Readers know Stephanie Garber for her bestselling Caraval trilogy, which follows two sisters who run away from home to participate in a spectacular multi-day treasure hunt; we named Garber a Flying Start back in spring 2017 for her debut work. Though the sisters’ story concluded in 2019 with the publication of Finale, Garber is releasing Once Upon a Broken Heart—a spin-off set in the same magical universe which launches a new standalone series. PW spoke with the author regarding her inspirations, the rise of BookTok, and real life’s impact on her fiction.

Though it was originally published in 2017, Caraval has recently been getting lots of love on BookTok. What has that experience been like for you?

When I started seeing renewed interest in the Caraval series, I didn’t know what was going on at first. And then when I learned about BookTok, I was amazed and so thankful, for a couple reasons. One, it’s been almost two and a half years since I’ve had a book come out, which in publishing is a long time, and two, it feels really special to me whenever people connect with those books, because they came from such a personal place. It’s exciting to launch a new book series and to also have people who are just discovering Caraval. It’s almost like 2017, when everything was fresh and exciting. There’s so much pressure on a book before it comes out, you feel like it’s make-it-or-break it, and now with BookTok, all these backlist titles are getting love—it makes it feel like books never die. It’s been really fun and encouraging.

I’ve missed doing events, and I’ve missed seeing readers. Seeing Instagram reels and TikTok videos, you get to see the readers a little more. It’s great to see lovely pictures of your books, but it’s really fun to see readers holding your book, and loving your book, and sharing their feelings. I don’t think that will ever get old.

It’s not necessary for readers to be familiar with the Caraval trilogy in order to enjoy Once Upon a Broken Heart, but the books are set in the same world, and feature some of the same characters. Can you talk about your inspiration for this new series?

There’s a character in the Caraval series named Jacks. He’s an antagonist, and he’s one of my favorite characters. As soon as I created him in Legendary, he kind of stole the show, and I knew I wanted to write a spin-off book with him. At first, I didn’t have an idea for it, so after I finished Finale, I started writing something completely different. It was another fantasy, but it was super dark. It sounded good in pitch form, but then when I tried to write it, it was too much. It was a lot of death, and I wasn’t enjoying it.

Then one morning, I woke up and I had the idea for Once Upon a Broken Heart. I knew who the protagonist was—this girl who was a character I’d been playing with for a different series, who has a cameo in Finale—and suddenly I could see how her storyline and Jacks’s storyline intersected. I remember calling up a friend, and I was like, “Hey, I know I’m supposed to be writing this one book, but I have an idea for a Jacks book, and I think it’s really good.” And she said, “Just write it like a short story. Worst-case scenario, you have a short story, and best-case scenario, you want to keep writing.” So I did that, and then I wound up calling my editor [Sarah Barley], because I’d already sold the book I was working on. I was like, “Sarah, I think I’m writing the wrong book, and I think this is the book I need to be writing. These are all the reasons why. I don’t actually know how the story ends, so I don’t know if it’s a standalone, I don’t know if it’s a series, but I just feel so passionately about this book.” I pretty much begged her to let me write it. And she was great. I remember her being like, “Okay! I was pretty sure the book you were working on wasn’t going to be the book you ended up writing anyway.”

Also, I was feeling heartsick when I started this book, so I wanted to write a story about heartbreak, and the desperate lengths that people will go to because of broken hearts, and because of love.

Has the pandemic affected your writing? How has it been for you to try to immerse yourself in a fantasy world when real life is so tumultuous?

I started writing Once Upon a Broken Heart in the spring of 2019, right after Finale came out. I finished my first draft right before Covid-19 hit, but it was revised during the pandemic, and that affected the book a lot. It was a really hard time, so I wanted to give my character even more hope and optimism. Even though it’s a story about heartbreak, I wanted to write a character who believes in fairy tales and true love and love at first sight and all of these things.

I ended up taking a full-on break from all social media and all news for a while. It became too debilitating for me to read everything. Also, during the pandemic, my mom got cancer, so I went and stayed with her because she was going through radiation. And then I was given a false diagnosis for an incurable disease—it was really bonkers. I had a period of time where I couldn’t leave the house during the day. I couldn’t create until I cut out all news, all media, everything, and then it became a really welcome escape. Suddenly, I was able to focus again, and as I was revising this book, I also started on the sequel, and I wrote about half the sequel before I even finished the first book. And I remember writing and falling in love with the story and the world and just being so, so grateful that I had a place to escape to.

You were unpublished when you wrote Caraval and conceived of that trilogy; now you’re a bestselling author. Has your success made it easier to sit down at the keyboard, or more daunting? Did you learn any lessons from that first trilogy that inspired you to change your process or your approach?

It has been harder to write since being published, for sure. It was just me and my computer before, so it was super easy to sit down and write. But I’ve learned a lot, so in some ways, I feel like it’s starting to get easier. After I sold Caraval, I tried to write the second book in the series, and I was suddenly aware of all the things I didn’t know. I was really good at being an unpublished writer, and I knew nothing about being an author. I feel like I spent the last five years figuring out what it’s like to be published and how that changes things, finding that balance.

I wrote Caraval as a standalone. I hadn’t thought through the whole series, and even if I had, I probably would have made a lot of mistakes because I’d never written a series before. With Once Upon a Broken Heart, I made a point of figuring out how many books I thought the series should be, and writing with that in mind. I wanted to write a series where you could read each book on its own and get a complete story, but then when you read all the books together, they feel like one complete story, too. I spent a lot of time figuring out the whole arc before finishing this first book. That’s why I wrote half of the second book before the first book was edited—because I wanted to set up a really cohesive series this time.

Once Upon a Broken Heart by Stephanie Garber. Flatiron, $19.99 Sept. 28 ISBN 978-1-250-26839-6