I came to call on Miss Leanna Renee Hieber on a breezy afternoon in early summer. We had been informally introduced through a mutual acquaintance, but someone’s whose judgment I trusted implicitly, and so I took to Miss Hieber immediately. She received me in her impressive library, pretty as a picture, her deep burgundy skirts setting off a complexion almost as fair as her heroine’s. We made pleasantries as she poured the tea–Constant Comment, I noted. She mentioned that the cloves reminded her of her dear Alexi. I took two sugars to her one, and she added a spot of milk to her own delicate cup. She had brewed it strong; I admired her fortitude. I am of the opinion that no one knows how to make a decent cup of tea nowadays, and it appeared Miss Hieber and I were of the same mind. I anticipated enjoying this session very much. I took a raspberry biscuit from the tray, set my cup on the table beside me to cool, and we began.
Alethea Kontis: What draws you to the Victorian era?
Leanna Renee Hieber: The 19th century is my lifetime love-affair. As soon as I could reach a costume box, I draped myriad layers over myself, adored petticoats, bustling things, and British accents. Around the age of seven I trailed my parents’ British friend and adopted her accent (I wanted her to feel comfortable, of course, and speak her language, I explained to my perplexed mother). I was nine when our school did a production of Oliver! Being a newfound devotee of Dickens, I maintained a passable Cockney accent throughout the production (which meant I was jarring and not understood by the audience since I was the only kid doing one). Victorian literature had its hooks in me all through high-school; in college I chose the era as a focus study and ventured on scholarship to London (I knew the city, uncannily, as if I’d come home. Don’t underestimate the pull of past lives.)
The epic extremes compel me to the era; preened exteriors and seething underbellies. It was a vicious era, and gorgeous. Even novels of the day were able to hazily indicate their polarized reality—they lived in a Jekyll and Hyde world and at any moment perhaps their Empire would become unrecognizable by their own industrialized, God-smashing, God-fearing, colonial hands. It was a bitch of a time to be a woman, and for the lower classes it was a bitch of a time to be human. That’s where my romanticism comes, in the form of supernatural fancy; all ghastly miseries can be fixed with magical salves. “Para” is my “normal.” It isn’t that I deny reality, I take my hero uncomfortably through Whitechapel for instance, but I stand much more comfortably in the tradition of the Gothic supernatural, novels to which I only hope Percy Parker pays reverent homage.
AK: If Strangely Beautiful was made into a movie, who would you have play Alexi? I mean . . . other than Alan Rickman or Zachary Quinto?
LRH: *blush* Alexi requires an intense, compelling actor who could seize a room by the throat yet show a powerful kindness when called to do so. He’ll always be Alan to me, but Richard Armitage will do nicely. (BBC star in the current Robin Hood series, MI-6, North and South). Richard, if you’re reading, will you please play Alexi? Have your people call my people. Thank you.
AK: Who is your favorite god/goddess of the Greek pantheon?
LRH: Well … Persephone … *demure smile* I love the lesser arcana, not the big-flashy-soap-opera stars (sorry, but Zeus annoys the hell out of me). The story of Cupid and Psyche remains a favorite.
AK: Who were your favorite teachers in school?
LRH: My drama, music, English, and art teachers. French and German teachers too–I loved everyone except the math teachers. They made me want to run screaming.
AK: How are your math skills?
LRH: (Runs screaming) Percy and I share this handicap. Although I never had a hot math teacher like Alexi. Fiction is fun.
AK: What were your favorite books as a child?
LRH: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Lord of the Rings, Anne of Green Gables, and anything by Edgar Allan Poe. As an early teen: Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera (yes, I was musical theatre obsessed, but I ended up liking the original novels more than the musicals).
AK: There is so much material on Jack the Ripper—how did you approach your research for this aspect of the novel?
LRH: My idea of “Jack” was with me from the start. But I had to layer the particulars of Jack in after the bulk of the story stood. My Jack is a by-product of an other-wordly situation, quite a secondary character, so while I wanted to provide accurate historical detail, I made supernatural and fictional choices alongside the facts. I figured out roughly which of the canonical victims would follow the course of the major conflict points within the story and fit them accordingly. I’d gone on the Ripper walking tour in London (a top-notch event not to be missed–the guides are fantastic) and that’s what got me hooked on the mystery in the first place, being there and feeling the chill of walking those same dread paths so many years later. My go-to resource is www.casebook.org
AK: What kinds of ghost stories did you make up as a child?
