Kath here. We love it when our contributors have new releases to squee about. Today, valued contributor Sophie Masson’s latest YA mystery, THE UNDERSTUDY’S REVENGE, releases Feb. 1 by Scholastic. Though it’s currently only available in Australia, it could be released in other markets soon! In the meantime, check out the book trailer HERE on Sophie’s YouTube channel, and enjoy our Take 5 with Sophie Masson.
1. What is the premise of your new book?
London, 1860: When a dashing, mysterious young South African named Oliver Parry, walks into the King’s Company’s rehearsal rooms to audition for an understudy’s role in Hamlet, Millie Osborne, daughter of the company’s production manager, is mightily intrigued. Why is Oliver so secretive? What is his purpose in visiting the ill-famed Seven Dials? What is his true interest in the Company? When Millie and her friend Seth decide to investigate, they start to uncover a dangerous tale of betrayal, lies, revenge–and the long, deadly shadows of a past that still has the power to throw them all into the very greatest danger..
2. What would you like people to know about in this story?
The Understudy’s Revenge was inspired by many things-first of all Hamlet, itself of course, but also the wonderful 19th century thriller, The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins; by my interest in the teeming, busy, squalid and amazing London of Charles Dickens, especially as described in his own books, short stories and articles, like ‘Sketches by Boz’; and as well, my lifelong fascination with the theatre. From the age of about six or seven I went to after-school drama classes which were held in the popular little theatre down the end of our street in Sydney and proudly took part in all their end-of-year productions, I remember particularly being part of one pageant focussed around AA Milne’s series of poems, ‘When We Were Very Young.’ (I can still recite many of those by heart!) . Later, I put up my hand for every school production, and plunged into writing my own plays, which I produced and directed for home performances, attended by my resigned and amused parents, and performed, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes willingly, by my small tribe of siblings.
The drama bug persisted into high school but somehow, somewhere around the age of 14, I started losing interest in acting and became much more focussed on writing, my other great love. But though I lost the urge to actually tread the boards, my fascination for drama didn’t go away, far from it. Not only did I continue to write plays and to practise writing dialogue for novels and short stories that would have the immediacy of a play, I also read many novels set in the theatre world-and of course a great many plays, some for school, but many for the sheer pleasure of it, and across many genres.
3. What problems and challenges do your characters have to overcome in this story?
My characters have to overcome many challenges–not only discovering the truth, but also knowing what to do with it when they finally do–because it’s not quite what they expect! And along the way they have to brave many dangers, a good many misunderstandings, not only about other people, but each other as well. They have to learn what’s really important to them.
4. What unique challenges did this story present you, if any?
Writing the book was a wonderful experience, in many ways. The story pretty much ‘wrote itself’ -that amazing state when you know things are going to ‘click in’ somehow, to work, and the characters of Millie and Seth and Oliver and the others were so determined and strong-willed that all I had to do, mostly, was to follow their lead! But it was also a difficult experience, because while I wanted to recreate Dickensian London with as much authenticity as I could, I did not want to overwhelm the reader with information. I wanted a warm, vivid world, a sense of the time, without sacrificing pace or character. Sometimes I had to sacrifice bits I loved-settings lovingly described-because they made things too slow. But equally I was determined that you’d get a real sense of atmosphere, so sections like the chapters in Seven Dials and Hampstead had to be written and rewritten several times! I also had a bit of trouble with Oliver’s back-story, at the end, writing it originally as a big full narrative-but it didn’t work, somehow, it was too long and not immediate enough. An inspired suggestion by my wonderful editor to instead put in extracts from his diary, beautifully solved that one!
5. What has been the most rewarding aspect of this book?
One of the things I most love about writing historical novels is doing the research. It’s a great excuse to wallow in all kinds of fun things! For this book, I not only read (and re-read)the excellent literature of the time-particularly Collins, Dickens, and Charlotte Bronte-but I also picked up a lot of interesting information about the London of the period-from the theatre world to slang to crime to psychic seances and lots more. And most exciting of all, I actually found on the Internet, and bought, some actual, original 1860 bound copies of Charles Dickens’ magazine, All the Year Round, in which The Woman in White was first serialised. These produced a good deal of fun information and bits and pieces, as well as giving me a really spooky and exciting sense of really being close to the time!