Author Interview: Melissa Albert on Our Crooked Hearts

Melissa Albert author photoCR: Laura EtheredgeMelissa Albert is the author of the Hazel Wood series of fantasy noir novels. Like that series her latest novel Our Crooked Hearts is eerie, dark, and extremely feminist as she delves into an intergenerational story filled with magic and menace in equal measure. I’m very happy to have Melissa here today to talk a bit about her latest novel.

Miss Print: Our Crooked Hearts is two stories in one as readers meet Ivy in the suburbs right now and also learn about her mother Dana’s story in the suburbs back then. Where did this story spark? Did you always know you would be following two different protagonists?

Melissa Albert: I did not know I’d be following two protagonists! This was Ivy’s story, growing out of my desire to write a “suburban fantasy” (as opposed to the urban fantasy of the Hazel Wood duology). One thing I absolutely love in speculative fiction is magic with consequences—in the case of Our Crooked Hearts, the consequences of teenaged Dana’s deep dive into magic, which reverberate throughout her life and come back to haunt her and her daughter.

Miss Print: Working off the last question, how did you go about balancing these two narratives? Who was easier to write: Ivy or Dana?

Melissa Albert: When I started writing Dana’s story it was meant to be one scene: I pictured it as a narrative she was telling her daughter, and wasn’t sure how exactly it would fit into the story. Then as I wrote I got more and more interested, and the story got longer and longer, and suddenly I realized it was meant to be half the book. So honestly Dana’s story came easier, because I was writing it with zero pressure attached, because I kinda thought I was working out backstory stuff I would ultimately cut. I’m so glad I was wrong about that.

Miss Print: This will be your second book release since the pandemic started. Has living and working through the pandemic changed your writing process? How do you think Ivy and Dana would have managed the pandemic?

Melissa Albert: I don’t think it changed my process in a longterm way, but it definitely changed how I wrote this book: for five months in 2020, when daycares were closed, I only had my son’s (blessedly long) naptimes to write. I’ve rarely felt more focused, happy, and grateful as a writer than I did during those stretches of hard-won work. Our Crooked Hearts was my escape from reality, a light in a dark time.

Miss Print: One of the things that always strikes me about your books is how you fold different genre elements into your fantasy worlds. Suspense (and even some horror) elements factor into a lot of Our Crooked Hearts. How do you go about bringing these pieces together while sustaining tension and keeping the plot moving?

Melissa Albert: I think I just write what I love. A big part of writing for me is stringing together an endless series of “what ifs” that get my brain ticking, trying to figure out how I can stuff all the fun uncanny speculative weirdness that I adore as a reader into my own books.

Miss Print: What are you reading and loving right now?

Melissa Albert: I just read and loved Emily Henry’s Book Lovers, and to keep the contemporary romance party going am now burning through Annabel Monaghan’s Nora Goes Off Script. In preparation for our event together, I’m reading Jeff Zentner’s luminous and deeply moving In the Wild Light. I’m also really enjoying J.M. Miro’s Ordinary Monsters, and next up I’ve got Isabel Ibañez’s Together We Burn and Grace D. Li’s Portrait of a Thief!

Miss Print: Can you tell me anything about what you’re working on now?

Melissa Albert: It hasn’t been announced yet, but I’ve got a book coming soon that I cannot wait to shout about. Big suburban gothic vibes.

Thank you again to Melissa for these great answers!

You can also read my review of Our Crooked Hearts here on the blog.

Our Crooked Hearts: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“So. Magic. It is the loneliest thing in the world.”

Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa AlbertIn the suburbs, right now Ivy is ready for summer–even one that starts with a breakup (hers) and a broken nose (not hers). Ivy feels like strange things always happen around her, like she’s always waiting. But she’s never sure what for. She’s even less sure when strange things start happening around her house. First there’s the dead rabbit on the driveway. There’s the open door she knows she locked. Then there are the cookies, each with one perfect bite taken out while she’s home alone.

In another life, Ivy might talk to her mom Dana about what’s happening. But it’s been a long time since Ivy and her mom have been able to discuss anything. It’s been a long time since her mom has even looked at her, since she’s been anything close to present for the family.

