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Frank Beddor
By: 
Frank Beddor
January 17, 2024

ALL THINGS ALICE: INTERVIEW WITH SARA ELLA

As an amateur scholar and die-hard enthusiast of everything to do with Alice in Wonderland, I have launched a podcast that takes on Alice’s everlasting influence on pop culture. As an author who draws on Lewis Carroll’s iconic masterpiece for my Looking Glass Wars universe, I’m well acquainted with the process of dipping into Wonderland for inspiration.

The journey has brought me into contact with a fantastic community of artists and creators from all walks of life—and this podcast will be the platform where we come together to answer the fascinating question: “What is it about Alice?”

For this episode, it was my great pleasure to have Sara Ella join me as my guest on this episode! Read on to explore our conversation and check out the whole series on your favorite podcasting platform to listen to the full interview.

Mixed graphic including logo for "All Things Alice" podcast, the covers of "The Wonderland Trials," "The Looking Glass Illusion," and "Coral", and an image of author Sara Ella.

Frank Beddor 
You’re the first author that I’ve spoken with that has also worked in Wonderland. Reading your book and seeing all these parallels to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as well as some of the things that I ripped off of was delightful. I’m very excited to chat with you today.

Sara Ella 
I’m so honored. I’ve been a fan of yours for years. Ages ago, my library introduced me to The Looking Glass Wars and I was so excited because I was so drawn to anything Alice so I’m just really excited to be here. Thank you for having me. 

FB
I’m talking with Sara Ella, the writer of the Curious Realities series. Why do you think Alice has lasted for so long? You’ve been a longtime fan so I’m curious if you’ve identified some of the specifics of what attracts us to Alice decade after decade.

SE
I think in general, children’s stories seem to last the test of time. My librarian once told me that children’s stories are the ones that last because they resonate with us as children, but they also resonate with us as adults. For Alice, her story is one that we all relate to. We all want to escape. We all want to avoid growing up and adulthood. But her story is so interesting because she doesn’t want adulthood, she wants nonsense, she wants to stay a little girl and be silly. Then when she’s put in the world that she’s imagined for herself, she doesn’t want to be there. She can’t really be satisfied. Especially with portal stories, where someone portals into another world, that’s something that we all want. We all want to escape. That’s why we read. That’s why we love film. That little bit of time of escape is something that we can all relate to and just the reminder of imagination and what a huge role that that plays as well.

FB
I’m glad you brought that up because I was very jealous of the Wonder gene idea. I thought it was very clever. I also thought it was similar thematically to what I was playing with with imagination. I often had people asking me, “Where did this idea come from?” I would say, “Well, it popped into my imagination.” Then I thought imagination can be a real power for people to think about what their life can be. Then when I was reading your book I came across the Wonder gene, which gives you magical abilities. Imagination, curiosity, and wonder are all very much childhood expressions that we lose or it starts to fade for some of us as adults. I often want to get back to that and being a writer, you have to live in that space of curiosity and wonder and imagination. I think what you did with the Wonder gene is very specific, but yet it’s in a grander thematic way. Can you talk about how you use wonder, curiosity, and imagination in your work?

Author Sara Ella holding a jar full of lights.

SE
I’m a huge Disney person. I love to go to the parks and what Walt Disney did in making Disneyland and Disney World so different from other theme parks. This idea of when you’re in a certain land, you can’t see the other land, and there are certain ways that Disneyland was built so you can’t see the outside world. I really love that idea of being fully immersed. So I thought how can I do this with Alice? I wanted to do something different with how she gets into Wonderland. How can I make this my own? How can I make this fit into this dystopian world I’ve created? And imagination plays a part in it. And I think there’s always that question of whether is Alice dreaming. Does she really experience this? We kind of see that in The Looking Glass Wars where Lewis Carroll has written this story and Alice is just so mad. “This is my history and you are pretending it’s some silly children’s story.” There’s always that question for the reader, is this real? 

That’s what I wanted to explore. What does it mean for something to be real? Does it mean that it has to physically be there? Is it something that we see in our mind? Is it something we imagine? Is it something we believe in? All of those things culminated in the idea of the Wonder gene and this idea of virtual visual reality that Wonders have created for themselves. I love stories like Ready Player One or Warcross by Marie Lu and the idea of virtual reality. Even in Harry Potter, we see Dumbledore tell Harry just because it’s inside your head, why does that mean it should be any less real? I think that’s what’s so fun about Alice. As much as we, as authors, try to convince our readers the story is real, there’s always that question about if Alice really experienced this. Or was she imagining it the whole time? But also, if she was, why should that make it any less real?

