Today, I am SO excited to bring you my interview with Kelly Creagh, author of the Nevermore trilogy and, most recently, Phantom Heart. Her young adult novels offer unique worlds (for example, the world in Nevermore is inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe), compelling female leads, and a seamless blend romance and horror. I just finished Phantom Heart over the weekend and still have to write the review, but it was definitely a five-star read for me! At its core, PH is a Phantom of the Opera retelling and a perfect escape for spooky season. (Because we all know now that it’s September, it’s basically Halloween.) But in addition to the gorgeous gothic romance you might expect from a Phantom retelling, it also deals quite eloquently with themes of family, redemption, and loss.
Keep reading for our interview and more insights into Phantom Heart!
Phantom Heart Summary:
Seventeen-year-old Stephanie Armand doesn’t believe in ghosts or spirits. Despite her six-year-old sister insisting a masked figure is hiding in her closet, and the rumors at school, Stephanie isn’t convinced her father’s latest renovation project–a crumbling Victorian mansion–houses the soul of a monster. So when the very charming (and paranormal-obsessed) Lucas Cheney takes an interest in both Stephanie and her notorious home, Moldavia, the supernatural and romantic activity escalates to an all-time high. But then there’s Erik– the dashing British boy, seemingly from another era, who’s taken up residence in Stephanie’s nightly dreams. A boy who may have something to do with the man in the mask, and the strange occurrences taking place at Moldavia.
SL Stacy: Coffee or tea?
Kelly Creagh: Coffee. Mochas are my favorite.
SL: Favorite place to write?
KC: Lately, it’s been on the back porch. The hummingbirds stop by to say hello and soon the autumn colors will be keeping me company as well.
SL: Are you a plotter or pantser?
KC: I used to be a straight pantser. But in recent years, I’ve done a deeper study on structure, and I now consider myself a combo author. I don’t plot out everything because every project I’ve written has taught me there will always be things (often amazing things!) that my brain just can’t access until I’m knee-deep in the drafting process.
For instance, in Nevermore, the character of Pinfeathers, who became my favorite character of the series, just showed up out of the blue near the end of my first draft. I remember having a bit of an argument with him, trying to tell him he couldn’t come in that late in the book. He of course wouldn’t budge and was TOTALLY fun to write so I just went with it. I’m so glad I did. Also, during my second draft, I realized that Pinfeathers had shown up much earlier in the novel. I just had no clue at the time that was him. So, my subconscious does things like this, which is why I’ve learned to let it. Because if I’d straight out plotted the novel, I might not have ever met Pinfeathers.
SL: I loved Pinfeathers, so I am also glad he popped in! How long have you been writing?
KC: I’ve been writing since grade school. I even still have my first book titled The Garden that Grew Pink Lettuce. I wrote through middle school, high school, and college, too. Becoming an author has been a lifelong pursuit and dream.
SL: What fictional world would you love to visit (can be one of yours or someone else’s)?
KC: The North Pole from my YA Christmas novel, Nickolas Claus.
SL: Tell me more about the inspiration(s) behind Phantom Heart.
KC: The Phantom of the Opera is my favorite classic novel. I fell in love with the book while in middle school and I became captivated with the story and the characters—particularly the Phantom.
For years, The Phantom of the Opera was that story that I loved but was too trepidatious to touch. I’d always longed to retell it, but I wanted to produce a story that captured everything I loved about the original while also doing its own thing. Additionally, I wanted to write a retelling that included some of the characters and elements that are often left out of retellings. Lastly, I wanted my Phantom to have a voice in the book. I wanted readers to be privy to his thoughts and his plight—to experience his side of the story along with him. This meant I needed to look at doing the book from multiple points of view, in first-person. The whole project seemed like a tall order. But tall orders are always the best kind, right?
So, as an experiment, I just gave the project a try and I wrote the first chapter of Phantom Heart. While that chapter has largely remained the same, the rest of the novel changed massively as I worked over the years. Phantom Heart required tons of revision and many, many drafts.
Overall, I think my process greatly benefited from my middle school and high school obsession with the story, and I think Phantom Heart was influenced by the many iterations I encountered. For instance, my phantom has many masks. I remember going on a field trip to a local theatre when I was around 12 or 13 to see Arthur Kipot’s production of Phantom. The theatre was in the round and I remember vividly the moment a set-piece was lowered from the ceiling. The set-piece was a type of display wall that contained many masks, all of them painted differently—some beautiful, some grotesque. I truly think that moment is responsible for my choice to have my phantom character, Zedok, possess many unique masks. I went a step further with this idea, though, by also giving each of those masks their own persona.
Other versions get nods, too, since I named my Raoul-inspired character, Lucas Cheney, partly after Lon Chaney who notoriously played the Phantom in the silent-film version.
SL: What research went into writing Phantom Heart? Or, what is your research process like in general?