Back then, in the city Dana is waiting for things to start. She’s always been perceptive, some might call it uncanny. She had to be to survive her childhood. Back then, the summer she turns sixteen, Dana realizes she might be able to be more than uncanny. With help from her best friend Fee and a striving newcomer, they could all be magic.

In another life, Dana might have seen the risks and understood the costs before it was too late. She doesn’t.

Instead Dana’s choices here in the city will have lasting consequences leaving a mark on her and on Fee and, most of all, on Ivy who will be left alone to unravel her mother’s secrets and the havoc left in their wake in Our Crooked Hearts (2022) by Melissa Albert.

Find it on Bookshop.

Our Crooked Hearts is a stark urban fantasy where magic doesn’t come without a cost. Ivy and Dana are white, Dana’s best friend Fee is Latinx. The story alternates between Ivy’s narration (in the suburbs, right now) and Dana’s narration (in the city, back then) in Chicago and its suburbs.

Although the plot highlights their fractious relationship, Ivy and Dana follow similar character arcs in spite of their different trajectories. Both girls are brittle and filled with an abrasive vulnerability as they struggle to understand their place in a world that never feels like it fits–a theme that gains potency as more of their backstories are revealed. This dual storyline is used to great effect with each plot moving toward its inevitable and potentially painful conclusion.

It’s impossible to read any book now without considering the mental landscape where it germinated, particularly in the context of the global pandemic. Both Ivy and Dana struggle with isolation as they flirt with power in a literal (magical) sense and in relation to their own agency as teenage girls. These struggles can easily be writ large and applied to so many of the changes we have all had to make because of the pandemic. One quote in particular, “I could still observe the shock of it, the impossibility, but I’d run out of the energy to feel them.” encapsulates living and working through the pandemic so clearly–especially the burnout and stress and increasingly bleak current events.

Both narratives are imbued with a noir sensibility and a keen eye for detail that lead to observations like “It was one of those raw, unjust spring afternoons when the air is so bright and clean it focuses the whole world like a lens, but it’s cold still and you’re shivering.” Albert blends fantasy and horror elements into a tense story that feels like it could happen anywhere, to anyone, while also possessing a strong sense of immediacy that makes it impossible to turn away.

Our Crooked Hearts is a magic-filled, intergenerational story with all of the edges sharpened into razors; a dangerous fantasy with an eerie stepped-out-of-time otherness.

Possible Pairings: Book of Night by Holly Black, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Mayhem by Estelle Laure, Extasia by Claire Legrand, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Never-Contented Things by Sarah Porter, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma, House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Melissa.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Tales From the Hinterland: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Tales From the Hinterland by Melissa AlbertTales From the Hinterland (2021) by Melissa Albert presents Althea Proserpine’s  notorious collection of dark and twisted short stories that form the backbone of the world building in both The Hazel Wood and its sequel The Night Country. For the first time the stories that protagonists Alice and Ellery encounter in Albert’s previous novels are presented in their entirety.

Readers familiar with Albert’s oeuvre will recognize many of the tales and characters here notably including Alice, Ilsa, and Hansa. Albert aptly channels classic fairy tale sensibilities into eerie and brutal tales that would have the Brothers Grimm reaching for an extra candle at night. Centering female characters in each story Albert explores the facets of girl-and-womanhood in a world dominated and usually shaped by men.

Standouts in the collection include “The House Under the Stairwell,” where sisterhood wins the day as Isobel seeks help from the Wicked Wife before she is trapped in a deadly betrothal; “The Clockwork Bride,” a richly told story where a girl hungry for enchantment carelessly promises her first daughter to a sinister toymaker who, when he tries to claim his prize, instead finds a girl who wishes only to belong to herself; and “Death and the Woodwife,” where a princess uses her wits and her mother’s unusual gifts to outwit Death and his heir.

With stories fueled by feminist rage, the frustration of being underestimated, and the insatiable longing to experience more Tales From the Hinterland is a collection that is both timely and universal.

You can also check out my interview with Melissa to hear more about this book and the companion novels.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

Author Interview: Melissa Albert on Tales From the Hinterland

Melissa Albert author photoCR: Laura EtheredgeMelissa Albert is the author of the fantasy noir novels The Hazel Wood and its sequel The Night Country. In her latest book, Tales From the Hinterland Albert presents a collection filled with the short stories that form the underpinnings of her previous novels’ world building. These eerie, dark, extremely feminist stories are exactly the kinds of tales we need in this strange moment in world. I’m thrilled to have Melissa here today to talk more about her writing and her latest release.