FB
You did a great job of creating those two realities within one overall reality that we all relate to. I also thought it was clever to have the Queen of England be the unimaginative, normal person, and then the Queen of Hearts be the real powerhouse in the underground or parallel. 

Let’s start with the two worlds and the logic that you came up with so we could all suspend our disbelief. How much did you think about that? The world creation you’ve done is time-consuming and it has to be right otherwise it’s problematic for the reader.

SE
I’m a discovery writer. The most frustrating part of the writing process for me is figuring out the logic behind my magic system and trying to make it all fit and work. I always see the characters very clearly in my mind and can kind of follow their storyline. But making sure the magic system makes sense is something I struggle with. With creating Wonderland on top of England or London, I played off the idea of what can Wonders see that those without the Wonder gene can’t see. I was inspired a lot by different stories. Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven, for example, where he has two children who go to this magical preserve and they can’t see any of these magical creatures until they drink this special fairy milk. So it’s playing around the idea about what is unseen to us until we have some kind of special ability or special understanding or special knowledge. We see it in Harry Potter where the muggles don’t see a lot of the things going on in the wizarding world and until Harry’s eyes are opened to it, he doesn’t see it either. I guess it would be like the Chosen One trope. There are certain tropes that are repeated but I think we’re so drawn to repeat those tropes because we all want to be the Chosen One, we all want to be Alice. We want to be the ones who can see into the special world of Wonderland. Then I ended up adding what I call a pinch of science fiction because, in a sense, all science fiction is somewhat grounded in fantasy, just at different levels. We see that with Star Wars. So I thought, how can I make up my own science about how the superheroes come to be? Why are superheroes able to do what they do? In my mind, Alice is a kind of superhero. Those with the Wonder gene are able to see something that others cannot see. So I played off that and it just takes a lot of rewriting and good editors to make sure it all comes together.

The Wonderland Trials" and "The Looking Glass Illusion" books by Sara Ella on a white and blue blanket surrounded by playing cards and chess pieces.

FB
When you’re working on a movie, you’re always looking for some sort of IP that’s recognizable. Some of the most successful movies are stories familiar to people but told in unfamiliar ways. That is certainly what you’ve accomplished with the Curious Realities series. You did a reimagining of The Little Mermaid as well. Why do you think familiar stories told in unfamiliar ways constantly attract people?

SE
I think we’re drawn to things that are familiar, we’re drawn to things that are nostalgic to us. It’s why I never tire of hearing Cinderella. I never, ever tire of hearing about the girl who overcame cruelty and stayed kind through it all. That’s something that resonates very deeply with me. It’s something I’m really drawn to. We’re all inspired by something. Whether we’re retelling a familiar tale or we’re reimagining it or we’re coming up with something totally new, we’re still going to draw from different inspirations. I think there’s that nostalgia aspect. Then it resonates with people who are drawn to anything and everything Alice in Wonderland, but then we’re also introducing readers who maybe would never bother to pick up the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I love that aspect, too, of inviting a new reader in and they might now be introduced to other versions of Wonderland or to the original, and be drawn to that. So I think on both sides, you have those who are looking for something new and they really want to like these classic stories, or these fairy tales, but they’ve just never resonated with them. Then finding that version of the story that finally connects with them is a really fun challenge. 

FB
Because you’re writing for a contemporary audience, you’re talking about contemporary themes, and you want to bring people in. You’ve done that with The Wonderland Trials, the first book in the Curious Realities series. But yet in terms of one of the games in the book, the first game Solitary, you have one of Lewis Carroll’s quotes. “Who in the world am I?” That magically is going to relate to my 15-year-old daughter and what she’s going through, what your kids are going to go through as they get older and so you want to cocoon that idea around a story that lets them explore and have adventure. So with the public domain and familiar stories told in an unfamiliar way you’re really trying to connect with a contemporary audience. And if they discover Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because of it, you’re gonna make a lot of librarians happy.

SE
I 100% agree with that. I also have a 15-year-old daughter, and as teenagers, they’re trying to figure out who they are. That’s why I love writing about teens and for teens. But at the same time, so much of my audience is adults. So I think that teenage period of figuring out who you are and what you want and what you want to do just continues to resonate with us, no matter how old we get. 

FB
I always ask my guests to choose a character from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to describe their personality and their aspirations. Who would you dress up as for Halloween or as cosplay? I have a feeling I know who you would choose. 

