Ashley Schumacher has made a career out of making me cry. As a writer, she is a master at tugging on her readers’ heartstrings. Her books often deal with grief in such a sensitive and mature way. She also brings such whimsy to dark stories and makes them light. Her newest novel is no exception.
The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway picks up one year after Maddie lost her mom. The Hathaways have always worked the Renaissance faire circuit, meaning they live out of a trailer, selling jewelry from faire to faire. Since her mom’s death, Maddie has spent less time engaging with the world and more time documenting it. But when they arrive at Maddie’s mom’s favorite faire, she finds it completely changed—and that’s harder to deal with than she expected. And she also makes a new friend she didn’t expect. Lute-playing, nerdy Arthur is exactly what Maddies doesn’t need right now… or so she thinks.
Editor’s Note: Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ashley, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I have loved every one of your books, and honestly, I think this might be my favorite one yet. I absolutely LOVE Renaissance fairs, so I was so excited about the setting of this book. I’d love to know, What was your first Renaissance Fair experience?
Funnily enough, I didn’t know this until I was telling my family about this book, but my great grandad enjoyed Renaissance faires. He was a big history buff, but I didn’t know that this was his passion, and now I wish I had a time machine to go back and talk to him. To be honest, I didn’t get to go to a lot of Ren faires until I was in college, and by a lot, I mean any. I grew up with really Conservative parents who had to work a lot to provide for us, so a Ren faire wasn’t in the cards for how I was raised. I don’t think they would’ve had anything against it, but being raised in such a Conservative environment, there’s always that dubiousness around magic and anything medieval. So college and onward, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
But we do have a Medieval Times in Dallas, TX and the first time I went to that, I was maybe nine and just had the joy of getting to step back in time. If you are at all raised on that kind of fairy tale, seeing the horses and the knights is just amazing and even now at Ren fairies my favorite thing is the joust. It boggles my mind that they are real professional humans whose job it is year round to travel around and joust.
What inspired you to set this particular story in a Renaissance Fair?
There were a couple things. One of my original ideas, a nugget, for the story was the coin that Maddie’s parents have that they flip to make decisions. I actually have one that I bought at a Ren faire, so I’ve kept it on my desk because I’m obsessed with it. It’s got a lion and a king, so I put it in the book. So I thought of the coin and them flipping it and I kind of knew the end scene before anything else.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Inception. I’ve only seen it once and I don’t remember anything from it except the very end. It’s an alternate reality thing and in the final scene, you don’t know what reality you’re in. There’s a spinning top and if the top fell over, you knew you were in one reality over the other, but the top wobbles and the movie ends, so you don’t know if there is a happy ending or not. So I took the coin flip and worked back from there.
I knew that I wanted her to be mobile. I didn’t want her to have a traditional high school setting, a stationary existence. I’m just fascinated by that—I’m very stationary in my daily life. I live about 15 miles from where I was born, so I’m fascinated by people who are rootless in that way and how they root themselves without a place. Before I made this a Ren faire book, I toyed around with the idea of making it a Cirque du Soleil book because I made the mistake of watching a documentary about Cirque du Soleil people. So the Ren faire setting conveniently worked but was also so fun. I think of Ren faires as so supportive and it felt like a safe place to explore my first truly plus size character. I wanted a really kind story for that.
Your characters always go on such rich emotional journeys. I admire that about your work. How do you plan out the emotional arcs for your characters?
For the emotional arcs, and I’m dreadfully sorry that this won’t be very helpful, but the emotional arc is the easiest part for me and the plot to support it is the hardest. Since my emotional arcs often deal with grief, I want my stories of grief to bend towards hope, especially since I write for teens. I want the reader to be able to see light through the trees.
I work backwards a lot, so if I know where they are going to end up, I can make their lives as terrible as I want, knowing that I’m going to resolve that last note. The hardest part is when I have two points of view. There’s something really relieving about only doing one POV because Arthur is a fully formed character with his own emotional arc, but it doesn’t have to be supported by the plot because he’s technically not the main character. He thinks he is. He kind of is, in my heart, but he’s not.
I work backward from the character’s wound. Even though I usually do not have the plot completely worked out, I have a pretty good idea of what that wound is going in.
I am always looking for new craft books to read. What are some craft books that you love?
I swear by Beth Revis’s Paper Hearts workbooks. They’re $10 on Amazon and it guides you through everything and gives her deadlines. I also love her Paper Hearts writing advice books. I have Story Genius and all the Save the Cat books. Personally, I appreciate short craft books. I also have Romancing the Beat, which is so short and lovely.
I’m one of those adults who read too much growing up, if there is such a thing, so if you grew up reading and are reading widely as an adult, you have an innate sense of structure, so I like things that are condensed.
As a fan of fantasy, I love how you bring a wizard into a contemporary book. Do you think you will ever try writing fantasy? What draws you to writing contemporary?
I guess I came at it sideways. When I was a kid, I thought I wanted to write fantasy, and then I got older, and YA contemporary didn’t really exist. By the time I was 12 and13 , I was reading adult fiction because that was all there was at the time. When I got to college, I thought I was going to write literary fiction a la Donna Tartt. Then I read I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson and I was like, “this is what I want to do!” And then when I signed with my agent, I asked if I could ever write fantasy and she was fine with it. This year, I’m giving it my first honest go and we’ll see if it ends up anywhere, but I’m really excited! I think I’m ready to tackle it now.
Last time I interviewed you, I asked what your top top five Disney movies are and you said that your list changes often. What are your top five Disney movies right now?
I don’t remember what I answered, so these may be the same or different. Beauty and the Beast is an evergreen for me. Peter Pan always ranks pretty high. My kid is currently really into Turning Red, which I loved when it first came out. My kid burned Encanto into the ground for me. I’m always a sucker for the princesses and we’ve been planning a trip to Scotland, so I’m loving Brave. And then Up has to be on there. I love Doug. You read Amelia Unabridged, so you know my penchant for dumb dogs.
Featured images courtesy of Wednesday Books