All Things Alice: Interview with Jake Curtis

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 the hilarious and talented Jake Curtis join me as my guest! Read on to explore our conversation and check out the whole series on your favorite podcasting platform to listen to the full interview.


Frank Beddor  
Welcome to All Things Alice Jake Curtis. I’m interested in your creative journey as a young writer and how one comes to their creative process and aspirations. Where did it all start in terms of writing? Were you someone who loved to write in school?

Jake Curtis
I’ve pretty much always done some kind of performance thing. I come from a big family of writers and artists who are all too loud for their own good. So growing up, you had to learn to talk fast and talk loud.

FB
Was that at the dinner table? Or was that all the time? 

JC
Twenty-four seven. We used to say that everyone was unconditionally loved, but not everyone was unconditionally liked.

I came to performing and writing from improv actually. I started doing a lot of improvised comedy when I was 12-13 and it was huge for me because I’m quite an anxious person in general. I’m an analytical person. So the chaos and acceptance that has to come with improv was pretty huge for me. There’s no second draft. There’s no planning.

FB
There’s no getting out of it. I thought improv was the most terrifying concept I’d ever heard of. I’m not going to get up on stage and then somebody’s going to tell me some little story and I’m supposed to go from there. I admire the chutzpah at 12. But I suppose at 12 it’s like sink or swim. So much stuff is going on at that age.

JC
I was a big lover of live comedy shows. England, especially then, had a really vibrant live comedy scene. Going up to the Edinburgh Fringe at young ages, you see all these shows, and at first, I became obsessed with the idea of an audience. I think that was always the bit that gripped me. It’s not so much the glitz and glamor of a million followers, but it was getting to watch these people who can walk into a room with 20 people and just connect with them and entertain them for an hour. I’ve always approached writing from an entertainer’s perspective. We’re all dancing monkeys making something fun. So I did improv for years and it excited me and I got to go around the world and do shows in Canada and the US.

FB
So there was something more structured than you getting up there as a young person and doing something in front of the class. Were you part of a troupe? 

JC
I was part of a troupe called School of Comedy, which is an amazing company in the UK that gets professional sketch writers to come in, but then they have a troupe of kids to perform the sketches. We did shows up in Edinburgh for two years we would perform around the country at festivals and comedy gigs. That was an amazing experience because we were very much treated like we were a part of a professional show. Like we were an asset and a commodity and a member of the troupe. They were lovely and respectful. But also it was like, you have an expectation. There are people out there who have come to see a show and you are the people to deliver it.

Photograph featuring a marquee for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with pedestrians in the foreground and stone buildings in the background.

FB
How many shows would you do a day?

JC
When we went up to Edinburgh, we would do a show every day for 30 days or for 21 days, which is the length of the Fringe. You’re on a full run there. Then, generally, you’d have a week with a couple of shows or a little run at some theater and then a couple of months without a show. But we were working and it gave you this idea of having to accept how the audience reacts. I think a lot of writing classes and creative media share the message of “Oh, you’ve got to tell the story that’s yours. You’ve got to find your soul or your calling.” That’s wonderful and people need to be told that, but I think it does sometimes remove the audience from the question. It tells you to find the thing you think is funny, but I love performing to live crowds because you’re reminded even if you think it’s funny, it doesn’t really matter that much if they don’t. We’d go into shows where we had sketches that had been written for us and that killed five shows in the last five shows. But you deliver it and the crowd doesn’t like it. You can either just say, “Well, this is my schedule and I’m gonna keep going,” or you can try and change it on the spot, try and work out what this crowd needs from you and the show. 

FB
Obviously, when it’s going well, it fuels you and you can charge ahead and you will take chances and it’s invigorating. When there’s a lull or you feel like the audience’s leaning back and they’re not engaged, for me, I had a sense of panic when I was doing some plays. I went, “Oh, it’s one of those.” I would get into my head on the negative side and trying to find a way out of that into the next moment and being present was difficult. 

JC
I’ve done shows that have bombed and kept bombing. Sometimes you’re in the mud and you’ve got to stay there. In those shows, I would just try and make as much eye contact with the people on stage as I could. You don’t have to look at the crowd, right? And I’d try and tell myself, “I’m here having a good time with my friend, not bombing and ruining these people’s night.” But generally, with the crowd, I always took that as a challenge and it’s a challenge you can win. Especially with comedy shows, people want to come out and have a good evening.  Now working as a writer, all these decisions you make are fueled by “We think these markets might want a script that looks like this.” I hate all of that because it’s not real. You’re like, “Oh, maybe I can do it. I’m a technician.” But when you have a crowd, it’s you and them. It’s head-to-head. My panic mode was usually monologuing. If I’m getting stressed, I’m just gonna keep talking and I’m gonna keep going until I hit something. I’m gonna move faster. I’m gonna go through more ideas until you find a little inkling of a laugh and then just grip onto that for dear life.

FB
Is that what you did with your family? Is that what the competition was, people gripping on for their lives to find a little kernel to be heard? 

JC
One hundred percent. You’re waiting at the dinner table like, “Come on. Someone mention dog. Someone mention dog.” Someone brings up the word dog and you’re like, “That’s interesting! Listen to what happened to me today. I went out and I met three dogs.” You’ve got to take your time when you have it.

FB
Wow, that must have been hard to even get the food and drink down. That’s a diet in itself.

JC
When someone else starts monologuing, you speed eat. I just loved the immediacy of improv and the presentness and the engagement. For me, the joy of making art is making it for a specific person or specific people. 

FB
You were making art in that moment. There wasn’t a committee telling you, “I think this joke will work or that joke will work”. The audience is telling you instantaneously, which you don’t get when you’re writing a script for television. That’s amazing because you’re basically writing on stage as you’re going.

JC
It forces you to engage in the truthful fact that the majority of art is just people observing other people and enjoying it. There’s this top tier of if you can write a sentence so good it is etched into history. If you’re gonna write “to be or not to be,” go for it. But the majority of art isn’t the cleverest thing you’ve ever heard. It’s some people watching, reading, whatever, some other people and trying to enjoy it, trying to have a good time.

FB
It’s the connection to the human experience which is why it’s interesting you’re describing your family because so many stories are about the dynamic of family and it’s very relatable. So when you tap into something like that you’re going to engage the audience in a meaningful way. Your family dynamic sounds really exciting and really competitive and that set you up with the mindset of “I’m being creative all the time, not just when I’m improvising. But my whole family is creative.” Did you have actors in the family? You said writers?

Headshot of writer Jake Curtis, in which he is wearing a blue shirt.

JC
In the immediate family, we have a lot of writers. My sister’s a writer, my dad’s a writer, my little brother’s a writer. My mum was a TV presenter in the 80s, which was cool. She used to do little practice things like she’d be playing songs in the car and, in between them, she’d be like, “Okay, you could introduce this one.” I’d have to be like, “And this next song coming on is a smooth hit from Lionel Richie,” and try to time it to the intro to the song. It was all just fun. Then in the extended family, they’re also very loud. I have like 30 cousins on my mom’s side and we have actors, we have everything. It was just a general feeling of trying to have fun trying to push yourself. I thought if I was going to be able to make a career in the arts, it would be partly from muscle growth. How many reps can I do? How many different art forms? I spent so long doing comedy sketches, I don’t do those anymore, but the experience all of it filters into everything else I do.

FB
Is comedy the genre you’ve started to really hone is comedy, whether it’s television or film?

JC
Comedy is definitely where I lean. That was where all my experience came from in improv. I think these things are muscles, especially comedy. I think people often underestimate how much of a muscle comedy is because people are so naturally funny. But it is a very different thing, being funny to four friends than writing something that can slot into a specific scene in a specific script.

FB
It’s completely different. When you’re with your friends and you’re saying it out loud, it can come or go. But when you write it down, people can judge the rhythm and the cadence of it. Somebody’s got to perform it to really nail that cadence. It’s a lot different putting it on.

JC
I sometimes hear writers, who are great writers but haven’t done comedy, saying, I think I might, for my next script, just do a comedy.” That’s great and maybe it’ll be amazing but I think the reason I’m good at comedy is, I hope, twenty percent something natural in me but I did a hundred appalling improv shows before doing a hundred mediocre improv shows before doing fifty decent ones. I have so many scripts that are so bad and so unfunny, so many files on my phone, stand-up gigs, improv, and freestyling. This is the thing I’ve done the most and I’m still mediocre to okay.

FB
It’s the 10,000 hours. It’s the failing over and over. I don’t know if people realize what a gift that is, as the learning part of the process. When you talk about great comedians and you see their shows, if you see multiple shows, they are so specific night after night. They’re hitting every one of those beats. They’re so worked out. It’s kind of remarkable how specific they are from performance to performance. 

JC
That was a part of why I felt so lucky getting into comedy so early and the fact that my family did treat it as a serious pursuit. I was able to go through a lot of that education and a learning phase while I was at school. Because I think it can be really daunting if you go through life and you hit 24-25 and you go, “Oh, maybe I want to do comedy.” It’s a six-year path to being kind of fine.

FB
Starting at 12 and starting to perform, it’s not dissimilar to sports. If you do it at a young age, it’s so inherent by the time you get to your late teens. It’s instinctual but you need all those reps. Starting that young, the filters are off and so you’re just doing it. It’s not as if you’re 24 and you want to do comedy for your career and you wonder how that’s gonna work out. I think that makes a big difference. With your family being so into all the arts, did you find that to be really nurturing or is there a competitiveness or an expectation you feel moving forward?