LRH: My favorite two: Girl Scout camp at a former 19th-century hospital in Ohio, surrounded by thick and verdant forest. I spearheaded a production of my own making in which I was the ghost of a love-sick girl who had hanged herself in the surrounding woods. The ghost would come whenever she was called by an assembled mass, thus I made my elaborate entrance to a cluster of pre-teen girls, with a rope around my neck and stolen purple lipstick smeared around my eyes. I do think the building was actually haunted but during rehearsal we kept screaming so constantly, no real ghost would’ve bothered with us. *giggle*
In an earlier memory, I was entertaining two friends as I perched on an enormous, intimidating black leather Queen Anne chair, my father’s homemade ceramic lamp in my hand and my long blonde hair down around my shoulders. Yeah, like the kid from Poltergeist. The lamp bulb flickered like a candle. I do love a good effect. The base and part of the interior wiring of the lamp was exposed but I cupped it in my small hands like a mug. As I reached the climax of the story–a ghost was climbing inexorably up the stairs with a death-knell tread, ready to burst in upon the hapless young girls within!–I started to slur my words and gurgle. My long blonde hair began to rise up around my shoulders. My friends’ eyes bulged out of their skulls as they shrieked, tearing from the room screaming “Lea’s possessed!” I sat there helpless, tethered to the electrical current when my finger had slipped too far inside the base of the lamp, until I was able to shake myself free. Looking back, the uncomfortable kiss of voltage was worth the effect.
AK: You’ve previously adapted Victorian literature for the stage. How did that help/hamper writing a novel set in that time period?
LRH: It was a critical immersion period. To speak the vernacular with my own lips–not just in my head or reading from the page–to live in it, thinking up transitions, text, and solutions all of a period piece gave Strangely Beautiful life. My first adaptation was crafting pieces from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet into a one-woman show for my college thesis. I had to make discerning choices about what parts of Rilke’s beautiful, lush prose to present. While working for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, I adapted pieces from Lewis Carroll’s many works as well as text from Alice Pleasance Liddell’s diary into The Alice Adventure to create an Alice who shared her wonderland lesson: nothing is impossible. This was my first experience using my own text alongside period text and it gave me a great deal of confidence; cadences felt innate and again I felt like I’d come home. This show was followed closely by starring in two different productions of Dracula, so that didn’t hurt my immersion in the vernacular either and was, of course, great fun.
AK: Are you still involved in acting or stage performances?
LRH: I’ve taken a break from the stage considering I don’t have time to go on all the auditions necessary to keep up with the business. But I work as a background extra for film and TV in New York which is great fun, and I maintain my union affiliations (AEA, SAG, AFTRA). My short plays, such as Favorite Lady (published in 2004: The Best Ten-Minute Plays for 3 or More Actors), continue to be produced around the country. I’ll be on stage again someday, I’m sure. If Strangely Beautiful does secure film rights, I’ll just have to play a ghost.
AK: Please tell us about Lady Jane’s Salon.
LRH: Via instigation from Beatrice.com’s Ron Hogan, I was the connective tissue that brought several authors into a bar to talk historical novels. Halfway through the evening Maya Rodale asked Hope Tarr, Ron, and I why there wasn’t a reading series in New York City devoted to romance and women’s fiction. We didn’t have a good answer, so we started a Salon. A fabulous bar called Madame X (my favorite Sargent painting, by the way), covered appropriately in red velvet, hosts us. We feature a few readers per evening to read from their latest work. Not only do we hope to celebrate the diverse offerings of our genre (even as historical authors, Hope, Maya, and I represent vastly different sub-genres), but we all have a penchant for philanthropy, and Maya just so happened to have a fitting charity to tie in with our events.
Admission is $5, or one gently used romance/women’s fiction novel. All proceeds and books go to Maya’s Share the Love foundation (www.share-the-love.org) that donates books to women in need, crisis, prison, transition, etc. Lady Jane’s Salon began this February and has received great press locally and in the national romance community and I feel blessed to be a part of it. www.ladyjanesalon.com.
AK: So . . . what are the top three Goth clubs in NYC?
LRH: I might give a kidney to go back in time and to go to the Limelight in its prime. When I first visited New York in 2003 there was a fun night at Flamingo, and that’s where I met my favorite DJ, Father Jeff. When I moved to NYC in 2005, Albion / The Bat Cave had a great night. Now the nights and the bars shift spots a great deal—Necromantic puts on a good night, as well as Salvation. For me, wherever Father Jeff is, I know I’ll hear great music and it will be a good night.
AK: If you could meet any character in a work of fiction–stage, screen, or literary–who would it be?
LRH: It would be terrible of me to say Alexi, wouldn’t it? But he’s the culmination of all my fictional love affairs, all my literary lost boys. I would like, particularly, to give Severus Snape and Edward Scissorhands a hug.
***Be sure to catch Leanna this Dragon*Con weekend at PRINCESS ALETHEA’S TRAVELING SIDESHOW! (Roswell, Hyatt, Fri 5:30pm)