SE
I feel like my answer is very cliche and boring. But as I was friends with Alice, when I worked for the Disney parks, I would choose Alice. I love how she’s walking around in this world that she created for herself. Yet she’s going around, trying to tell people they’re not taking her seriously enough, everybody needs to be more serious. Stop with the nonsense. That just really resonates. It’s kind of the dynamic of my husband and I’s relationship, which is very similar to Alice and Chess in The Wonderland Trials. He’s always trying to lighten the mood. She’s always trying to get him to be more serious. It’s a fun kind of dynamic. So it might be a boring, typical answer, but I would definitely be Alice.

Author Sara Ella at Disneyland holding up a copy of her book, "The Wonderland Trials" next to an actress portraying Alice from Disney's 1951 film "Alice in Wonderland".

FB
Interestingly enough, most of the time people pick some other character so I always find it interesting when someone picks Alice. What I also find curious is that in your book, Alice is really edgy. She’s street-smart. She’s a card shark. She’s got great retorts. I identify with Alice or when people ask me about my books and which character I enjoyed writing most I always say Alice. Her journey is so interesting and writing a book is like going on an adventure in Wonderland. It’s nonsensical at times. It was certainly nonsensical for me to even take on writing my first book. But of course, there has to be a little Mad Hatter, just to be in this business. But I love your character of Alice and her nickname is Ace, which is really appropriate. By the way, all of the references to cards in the design of the book, everything about the book from a production standpoint is spectacular. It’s so well done. Kudos to your team.

SE
Thank you. I have a really great team. I was really grateful to work with a cover designer who took my sad little concept that I created and turned it into the cover because the cover is probably my favorite cover that I’ve ever had. 

FB
The covers for both the first book and the second one, The Looking Glass Illusion, are great.

You said earlier that your process is discovering the story as you write. Can you talk a little bit about that? Have you ever written yourself into a corner and gone, “Man, I gotta start all over again.”

SE
Yes, but after six books, I’m working on my seventh now, I have learned to stop fighting that process. When I first started I thought I was doing it wrong and I needed to outline. The one book I outlined was Coral, which is my reimagining of The Little Mermaid, and I had to rewrite that book three times. This is why I tell all writers just because something works for somebody else doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. We’re all creative in different ways and our brains work in different ways. So if you feel like you’re inside a box with outlining, try not outlining. I really love Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody, which is based on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! As somebody who’s a very visual movie person, the beats that she puts together work for me. I follow those beats as a guideline, “I’m at this percentage of the book, where do I need to go next?” I use it as my map, my GPS. Jessica Brody has a really great course on her Writing Mastery Academy about fast drafting and how her process works for that. I realized this is what I’ve been doing. But she explains it and organizes it in a way that even though there’s a kind of madness to it, there’s still a method. It’s a lot of note-taking, just keeping track of and moving the story forward, getting that first draft down. I have comments in the margins, “Change this character to a female, make sure that you change this character’s personality.” It’s like I’m editing as I’m writing it, and I’m seeing the problems come out. But then I just write forward from that point, however, I’m going to end up changing the beginning.

FB
We’re very similar in that way. Your writing is very visual. Certainly, that happened for me, because that’s the medium I was working in when I started writing The Looking Glass Wars. Also, I had to rewrite it three or four times as well. Then once my editor came on it was like, “Oh, my God, I have a lot of problems to fix.” But once you get the first book under your belt, you find your own rhythm. What you just described makes perfect sense and everybody does things differently. Also, your talent for prose is clear. It’s really beautiful writing. No wonder you have so many books under your belt. 

SE
Thank you so much.

FB
Let’s talk about promoting your book. You live in Arizona, right?

SE
Yes, I’m about 20 minutes north of Phoenix.

FB
Did you ever go to the Comic-Con there?

SE
Not yet, but I’m hoping to be able to go this year. It’s called Phoenix Fan Fusion now, but I am hoping to be able to go. I have connected with a local bookstore and I have several author friends who go.

FB
I went to Comic-Con in San Diego and I had only published in the UK. When I was in the UK, I went to a school and one of the kids was upset because I didn’t write the whole story of Hatter Madigan’s 13 years and he wanted me to go home and finish the book. And on the plane ride home, I thought maybe I could do a comic book about those 13 years. So I did a comic and then I went to San Diego Comic-Con and it turns out that people were interested in the comic because of the artist. But when they read the comic and realized there was a novel attached to it, they started buying the British edition of the novel on Amazon. And what I’ve realized is I sold more novels at Comic-Con than I did comic books. The people who go are huge readers, they’re early adaptors, and they want to get the word out. It’s a great place to press the flesh and sell books, whether you get a dealer’s table which is for folks like us or you go in with a publisher and you’re at their table.

SE
I definitely want to and now you’ve motivated me to try even harder to be able to get there.

FB
Have you done anything with Changing Hands Bookstore?

Author Sara Ella signing books at a table.

