Stephanie Burgis established herself as a middle grade fantasy writer with her KAT, INCORRIGIBLE series. In 2015, she expanded her repertoire with the romantic fantasy novel Masks and Shadows, set in an alternate 18th century Austria. She followed that up with Congress of Secrets, which is set in Vienna in the early 19th century and includes hidden identities, political secrets and elemental alchemy. Burgis lives in Wales. She took some time out of her busy schedule to chat with Marion about her work, living in Wales, and how history can repeat itself if we’re not careful.
One random commenter with a USA or Canada address will get a copy of Congress of Secrets.
Marion Deeds: I think I should clarify that while both books use the same magical system, they are each stand-alones; Congress of Secrets is not a sequel.
I had some trouble categorizing the magic in your books as “alchemy” but you have said elsewhere that it was inspired by one of Isaac Newton’s alchemical theories. Please explain that to us.
Stephanie Burgis: Sure! The alchemy in my adult books is based on Newton’s theories of the aether, the material and the immaterial worlds, and the ethereal medium that (according to that model) hovered in-between the two worlds, just beyond the limits of our vision.
The alchemists in my books summon very real and dangerous elementals from the immaterial world into the material world, with dangerous (and sometimes bloody) results.
And those elemental creatures are very scary!
In Congress of Secrets, Caroline is a strong, clever, strategic and manipulative woman. You have mentioned many of your writing influences elsewhere, but I also wondered whether the old book The Scarlet Pimpernel was an influence. Tell us how you developed Caroline as a character.
I did love The Scarlet Pimpernel when I read it as a teen! And I’ve always loved the idea of people masking their true identities – that makes for a fascinating character to read about. I was inspired to write Caroline because I wanted to take the kind of powerful, brilliantly manipulative woman who’s often written as a villainess – and make her the heroine instead, with an unexpected and sincere romance along the way.
Both Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets are books with a certain type of magic, but the magic does not take the spotlight. In fact, each of these romantic fantasy-alternate history books remind me more of 18th and 19th century books of adventure – old-fashioned “romances” if you will – like The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Prisoner of Zenda, maybe even A Tale of Two Cities. What is your reaction to this idea? The magic being a bit “background” seems to work very well in your books; what made you decide to have it be less prominent than conventional fantasies?
Well, I adored The Prisoner of Zenda as well as The Scarlet Pimpernel (and I read A Tale of Two Cities around the same time, so it probably filtered into my literary DNA, too), so I’m very happy with that comparison! I love rollicking historical adventures and I love fantasy, so these books are my attempt to combine them both.
You have a new middle-grade book coming out, The Dragon With the Chocolate Heart. What can you share with us about that?
The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart is about a fierce young dragon who gets tricked (by her intended prey) into drinking a pot of enchanted hot chocolate and is horrified to find herself transformed into a human! But she’s still the fiercest creature around, with or without claws and scales. So she heads to the big city in search of new territory to conquer, and finds herself embroiled in an adventure full of chocolate, friendship, and the question of what it really means to be a human…AND a dragon! It will be published by Bloomsbury Books in the US, UK and Australia in early 2017.
Usually I ask something about world-building, but you did your graduate work on 18th century Austria during a specific time-period. Your world-building source is clear, and your details make the books shine. What did you love the most about Vienna from 1765-1790? What surprised you the most?
Vienna in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century was full of incredible music and culture, with resident composers ranging at various points from Mozart and Haydn to Beethoven and Schubert. In the late eighteenth century, it was also a hub for alchemists (including the type that we would now term scientists, others with a more mystical focus, and also outright con men who made a lot of money from the gullible in their salons) and secret societies – which all makes for a fascinating mix.
My own focus in my PhD research was on the opera and politics of Vienna between 1764-90, and specifically on the way that the operas chosen for performance at the national opera house helped to promote Emperor Joseph’s aspirations for a war against the Turks – so I was surprised (in a depressing way) by how some of the same cultural stereotypes have remained across the centuries, popping up in popular media again and again.
In the afterword to Congress of Secrets, you talk about how Emperor Joseph II was persuaded by the real Count Pergen to limit freedom of speech and thought, including destroying printing presses and imprisoning printers and writers. I am seeing some potentially disturbing parallels in today’s world. Of course we don’t have emperors and they didn’t have the internet. Do you have any thoughts for us on what we can learn from that place and time?
I wish I had a better plan of action to offer – but yes, I do absolutely see the similarities. The lesson I take from it is that freedoms can disappear with astonishing speed if they aren’t vigorously defended. Vienna in the late eighteenth century had an unprecedented freedom of the press, and its coffeehouses were famous hubs for wide-ranging political debate. By the time of The Congress of Vienna, in 1814, no one would dare breathe a word of political opinion in a coffeehouse for fear of being turned in by one of the secret police’s many informants, and newspapers only printed fluff pieces that couldn’t possibly offend anyone. It’s a deeply depressing historical arc to study, and I am hoping so hard that we can avoid going the same route.
You are quite well known for the KAT, INCORRIGIBLE series, and now you have two adult romantic fantasies under your belt. Tell us about the differences between writing adult fantasy and middle grade, and tell us what you love and dislike about each.
I love writing both MG and adult fantasy novels, and I’d hate to ever give up either genre. I love the speed and high spirits and pure fun of my MG novels, which tend to be very linear, usually first-person PoV, and straight adventure. They’re exhilarating to write!
However, I also love getting to really sink in-depth into politics and intrigue in my adult novels, take on more characters and more PoVs, and explore some of the darker emotions and situations that wouldn’t fit into an MG novel. Also, of course, I love writing romance, which means I won’t be giving up adult fiction any time soon! :)
We would love to know what it’s like to live in Wales. Will you tell us?
I live in a wonderful small town surrounded by mountains and castles (there are 2 castles within 15 minutes of my house!) and full of coffee shops. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived, and I feel very lucky to be here.
We have a tradition here at FanLit of asking authors if they have a signature drink. It can be alcoholic or non-alcoholic. Do you have a beverage to share?
My signature drink is a rich, dark hot chocolate with cinnamon and nutmeg. I make that kind of hot chocolate at least 3-4 times a week and always love it!
Sounds delicious. Actually, that would be good right now! Stephanie, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us!
You can find Masks and Shadows reviewed here, and Congress of Secrets here. One random commenter with a USA/Canada address will get a copy of Congress of Secrets.
Great interview, Marion! And thank you, Ms. Burgis, for inspiring me to go make some hot cocoa!
Mmmm. Hot cocoa.
This may be my favorite of the interview signature drinks.
The Kat Incorrigible series has been on my radar since Ruth reviewed the first one. I need to buy it for my daughter. The new dragon book sounds great, too!
I haven’t read Masks & Shadows yet but I did enjoy Kat, Incorrigible!
Tibicina, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of CONGRESS OF SECRETS!
Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!
Sounds pretty good