KC: My research list for Phantom Heart included Victorian architecture, spiritualism, occult practices in the Victorian-era, mummies and mummy unwrapping parties, Egyptian mythology, swing dance and Lindy Hop, classical music, popular music of the 1940s and 50s, ghost hunting, and parapsychology. Quite an eclectic mix!
Regarding my process, I usually research as I go. I love speaking directly with experts and doing field research. For Phantom Heart, I relied a lot on my experience of having lived in the preservation district of Old Louisville for many years. During that time, I had the opportunity to tour many Victorian-era homes. I also spent some time researching the books of my friend and fellow author, David Domine, who has written extensively on the history, ghosts, and architecture of Old Louisville.
SL: I loved that eclectic mix of things! I believe Phantom Heart is a stand-alone, but do you have any other retellings up your sleeve?
KC: I do! I’m currently working on a retelling of another gothic classic.
SL: That is exciting news! I will be waiting (im)patiently for that, lol. Regarding Nevermore, I read a lot of YA, and I have to say, a fantasy world inspired by Edgar Allan Poe is just a really unique spin. How did you come up with that?
KC: I spent a LOT of time in Poe’s works. I read and re-read his stories, poems, and novel. I really immersed myself in his works and listened to them on audio many times. I read his biographies and researched his life. I went to his house and gravesites in Baltimore. I went to the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Virginia, too. I picked the brains of experts. I pretty much saturated myself in all things Poe. As a result, I began to connect the dots with common themes, visuals, and elements in his work. And Poe wrote a lot about dreams. Really, the world of Nevermore arose organically as I drafted, and I just went with it. I allowed myself a lot of creative freedom, and my imagination ran wild, my subconscious rewarding my efforts by producing the Woodlands of Weir, the Nocs, and Reynolds.
As a side note, I have a Victorian-era character in Phantom Heart. I think my ability to capture the feel of that era with his voice can also be owed to the hours (and hours!) of time I spent with Poe’s words and in his worlds.
Poe also gets a more direct nod in Phantom Heart given that I named the Victorian mansion my main character Stephanie moves into after Poe’s childhood home, Moldavia.
SL: Now, to switch gears a bit. What advice would you give a new writer just starting out?
KC: Perseverance. Everyone advises burgeoning writers to persevere, but I really want to underscore this.
When I was writing Nevermore, I had a professional reader/author who disliked the whole book and all the characters. This person advised me to ditch what I had and go another route. I kept going with my vision and sought feedback from alternate sources. Later, Nevermore was rejected by one editor for “not having enough Poe.” It was rejected by other editors, too. But I kept going—I committed to the project and the dream of a career as an author.
Phantom Heart also received multiple rejections from agents and editors. The book was almost a drawer novel. It was on submission for a long time. Weirdly enough, it sold on December 21st, the same day my phantom character is stuck in.
Nevermore took three years to write. Phantom Heart was a five-year journey.
If you’re a beginning writer, or even a seasoned one, it’s easy to look at the books on the shelves and think that you might never see yours there. It’s easy to give up, and often we’re even encouraged to abandon projects we love in favor of something more “marketable.” While it’s always a good idea to stay tuned to the market since publishing is a business, it’s also healthy to recognize that the market is always changing. The tastes of editors and agents are varied as well.
Commit to your project. Writing is rewriting. Seek useful feedback from trustworthy sources. If you can, abstain from watching TV while you’re drafting. I find this helps me to hear my own voice and thoughts so much more clearly. Hone your craft. Never stop learning. Never stop writing. Be loyal to yourself and your writing. If your book doesn’t sell, write another.
SL: That is all great advice (and I, for one, am glad you kept true to your vision for Nevermore!). What’s the hardest part of writing a book?
KC: That first draft. For me, that’s the heavy lifting part of the process. On the flipside, I LOVE revision. For me, revision is the most creative part of the process. By the time I’m revising, I know the characters fairly well, and I have a more solid plan for what I’m trying to say. The world I’m writing is more established, and so revision feels more like playtime for me.
SL: Which of your books would you love to see turned into a movie? Who would play the main characters?
KC: I think Nevermore would be quite a fun book-to-screen adaptation. In particular, I’d love to see the Nocs brought to life. That said, Phantom Heart would also be an interesting movie or series. Both books have a lot of emphasis on character and striking visuals.
I’m not sure who I would have play the parts. But wouldn’t it be awesome for new actors to get their starts with roles in Phantom Heart and Nevermore?
Kelly Creagh is the author of the paranormal romance trilogy Nevermore. She lives in beautiful Louisville, Kentucky, with her three small and spunky dogs. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Spalding University. The Phantom of the Opera is her all-time favorite piece of classic literature, and when visiting the Paris Opera House once, Kelly celebrated her love for Leroux’s novel by enjoying a performance from the Phantom’s requested seat, Box 5—also known as the Phantom’s box. When not writing, Kelly enjoys baking, playing video games, and teaching and performing the art of bellydance.