SE
Yes, they have been so fantastic to work with. They have collaborated with me to do pre-orders, so readers who pre-order my books are able to get signed and personalized copies along with a little envelope of pre-order goodies. They have just been fantastic. They’ve done my launch parties for the past three books and I will continue to go back there because they have a huge YA audience.

FB
They’ve cultivated the best audience. I’ve done a number of events with Changing Hands and they’re also great at setting up school events. Have you done many school visits?

SE
I’ve only done a couple of school visits. But I’d like to eventually do more so I’ve been really grateful to be connected with several authors in the area and keep my ear to the ground for different invites and opportunities that come up. 

FB
The thing about Arizona is the schools are very large. You can go into some of those schools, and Changing Hands set this up for me, where there’d be 30 6th graders, 30 7th graders, 30 8th graders and you do three presentations. Then Changing Hands or any other bookstore will sell the books on-site and you get pre-orders or post-orders. That was one of the great ways to build out that YA audience. You have such a unique and interesting story because of your time at Disney and your interest in fairy tales that I think you could really connect with those kids.

SE
I always say it’s easier to speak in front of adults than children because you really have to win children over. But I do love public speaking. I taught a creative writing class last year to teenagers at our homeschool group. The year started with them saying nothing and acting like they didn’t want to be there but as the year progressed, I couldn’t get them to stop talking. I feel like you have to earn that from kids. That’s what I really love about speaking in front of teens and children, if you have them engaged and laughing and asking questions, you’ve earned it. So I definitely would love more opportunities to speak at schools. I had the opportunity to speak at the Arizona State University writing summer camp a couple of years in a row and that was a smaller group but also a lot of fun. 

FB
Do you do much with advanced reader copies when finalizing your books?

SE
With my debut novel, Unblemished, I did work with several beta readers who were giving me feedback before I even submitted it to publishers. Now that I’m writing on contract and writing on deadline, I usually form a kind of street team. They’re the ones who get the advance copies and they get to submit reviews early so we can build that hype. Though, I always ask them please, before the release, only have spoiler-free reviews.

As far as feedback goes at this point in my career, it mostly comes from Nadine Brandes, my best friend, and a fellow author, and then just working with my editors. I’ll ask my 15-year-old daughter things because I sometimes date myself with certain references. I’m also an editor and I was editing a story for a client the other day and there was a reference to Smokey the Bear. So I asked my teenage daughter, “Do you know who Smokey the Bear is?” She said she did. So that’s how I gauge if I’m dating myself. But as far as feedback goes with beta readers, most of those advanced copies are really just going to those early readers who are getting the word out. But at that point, nothing in the novel can be changed.

Cover of "Unblemished" by author Sara Ella.
Cover of "Unraveling" by author Sara Ella.
Cover of "Unbreakable" by author Sara Ella.

FB
In terms of reviews as it relates to Alice in Wonderland and the British sensibility versus an American taking it on, I got a lot of blowback. “What’s this Yank doing?” I noticed a lot of the reviews were not always that kind. It felt sort of personal because I was an American. I was curious if you had any feedback about taking on this classic.

SE
You’re always going to have both sides of the coin with a retelling. Whenever I’m asked by a new writer, “What are your tips for writing a retelling?” I always say, “You can’t please everyone.” You’re gonna have your readers who expect it to be exactly like the original and they’re very protective of that story so if you get something wrong, or if you change something in a way they don’t like, they’re going to come after you. Particularly, when you’re researching another culture or another place you’re not from, you want to get it right. But there are inevitably things that you’re going to get wrong. On the one hand, I’ve had people say, “Wow, I lived in England for three years and this is so authentic and accurate. I loved it.” Then I’ve had other people who have reviewed it and said that everything was very forced and you can tell I know nothing about England or British culture.

FB
I think I have that exact same review.

SE
I think you have to expect that your story is not going to be for everyone. You’re going to research to the best of your ability but we’re also writing fiction. Sometimes our work is based on a part of our reality. But in the end, you’re going to take certain liberties and your book is not going to be for every reader. I don’t read reviews unless they’re sent to me. Sometimes I stumble across one or two I wish I hadn’t stumbled across. But for the most part, I find that either way, if I’m reading reviews that are building the book up, I’m gonna get a big head about it. If I’m reading reviews that are tearing the book down, I’m going to doubt the book. There’s nothing I can do about it because I can’t change it. So I just try to stay down the middle of the road. If someone tags me in a review, I’ll read it and I’ll thank them for it but for the most part, I always tell writers, that if reviews are affecting you one way or another to the point where it’s affecting your writing, and it’s changing the way you think about your own story, then it’s probably best to try and stay away from reviews altogether.

