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Take Five: Heather Webb and The Phantom’s Apprentice

Today we welcome resident WU oracle and Francophile Heather Webb to talk about her newest novel, The Phantom’s Apprentice [1]. Her latest page turner will be available for your reading pleasure on February 6,2018.

Heather Webb is the international bestselling author of historical novels Becoming Josephine, Rodin’s Lover, Last Christmas in Paris, and the anthology Fall of Poppies, which have been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, France Magazine and more, as well as received national starred reviews. In 2015, Rodin’s Lover was selected as a Goodreads Top Pick. To date, Heather’s novels have sold in multiple countries worldwide. She is also a professional freelance editor, foodie, and travel fiend, and lives in New England with her family and one feisty rabbit.

“Webb combines music and magic seamlessly in The Phantom’s Apprentice, weaving glittering new threads into the fabric of a classic story. Romantic, suspenseful and inventive, this novel sweeps you along to its breathless conclusion.” — Greer Macallister, USA Today bestselling author of The Magician’s Lie and Girl in Disguise

The Phantom’s Apprentice will be featured on the Entertainment Weekly website in two weeks! We’re thrilled to celebrate this accomplishment with her.

Q1: What’s the premise of your new book?

My new book is a re-imagining of The Phantom of the Opera from Christine Daaé’s point of view, featuring illusionists, spiritualism, mystery, and all of the Gothic, glittering darkness of the original.

Q2: What would you like people to know about the story itself?

I’ll start by saying that it’s inspired by Gaston Leroux and Andrew Lloyd Webber, of course, but it’s also inspired by a book I love dearly—The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I wanted to transport readers to this lush and atmospheric world set in one of my favorite eras: Belle Époque France, complete with hackney cabs, gilded mirrors, crushed velvet, ghosts, and masquerade balls. Plus a dash of romance and self-discovery never hurt anything.

And now to get to more of the nitty gritty. When I reread the original novel by Gaston Leroux, I was surprised by how one-dimensional all of the female characters (well, most of the characters) are. They’re more like caricatures of a personality type. Christine is innocent and virtuous, and a sort of shrinking violet, and Carlotta is this haughty, spoiled diva whom everyone despises. I found that curious, but the stage play version demonstrates this same aspect. Today’s readers demand more than that—I know I certainly do—so I set out to give each character in the large cast new dimensions, motivations, and a secret side to them that phantom lovers have never seen before.
There were a couple of new characters that I hadn’t planned on, too, who butted their way into the narrative unexpectedly. When Delacroix showed up, I thought “who the heck is this guy and what does he want?” It led me down the spiritualism path—a prominent movement during the era upon which magicians drew for many of their “tricks”.
So yes, this is a book of not just the opera, but magic! Muahahaha!

Q3: What do your characters have to overcome in this story? What challenge do you set before them?

One of the themes in the novel is about working through grief so that one can move forward and come into a newly realized sense of self. This is true for many of the characters—Christine, Raoul, Erik, Delacroix, and even Carlotta. In Christine and Erik’s case, their grief prevents them from following the path they are meant to, and it causes them to relive their pain over and over again.
But for my protagonist, Christine, she has more to do. She must also overcome the voices in her head—the men in her life—so that she can create her own destiny. She’s always dreamed of being more than a singer…. I can’t say too much or I’ll give away the plot points and they’re rather twisty and hold a lot of surprise.

Q4: What unique challenges did this book pose for you, if any?

In writing The Phantom’s Apprentice, I have to admit, I felt quite a bit of trepidation. The original novel by Gaston Leroux is one of the most widely read in history, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage version has amassed over one billion views. (In fact, it’s the longest running show on Broadway, and just hit its thirtieth year last week.) The Gothic setting of the story, the unrequited love, the tormented characters, have engendered serious “phans”, and many of them are quite vocal about their opinions. Could I take on a project like this, reshape such a famous character and make her my own without burning down the opera?

Every step of the way I questioned myself. But the Muse insisted, so I gave Christine Daaé a voice, a more modern sense of agency, and, therefore, more relevance to today’s reader. Balancing canon of not one version, but two—the novel and play, which differ—as well as my own ideas, proved to be no easy feat. How much of the original do you incorporate? How do you balance your own creation with another that is so well loved? You could call this a major pitfall. You could also call it a wonderful challenge. It was one I knew I had to take.

Q5: What has been the most rewarding aspect of having written this book?

There are two things that have been very rewarding for me with this project. One is that most readers, so far, seem to “get” what I was aiming to do, and they appear to appreciate the writing itself on a craft level, as well as the many twists and turns I weaved into the plot. That has been immensely satisfying (and a relief!). But perhaps the best part for me, really, is that I forged on bravely and finished this book. I learned so much about writing suspense and mystery, which I’d never done before, and I also learned how to trust my inner voice, though it urged me to finish a very complicated and difficult book. I was fearful of failing. But what does it really mean to fail as a writer, I kept asking myself? To walk away from something that challenges you, I repeated over and over again. I didn’t, as much as I wanted to at times, and that feels like a real coup.

Thank you for joining us today, Heather!

To find out more about Heather Webb and her latest release, please visit here [1]

About [2]

Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between Therese Walsh [3] and Kathleen Bolton [4] in 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~50 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. In 2014, the first Writer Unboxed UnConference (part UNtraditional conference, part intensive craft event, part networking affair) [5] was held in Salem, MA. Learn more about our 2019 event, ESCAPE TO WuNDERLAND, on Eventbrite. [6] In 2016, the Writer Unboxed team published a book with Writer's Digest. AUTHOR IN PROGRESS: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What It Really Takes to Get Published [7] has been well-received by readers who seek help in overcoming the hurdles faced at every step of the novel-writing process--from setting goals, researching, and drafting to giving and receiving critiques, polishing prose, and seeking publication. James Scott Bell has said of the guide, "Nourishment for the writer's soul and motivation for the writer's heart." You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter [8], and join our thriving Facebook community [9].