Tiffany Schmidt’s novel Hold Me Like a Breath has been on my radar since I first heard about it. A fairy tale retelling with organized crime and blackmarket organs? Obviously I was completely on board. Happily, Hold Me Like a Breath did not disappoint. In fact, it only made me even more excited about Tiffany’s Once Upon a Crime Family series. Tiffany is here today to talk a little more about this latest novel.
MP: What was the inspiration for Hold Me Like a Breath? What drew you to The Princess and the Pea as source material?
TS: I was fascinated by The Princess and the Pea when I was a child. It was one of my favorite stories in my big book of fairy tales. BUT, I always felt like it inspired more questions than answers: why was the princess alone in the woods, what happened to her family, why is it important that she bruises, etc, etc. So many questions that my parents had to ban it as a bedtime story since it got me so riled up just when they wanted me to settle down and sleep.
All these years later, Hold Me Like a Breath is my attempt to answer those questions.
MP: Working off the last question, when did you know organized crime and organ trafficking were parts of this story?
TS: Right away I knew this would be a crime family novel. As soon as I decided I wanted to write a modernized version of The Princess and the Pea, I knew I wouldn’t be including royal families and that I wanted to situate the ‘princess’ in a crime family instead.
The idea of organ trafficking took a bit longer to settle on. I knew I wanted the morality of the crime families to be ambiguous – I want them to be criminal and dark, but also create some good in the world. There are many, many shades of gray in the Landlow Family’s morality—which made writing their story all the more fun.
MP: Penelope has an autoimmune disorder called idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura or ITP. What kind of research was involved in getting Penelope’s symptoms and treatments just right?
TS: ITP has such a range of manifestations and treatments, that there really isn’t any single way of getting it ‘just right’—because every patient’s experiences with the disorder and the way they manage treatment varied widely. I spent a lot of time researching, asking questions on patient forums and via email, and getting in touch with doctors who specialize in treating ITP and other platelet disorders.
And once I had a fix on the way the disorder is typically handled, I wrote Penny counter to this. Penny’s treatment of ITP is more conservative than the typical for an ITP patient. Since money and access to medical care aren’t an obstacle for her parents, they’ve gone with a very cautious treatment plan.
The Landlow’s choice of treatment methods is a testament to how fragile they see her. This, plus their rule that no one is allowed to touch her, say much more about their dangerous lifestyle and overprotective attitudes, than they do about Penny’s actual health.
MP: Penelope loves New York City even before she sees it. How did you decide what parts of the city to highlight in Hold Me Like a Breath? Which real locations were you excited to include?
TS: The energy of New York City and its unpredictable chaos are the perfect counterpoint to Penny’s tedious and controlled life on her family’s estate. I have maps and maps I made to keep locations straight when I was planning that aspect of Hold Me. I even walked some of the routes she takes when she and Char meander through the city.
But of all the New York locations I included in Hold Me, I had the most fun planning the scenes in the American Museum of Natural History. When I went to research this, I brought my family and we met up with my editor and the assistant at my literary agency. We made a day of it, had lunch (Shake Shack!), visited a few Central Park playgrounds, and then explored the museum—taking all sorts of pictures and chatting up potential settings for a few key scenes. I recently visited again and it was surreal to stand in parts of the museum and have lines from the book running through my head. I kept turning around and expecting to see Penny or Char behind me.
MP: In addition to a fairy tale retelling this story has a bit of romance and a lot of mystery. As a writer, how did you go about pacing this aspect of the story and deciding what to reveal when?
TS: Penny’s world is so small at the beginning of the book. She’s confined to her family’s estate and has no real friends or confidants outside of the Landlow crime family. She makes a joke early in the novel that if she was allowed to go to school she’d meet other people, and maybe then she’d have a crush on someone other than her brother’s best friend. Because like Penny’s only friend is her nurse, the only boy she could possibly swoon over is the only one she knows—Carter’s best friend.
Penny needs her world to grow. She needs to meet people, talk to them. She needs to find her own limits and define herself.
There’s that relationship advice that’s often quoted “You can’t love someone else until you love yourself.” I’d add that in Penny’s case, she can’t love someone else until she knows herself. The pacing of the book and the romances matches the speed of her self-discovery. Incremental and slow at places, but dramatic and all at once in others. Fearful and hesitant at times, and courageous and reckless at others.
It’s a fairy tale retelling, so of course I got to play with the idea of love at first sight—but I spin it on its head a little—just like Penny’s boy next store isn’t actually boy-next-door-ish, her love at first sight, isn’t actually first sight. I also loved toying with the idea of secret identities but true selves.
MP: The characters in this book, including Penelope, have some great names. How did you go about finding the perfect name for each character?
TS: Penelope à Penelo-pea > Princess and the Pea
Garrett sounds a lot like “garrote” > he’s been raised to be a weapon
Magnolia Grace > This name reflects her parents’ expectations for her to be beautiful and feminine. > Maggie revels in smashing out of the boxes people would like to put her in or the limits they’ve set for her.
Char > *shrug* He sizzles :)
MP: Did you have a favorite character to write in Hold Me Like a Breath? Is there any character you are particularly excited for readers to meet?
TS: Oh, geez. This is a hard question. Hmm. I’m going to say Penny’s brother, Carter, is my favorite character.
MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
TS: I’m about to start copyedits on book two of the Once Upon a Crime Family series, Break Me Like a Promise. This book picks up a couple months after Hold Me Like a Breath ends and is told from the point of view of the daughter of a different crime family: Magnolia Vickers.
It’s about Maggie dealing with the fallout of [redacted] and trying to [redacted]. Realizing she’s 100% wrong about [redacted] and maybe, just maybe [redacted, redacted, redacted].
MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?
TS: Find a community. Writing is such a solitary process—just you, your computer, and the voices in your head. It’s so important to have people to support you along the way. Join a critique group—doesn’t matter if it meets online or in person—but these people will cheer your successes, offer advice during your murky middles, and pep talks during the endless waiting that surrounds ALL parts of publishing. Critique partners or writing friends are like outsourcing your sanity. They’ll hold your hand and pick you back up—unsnarl messy plots and find ways to build bridges over pot holes. I don’t know what I’d do without mine. I hope I never have to find out! <3
Thanks again to Tiffany for a great interview.
You can also read my review of Hold Me Like a Breath here on the blog.