This week marks the release of the latest in the “Twisted Tale” series, Unbirthday. Coinciding with that release, Jess had the chance to catch up with author Liz Braswell about the new book, Alice in Wonderland, and the series itself:
Jess Salafia Ward: Liz, thanks for chatting with us!
Liz Braswell: I’m so excited to be talking with you again!
LB: What a starter question! I have two kids who had to make the transition to virtual schooling. This is where people lie and talk about how great it is and easy it went, right? I marked holidays virtually, celebrated virtually, mourned virtually. I participated in the fight for social justice and wondered if we would grow as a nation. I binge watched, did a lot of knitting and weaving, AND WROTE MY BUTT OFF.
JSW: Speaking of the world, or worlds (plural), your newest book, Unbirthday, based on Alice in Wonderland, will be released on September 1st! How do you feel?
LB: I feel incredibly honored to contribute to the world of Alice. The movie is such a favorite, the book an institution. It’s a little heady to be part of all that.
JSW: You have mentioned in the past that you and your Disney editor discuss which movies would be the right fit for a Twisted Tale. How did the conversation about a book based on Alice in Wonderland play out?
LB: I wonder if I’m allowed to talk about a certain editor’s favorite Halloween costume…. Let’s just say there wasn’t much conversation. This one was always a given! We were on the same page about everything. Literally.
JSW: You use all the tools given to you by Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and embellish it in an intelligent, thoughtful, inviting way. What are some of your favorite tidbits from prior versions of Alice that you chose to include as part of the story you wanted to tell in Unbirthday and why?
LB: Oh the delightful Spectacle and Mirror Birds from the Disney movie! They add such whimsy and pathos, like a brightly colored Greek chorus. And the way the Mome Raths were portrayed. And the visual dynamic of Cheshire and the Hatter. But I also included a few sneaky things from the original book. And even from Through the Looking Glass, as when Alice enters her own house, reversed, and floats up the stairs.
JSW: There are also a lot of unique Braswell additions too. For example, Alice is an avid photographer in Unbirthday. How did this hobby come about as part of the story planning process?
LB: That was a combination of two things. One was a tip of the hat to Lewis Carroll, who was himself a photography hobbyist. The other came from trying to imagine how an older Alice would try to capture magic in the real world; and what better way than a scientific marvel that used glass and mirrors?
JSW: I always enjoy how you develop these larger-than-life characters in your stories. Alice is not only curious, but contemplative, brave, and determined. The Mad Hatter has endured a lot since Alice’s last visit to Wonderland; so much so that he is concerned he might be, ironically, losing touch with his madness. Dodo is a loyal, reliable friend, and not an entirely terrible Snakes and Ladders partner.
How do you “mature” characters while ensuring they don’t stray too far from traits, speech, movement, etc. that we know and love from their portrayal in the Disney film?
LB: Oh, that is the hardest thing about these books! Doubly hard with Alice, who has a literary audience as well as a cinematic one. It requires a lot of sort of playacting in my head, trying things out, seeing if it feels real from the outside. It *looks* like I’m napping, or staring into space (and occasionally walking into things) when I’m doing this, but trust me it’s hard work.
JSW: Similarly, how do you go about introducing new characters? Do you “trial” characters during the brainstorming process to determine if they are a good fit or does it happen more organically as part of plot?
LB: It happens both ways. There are characters I know will be there from the outset—Katz—and ones who appear when they are needed (Alexandros and Ivy, the lawyers Katz works for).
JSW: What relationships were important for you to explore in this story and why?
LB: Cheshire and Alice: their relationship is actually kind of complicated, if you’re being Sensible. *I* thought the Cheshire was doing his best to help Alice in the movie; my editor thought he was trying to toy with Alice (like a cat). But it’s Wonderland, so he could obviously be doing both….
Also Alice and the Hatter. He is avuncular, certainly, but also gets in his own way.
Alice and Romance: SO TRICKY.
Sense and Nonsense. Oh, see below!
JSW: Wonderland – and the real world, for that matter – both contain a lot of Nonsense. But they also teach Alice valuable lessons. What does Wonderland mean to you and what do you think are the key takeaways from Alice’s adventure in this story?
LB: Despite my career in imaginary worlds, I’m weirdly left brained. One of the delightful things about Alice is how Lewis Carroll and Disney perfectly capture the completely unironic, whimsical and very determined voice of a little girl. Wonderland is that voice writ large: it’s a reminder that things can just happen in the same way little girls just say and do things. And you are not expected to judge or opine; you just have to accept it. Jam yesterday and jam tomorrow but never jam today.
JSW: Without giving too much away of course, what is your favorite scene in this book and why?
LB: There’s a poetry recital in a floating umbrella that I really enjoyed writing…it’s not *really* integral to the plot, but feels in some ways the most authentically Wonderland.
JSW: Favorite character and why?
LB: OOOGH. The Hatter, probably. Why?! Really?!!!
JSW: What non-Disney resources, if any, did you look to for inspiration for Unbirthday?
LB: The original books! I reread them both with my own whimsical little girl (and teenaged son).
JSW: What was your favorite part of writing this book compared to your prior Twisted Tales? What was the most challenging part?
LB: I wish I could properly remember the quote about all smart girls thinking they’re Alice…. I was a real Alice maniac when I was younger; spent an entire weekend with my friend Katherine in Oxford visiting all of the Alice-y spots and buying most of the tourist trap trinkets. My favorite part of the book was writing Alice!
But I want Alice to be a hero for all the ages…. So the tricky bit was having her be older: whimsical but not silly, independent but still believable within the mores of the time. Her progression had to be organic, and that was challenging.
JSW: What do you ultimately hope readers get out of Unbirthday?
LB: I hope readers get a nice visit with their friends Alice, Mad Hatter, and the Cheshire Cat…and a glimpse of the Alice she is to become, and the possible worlds she wants to live in. Alice is a very English girl from the Victorian era, but her devoted fans are incredibly diverse. We could learn quite a bit from Wonderland about accepting all kinds of people, from lawyers to (nearly) extinct Dodos.
Unbirthday is now available wherever books are sold.