Miss Print: Can you tell me a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Melissa Albert: As a kid devouring the Chronicles of Narnia and Peter Pan I always dreamed of being a fantasy author, but when I got older I decided the more “practical” path (lol) was to become a journalist. I did some beat reporting and arts writing (mostly book and theater reviews) in Chicago, then started blogging for Barnes & Noble. Through my work with B&N I discovered this booming golden era of YA fantasy had begun. I became obsessed and decided in 2011 to try writing a novel during National Novel Writing Month. It was a hideous disaster, of course, but when I recovered I was determined to try again. Which developed into a bloody-minded determination to finish something I’d started. It’s very easy and fun to start writing a book! It is less easy to finish one.

Miss Print: Tales From the Hinterland presents Althea Proserpine’s notorious collection of dark and twisted short stories that form the backbone of the world building in both The Hazel Wood and its sequel The Night Country. What came first when you started writing within this world: the stories or Alice (the main character in The Hazel Wood)? Did you always know you had multiple stories to tell within this framework/world?

Melissa: The first thing that came was the idea of a reclusive author alone in a house in the deep dark woods, and the idea of her being preyed on by something more sinister than isolation. Then came Alice’s voice, which I wanted to give the world-weary vibe and alternately spare and lavish style of Raymond Chandler’s noir narration. Then I had to figure out why this young, healthy person was so world-weary, and figure out how to pull the floor out from under her sense of herself as being jaded and self-sufficient. I didn’t know till later drafts that I would dare to weave in more than just references to the Hinterland tales.

Miss Print: Tales From the Hinterland includes some stories that readers of your previous novels will recognize as well as some new tales that were only ever mentioned as titles before. How did you go about returning to these familiar tales from a fresh perspective? How was writing the short stories for this collection different from writing the excerpts included in your previous novels as Alice and Ellery learn more about the Hinterland?

Melissa: In THW and TNC I had the context of the novels to give the stories and pieces of story that I shared extra resonance. They were imagined as standalone tales, but told within larger works. With the actual collection of Tales, I had to be sure each story worked as its own distinct, self-contained universe, as well as a piece of a larger whole. It was an interesting headspace to be so immersed in, for so long, because when I wrote fairy tales to include within the novel duology it was very refreshing to jump as a writer from the voice of a contemporary heroine to that cooler, more matter of fact fairy-tale tone. Finding the tale-telling voice again took some time, as did finding my balance between the utterly stripped tales you find in old collections and the lusher stories of later writers like (of course) Angela Carter.

Miss Print: 2020 was a strange year with some things carrying over into 2021 as we all continue to wear masks, practice social distancing, and work together to stop the spread of Covid-19. So, of course, I have to ask: How would Alice and Ellery mange during this pandemic? Would any of the other Hinterland characters be especially well-suited (or ill-prepared) for dealing with our current circumstances?

Melissa: Alice wouldn’t mind the built-in excuse to stay away from other people, though she’d miss the lost wages. Finch would get really intense about sourdough and attempt (again!) to write a novel.

[Miss Print: I could totally see Finch on a quest to figure out the perfect sourdough technique!]

Miss Print: For me three standout stories in this collection were “The House Under the Stairwell,” “The Clockwork Bride,” and “Death and the Woodwife.” Do you have a favorite story in this collection? Were some stories easier to write than others?

Melissa: I love all my wicked children, but I too have a real soft spot for “Death and the Woodwife.” Some of the stories required lots of revision, lots of reimagining, but “Woodwife” came out very close to fully formed. I also love how the setup for the main narrative operates as its own distinct fairy tale–that was a nod to the shape of one of my favorite classic tales, “The Juniper Tree,” which opens with an almost vignette-sized take on the Snow White tale, before opening into the very weird main story. Also, as the closing story in the collection, I’m very happy with the note it ends on.

Miss Print: Can you tell me anything about your next project? Can we expect more Hinterland tales?

Melissa: I’m thrilled to say that I’m deep into drafting the next book, which is a novel unrelated to the world of the Hazel Wood. I don’t know what I’m allowed to say just yet, so I’ll err on the side of being cagey. But it’s another contemporary fantasy, my great love!