JC
Not so much. There’s a competitiveness in my family anyway. I’m one of four kids and we all do very fairly similar things so there’s a bit of a jostling. But no, I think it was very much, “If this is a path you want to go down, go down it.” Me and my siblings do similar stuff but it’s different. My sister writes incredible feminist literature I couldn’t write and my little brother writes very dark, edgy films I also couldn’t write. It wasn’t as much of competitiveness but it was more of “This is a legitimate career and a path you can take. If you’re gonna go down it, take it seriously and put in work, put in the hours. We will drive you to the classes and pick you up but you’ve got to put your practice in and put your head down.” It wasn’t treated as a fanciful thing.

FB
With a lot of creatives, the family or the parents treat it as a fanciful idea and not dependable.

JC
I remember one time when I was 16 we had these national tests and I did really well on the physics one and I suddenly got this brain wave of, “Wait a second, could I be an engineer?” I was like, “Oh my god, this is a radical thought. A steady paying job, career development.”

FB
Nothing like my family. 

JC
I’d become the black sheep.

FB
You’re working for Intel.

JC
It would be bizarre for them. It was always something I just appreciated and kept going and kept trying to see where I could go. I did a lot of improv. I got to do some shows I loved. I got to do two 50-hour-long shows in Canada with the group Die-Nasty, which was a great experience. It was really COVID that ended that portion of my life. I was already writing a lot by then but when COVID happened all improv obviously shut down. More than most industries improv took a really big hit. It turned out the improv theaters weren’t the people with big financial stores and genius financial skills. So improv took a really hard hit there. Then I just dove fully into writing. I’ve always enjoyed performing as an act for myself, but needing to get my face out there was never a priority. So I really tried to dedicate myself to screenwriting as a way of building a career I would enjoy. 

FB
Why did you move from the UK to the US? Was that for educational or opportunity reasons?

JC
I was living in the UK until I was 19 and then I moved to Chicago to go to Northwestern University and study film there. I made the decision entirely based on improv. In the UK, I was doing what is known as Chicago-style improv, which is long form. Chicago is the mecca of that with Second City and the iO. So I Googled best colleges for improv and some dudes’ blogs came up and at number one he had Northwestern and the Titanic Players. I went great. I applied to two schools. I applied to Northwestern and then I applied to Yale because no one in England had heard of Northwestern. So I thought, “If I can get into Yale and reject them, then I’ll tell people I chose Northwest.” Then Yale rejected me so it wasn’t a great plan. But yeah, I went for the improv and it honestly was amazing. I was in this group, the Titanic Players, run by Mike Abdelsayed. It’s an amazing, incredible organization. I got to do so much improv at Northwestern. It wasn’t the worst decision.

Photograph from a show put on by the improv group The Titanic Players of Northwestern University featuring two actors on stage.

FB
Then you had the city so you could go to Second City and you could see some of the best improv in the country. You were getting your fix for sure.

JC
A hundred percent. I go to do shows downtown and they brought in guest improvisers to teach workshops. It was an amazing experience.

FB
Also, it’s a great city when you’re twenty-one years old.

JC
I don’t regret the decision at all. I love Chicago so much. Oddly enough, of everywhere in America I’ve been it’s the place that most reminds me of London. So I felt quite at home there. Lovely people, lovely food, and some of the best improv in the world.

FB
Who were some of the people that inspired you in terms of your comedy? 

JC
The first people were a lot of English comedians and stand-ups that I doubt people listening to this podcast have heard of but there are people like Daniel Kitson and Tim Key. These incredible people who would just do one-person shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. Partly due to the financial situation, one person shows basically dominate and it’s amazing because it’s so personal. I love these very personal stand-up shows. Moving to Chicago, TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi are like the greatest duo in Chicago improv history. They’ve been doing the same show for 35 years. They are genuine masters and are so grounded and confident and know each other so well. But honestly, my biggest inspiration was watching American sitcoms. That was kind of why I wanted to come to America. I grew up watching The Office, Parks and Rec, and How I Met Your Mother. All these shows. For one, they’re so phenomenal and they also made America seem so cool. I was like, “This is great. I’m just gonna go to America and meet all these beautiful people and date them. It’ll be great and everyone’s funny and the sun’s always shining.”

Still image from the NBC sitcom "Parks and Recreation" featuring Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope.

FB
Did you discover that?

JC
I discovered it was exactly like that. I have not been sad a day since I arrived in America. No, it turns out they’re a little unrealistic at points.

FB
So moving to LA, what was the transition here?

JC
So COVID happened and I was in Chicago and I started writing more. I only had a year left on my visa and I didn’t know if I could stay in the country. So I thought, “If I have a year, I should go to LA, the ‘City of Dreams.’” So I moved to LA and I got a job working for a motivational speaker, which was a weird experience, especially during COVID. 

FB
Why was that weird? 

JC
There was a point where I was locked down in my house and seeing no one. Except once a week, I would drive to this guy’s house, set up a camera, and he would motivationally speak at me for one or two hours. All of his stuff is just down the lens of the camera so I was going from total solitude to this man rambling about the meaning of life, and passion and purpose. Then I was going back to my tiny, empty house, and editing more videos of him talking about the stuff. It was just a bit of a jarring experience, but a wonderful one.

FB
Did any of it stick for you?

JC
It definitely got in there. It’s definitely deep in my subconscious. I can still hear his voice if I close my eyes. But I was doing that for a year and then I was working on my writing, but I felt like I needed more training, especially because so much of my experience had been in performance and live comedy. So I ended up applying to grad schools to do a master’s in Screenwriting. I got into the American Film Institute, and ended up going there, and that was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

FB
How was Ed Decter? He introduced us and having him as a professor, what was the takeaway, the one thing you have been able to put into action? 

JC
Two things come to mind. Because I think the first, which was something I really loved from watching Ed, was where you can get to if you put all this time into screenwriting. I had so many examples of these great improvisers I’d seen who have this, it seems like a superhuman ability to improvise. You drop them in a scene and they know where to take it and where to go. It was seeing those people initially that made me want to do improv. I think it was amazing coming to AFI, all the professors who teach there have to also be working writers in LA. Ed Decter, who I was lucky to get in my second year, is a very prolific writer and has written so much stuff in so many genres. We were a class of six writing six very different scripts and watching him have immediate feedback for every single type of script, which ninety-nine percent of the time was immediately correct, was an amazing thing to see. 

We talk about scripts so often like they’re hyper-personal, the story only you could tell, but if you get a really good screenwriter they know the direction a script should go from reading it. Getting to see that up close and getting to see someone be able to latch on to a story someone’s trying to tell, work out the key elements, work out what’s going to translate, work out what’s not translating, and immediately know a direction to go in. That got me excited and inspired because I think it can be depressing as a writer to think your only option for success is writing your soul’s calling. That’s wonderful. I hope to one day write a film that is me in a bottle but that’s a scary prospect. Going to AFI gave me much more of an approach to what a working writer looks like, of what a functional writer looks like, of someone who just gets the job done and who knows what a script needs. 

FB
Ed has written a lot of sitcoms. That’s where he started. So he has experience in sitcoms but the scripts he’s been writing lately have been adaptations of various kinds of mystery novels. He has a broad range of genres that he plays in. A couple of the latest crime dramas he’s written were really startling to me, because, we obviously did There’s Something About Mary together, but also he’s done so many sitcoms. So I can understand why you guys would have bonded. Also the experience of seeing him jump from genre to genre and script to script, I had a similar experience. We put a little mini-room together that he ran to break The Looking Glass Wars novels as a television show. Seeing him run the room was also another aspect of television production, writing, and development that I hadn’t seen before. That was unique for me because I hadn’t had that experience of taking my novel, breaking it up, and saying, “Okay, here’s where we have to get to for the middle of the season. Here’s where we’re trying to get to at the end of this season. Okay, now, let’s reverse engineer it and figure out the best opening.” It was pretty exciting. 

It was not dissimilar to what you did with my world. I asked you to write a lore story and this idea came from you and a number of other young writers that I was introduced to from AFI, who play all these different kinds of games, Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. I looked at all the lore stories that go along with those games and I thought, “Well, I want that.” So you wrote this story, The Brother’s Wilde, which I’d like you to talk about. It’s a lore story, a prose short story. You did an outstanding job. Really brilliant, beautiful job. You used aspects of my universe and you made them feel fresh to me, which was like Santa Claus showing up. 

Graphic featuring knights and a purple skeletal being with the text "Dungeons & Dragons" superimposed over the image.

JC
It was a wonderful experience for me because I’ve played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons for a long time. I love that world and the high fantasy genre, but it never felt like something I was allowed to play in for actual creative work. That was my treat on the side at the end of a long week. So getting approached to write something in a world of high fantasy that already exists and writing backstories was such a treat for me. It felt like getting to my fun times for work. But it was also an odd process. I’ve never really written based on other people’s worlds before and other people’s work. So that was interesting and fun getting into that and trying to see how much I could stretch. The odd thing for me was when I got into it, I was very excited. I’d written out all these plot points and the beats and I was confident in the story. Then literally as I opened up the Word document, I remembered I hadn’t written prose in like seven years.

FB
Be careful what you wish for.

JC
I’d forgotten it was a completely different art form. I got ready to open up Final Draft and then I was like, “Oh God!” It took a little bit of adjusting. The part I forgot was you can’t refer to someone by the same name every time in prose. In the script, someone is their name and it does not change ever. But I was suddenly deep on synonym.com, “I can’t say ‘the great warrior’ again”. The mighty fighter, heroic hero, I was going deep into my vocabulary to try and switch something up. It was an exciting thing to get to work on. I think especially because Alice is a world that is so rich throughout culture. It’s kind of a bedrock piece of story. There are things I brought into the story that are pieces from Dungeons and Dragons. There’s a lot of Alice in Wonderland lore baked into Dungeons and Dragons like Vorpal swords and Jabberwock. It didn’t feel like building on something completely new. It felt like being given a chance to play in a world that is so familiar.

