’s a ton of fun. It’s about two outlaws named Weston and Tessa who live in the kingdom of Kandala, whose people are suffering from a mysterious fever that can only be cured by teas made from petals of the Moonflower—an expensive commodity. Wes and Tessa steal medicine to distribute it among those who can’t afford any—until Wes is caught, and Tessa tries to rescue him. In doing so, she runs afoul of the king and his wicked brother, and everything she thought she knew about Kandala turns out to be wrong!
A Heart So Fierce and Broken by Brigid Kemmerer. Bloomsbury, $18.99 Jan. 7 ISBN 978-1-68119-511-7