Miss Print: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

Melissa: Read LOTS, protect your writing time (even if it’s just twenty minutes–you can probably find twenty minutes at least a few days a week!), and remember your writing is SUPPOSED to look insufficient to you for a long time. Writing “badly” shouldn’t be discouraging (though it is, I know it is!), it just shows the gap between your vision and your current abilities. I try to look at narrowing that gap as the work of my life as a writer. That, and constantly working on the next thing I don’t yet know how to write, so it always feels exciting and destabilizing and sometimes really hard.

Thank you again to Melissa for these great answers!

You can also read my review of Tales From the Hinterland here on the blog.

The Night Country: A Review

*The Night Country is a sequel to Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood–be sure to start there to get the full story and avoid spoilers*

“We were predators set loose in a world not made to withstand us. Until the summer we became prey.”

The Night Country by Melissa AlbertIt’s been two years since Alice Proserpine fought her way out of the Hinterland and the fairytale she inhabited there with help from Ellery Finch–the boy who chose to explore other worlds instead of returning with Alice to New York City.

Being an ex-story isn’t easy even in a city like New York where strangeness already lurks on every corner. At first it seems like Alice might really be able to reinvent herself with a new, human life. But something is happening to the Hinterland survivors who made it out–something that’s leaving them dead.

While Alice tries to track down the culprit, Ellery has to try to find his own way out of the Hinterland before there’s nothing left.

Everyone knows how a fairy tale is supposed to end but as Alice and Ellery search for answers and a way home, they soon realize that their tales are far from over and may not end happily in The Night Country (2020) by Melissa Albert.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Night Country is a sequel to Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood–be sure to start there to get the full story and avoid spoilers. Alice’s pragmatic first person narration contrasts well with third person chapters following Ellery as he tries to find his way home and, possibly, back to Alice.

While Alice spent most of The Hazel Wood trying to understand who she was, The Night Country focuses on Alice’s struggle to decide who she wants to be now that she is free to shape her own story.

The Night Country is a suspenseful story of loss, hope, and searching. This fairytale noir adventure blends romance and mystery with plenty of action as Alice struggles to stop a conspiracy with ramifications she can barely imagine. A must read for fans of portal fantasies, mysteries, and readers who prefer their magic with bloody sharp edges.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the November 2019 issue of School Library Journal*

The Hazel Wood: A Review

“You’re a story, but that doesn’t make you any less true.”

Alice Proserpine has always known that her mother, Ella, was raised on fairy tales amidst the cult-like fandom surrounding the release of “Tales from the Hinterland” a collection of grim fairy tales that, in the 1980s, briefly made Alice’s grandmother Althea Proserpine a celebrity. Alice doesn’t grow up like that. Instead of fairy tales, Alice has highways as she and Ella constantly move around hoping to outrun their eerie bad luck for good–something that seems much more likely when they learn that Althea has died alone on her estate, The Hazel Wood.

Unfortunately just like in “Tales from the Hinterland” everything isn’t as it seems and soon after Alice’s mother is kidnapped leaving no clue except to warn Alice to stay away from the Hazel Wood. With no other clear path to finding her mother, Alice reluctantly enlists her classmate and not-so-secret Hinterland fan Ellery Finch, who may or may not have ulterior motives for helping, to share his expertise on the fairy tales. The path to the Hazel Wood leads Alice straight into the story of her family’s mysterious past and the moment when her own story will change forever in The Hazel Wood (2018) by Melissa Albert.

Find it on Bookshop.

Albert’s standalone fantasy debut has a narration in the vein of a world weary noir detective who happens to be a teenage girl named Alice. Resourceful, whip smart, and incredibly impulsive Alice also struggles with her barely contained rage throughout the novel as circumstances spiral out of her control. Alice’s singular personality largely excuses the lack of context for much of her knowledge and cultural references which hearken more to a jaded adult than a modern teen.

The lilting structure and deliberate tone of The Hazel Wood immediately bring to mind fairy tales both new and retold while also hinting at the teeth this story will bear in the form of murder, mayhem, and violence both in the Hinterland tales and in Alice’s reality. An aggressive lack of romance and characters transcending their plots make this story an empowering read that will be especially popular with fans of fairy tale retellings.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the October 2017 issue of School Library Journal*