Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Q&A with Alyssa Wees




Alyssa Wees is the author of the new novel Nocturne. She also has written the young adult novel The Waking Forest. Also a librarian, she lives in the Chicago area.


Q: What inspired you to write Nocturne, and how did you create your character Grace?


A: I began ballet lessons when I was 4 years old, and continued training through college. When I graduated I decided to focus on writing, but I’m still a ballerina in my soul and I’ve long dreamed of writing a book featuring ballet.


I knew it would be a fantasy, but it took me a while to find my way to the story. I had an idea about a girl in a failing company that gains a mysterious patron, and little more than that. Once I decided that the story would also be historical, the pieces really began to click into place. 


Like Grace, I come from a Sicilian family that settled in Chicago only a few generations ago. As I delved into my family history, the character of Grace became clear to me: a girl torn between the land of her ancestors and the city she knows and loves, between life and death, between the past and the future.


There’s something about the beauty of ballet set against the harsh backdrop of the Great Depression that I found really compelling, and it’s this tension between the two that really drives forward the story and Grace’s development. 


Q: The writer Ava Reid said of the book, “In Nocturne, Wees robes the classic story of Beauty and the Beast in lush prose and infinite splendor. It’s a fever dream of a novel, surreal and intricate, and enchanting in every way.” What do you think of that description?


A: It’s a beautiful description and I’m so humbled by it! Truly, it’s the best feeling when someone reads what you’ve written and just gets it. At its core Nocturne is a Beauty and the Beast type story, but it’s not only that and Ava Reid really nailed this aspect of it in her blurb. I especially like the description of “fever dream.” It’s perfect. 


Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I have to admit that research is not my favorite part of writing. I’m usually too eager to dive into my imagination and make things up as I go along, and I feel that research just slows me down!


I was researching my family history for my own enjoyment, not even thinking of writing it into a story, when I stumbled across some interesting facts about the neighborhood in Chicago where my grandparents grew up, the same neighborhood where Grace spends her childhood. It was called Little Sicily and no longer exists, as it was torn down and rebuilt (it’s now Cabrini-Green).


Little Sicily was nicknamed “Little Hell” for the flames from the factory furnaces that would light up the night, and there was an intersection down the street from my grandma’s house called “Death Corner” where mobsters would sometimes leave the bodies of the victims they’d shot. Like, what?!


This was all a teensy bit before my grandma’s time—Grace was born about a decade before her—and the Mafia murders would’ve died down by the time she was a teen in the 1940s, but I really regret not asking her a ton of questions when she was still with us about this neighborhood and her experiences.


I miss her every day, and fashioning Grace’s story was a little bit like having a conversation with her. My grandfather died before I was born, and I’m sad that I never got to know him and hear stories of his life firsthand. This is my way of feeling connected to them. 


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I did have an idea of the ending, but no idea how I would get there when I started. I never outline—part of the fun in writing, for me, is finding the story along the way. The story itself grew and changed, but the ending—the feel of it, if not the actual how of it—never wavered.


Nocturne’s ending may not be a typical happily ever after, but to me it’s cathartic. It’s what Grace needed, and what she’d been dancing toward all along.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have another book coming out with Del Rey sometime in the near future! I’m hesitant to reveal too much about it yet, but I will say that it is entirely unconnected with Nocturne in just about every way.


It tells the story of a mother and daughter and their journey through an enchanted wood, as well as exploring the meaning of the stories we pass down from generation to generation and how those stories shape us. I’m really excited about it and I can’t wait to share more.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My young adult fantasy, The Waking Forest, came out in 2019. It’s a fantasy story about sisters, foxes, and the thin line that separates dream from reality. If you need something to hold you over after Nocturne and before my next novel, I’d love it if you’d check it out!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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