Hi Alyssa! I want to thank you for taking some day to sit down with me today and talk about your upcoming debut novel, THE GILDED GIRL, coming out on April 6, 2021 with Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Can you tell us a bit about the story, please?
Hi Kathie! Thanks for having me here! GILDED GIRL is a very loose retelling of A Little Princess set in a Gilded Age New York boarding school for magic.
In this alternate New York, the divide between the magical haves and have-nots is as black and white as the foyer tile at Miss Posterity’s Academy for Practical Magic. Twelve-year-old student Emma can afford the education that will teach her the secrets of kindling her magic, while the school’s servant girl, Izzy, is doomed to see her magic snuff out before her thirteenth birthday like the rest of the lower classes. When Emma loses her father and fortune in a tragic accident, she loses her access to magic as well. Though not natural allies, Emma and Izzy team up together to find a way to kindle their magic, despite the fiery danger that kindling presents. Oh yes, and there are talking cats that are secretly house dragons.
I have never actually read A Little Princess. Do you have special memories of reading it?
I have a very vivid memory of using the passage describing Sara Crewe’s transformation from star student to servant as a monologue for my theater class in seventh grade. The 1995 movie was also a staple at sleepovers growing up. I used to make believe I was Sara Crewe because, to me, she was the epitome of kindness and patience. It may sound silly, but it got me through a lot of boring and stressful situations as a child!
A caveat: The story has always had a special place in my heart but the original novel was written in the late 1890s and contains some of the colonialist opinions of that time. I remember having a lot of questions about that, so if you are planning to read the original with a child, I would recommend doing some research ahead of time and so you can help them unpack those attitudes and why they’re wrong.
What were the most important elements of A Little Princess that you wanted to preserve in this retelling?
In addition to some of the plot details, it was very important that I preserve Sara’s kindness and generosity in my Emma character. Her ability to stay strong in challenging situations is at the heart of the original story and I wanted to stay true to that. Initially, I tried to preserve the next-door neighbor plotline from the original, but I broke away from it when I realized that I didn’t want someone waiting to swoop in and help. When the kindling arrives, Emma and Izzy have to save their magic and themselves.
Did having a basic structure of the story help with writing it, or did you find it challenging to follow the classic to a certain extent?
That’s a great question. I found the structure of the original novel challenging to use as a framework. To write A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett took a collection of her serialized short stories about a girls’ school and expanded them into a novel. Each chapter still feels like a short story and it doesn’t build in the same way that a modern novel does, so I frequently had to pull away from it. Also, while the original novel uses an omniscient voice to tell Sara’s story, my novel closely follows both Emma and Izzy.
This isn’t to say that people who love the original story won’t find easter eggs spread throughout. For example, I kept one of my favorite scenes in which the girls find their attic room transformed—though it happens in a very different way in my novel.
If you were a girl at Miss Posterity’s Academy for Practical Magic, which of the characters do you think you would have befriended?
I probably would have spent most of my time reading in the school library, so I think I would have become close friends with the school’s knowledgeable house dragon, Figgy Pudding. I also have a soft spot for the delightfully awkward Frances Slight.
Did you have to do a lot of research to write a story with a historical setting, and if so, how did you go about doing that research?
Oh, yes. I love research and I read a huge stack of books about politics, architecture, education, and daily life in New York during The Gilded Age. I wanted to make the history feel as real as possible.
One of the things I found the most helpful was the “Ask a Librarian” resource on my local library website. The librarians were so knowledgeable and helped me find books and primary sources to answer my questions. When the libraries closed during the pandemic, they were able to help me track down electronic copies of the books and articles that I needed. The Tenement Museum in New York was also very helpful and I was fortunate to take a tour there in person while revising this book. They’re offering online tours at the moment which I’ve also taken and enjoyed.
Do you have another book on which you’re working right now?
I do! My second book, THE TARNISHED GARDEN, comes out April 5, 2022. It is a loose retelling of THE SECRET GARDEN (also by Frances Hodgson Burnett) and a companion novel to THE GILDED GIRL, set in the same magical New York and following a familiar character from the first book.
Ooh, I can’t wait to read it! Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing?
Thank you so much, Kathie! I appreciate the support that the MGBookVillage team gives to debut authors! It’s been lovely chatting with you today.
Thank you, Alyssa, and I sincerely hope The Gilded Girl finds many readers to enjoy it as I did.
Alyssa Colman is the author of THE GILDED GIRL (FSG BYFR, April 6, 2021). As a playwright, she was a winner of the 2013 ESPA new play competition at Primary Stages in New York and was a semi-finalist at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center National Playwrights Conference. She has participated as both a mentee and mentor in Author Mentor Match. Alyssa now lives in Los Angeles where she enjoys making messes in her kitchen and hiking with her family and their dog, Daisy.