The first time Sarah Rees Brennan read A Tale of Two Cities, she dropped it in the bathtub because it made her so upset. Too bad it was a first edition copy that belonged to her grandmother.
Family trauma aside, Brennan liked the book so much she ended up writing a retelling, she explained on Thursday during a talk at Brookline Booksmith. Holly Black (author of the wonderful Doll Bones) was also there, but most of the conversation revolved around Brennan’s Tell the Wind and Fire.
As Brennan sees it, the beauty of a retelling is the opportunity to both praise and insult the original author. She kept what she liked from Dickens’ novel (the basic plot, a sad ending, the key characters) and threw out the bad stuff. Most importantly, while Dickens’ Lucie Manette rarely talks and has no agency (she’s too busy fainting in carriages, Brennan noted, but “I’m pretty sure ladies could talk back then.”), Brennan makes Lucie the protagonist. And she definitely talks (she also fights, and does powerful magic). Brennan then took Dickens’ weakest plot point–the coincidental resemblance between Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay–and makes it integral to the plot, by giving Lucie’s boyfriend a doppelganger created by magic.
I’m about halfway through the book, and the best thing about it is Lucie’s knack for self-preservation. She’s more Slytherin than Gryffindor, with a selfish kind of courage that’s easy to relate to (let’s face it, few of us are stupidly brave). Brennan said she likes writing “weaselly” protagonists who only step up near the end.
Black, too, enjoys retellings. She said she started her career by writing novels based on fairy tale themes as a kind of crutch. It’s a lot less effort if you can re-use someone’s basic plot and characters, and it helped her deal with the problem of “how to get characters off the couch and into the world.” I haven’t read Black’s earlier books, but it’s clear she got over this obstacle. After all, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown starts with a teenager who wakes up in a house full of corpses–a surefire way to get your protagonist out the door asap.
The best part of the event, though, was when Black and Brennan read aloud from their current works in progress. Black went first, reading from a book that starts with several kids lounging on the couch (seriously). But within the space of a few pages they’re traumatized and taken far far away (hint: faeries. Not the nice kind).
Brennan’s next book seems to take place in the real world, and involves very disturbing teenage psychopaths. The moral of the story is: if you meet any rich, spoiled, polo-loving teens who treat their friends like property, run for your life. Do not stop to chat.
It was quite brave of Black and Brennan to read from unfinished drafts, and it’ll be fun to see how the final books compare with what they have now. Unfortunately, it will probably be 2018, at least, before they’re published.
Bonus: the title of Brennan’s latest book is explained in the epigraph, which quotes an actual line from A Tale of Two Cities: “Tell the wind and fire where to stop…but don’t tell me.”
It’s such an epic quote, and I don’t remember it at all. I may have to re-read Dickens’ novel. I’ll just make sure not to drop it in the bathtub.