FB
As a Brit too, Alice in Wonderland is probably the most famous piece of literature that you would have grown up with, right? So I can understand that and also the idea that Alice is everywhere. Of course, it makes sense it’s in Dungeons and Dragons. You took what was familiar from Alice’s Adventures, Lewis Carroll’s work, you took elements from my world, but then you brought this brother story together. Tell us a little bit about that part of the story, because you did often reference your younger brother.

JC
I have two younger brothers who got amalgamated in the story. I always try to start from a place of relationship because I think that gives you the most fuel for a story and is the part you can’t retroactively put in. If you tell me this story needs a bigger fight scene, I can go do that at the end. But if a story isn’t built around a relationship, it’s tough to slot it in. So I wanted to build The Brother’s Wilde around a relationship. I was looking at the House of Cards, which was where we wanted to focus the story, and I thought brotherhood made sense. It’s this military organization and the brotherly bond felt like it made sense. I have two brothers who I fight with a lot. So that made that track. 

But then I was interested in this idea of the houses and I loved the thoughts of the personality types associated with the houses. Me and my brothers are very different and if we’re gonna have two brothers in the story, let’s put them in two different houses. Let’s have them hate each other for the very reasons that make them unique. If we’re trying to expand the House of Cards we’ve got to bake it into the DNA of the House of Cards. So I wanted to build around there. Then I came up with these characters who are half brothers from a philandering father, who they both hate and there’s no love between them. At that point, it started to feel real to me and it started to feel fun. It felt like playing because you built this world and we have this amazing world of the House of Cards which has these rituals and dynamics built in. It was such a gift to build these two brothers who hate each other and try to give them a situation to learn why they need each other.

Illustrations by Sami Makkonen of card soldiers for "The Looking Glass Wars: Crossfire" by Frank Beddor and Curtis Clark.

FB
You were tasked with an origin story, an early origin story of the House of Cards. They send card soldiers on missions and when they send people on missions, they decide what kind of hand they’re going to deal. So you came up with the idea of “A Hand in History.” The Brothers Wilde is the beginning of the card soldiers going on these various missions when they’re tasked with saving the queendom or battling a competitive state.

JC
I loved the idea of basing it around hands that are chosen and selected because that plays into the joy of Dungeons and Dragons and these old fantasy novels. It’s the idea of “The Party,” the troop. Every story is based around who was selected to go on this journey. That’s what’s so beautiful in a lot of these adventure stories, including Alice in Wonderland, it’s not the adventure that’s enticing, but it’s the uniqueness of who’s gonna solve the adventure.

FB
The skill set they have and seeing how they’re challenged when they use their skill set with these various obstacles. That’s the Dirty Dozen idea.

JC
I think that’s where a lot of modern fantasy and films go wrong. They put a lot of their energy into these big set pieces, these big boss fights with CGI characters. They put a lot of time into the obstacles when actually the thing we care about is the people solving them. In The Lord of the Rings, you care about Frodo, you don’t care that there are nine Nazgul. That’s what makes Alice in Wonderland so beautiful, and your novels, they revolve around the people going through them instead of the giant nature of the battle. 

FB
It’s fantasy but you need to be with the characters and with Alice, it’s so identifiable. It’s a “Who am I?” journey, and she finds agency in who she is and pushes back against the illogical world that she finds herself in. But it’s also very amusing. When were you introduced to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?

JC
I couldn’t say an individual date because, especially in England, it was just a part of culture growing up. My earliest memories were of my mum and my dad reading me the book. I must have been 10 or 11. The 1951 film was something I watched a lot. I love animation. I write a lot of animated stuff. The specificity of the visuals and the tone baked into that film was a real inspiration for me growing up.

Still image of Alice and the Mad Hatter drinking tea in the 1951 Disney animated film "Alice in Wonderland".

FB
Why do you think it’s lasted so long? You said it was in culture and this is generations after it was first introduced. Every generation re-interprets Alice. How do you view Alice in Wonderland?

JC
I think the reason it has lasted is there are so many ways you can connect with it. It is such a beautiful human idea, the girl who falls through the looking glass and gets swept away on an adventure. The part I really gripped on to from a young age was the world-building. It was the idea of this world that works, that makes sense. It doesn’t feel like someone who’s picked, “Oh, this would be a fun scene. This is a fun character. That would look good.” 

It lives and breathes like a world. Something that really drew me to it is I think a lot of world-building goes dark, “It’s a grungy forest with scary people in it.” Then obviously some other world-building goes saccharine and we’re in heaven. I love the feeling in Alice that there’s a danger to the world but there’s a wonder to it as well. There’s a whimsy and a seriousness. The world feels like it shifts based on the situation, like ours does. There’s no one thing to it. I just love learning more about the world, learning about the characters who inhabit it, the places to go, and being able to build this kind of escape.

FB
I love the whimsy and the silliness of it and it reminded me of another book, The Phantom Tollbooth, which was one of my favorites growing up because of the silliness and the use of language. I really identified with that aspect of Alice. Many people think of it more as more a nightmare because of getting big and small and being stuck in a place where there’s no logic. 

JC
The lack of logic, I love. I know quite a lot of people who I would identify as crazy people. They would as well. We have a lot of fun mental health issues in our family. I always grew up with this acceptance that nothing’s gone wrong. There are crazy people who exist in the world and that’s fine. I think Alice, in a youthful way, takes that on the story. It accepts there are people who are going to make some weird decisions and that’s okay.

FB
It really does capture that. In terms of pop culture, you mentioned Dungeons and Dragons and the references in video games, I’ve noticed there’s a huge through line of Alice. In almost every game I’ve ever seen, there’s some Alice component. Do you have a favorite Alice in pop culture item that you like? 

JC
I enjoy Dungeons and Dragons. I love the video game Borderlands, which has a lot of Alice imagery. I think my favorite is probably the Batman: Arkham Asylum graphic novel, which I just love. It’s this beautifully illustrated graphic novel about Batman going into Arkham Asylum and gradually losing his sanity. It’s very inspired by Alice in Wonderland. A lot of the villains in Batman already are. There’s very much these threads of madness and the Mad Hatter.

Even the Penguin, there’s all this imagery that lines up. So you have this beautiful graphic novel of him just going progressively mad, surrounded by Alice in Wonderland motifs and imagery. That’s what feels so special about Alice in Wonderland, it can be drawn for inspiration for something light for a younger audience but it could also be drawn for a very dark and disturbing graphic novel. And it works the same. It’s just beautiful. I think that’s what happens when you’re able to create something that taps so deep into a human level. It means you can use it in so many different ways. 

Three panels by Dave McKean from the graphic novel "Batman: Arkham Asylum" by Grant Morrison featuring Batman and the Joker.

FB
A lot of stories now are based on IP because people like stories that are familiar and told in an unfamiliar way. On the business side, there’s a recognizable aspect for the marketing. I know this is not lost on you because you’re working on an animated series that’s based on Edgar Allan Poe, but your spin on it is a little different. Can you talk about that?

JC
I’ve been working for a couple of years on a series called A Raven in the Woods. It’s a reimagining of Edgar Allan Poe. I loved Poe as a child. I loved the language, the poetry, the darkness, and, similar to Alice, the acceptance of madness. That’s where they meet in the middle. Poe, like Lewis Carroll, doesn’t treat his mad characters as nothing. They’re just his characters. They’re not irrational. They are just who they are and they are to be dealt with. 

So I loved Poe and felt there was something so visual in his language that would pair well with animation. He writes in this incredibly emotive, twisted world that I thought could be best represented by animation. There are a lot of great live-action adaptations but they’re all dark and gloomy rooms, which is technically accurate. But when you’re reading Poe’s work, it doesn’t feel like a dark gloomy room, it feels like a twisting shadow and peering lights. I thought it worked well with animation but I didn’t want to do a direct translation. Similar to how you engage with the Alice world, I wanted to bring the feeling and the parts of Poe that I love into a new story that worked as a standalone piece of animation for kids. It shows a young Edgar Poe trying to get his brother Allan through the woods before Allan is turned into a raven. Allan’s cursed and as they move through the woods, a lot of the people in the woods have gone mad. There’s a curse on the woods and there’s a big, mysterious overlord. A lot of the “mad” people speak in rhyme and speak in poetry. 

It’s this adventure through the woods and the logic in my head was that this was the real-life adventure that inspired the later Edgar Allan Poe to write his stories. He actually wasn’t very creative at all; he was just mining from two weeks he had as a kid. It’s got a lot of the characters and the elements and the moments of his work, but it’s its own story about a kid trying to deal with a lot of the themes that come up in Poe. Themes of fear, how to overcome that, and how to deal with yourself and the world when everything feels mad.

Photograph of famed 19th-century horror and mystery author Edgar Allan Poe.

FB
Not dissimilar at all to Alice. I think that’s really relatable and answers the question we often get from executives “Why now?” Given how chaotic the world feels, it’s great to deal with stories that are realistic to the anxiety that kids feel, whether it’s the various wars they’re reading about or the climate and the fact that there’s nothing they feel like they can do about it. I’ve noticed that with my kids. So stories that are thematically similar to what you’re talking about answer that question of why it’s important. 

JC
Thank you. I think we need this stuff. We live in a chaotic time and our art needs to reflect that. Thankfully, we’re not the first people to have lived in a chaotic time so there are lovely things from the past.

FB
We’re also trying to get grounded in what’s real. One of the things about Alice in Wonderland, if you look back on it, the question is “Is this a dream? Is this real?” Trying to parse out reality versus fantasy, facts versus fiction, which we’re dealing with a lot of late. That sounds like a really exciting project. 

JC
I’m working with a producer, Rick Mischel, who’s wonderful, and we’ve teamed up with TeamTO which is a great French animation house.