FB
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the sequel? My last two books, Seeing Red and ArchEnemy, were really a continuation. It really upset people. They were pissed off because it didn’t have that definitive ending like The Looking Glass Wars and it was a long time before ArchEnemy came out. If I had to do it over again, I would have had a more satisfying ending to the second book. But of course, I was inexperienced so I didn’t really realize that. So tell me about the ending of The Wonderland Trials and how you constructed The Looking-Glass Illusion. What’s the transition?

SE
The Looking-Glass Illusion is a continuation. So for those who have not read The Wonderland Trials, now would be the time to fast-forward through this part of the podcast. But The Wonderland Trials ends with Alison and her team, Team Heart, leaving the third trial behind and entering the fourth trial, which is the Queen’s Trial, the Heart Trial, and they don’t quite know what to expect. The entire premise of The Looking-Glass Illusion is where you have The Wonderland Trials which has three different trials, the entire second book is set in the Heart Trial. For those familiar with Lewis Carroll’s second story of Alice, Through the Looking-Glass, the Heart Trial is all on a chessboard and it’s all about Alice trying to get to the eighth square. I went into this not knowing how to play chess. So how am I supposed to write a book that’s based on the game of chess? That’s where my friend Janelle came in. She sat down with me and taught me the basics of how to play. So the entire story of The Looking-Glass Illusion is trying to defeat the Heart Trial, but they’re also trying to find what’s real and what has happened to the real Wonderland. As Alice and her team learned in The Wonderland Trials, what they’re seeing is not necessarily what the real Wonderland is meant to be and is an illusion that they believe the Queen of Hearts has created. So if they defeat the Heart Trial, they believe they can find the real Wonderland. So that’s the second book and I had a lot of fun figuring out how chess played into it. I had a lot of fun with some of the nonsense words. Okay, this is a nonsense word, Lewis Carroll, but how does it fit into my world? I had a lot of fun with that and the Jabberwocky and really the whole theme is believing in the impossible, but also facing your fears. 

FB
I really like that, believing in the impossible. Do you have a favorite iteration of Alice? I’m assuming the Disney movie is one of your favorites because you worked there. But is there a song or another movie that you love?

SE
I listened to “Welcome to Wonderland” by Anson Seabra a lot when I was writing The Wonderland Trials. It’s kind of a melancholy song but obviously, if you’re writing Alice, you’re thinking of Alice, but it’s really just a song for people. I really love the lyrics. One of my favorite reimaginings of Alice on screen has got to be what the TV show Once Upon a Time did with Mad Hatter’s character, who’s named Jefferson Hatter in the show. He’s a portal jumper and the evil Queen Regina wants to use him for this and he spirals into madness. Because there’s always the question, how did the Mad Hatter become mad? There’s obviously the history behind how hats were made but in the show, he’s so desperate to get back to his daughter that he continues trying to make a portal-jumping hat and he spirals. So I love what Once Upon a Time did with that and I love what they did overall meshing and melding the different fairy tales. That was a lot of fun. It remains one of my favorite on-screen retellings of Alice, particularly Hatter’s story.

FB
Can you tease us with a retelling that you’re thinking about? Mine is Treasure Island. There’s got to be a way to do Treasure Island.

SE
I would read that book. Treasure Planet is one of my all-time favorite underrated Disney movies. I am contracted for a four-book series with my publisher and each book is going to be a retelling paired with a literary classic. I cannot divulge specifically the one I’m working on now which releases in 2025 or my marketing director might have off with your head. But I will say that for anybody who’s followed me, you can find me on Instagram at @saraellawrites. I’ve been dropping lots of clues to the fairytale that I’ve wanted to work on for many, many years to come. It’s a fairy tale that has resonated with me and the book that I’ve chosen to mash it up with is one of my favorite stories from literature. But it’s also one of my favorite films and the film is very different from the book. But I feel that this particular fairy tale in this particular story from classic literature fits very well together. So if you want to go clue hunting, if you’ve read The Wonderland Trials you know I love clues and games, you can scour my Instagram to see the clues that I’ve dropped for what I’m working on next.

FB
Okay, listeners, I need you to do that and message me what you think it is. I definitely want to follow up and have you on the show again and hear all about it because that is an excellent, tease for your upcoming book. It’s really been a pleasure to have you on the show and talk about all things Alice and in particular, your really successful, beautifully written books. 

SE
Thank you so much for having me, Frank. When I received your email to be on the show, I thought, “Is this real or am I being scammed?” So thank you for having me on. I’ve been a follower of yours for years. Love your books. It was really an honor to get to chat with you today.

FB
Thank you very much. Have a great day. 


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