Exploring New Worlds
When she was nine years old, Leanna Renee Hieber starred in Oliver! The Musical. From that moment on, she was determined to be an actress.
And a playwright.
And a novelist.
Not all of us see our dream clearly at age nine and then get to live it out, but Hieber did. She remained obsessed with Victorian London. “I’d always felt like I was a bit out of my time period, disconnected from the modern world. I was a kid in rural Ohio, and that feeling of being born in the wrong era was very painful. Then I heard of the concept of past lives. I knew I had a past life connection. I decided I was a reincarnate Victorian.”
Without a time machine, the best way to “back home” was through the theatrical world. Hieber majored in theater performance and minored in Victorian studies. She adapted Victorian works for the stage, from the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke to Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll’s original novel, and incorporating Alice Liddell’s diaries). Writing and staging that play proved that she had a gift for the Victorian vernacular, and the kudos the work received bolstered her confidence to set her fiction in that time as well. “It’s important to de-romanticize the era. The Victorians had many problems. I’m attracted to all of it, not just the grandeur, but also the grit.”
In spite of a grueling performance schedule, she worked on her first novel. “I travelled around the regional theater circuit for ten years after college. There was no time to write, and yet I felt compelled to write. That’s when I first started working on The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker.” (A new, revised version of that book, now simply entitled Strangely Beautiful, has just been released by Tor.)
She moved to New York City in order to pursue her acting career. One day she was at a call-back audition for a role in a Broadway play, but found all she could think about was her book. “I decided if all I could think about at a Broadway call back was my novel, it was time to stop auditioning and focus on the book.”
That was the beginning of years of submission, rejection, learning and networking. The Strangely Beautiful series (four volumes) was quickly followed by the Dark Nest Chronicles (three volumes) and the Magic Most Foul series for young adult (three volumes) and now, The Eterna series: The Eternal Files and ETERNA & OMEGA.
All the books except the Dark Nest Chronicles share a world and have interconnected characters. Magic Most Foul takes place in 1880, Eterna Files in 1882, and Strangely Beautiful in 1888. “I chose to weave them together because I was interested in exploring similar themes in each series, but told from very different perspectives. Rather than use the same tropes with different names, I have explored these aspects of life and death, ghost and living, magic and faith, community and loneliness, love and loss, modernism versus the arcane, with the same characters. I force them to confront and interact with different aspects of these complex polarities and each find their own middle ground.”
Except for the Dark Nest series, which is about “psychics in space,” Hieber defines her books as ‘Gothic Victorian Gaslamp fantasies.’ “Strangely Beautiful is a gothic romance; the ETERNA FILES series is Gothic suspense. It’s two X-File type detective teams, one in the U.S. and one in London, threatened by a demonic force.”
Hieber defines Gothic as “an intensely psychological experience that focuses intimately on characters on highly intense situations. It hovers on that line between the beautiful and the terrible, between beauty and horror.”
She was surprised to discover how divided people are over the Gothic genre. “People don’t want to give themselves over to the big emotion that the Gothic can wield. It’s fascinating, and somewhat troubling, the love/hate nature of their reactions. It makes it hard to market.”
Hieber stays true to the limitations on women in the Victorian era, but tries to present a more varied spectrum of agency between the genders, which means that sometimes the male hero is a ‘knight in shining distress.’
One word she doesn’t apply to her work is steampunk. “Steampunk is Victorian science fiction that features steam-driven technology. Gaslamp fantasy is Victorian fantasy. It features magic, psychics, myth, and very little technology.”
Nevertheless, steampunk fans are attracted to her work. “Gail Carriger’s Soulless and Strangely Beautiful came out the same year. So people who were into the Victorian fantastical aesthetic read both of them.” In fact, Hieber and Gallagher will be at an event together in July at the Word bookstore in New York.
Hieber is currently the artist-in-residence for the Pandora society in Cincinnati, which started as an event organization for steampunk but grew to include all kinds of retro-events. She will be coordinating events with local and visiting authors for the Pandoricon in November. “Cincinnati is my home town and it’s never far from my heart.”
Where is the mystery in all this? “Suspense and Gothic are tied. In both there is the sense of dread, and dread is the most importantly quality in my work. These detective teams are trying to find the cure for death. They are getting nowhere and killing people in the process. Horror is literally waiting for them in the walls, pressing in on them. It’s all around them, they aren’t sure how it will manifest. It’s not just a bad guy with a gun that’s after them, it’s a whole dark force.”
The wielders of these dark forces is a magical master society that is given to dark experimenting, separating souls from bodies, re-animating bodies, imprisoning souls. The goal of the society is to bring about a new world order, a return to the divine right of evil.”
Hieber plans a trilogy, so the heroes have one more book to save the world.
Actress, playwright and author Leanna Renee Hieber is an award-winning, bestselling author of Gothic Victorian Fantasy novels. Her Strangely Beautiful saga, beginning with The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, hit Barnes & Noble and Borders Bestseller lists and garnered numerous regional genre awards, with new revised editions from Tor Books now available, the saga is currently being adapted into a musical theatre production. Leanna’s Magic Most Foul saga began with Darker Still, an American Bookseller’s Association “Indie Next List” pick and a Scholastic Book Club “Highly Recommended” title. Her new Gaslamp Fantasy saga, The Eterna Files, is now available, with the sequel Eterna & Omega releasing 8/16 from Tor. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies such as Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, Willful Impropriety, The Mammoth Book of Gaslamp Romance, featured on Tor.com and she writes for Criminal Element. She is a 4 time Prism Award winner for excellence in the genre of Fantasy Romance. Her books have been selected for national book club editions and translated into many languages. Living in New York City, Leanna is a proud member of performer unions Actors Equity and SAG-AFTRA, she is also a licensed ghost tour guide and has been featured in film and television on shows like Boardwalk Empire. She is represented by Paul Stevens of the Donald Maass Agency and is active on Twitter @LeannaRenee