FB
They’re terrific. I love their animation. 

JC
They’ve been amazing so far. Wonderfully French, which has been a great treat. On one of the first calls, the head of finance was just sitting 10 feet away from the camera stroking a cat. I was like, that’s the kind of stuff we need. We’re working with them and a director called Christian De Vita, who’s an incredible director. He’s done a lot of Wes Anderson and Tim Burton stuff. We’re working on putting together a packet for it and then going out and trying to sell it. It’s been a great, great process and hopefully, it will lead somewhere.

FB
Fingers crossed. We’ll want to check back in with you and certainly have you on the show when you need to promote it because it’s coming out. 

I’m curious about the romantic comedy genre. I would imagine that you know something about that and that it’s been lacking. It’s one of the staples and one of my favorite movie genres. Why do you think we’ve lost that? 

JC
It’s a really tough question. My dad has made a lot of romantic comedies. That’s his bag. It’s tough. I feel like there’s very little to be learned from him because the truth about him is that he is literally the sappiest romantic person in the world. It is one hundred percent genuine. That’s how he talks, thinks, and breathes. But I think it’s a really tough thing. One thing, it’s a genre that needs to keep changing. Action is action, and you need to develop it, but honestly, action holds up. But both romance and comedy are things that develop as humans develop. If you are romantic in the way people were romantic in the 1950s, you’ll probably get arrested. If you tell jokes that were funny in the 50s, you are not getting laughs, I promise. I think these are things that need to keep being pushed and reinvented because, with both romance and comedy, it’s the feeling of something new. The feeling of being in love is, “I’ve never felt like this about a person before.”

FB
What about the formula of the meet-cute and the tension of “clearly they’re not getting along”?

Still image from Rob Reiner's 1989 romantic comedy film "When Harry Met Sally" featuring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in a diner.

JC
We got used to the formulas. I think you can get used to the formula for an action film and it doesn’t lessen it. But to me, When Harry Met Sally, feels radical. It’s weird. It cuts away to things, it’s skipping time. I think romantic comedies have to feel unique because it should feel like meeting a person who’s shifting your life. When we get used to the tropes, they can still be good if you want to make The Notebook. That’s proper romance. But I think with a romantic comedy, it has to feel fun and it has to feel fresh. That takes reinvention. 

I think we’re in a weird spot at the moment where no one’s quite cracked it in a while. We’re all just really familiar with the tropes. Everyone watched these films, everyone started acting like the people in these films. There are all these people pretending to be leading men from romantic comedies in the 90s, and 2000s. They’re all on dating apps and it’s horrible. When you go on a dating app you see 200 people’s perceptions of who they are as a romantic lead. You watch everyone label themselves as the Hugh Grant type. Or, “I’m just a witty guy,” or “I’m the Billy Crystal, he doesn’t care.” These things are so played out. You’ve got to find a way of making something feel weird and fresh and new. But that’s really tough when we work in an industry that doesn’t like taking chances on fresh and new stuff. Also, let’s be real, romantic comedies live and die on the stars, on the chemistry. It’s tough to get a weird, new, fresh take that two stars are willing to sign on for and they happen to have chemistry. I think it’s a really tall order. 

FB
I agree with that. With all the dating apps, trying to find a way to make that at all romantic seems to be an impossibility. But also, somebody will do it and it’ll break out and maybe there’ll be a fresh take on it. But to your point, we have all sorts of other genres that people are spending more time on. I just miss the chemistry between two stars. The Notebook is something my daughter has gone back to and it works because both male leads are equally appealing. So she really has a dilemma that you can buy into. But that was based on a novel that was highly successful. 

So the kinds of movies your dad wrote, were his own ideas, right? They weren’t based on anything, your dad had a romantic idea. For example, your dad wrote Notting Hill, which was one of my favorites. There’s an ongoing joke with my stepkids because whenever they say, “What should we watch?” I’m like, “Well, what about Notting Hill?” I’ve been saying it over and over and over so many times that they’re dead. They look at me like, that is the dumbest joke ever. But it’s a good movie. The chemistry between the two leads is so amazing. 

JC
I remember once asking my dad, “Did you know when you were writing these films that ended up being big hits, that they were going to be hits?” He said, “Absolutely not at all. I really didn’t feel it. I just wrote and tried to stay passionate about it.” Then he paused and went, “Actually not Notting Hill. I was sitting at home and I thought, ‘What if a movie star fell in love with a random guy?’ And I went, Oh, that’s a hit.’”

FB
Also, you have Julia Roberts at the height of her stardom with that smile that would just crush anybody. Then you have Hugh Grant, who’s a very contained performer and when those two come into contact, it’s gold. It’s wonderful.

Promotional image from the Amazon romantic drama series "The Summer I Turned Pretty" featuring stars Lola Tung, Gavin Casalegno, and Christoper Briney sitting on a beach.

JC
I think one thing that’s worth looking at is that romantic comedy is being explored in other mediums successfully like the Amazon show The Summer I Turned Pretty. It’s a smash hit for a younger audience and that’s a rom-com, essentially. Even looking at someone like Taylor Swift, her songs are romantic, amusing, and comedic at points and that has gripped people. Obviously, people want these kinds of things. I think it’ll just take someone breaking a new way of doing it in movies.

FB
Certainly in television. My daughter keeps telling me “Dad, it’s one girl, two guys. That’s what you need to do. Just focus on teenagers. Two guys, one girl. That’s the formula.” She’s watched all those shows you’ve talked about. 

You have a funny story about your grandmother knowing the Liddells, Alice Liddell, which you have to share with us. That’s the first time I’ve come into contact with somebody whose family member knew the literal muse for all things Alice, for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for my books, for your writing The Brothers Wilde

JC
It’s a bizarre and wonderful story. My grandmother, my mum’s mum, Lady Jill Freud, is an amazing woman. She’s 96 or 97 right now but World War II broke out when she was little, six or seven. She was living in London at that time with her family and they knew London was going to be bombed ruthlessly. So the British government enacted this thing they called “the evacuation,” which was an insane thing to happen. It could never happen nowadays. They literally took every child in London, took them to a train station, put a number around their neck, and put them on a train somewhere. They literally just shipped them off. When they arrived at these stations, people from the local towns came to the station and just went “Yeah, I can take two,” or “I run a farm, I can take two young boys to work there.” These kids just got rehoused for what was, at that point, an indefinite period of time.

So my granny was sent to Oxford and taken in by this family, the Butlers. Mrs. Butler was 100 and wasn’t allowed to know there was a war on because they were worried it would scare her. But the house was run by these three Butler sisters. Two of them were university professors and they were three unmarried older women. They had been three of the kids that Lewis Carroll, Charles Dodgson, had taken down the Isis River in Oxford when they were younger. He’d done these long boat journeys down the Isis and he would read them stories every night. He would come up with stories and a lot of his early things were first tested out on these little girls. So my grandmother lived with the Butlers and they had these toys from their time with Lewis Carroll he had actually made by hand. He was a great craftsman and he had made these toys.

Black and white photography of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" author Lewis Carroll.
Sepia-toned photograph of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in the 1865 novel "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland".

So every Sunday afternoon, my granny would be allowed to go into the drawing room and play with these Lewis Carroll’s toys. It was this incredible time in Oxford where all these great writers and poets and people who were allowed to not fight in the war for academic reasons would write. So she lived with the Butlers and she met Alice Liddell. Alice was close with them and would come over and she was this sort of enigmatic figure known and revered around Oxford. She had tea with J.R.R. Tolkien. By her memory, he was a friendly guy. 

So it was just this amazing time she was around Oxford and absorbing it. But also it was a time of war and chaos and people dying. When she talks about it it’s this very mixed feeling of this beautiful time but so underpinned with fear.

FB
Was she there for the entire war?

JC
She was there for the entire war pretty much I believe. She was there for five years of the war. By the time the war ended, she was 16-17 and had been at C.S. Lewis’ house for a bit and she stayed on to manage his estate for another year or two, I believe. Then at the end of that, she was accepted into RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, but couldn’t afford to go and C.S. Lewis paid for her entire education. He covered it and she went on to become an early movie actress.

FB
What an amazing story and an amazing life.

JC
At that time in Oxford, there were so many incredible people, incredible minds all talking to each other. These were discrete authors. They all knew each other and they had writing groups.

FB
Could you imagine those writing groups? Wow, that would have been intimidating.

JC
“Yeah, I don’t know if this White Rabbit character is really working for me.”

FB
“I don’t think a closet is where you want the kids to go through. No one is gonna buy that.” The video you sent me of your grandmother, what’s that from?

JC
She’s an incredible woman with incredible stories. A few years ago, I sat her down and we talked through her life and everything she’d done. It was a really wonderful experience. It was something I wanted to do, obviously to have the footage, but also it is such a privilege to get to talk to someone who’s lived through wars and everything. I mean, ninety-seven is a lot of years.

FB
You’re very fortunate in terms of being surrounded by so many creative minds and creative family members and having a template on which you can base your creative aspirations. It’s been really delightful to listen to you articulate what you’ve experienced so far, in your life and I really, I really appreciated you working on this project. I didn’t know you very well and you delivered. I think our listeners are really going to enjoy hearing this.

JC
They’re good, fun people. There’s a quote from a Madness song written on our wall at home that says, “There’s always something happening and it’s usually quite loud.” That summed up our family well.

FB
That’s great. I hope you’ll come back when your show is produced.

JC
Thank you so much for having me. This was such an absolute treat for the day and just fun to get into all this and chat about comedy and things

FB
Thanks a lot, Jake. Bye.


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ALL THINGS ALICE: INTERVIEW WITH LENNY DE ROOY

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 Lenny de Rooy join me! Read on to explore our conversation and check out the whole series on your favorite podcasting platform to listen to the full interview.


