Why I Retold The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

People often ask me why I write what I write. Usually, the question is followed by a suggestion that I write something different: mystery-suspense, short stories, picture books. The truth is I tend to write what I crave to read but haven’t been able to find.

notre-dame de parisI fell in love with Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (or The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) many years ago. A good friend loaned me the book, assuring me I would adore it, and he was right. The story was this perfect mixture of tragedy, comedy, and romance, with just a touch of satire and social commentary. Every character was one I could both love and hate. They all made horrible mistakes even though I was practically screaming at them not to. But that’s the nature of tragedy.

I realized I had seen several film versions of the story, but none of them had won my heart the way the novel did. I think that’s because they were so simplified. The villains were villainous, and the good guys were so very good. And Claude… Oh, Claude Frollo was the most changed of all. In Hugo’s novel he is a good man—a fantastic man even—who looks after his fellow orphans like a father and does his best to be both wise and virtuous. But his standards for himself and others are untouchable. When he can’t live up to his own idea of goodness, he believes himself to be a monster and ends in fulfilling his own prophecy. And when the girl he loves turns out not to be the angel he took her for… Well, way too many people pay the price for that.

Claude Frollo Adopts QuasimodoTo me, the original novel is not one story, but many, all tangled together in an inescapable mess. I have always wanted to see it retold in a way that didn’t try to dichotomize good and evil, and since I haven’t been able to find a version that did this, I tried to make my own. I chose to tell just one of the stories—that of Claude Frollo, the one I felt received the most radical changes in other retellings—and I chose to tell it in first person. It wasn’t fun being in his head. Claude is a person who wants to be good, but who has unexamined very-bad-ideas, unhealthy obsessions, and unrealistic expectations. But that’s also what makes him so human.

The idea to set the story in a modern high school came from reading Claude’s first confession of love. It was so desperate, so frantic and clumsy, it reminded me of how it felt to be in love at that age. But setting it in a modern high school also had its challenges. Obviously, I was playing by a very different set of rules. But I hope I managed to retell this story by staying as true to the original as was possible in a modern high school. That was my goal all along.

So I hope you enjoy my new book, Chemistry, which is available now at Amazon. It will be free on October 30 and 31. The warning Claude gives you in the book description is a real one. This isn’t a pretty story; it’s a tragedy. But if you think you might like to get a modern taste of Claude’s untidied tale—complete with cobwebs, dust, and mildew—please feel free to give my little experiment a look.

And lastly, if you want an excellent soundtrack for reading either Chemistry or Notre-Dame de Paris, I recommend VAST’s self-titled album. I listened to it accidentally the first time I read Notre-Dame de Paris, and I listened to it again while writing Chemistry, just to relive the experience of discovering Hugo’s story for the first time. It’s perfect music for this tragedy. It’s brutal, passionate, primal in a way. I swear some of it came right out of Claude Frollo’s head. I’ve embedded a taste of the album below, probably my favorite song. If you like it, I’d wager you’ll like the rest of the album, too.

The “Look” Challenge

Edit: I forgot to warn. The excerpt in this post contains mild spoilers for Titan Magic (book one). Read at your own risk.

I’ve been tagged by the awesome MR Graham. Who knew that would happen? And it’s a fun one, giving me the opportunity to post a teaser from Titan Magic: Body and Soul.

Here are the rules of The “Look” Challenge: “Take your current manuscript and find the first instance of the word “look”. Then post the surrounding paragraphs as an excerpt of the book on your blog. Lastly, tag five more blogging authors who you think would be a good choice for the game.”

And if you’re reading this and you’re currently working on a novel, I tag you! Because that’s how I roll.

Okay. Here’s my excerpt:

Marcus planted his hands on his hips and stood over Kaspar like a menacing specter. “Last question,” he said. “How many of these books have you read?”

Kaspar couldn’t answer, not because he didn’t want to, but because he didn’t know. He hadn’t kept count. The truth was, at any given time, Kaspar was connected by invisible threads of paper to hundreds of books in The Lost Library. And he read them all at once, usually more than once. The truth was Kaspar had come very close to memorizing more than he could count. He took a deep breath and prepared to answer with a gesture—one that both Marcus and William would be able to understand, one that would bring Kaspar another step closer to meeting the Titan and to his own annihilation.

With a tug, he pulled every book in sight from its place on the shelves. The sudden music of a million fluttering pages, of hundreds of spines hitting the ground punctuated the gesture beautifully. William’s mouth fell open in silent horror, but Marcus only gazed down at Kaspar with a look of deep resignation.

Kaspar allowed silence to penetrate his labyrinthine home. Then he replaced every book at once. And it was leaves in a forest, the sound that second gesture produced. It was a whirling storm of information.

“It seems our little wooden prince is a prodigy,” Marcus said. “But I think the most telling part of this story is that he felt the need to keep it from us until now. He’s exerting his independence; he has been since the very beginning.” Marcus pushed the stacks of William’s books aside and leaned over, palms to the desk, until he was looking his master right in the eye. “And you’ve been helping him.”