Frank Beddor 
Welcome to the show Lenny de Rooy. I am really happy to have you on as I had seen your book, Alice’s Adventures Underwater. I gotta tell you, you are very brave because, with The Looking Glass Wars, I use Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a jumping-off point. I felt like as long as I got the references correct, I should be okay with real Alice fans. But you decided to write a sequel, and you pulled it off because of all the different puns and all the references. I want to get into that with you as well, but my first question to you is there seems to be two camps in the interpretation of Alice. There is one camp which is the whimsical fantasy dream and the other camp interprets Alice as more of a nightmare. It’s horror. It’s self-sustaining madness. I’m pretty sure I understand, at least in terms of your book, what side of that debate you fall on, but I was curious what your answer would be.

Lenny de Rooy
Yes, I’ve never read it as nightmarish, but maybe that’s also because I read it at a later age and not as a child. So I wouldn’t be able to say how it would have impacted me as a child. But to me, there actually is quite a bit of structure in the books, which is what I like. The fun part of the story is that it turns around everything you know, but there is a structure to the madness. So that makes it not nightmarish to me at all.

FB
When you say structure, are you talking about the plot or are you talking about the structure of the thematic references that Lewis Carroll is going for?

LDR
To us, everything Alice encounters is nonsense. But for the characters in Wonderland and The Looking Glass Wars, it makes perfect sense because things are the other way around. There are puns that actually make sense to us if we look at it differently. So that’s what I mean, there actually is a structure to the world. It’s not completely random at all.

FB
One of the things that I found in my reading was that there was a randomness to Alice’s Adventures as she was going along. Things were happening to her and she didn’t have as much agency as the traditional reluctant hero story. But as I’ve reread it, I can find more structure and more agency. It’s just not so traditional in terms of the hero who’s finding themselves and then going on some victorious evolution.

LDR
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is very episodic. That’s because of the way it came into existence. It was told to the real Alice and her sisters in episodes, it grew and grew over time. That’s what you still see in the first book, while with the second book, Through the Looking-Glass, Carroll could think about it for much longer and there’s the chess structure that really guides the story.

FB
I agree with that. The second book has a lot more structure. Your website, alice-in-wonderland.net, is one of the deepest sources of Lewis Carroll’s works on the internet. Where did this obsession with Alice in Wonderland come from? I did read that you first fell for the story through the Disney movie. But then what happened?

Still image of Alice and the Mad Hatter sitting at a table having tea from the 1951 Disney film “Alice in Wonderland”.

LDR
When I was a child, we watched all these movies that our parents taped for us and the Disney Alice in Wonderland was one of my favorites. Then, in high school, I chose to do Alice for a presentation and then while reading for our exams, I decided to dive into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because I thought, “Well, I already know the Disney movie so how hard can it be to pass the exam about the book?” I found all these layers inside it and references to actual people and I found that so interesting. Then I started gathering clippings in the library and then I went to university and I got access to the internet and I saw that there was not as much material as I would have liked. So I decided to start my own website. It was a very basic one, just a front page and animated images. There was a part about me and my hobbies, and then a part about Alice. I got a lot of comments on the Alice section so I decided to focus my whole website on the topic of Alice in Wonderland.

FB
So you didn’t realize at the time you were you were putting together your website that Alice is so deeply seated in culture and there’s such a broad range of interested folks until you started to get those comments? Did your fascination grow, through that? The more you discovered, the more it revealed.

LDR
Yes, but I’ve always been rather focused because I’m not a collector of books or all things Alice that I can get my hands on. I’m always focused on the background of the books. What are the origins of the story? What are the references to actual people and politics? What’s the meaning behind the jokes? That’s always what interested me. I deliberately focus my website on that, because there’s just too much to tell about Alice in Wonderland. It would get out of hand if I added all that to my website. I always say I don’t collect stuff, I collect information.

FB
Your website’s very deep and really fascinating. But let’s talk about Alice’s Adventures Underwater. Lewis Carroll didn’t invent the rabbit hole, of course, but he did invent falling down the rabbit hole for adventure. That has gone on to penetrate pop culture for over 150 years. You, on the other hand, have used two devices. You use “taking the plunge,” which is the title of the first chapter, and also the reflective surface of the water. So when Alice takes the plunge, she finds herself underwater. I thought it was really interesting and effective. What were the origins of using those two devices?

LDR
I wanted to make a continuation of the original books. But they’re also still very many references to the originals. So her plunging into a lake resembles falling down the rabbit hole and looking at the reflection of the water resembles the looking glass. It’s a mash-up of both things. When she looks into the water’s reflection, she sees her reflection, what’s behind her, and what’s underneath the water. She sees herself and other things. That’s a bit of a theme.

Cover image of “Alice’s Adventures under Water” featuring an illustration of Alice discovering a shipwreck, written by Lenny de Rooy and illustrated by Robert Louis Black.
Back cover image of “Alice’s Adventures under Water” featuring an illustration of Alice looking up at a sea dragon, written by Lenny de Rooy and illustrated by Robert Louis Black.

FB
I liked that. The reflection part, the falling, and then holding her breath before realizing that, suddenly, she can breathe.

Can you do a quick comparison of the characters in your book that are reflected by characters in Lewis Carroll’s two books? There are queens in both books so you invented a Queen Bee for yours. Is there, for example, an equivalent of the caterpillars in yours?

LDR
There are different levels of references to the original books. There is a queen in my book because Lewis Carroll’s books had queens. There’s also another cook because, in Carroll’s book, there was a cook. But then there’s the jellyfish which resembles the caterpillar because of his many tentacles that he’s folded, which is maybe a bit more of a resemblance to Disney’s version of the caterpillar, when he sits on the mushroom with his legs folded. There are also references for people who know the books very well. For example, the Queen Bee’s husband, a waspfish, wears a very ugly wig. Alice asks, “Why does he wear a wig?” The answer is he wants to stand out because he always feels left out. Most people won’t understand that reference. But in Through the Looking-Glass, there’s actually a missing chapter called “The Wasp and a Wig.” If you know that, then you’ll know that the Queen Bee’s husband feels left out because he was taken out of the original book.

FB
That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I did not put that together. I’m sure our listeners would love that. There are lots of those things in your novel, which are really fun to discover.

LDR
I even have one character that is based on an actual person within the Lewis Carroll Society community. He might recognize himself.

FB
That was something else I was wondering because Lewis Carroll made a lot of references to real people. Did you make any references to any friends? Did you make fun of or tease anybody? Anybody that if they read it, they would see that themselves in the book?

LDR
I thought about that but I couldn’t copy Lewis Carroll exactly. He’s so famous that people studied his background and history. I don’t think anyone will do this with me so they won’t know my personal friends. I would be honored if my book became that famous. But I thought I should put in characters and references that most people, or at least some people, would recognize. There is a reference to someone in the Lewis Carroll Society that I hope people will recognize by the description or the illustration. I also added references to Donald Trump, which should be very obvious.

FB
Was that positive or negative?

LDR
I would say not that positive.

FB
There are so many funny political cartoons. I wrote a whole blog about the cartoons out there using Alice in Wonderland to make fun of Trump. So you’re in good company with many people that have found a way of referencing “Off with your head,” or “Down the rabbit hole.”

Back to your book for a second. I really loved the grooming fish. There were a couple of fun lines. “A brush for your hair and a comb for your teeth.” Then the fish goes on to say, “Humans wash with water and walk through air, we swim through water and wash with air.” That made me giggle. Tell me about the grooming fish. You have to be a marine biologist to write this book.

Illustration by artist Robert Louis Black of Alice confronting an Angler fish with a turtle lying on its back on the ground, from “Alice’s Adventures under Water” by Lenny de Rooy.

LDR
I did have to do some research on fish. My illustrator, Robert Louis Black, helped with that because he had to visualize those fish. He named two things that I overlooked and that I needed to know.

FB
The illustrations were terrific. In your book, Alice’s Adventures Underwater, Robert Louis Black did 42 fantastic original illustrations. The style is close to John Tenniel’s work in the original book. What is Robert’s background and how did you find him?

Illustration by artist Robert Louis Black of various fish in hardhats building a structure, from “Alice’s Adventures under Water” by Lenny de Rooy.

LDR
It was a real challenge to find someone who could illustrate my book because 42 Illustrations are not cheap. Eventually, I found Robert online on one of those platforms where artists offer their services. We had a great collaboration because I had several ideas about very specific illustrations and he drew them perfectly. On the other hand, there were also illustrations I didn’t have any specific ideas for and he came up with some great pieces. He even put some jokes into it himself.

FB
That’s excellent. I believe that’s how the collaboration between Lewis Carroll and Tenniel went as well. Tenniel had lots of creative ideas to offer Lewis Carroll.

LDR
Robert also corrected me because, for example, in my story, there’s a cobbler, which is a type of fish, and also someone who makes shoes. So I had the idea of having him wear two shoes on the points of his tail. Then Robert said a cobbler does not have a tail with two points. It has an ear-like tail. I said, “Thank you. So I guess he’s wearing them on the fins on his sides, then.”

FB
That’s where the research comes in and the collaboration comes in. I found collaborating with artists to be deeply, deeply satisfying. It also reminded me of Christmas. Suddenly, in my email, there would be a gift of an image that was previously only living in my mind and now it has been expressed through another human being’s art. When it was working, it was so deeply satisfying, that I became a little bit addicted to the exchange. “Hey, let me write a little description,” or “I need you to interpret this because I have no idea what the card soldiers look like when they fold up.” When that exchange happened, it was such a beautiful, satisfying moment. Did you have the same feeling?

LDR
Oh, yes. Robert was very dedicated to getting things exactly right. But he was also able to make my ideas so much better. I can’t draw for the life of me but I sometimes made sketches of the general idea I had, and then looked very crappy. If you compare those to what he drew, he was just the perfect guy for this job. I’m so happy I found him.

Illustration by artist Robert Louis Black of a sea-themed house surrounded by various fish and stacks of books, from “Alice’s Adventures under Water” by Lenny de Rooy.

FB
You and I have that in common, terrible drawings. Which is probably why it’s so satisfying when somebody who’s masterful can deliver on the concept.

LDR
That’s another parallel to Lewis Carroll. He drew the illustrations for the manuscripts he wrote for Alice. Then when he went to publish his book, he realized, “Well, I can’t draw that well so I really need professional artists.”

FB
But it was not bad. From my viewing of it, his work was pretty impressive. But I found that if I was able to do that my artists would have been way ahead of the game. I thought he did a pretty good job. The way Carroll wrote some of the poems also was quite interesting and I think Tenniel copied some of that.

LDR
We can find some parallels between Lewis Carroll’s original drawings and Tenniel’s drawings. It’s unclear how deliberately he worked off of Carroll’s drawings. He always claimed to work from his own imagination. But he must have seen the original manuscripts and could very well have been influenced by them. Carroll also may have asked him to draw something a certain way. Not much of that conversation has been kept, unfortunately.

FB
There were a number of letters between them and Tenniel wrote a lot of letters to the publisher and even to Alice, correct?

LDR
I don’t know if Tenniel wrote to Alice but yes, several of his letters have been kept. For example, the letter in which he advises Carroll to get rid of the “A Wasp in a Wig” chapter because he couldn’t find his way to a picture. He did have an influence on the story as well, not just the illustrations.

FB
That alone is a big influence, cutting a chapter because he couldn’t find his way into the art.

Illustration of the King and Queen of Hearts being attended to at a feast by Lewis Carroll for his book “Alice’s Adventures Underground”.
Illustration of the King and Queen of Hearts being attended to at a feast by artist Sir John Tenniel from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll.

FB
Also, the seahorse has a great line. He says, “When you look at me, you see a horse.” Did you have fun coming up with the puns?

LDR
I had a lot of fun. Some I had to think about for a long time, but most of them just came so easily. As Lewis Carroll said, some things just came by themselves. I wrote down things when I thought of them and then I thought, “How can I use them in this book?”

FB
That’s when you know you’re onto something. How do you enjoy writing poems and prose? Do you find one easier than the other? Because there’s quite a bit of poetry in this book.

LDR
It was really hard writing the poetry. I like writing both prose and poetry but I’ve had the most struggles with the poetry because Carroll’s poetry is so good. It’s very hard to live up to. I’m not sure if I succeeded, but I wanted to give it a try. I had many discussions with my proofreader about the metronome because I’m not a native speaker. I had some idea about how to pronounce the words, the right cadence, and where to put the emphasis, but there were slight nuances that I didn’t pick up on and had to change.

However, I do have to say that writing poetry in English is still a bit easier than writing poetry in Dutch. Even though it’s not my native language, I think English has many more rhyming words than Dutch. It’s easier to match them.

FB
On that note, I’m going to ask you to read a little bit from your book. In Chapter Five, there’s a very nice poem, feel free to read the setup, if you’d like. The chapter is called “The Well of Fishes.” Would you be comfortable reading a little bit for us?

LDR
Yes, I wonder if people will recognize its origins.

“Three times when adding up primes I was distraught,
Seven pages homework somehow getting burned,
Nine nights of studying all for naught,
One error made and not a lesson learned
From the school of Laketown where the cod are taught.
One Fish to teach them all, One Fish to commend them,
One Fish to test them all and in the end suspend them
From the school of Laketown where the cod are taught.”

FB
Excellent. Would you want to share the origin that you were teasing? All of us novices would love to know. Give us the inside scoop.

LDR
The hint is in “one fish to teach them all.” It’s a reference to The Lord of the Rings, “One ring to rule them all.”

Author Lenny de Rooy signing copies of her book “Alice’s Adventures Underwater”.

FB
Clever. Did you have any hesitation in taking on a childhood classic as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?

LDR
Of course, I was hesitant because I wanted it to be done right or not at all. But I’ve had this website for so many years. I know so much about the story and its background. I felt confident about understanding all aspects of the original books. So I did know what to put into it. It needed to have poetry. It needed to have 12 chapters. It needed to have 42 illustrations, and you’d have puns and things like that. I felt confident about that. The challenge was to create a good story that was Carroll-worthy.

I presented it to my proofreader who is also into Alice in Wonderland, and he liked it. I thought that was a good sign. I just went ahead and decided to publish it and I’d see how people receive it.

FB
If you were in an elevator and you had to pitch it to somebody, how would you do that? How would you pitch it to people who are not very into Alice?

LDR
I would say it’s a sequel. It’s written in the same style as Lewis Carroll’s original stories but with more recent references, jokes, and puns. So people that live in the now will understand it because of Carroll’s books, you really need to know something about Victorian times to understand all the jokes. This is an Alice version for modern readers.

FB
So it’s a contemporary version, in terms of some of the puns and the jokes and the references. Do you want to give us an example of something recognizable in your book where we would be in on the joke?

LDR
For example, there’s a reference to Brexit. I’ve had parodies in the books that are from poems like “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe, but also more modern songs and poems that people will recognize now. Like The Lord of the Rings poem.

FB
I think people really love that. I don’t know if you’ve seen the musical Wicked. But people love guessing and trying to figure out what the backstory is and what the references are. There’s so much of that in your book for people to enjoy.

I’m curious. Curiouser and curiouser. Why do you think Alice still matters?

LDR
I think it’s one of those stories that everyone can read into it what they want. It’s for children. It’s for adults. You can read it as just a funny tale. You can read it like I do and try to find out what Carroll was referring to. You can read it as something spiritual or something related to drugs. Anything you want, you can find in the story. And that makes it appeal to so many people.

FB
This story really captured the collective consciousness because of what you just said. Everybody can take something out of it and interpret things in the way they want. Also, thematically it’s so much about who you are. She asks, “Who am I?” We’re always evolving as people so I do think it’s a beautiful way to reflect all kinds of different cultures and themes that people are dealing with. Because there’s so much Alice out there, how do you hope that your book will add to the Alice canon?

LDR
There are many books that are inspired by Lewis Carroll in different ways. Your books have taken inspiration from it and you made this whole new world and did a completely different take on the story. There are a lot of people who are interested in that. I wanted to target another audience, the people who want to read more of the original tales, and who like staying very true to the original story. Or the people who are more interested in the books from a scholarly perspective. I wanted to give them something.

FB
I didn’t realize how many collectors there were and how many Alice scholars. I didn’t know about all the Lewis Carroll societies. It’s very rich and very deep. I ask all my guests, if they were a character from Lewis Carroll’s books, who would they be? But because you wrote the sequel, I’m going to throw your book into it as well. You can pick from any of the characters in the trilogy.

Image of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” author Lewis Carroll sitting in a chair with his legs crossed.

LDR
Actually, I don’t identify with the characters. I would say I identify more with Lewis Carroll himself, with Charles Dodgson. I’m the writer of a book, but I also am a person with many hobbies and interests like him, and I can relate to him a lot.

FB
You are really creative in all sorts of capacities. And Lewis Carroll was very creative with his photography, which was cutting-edge at the time. I understand the reference, being an author and following his footsteps in terms of the ideas behind his book. But there are a lot of misconceptions, like that he was reclusive. I’m assuming you’re not reclusive, but maybe you are.

LDR
I’m actually a social person. I like locking myself up in my room for my hobbies but at other times I like meeting people and doing fun things together. As did Lewis Carroll. I think the misconception of a reclusive Lewis Carroll was created because he wanted to differentiate himself from his pen name. He did not like to publicly acknowledge that he was Lewis Carroll. Of course, he had a religious background so maybe that’s why he never married, but he was a social person. He had lots of friends, not only child friends. He also visited many famous people. He was a bit of a lion-hunter from what I understand. He had dinner dates and went out to the beach. I would say he was social as well.

FB
Also, people wrote that his books were written just for children, which we clearly know they were not. People think that the stories were about taking drugs. They clearly were not but what’s interesting about that comment is that culturally, Alice is always representing what’s going on. So yes, if you’re reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in the 1960s, you would see it as a psychedelic trip falling down the rabbit hole, but if you’re reading it during this era, it’s a completely different lens that you’re reading the book through.

There was also the whole thing with Alice Liddell and the missing diary page, which picked up a lot of internet buzz, and a lot of conspiracy theories. I used the missing diary pages as a device to say, “Those pages were taken out because he didn’t want to tell the true story of meeting Alyss Heart from my book.” I also used the Lewis Carroll Society as somewhat of a villain, who didn’t want my book to come out.

LDR
They were very grateful for that.

FB
They were fine. Back to your hobbies, you’re a musician and a seamstress. But interestingly enough, I haven’t seen you do any Alice in Wonderland cosplay promoting your book. You should be at Comic-Cons with your book dressed as Alice. Maybe instead of having a booth, you’d be in a water tank.

Image of Lenny de Rooy in a yellow dress, blue and white apron, black and white striped socks, and black shoes.
Image of a bearded man dressed in a pirate outfit designed and made by Lenny de Rooy.

LDR
That would be interesting. Maybe a bit of a logistic challenge.

FB
But you would get a lot of attention and you’d sell a lot of books.

LDR
Actually, I do own an Alice costume but I have not worn it for promotional activities.

FB
What are you thinking girl? Come on. Let’s make the connection. You should be using your bagpipe to record Alice songs, dressed as Alice, with the book cover everywhere.

LDR
I did play in a band called Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

FB
I did see that. I thought that was very fun. How often would you perform?