On Anchor Characters

In my last post I mentioned anchor characters, but then I realized it was a thing I kind of made up, and I hadn’t really rambled on about it yet. Such a wasted opportunity. I am so prepared to remedy that.

So what is an anchor character? Well, if you’re like me and have a snow-pea sized attention span, an anchor character is any character that anchors you to the story. For me it’s usually an anti-hero, a flawed and funny protagonist, or a romantic antagonist. Mystery is the all-important element, I’ve found. The right amount of mystery drives me crazy with curiosity, and I’ll read through any amount of descriptive world-building or random essay chapters (ahem, Victor Hugo) just to learn more about one person. I’ve tried to explain to those who don’t understand that what Lord of the Rings lacked for me was an anchor character. I might have read it otherwise. I might have even loved it. As it was, I couldn’t even get halfway through.

My first anchor character was so precious to me, I actually locked him in a hope chest to keep him safe. When we’re children, we’re pretty sure losing whatever our favorite thing is means we will never ever see it again. And I was most afraid of losing a tall, whimsical man called Uncle Morris. Uncle Morris was a secondary character in Silvia Cassedy’s Behind the Attic Wall, which was the favorite book of my childhood self. If you asked me what I loved about that book, even in those days, my answer would have been the characters. All of them. But the cake-taker, without a doubt, was Uncle Morris.

After Uncle Morris, I fell in love with characters like Gaston Leroux’s poor phantom Erik (me and a billion other girls, right?), Captain James Hook (he’s so damned prim), The White Witch (anyone who doesn’t love her is just wrong), Severus Snape (best dark horse I ever rooted for), and Victor Hugo’s tortured priest Dom Claude Frollo (more on that later). Most of characters I love are antagonists (because of the mystery, y’all). And I love them still.

When writing, of course, my favorite character has to shift for every scene. If I didn’t adore something about each of them, I wouldn’t be able to put them to paper. But as a reader, I usually find my anchor, and I am loyal to the bitter end.

What’s in a Name? Besides Letters I Mean.

I find it fascinating how some characters influence their names, and even more so, how a name will often influence the character. I thought it might be fun to examine how the nine characters in Titan Magic got their names, and what those names did for them. I’ll divide them by family and dive right in, starting with the heads of the households, as a matter of due respect.

The Lavoie Family

Charlotte‘s first name happened because a voice actor for an animated film (a billion points if you can guess which one) pronounced the name in a way that had me roaring every time. The film was supposed to be romantic and tragic, but I just couldn’t help laughing every time Charlotte’s love interest said her name… and he said it often. So Charlotte Lavoie was born. She never fails to laugh in the face of tragedy, and I still love her name.

I decided on Madeleine‘s name while eating madeleines. They are so good. So, so good. This has little to do with the character herself, but it is a funny way to come by a name.

Oh, Marcus… “The brother” was not terribly complex when he began. He was only there to prevent Maddy from being an only child. I knew he was a responsible kid with a real mean streak, but I had no idea what to name him. I happened to bike right past a building called Marcus Pavilion just as I was mulling it over. He’s been Marcus ever since, and as it turns out, he plays a MUCH more vital role than I originally intended. As soon as he had a name, he just kind of… took over. Then he totally yelled at me for not having realized he was a main character right away (true story).

The Mahler Family

Father Androcles was named for Androcles of “Androcles and the Lion” fame. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, you should find out! Seriously! You’ve heard the fable before; you just don’t remember. His I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine attitude was part of where he got his name.

Duke Eli Mahler took his name from a Decemberists song called “Eli the Barrow Boy”. I just love that name. As soon as I heard it, I knew it was perfect for the ignoble duke. I even included a scene in which Eli utilizes a wheelbarrow because I just didn’t see him as the type of guy who would forget his own roots.

James got his name from one of the greatest antagonists in all of children’s literature: Captain James (Jas) Hook. Anyone who knows me knows my enormous esteem for J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. It is one of the loveliest, most imaginative pieces ever written. I gave Jas Captain Hook’s name in an attempt to honor them both. And because I like the sound of it. That, too.

The Others

William (Squeezable) Taylor took his name from a friend who jokingly asked me to name a character after him, and then asked me to make that character a pimp. I complied, sort of. Then Will took over and shocked me in much the same way Marcus had. I just love it when they do that.

The Queen of Silence’s given name, Désirée, was inspired by the name of Titan Magic‘s first reader, who gave me the encouragement I needed to finish the story when it was being the trouble-maker it often was.

And finally, Kaspar… I just love the name, and The Other Lamm says I’m not allowed to use it for my future children (you can commence yelling at him, now). As a character, Kaspar has a special place in my heart, and I hope you’re just a little curious about him because you’ll be seeing much more of him in book two!

It’s Sylvia Cassedy All Over the Place

This week, I was able to participate in a special event over at Esther’s Ever After. Digitally speaking, I’m the first booth on your right. I got to write a nostalgic post about my favorite childhood book, and Brenna was kind enough to host a giveaway for one paperback copy of Titan Magic. It’s free! And international! I’m not entirely sure how long the contest will last, so if you’re interested, head on over, read about my childhood eccentricities, laugh at my inability to spell the author’s name, and enter to win!

Ester's Ever After