LDR
Well, the band doesn’t exist anymore. Unfortunately, my bandmate passed away. I’m in a medieval band and we play mostly during festival season, the end of spring until the beginning of autumn. I’m also in a balfolk band. Balfolk is traditional West European music. It’s mostly performed for dances as live performances and we usually play several times a year.

FB
Is this a hobby or something that you’re trying to make into a career? Are you recording music?

Image of the Dutch medieval band De Soete Inval in medieval peasant dress at a historical festival.

LDR
I call myself a semi-professional musician, it’s more than a hobby, but I do have a job. Besides the music and the book and sewing and things, I work in the marketing and communications department at a university because I do like some stability when it comes to finances. I do not know if I would like the lifestyle that comes with being a full-time musician. It’s a lot of working nights and weekends.

FB
You have some Alice art on your screen. You have a mushroom and the Cheshire cat. Speaking of that, what was your cat called in the book?

LDR
In the book it was called Villikens.

FB
Tell us about your cat character.

LDR
That’s a reference for people who are more knowledgeable about the background of Lewis Carroll’s Alice because the real Alice actually owned cats. In the original books, she has Dinah, which was actually one of her kittens. Another one of their cats was called Villikens. So in my book, Alice tells Villikens, who is a meerkat actually and not a real cat. But Alice tells him about Dinah and now she meets Villikens which is actually the littermate.

FB
Tell me about some of the artists that you love that have depicted Lewis Carroll’s books. Are there any favorites?

LDR
I am a Tenniel fan. I’m not into collecting books from other illustrators. There are so many to choose from. I like some of the illustrations, but I am not a real fan of someone in particular. The image I have in my Zoom background is one that was done by someone for contests and I just liked this particular image, so I saved it.

FB
So you’re a traditionalist?

LDR
I guess you can say that. That’s also why I wanted my illustrator to draw in the style of John Tenniel.

FB
It was terrific. Can you share a little bit about the website and maybe give us some interesting facts about Lewis Carroll that are more obscure? For instance, the White Rabbit’s obsession with time. It’s my understanding that it was a satire on the British cultural obsession with being very punctual.

Illustration of the White Rabbit by artist Sir John Tenniel from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll.
1858 portrait of Henry Liddell, dean of Christ Church, Oxford University and father of Alice Liddell, by portraitist George Richmond.

LDR
There are many theories about the origins of the characters. It is also said that Lewis Carroll modeled the White Rabbit after Alice’s father, the ecclesiastical dean of Christchurch, Oxford because he apparently was often running late. But there’s no real proof of that.

FB
That’s just fun information. So you put things like that on your website?

LDR
I’m mostly focused on things that have a little more proof or it’s more likely that it’s true. I also focus more on the origins of the story, like how everyone imagines Alice with a blue dress even though the original illustrations are black and white. So what would Carol have had in mind? First, illustrations that were officially published in his books have Alice in a yellow dress, but there was also merchandise showing her in a red dress or a blue dress. So Disney was not the first to depict her in a blue dress, but it made it iconic. So I’m trying to add those things to the website so people will know more about how these things come to pass.

FB
That’s really interesting. I knew about the yellow but I didn’t know about a red dress. What is the indication that there was a red dress?

LDR
I think it was on the merchandise.

FB
Lewis Carroll was selling merchandise back then?

LDR
He produced his own stamp case. He was quite commercially talented.

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” stamp case by Lewis Carrol featuring illustrations of the Cheshire Cat and Alice.

FB
He was way ahead of his time. Authors weren’t doing that back then. That’s really interesting.

LDR
He was always focused on how to promote the story, how much it should cost, and who should be able to afford it.

FB
What are some of your favorite references to Alice in pop culture?

LDR
I’m mostly a fan of Disney’s cartoon Alice in Wonderland because that’s my childhood thing and it led me to the books. I’m less of a fan of the Tim Burton movie. That’s too far from the original story. But I am grateful to him that the movie leads more people to the original books. Because every few years something comes out that is popular with the new generation and that really helps to keep them interested in Lewis Carroll’s books.

FB
What did you think of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter?

LDR
I actually parodied him in my book.

FB
I feel like I’m mining and I’m getting these little gold nuggets. Eventually, I’m going to have all of them by the end of this interview. Tell us about that.

LDR
My secret desire is that someone publishes an annotated version about my book, as Martin Gardner did for the Alice books. I’m not going to tell you everything, there should be something to figure out. Also, there’s way too much in there to put into one podcast.

FB
As a musician are there songs or musicians who have used Alice that you really like?

LDR
I do know some songs related to Alice, but I’m not really into all those pop culture adventures. I’m more about the book’s origins. That’s my focus.

FB
So when I say you’re a traditionalist, that is 100% accurate?

LDR
I’m not saying that all the other things are not relevant and shouldn’t be there. I really love how people get inspired by the stories. It’s just I have to have a focus or I’ll be all over the place.

FB
When did you start your website? It’s so deep.

LDR
I started it in December 1997. That’s 25 years ago, even longer.

FB
Wow, it’s really expansive. But it’s also a great resource and it does feel like a work of passion. It’s easy to navigate. I didn’t realize I had been utilizing it because when I went on it to do a little bit of research before the podcast, I went, “I’ve been on this website a million times! I’m always looking at this website and now I get to interview the person who created it.”

LDR
Famous without knowing it. I like your compliment because my day job is being an online marketer where I really focus on usability. I do want my website to be user-friendly. Also, I do not want it to be very commercial. I want to spread knowledge and I want people to know about the origins and be able to look up everything.

FB
It’s a great resource. From everybody out there who’s an Alice fan, thank you for giving us a website that we can navigate down the rabbit hole into Wonderland and find our way home.

LDR
That would be something to make you get lost there.

FB
Are you planning on writing any more fiction in the Alice universe? And, where can we find your book?

LDR
I have been asked whether I will write another sequel but it’s not on my to-do list. This book was on my bucket list. It just had to happen sometime. I’m not saying I will never write another book. I do blog a lot on my personal blog and on my Amazon website. I will focus on that from now on. As to where you can find the book, you can buy it at alice-in-wonderland.net. You can also find it on Amazon and in bookshops. You can just order it from your local bookstore or online bookstores.

FB
Before we go, is there a passage from Lewis Carroll’s books that stands out, maybe something that is not often quoted that you would like to share with us?

LDR
Yes, it’s a passage from Through the Looking-glass. It’s when Alice encounters a door and she wants to enter. There’s a frog and she has this conversation with the frog that I, for some reason, find immensely funny.

“‘What is it, now?’ the Frog said in a deep hoarse whisper.

Alice turned round, ready to find fault with anybody. ‘Where’s the servant whose business it is to answer the door?’ she began angrily.

‘Which door?’ said the Frog.

Alice almost stamped with irritation at the slow drawl in which he spoke. ‘This door, of course!’

The Frog looked at the door with his large dull eyes for a minute: then he went nearer and rubbed it with his thumb, as if he were trying whether the paint would come off; then he looked at Alice.

‘To answer the door?’ he said. ‘What’s it been asking of?’ He was so hoarse that Alice could scarcely hear him.

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she said.

‘I talks English, doesn’t I?’ the Frog went on. ‘Or are you deaf? What did it ask you?’

‘Nothing!’ Alice said impatiently. ‘I’ve been knocking at it!’

‘Shouldn’t do that—shouldn’t do that—’ the Frog muttered. ‘Vexes it, you know.’ Then he went up and gave the door a kick with one of his great feet. ‘You let it alone,’ he panted out, as he hobbled back to his tree, ‘and it’ll let you alone, you know.’” – from Chapter 9: “Queen Alice”, Through the Looking-glass by Lewis Carroll.

I liked this door discussion so I’ve put a door discussion in my book as well.

FB
Excellent. Thank you very much for being on our show, All Things Alice. If there is a perfect guest, who knows all things Alice, it is you, Lenny. So hats off.

LDR
Thank you very much for having me. It was my honor.


For the latest updates & news about All Things Alice,  please read our blog and subscribe to our podcast!

ALL THINGS ALICE: INTERVIEW WITH TERESA LIN, PART 2

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 Teresa Lin join me as my guest for Part 2 of our deep dive into our creative process! Read on to explore our conversation and check out the whole series on your favorite podcasting platform to listen to the full interview.


Frank Beddor
Welcome to the show everybody. Happy Valentine’s Day. Given that it’s the day of celebration for love and relationships, I thought I would invite my beautiful bride to join me today so we can have a chat about all things Alice and some of the relationships that are significant both in The Looking Glass Wars and in the musical that we’re developing. Welcome to the show again, Teresa.

Teresa Lin
Hi, it’s good to be back. Speaking about Valentine’s and love, love is such a complicated thing. It certainly is in The Looking Glass Wars and the musical. I think we all want to lean into that because love can be complicated. 

FB
Complication makes for good melodrama. Let’s talk about Alice Liddell and the Alyss that I created in The Looking Glass Wars and the relationships from real life and fiction. One of the things I wanted to talk about is in The Looking Glass Wars Alyss Heart meets Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s fourth son and he fancies her because she’s famous from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, famous for being Lewis Carroll’s muse. At the same time, she meets Reginald Hargreaves, who is a real-life figure. He was actually the real-life Alice Liddell’s husband. He was a cricket star and, in the novel, he fancies Alyss so there is a natural conflict for her love between these two men. But in the novel, I wrote Prince Leopold as a bit arrogant and not all that desirable, too much of an aristocrat. 

When you and I started talking about the TV show and the musical, you referenced The Notebook as an example, because in The Notebook, the two men, Noah and Lon, who are vying for the lead character, Allie, are both very, very desirable and likable. So there’s a real decision and there’s a real conflict. In The Looking Glass Wars, once Alyss is deciding if she should marry for status, it’s not very romantic.

Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams as Noah and Allie, embracing in the rain, in the 2004 romance film "The Notebook".

TL
We were really trying to capture what would make a great love story. 

FB
Why would she fall in love with Leopold? What were his desirable qualities? 

TL
Also, what would be the real conflict for them? What would be the opposition to their relationship? 

FB
In The Looking Glass Wars, the opposition came from Queen Victoria because Leopold was marrying a commoner and someone who had been a street urchin. Also, and this is something you conceived of, Alyss is much more proactive in the TV show and the musical in terms of helping other orphans. 

TL
For the show, what we really wanted to hone in on was Alyss being a champion of people who are down on their luck or had no voice and had no power, because she felt something like that in her own story, deep in her DNA from being kicked out of Wonderland. She feels this injustice and her destiny is to be the person who fights for these people. I think to have her embody these qualities at a time when women didn’t have much of a voice, they couldn’t own property, they were property themselves in the Victorian age, and for her to pursue love, on her own terms, was something that was really out of time for that story. For her to come in and be the one who chooses the man rather than the man choosing her feels really in line with our modern values.

FB
The other interesting thing was the solution that you had regarding the love triangle. Alyss returns to Wonderland and it turns out the love of her life is Dodge Anders. While she’s in our world, she has strong dreams and visualizations of a destined love. 

Illustration of Dodge Anders, in a military uniform and holding a sword, by artist Vance Kovacs from Frank Beddor's "The Looking Glass Wars".
Queen Alyss Heart sitting on a red throne in a pink dress with a long, ruffled train by artist Andrea Wickland from Frank Beddor's "The Looking Glass Wars".

TL
When she was young, she had these experiences with Dodge of being able to run off and have their own adventures and to have someone who was really a close friend and confidant, and someone she felt would risk his life for her. So I think that was in her body and memory, even as a dream that she was not supposed to be having. 

FB
So in the novel, she returns to Wonderland and she’s reunited with Dodge, who’s angry and bitter. He’s struggling with what happened during Redd’s coup. 

TL
He didn’t even know whether Alyss was alive or dead. 

FB
He did hold on to the belief that she was alive somewhere but it takes a minute for them to rekindle their friendship and find their romantic interest as adults and it’s something that I think people wish I had written more about. But what I wanted you to mention is the solution that you had for the love triangle in the musical. 

TL
We came up against the story conflict of Alyss having two different love interests, one in our world, Prince Leopold, and one in Wonderland, Dodge. What kind of choice would she be making? We circled this idea of the doppelgangers and that there was a version of ourselves in Wonderland that exists in our world and maybe other worlds. But when Alyss returns to Wonderland, the reveal is that Dodge and Leopold are the same person and they would be played by the same actor. They would be doppelgangers of each other. 

FB
I love that idea. It also gives Prince Leopold a moment in our world to tell Alyss, “It’s okay. It’s your destiny.” In essence, he sets her free, even though there’s a version of him that we’re going to meet in Wonderland, unbeknownst to his character. 

Photograph of Alice Liddell, wearing a white dress and surrounded by foliage, taken by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1872.
Photograph of Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, son of Queen Victoria, sitting in a chair and wearing a kilt and livery collars, taken by W&D Downey photographers in 1872.

TL
I find that deeply romantic. One of the things that we researched when we were working on these projects was a possible real-life romantic relationship between Alice Liddell and Prince Leopold. It’s easy to construe that Queen Victoria would have been against their courtship. But when Leopold married and had his first child, he named her Alice. 

FB
And when Alice Liddell married Reginald Hargreaves, their first son was named Leopold.

TL
That just gave me goosebumps.

FB
It’s Valentine’s Day, that should give you goosebumps.

I think that it is really interesting and hopefully, when we get either the musical or the TV show made, it will be an effective moment. So those of you listening are getting a little preview of one of the shows.

Also, Leopold was a bit sickly. He had haemophilia, which is a bleeding disorder where your blood doesn’t clot properly. He inherited it from Queen Victoria. His daughter, Princess Alice, was a carrier of the disease and his grandson Rupert, died from it. 

TL
It lends a sense of fragility and vulnerability to his character, which I thought was really sweet and in line with Alyss being the warrior princess. She was, in essence, his protector. It was also the reason that he couldn’t go back to Wonderland and fight with Alyss.

FB
Because he was worried he might get cut if he went through the Looking-glass. 

That’s the central love story, for which I think we will continue to find moments. But there’s also the familial love story between Queen Genevieve and Princess Rose, who became Queen Redd and there’s also the story between Hatter and his brother Dalton.

The relationships between the two sisters and the two brothers carry a lot of emotional power, because of the love and the betrayal. So you have both sides of this coin.

Illustration of a younger Queen Redd, wearing a red bodysuit and a tattered red cape, from Frank Beddor's "The Looking Glass Wars".
Illustration of Queen Genevieve, wearing a white formal dress, from Frank Beddor's "The Looking Glass Wars".

TL
The familial relationships are always hard to tease out because you have the loyalty to family, then you have, for them, the loyalty to the nation and to their queens. Then they also have their own private feelings about who they choose to love and how that complicates things if that doesn’t fall in the right domain. 

FB
In terms of the development of, one hopes, a very long-running show…

TL
There are a lot of story and relational threads that could feed into the complicated conflict set up in our stories. 

FB
For folks that have not read the graphic novels, I introduce Hatter’s brother, Dalton, and there is an entire backstory of Dalton having a relationship with Queen Redd, or Rose when they were younger. 

There’s just a lot to work with. There are multiple timelines and multiple characters to play with and we don’t have to follow the structure of the novels. We can take prequel stories and sequel stories and we can feather those threads into season one with the hopes that we do a good job and it’s long-running. 

TL
Bringing it all back to love, I think the best love stories are the ones where you see the characters fighting for their love. They have to go through this long, arduous emotional journey of really fighting and proving themselves and testing the love. I think we have all of those pieces in our story threads for all the characters. They have a lot of opposition. There’s a lot of conflict before they ever get to a place where they are reunited or there’s peace in the land or their hearts. 

FB
I think we can really stretch out the tension between Alyss and Dodge when Alyss returns and she’s trying to find her footing as the destined queen, the warrior, and Dodge’s eventual wife. For anybody who has read Crossfire, the graphic novel, we see that the two of them are married and it’s be careful what you wish for. Ruling is difficult and ruling as a couple is also difficult. But their love is strong. 

TL
How would you describe the relationship between Hatter and Alyss? Although it’s not a romantic love, he’s her sworn protector, her guardian, and very much a father figure. What does that feel like for you, when you think of those two characters?

Illustration of Princess Alyss Heart and Hatter Madigan being separated as they travel through the Pool of Tears by artist Ben Templesmith from the graphic novel "Hatter M: Far From Wonder".

FB
The father figure aspect is really important because she grew up with him for those first seven years. They had a very playful relationship, she would tease him quite a bit. Hatter, as a Milliner, is meant to marry within the Milliner race and, of course, he falls in love with somebody outside of that race. So, being in this forbidden relationship, he can’t envision having a son or a daughter of his own. 

TL
By the time he’s catapulted into our world, and he’s lost Alyss, his whole journey and his whole focal point over 13 years has been finding Alyss. I thought that was really, really strong in your graphic novels. Even though he’s come across all of these romantic relationships throughout time and in different places on Earth, his primary focus is to find Alyss. Yet when he does find Alyss, he’s rejected by her. I find that so interesting. I think about the internal turmoil that he has to face. He’s found his charge, his lost child, but she rejects him. That’s very rich.

FB
I often think of Hatter as Liam Neeson in Taken except his skill set is not as well honed, and it takes a very long time. But I don’t think Liam Neeson would be very happy if his daughter was like, “I’m fine. I’ve got this, Dad.”

On one of the other podcasts, I talked about not having a moment in the novel where Hatter confronts Alyss and she commands him to leave, which would have been a really great scene to write. I just thought that he would forcibly take her and forgot she’s really his superior. 

TL
I don’t know, I think after 13 years lost in our world, and then finally finding her, he’s not losing her again, no matter what she commands. 

FB
Thank you for that. 

TL
There is no way he’s leaving her side. 

FB
That’s what I thought. But then it is a complicated and interesting scene that creates a lot of tension and a lot of turmoil. 

TL
And also, the complications of them finding each other again, as people. She’s grown up now. She’s no longer a seven-year-old child. There’s a relationship that they both have to earn and there’s trust they both have to come back to because when Alyss got catapulted into our world, she was looking for him for a long time and then slowly had to let go of her hope. 

Illustration of Queen Alyss Heart wearing ornate plate armor and holding a broadsword, by artist Vance Kovacs from Frank Beddor's "The Looking Glass Wars".
Illustration of Hatter Madigan wielding a wrist blade and standing in front of the suit family symbol, by artist Ben Templesmith from the "Hatter M" graphic novel series.

FB
And he’s only holding onto the seven-year-old Alyss. That’s the image that he has but she’s a completely different person, finding herself in our world for 13 years. 

TL
Back to love and Valentine’s and relationships, this underscores for me how we’re always evolving and we’re always changing in relationships. You can’t pinpoint a place in time and say, “You’re not the same person I met 20 years ago. How come you’ve changed?”

FB
Well, how have you changed since we met 10 years ago? 

TL
That’s hard to describe. “Where have I stayed the same?” would be the better question.

I definitely feel more expanded and more aware and hopefully more conscious. Definitely in my sense of relational self. I feel like the more that you learn about yourself and about how life is the less you take things personally. You realize that everyone’s on their journey, everyone’s on their path, and you can’t fix it for anyone else. That is true of Hatter and Alyss. She has to do the work and he has to do the work. 

FB
Well, I am happy to be on this journey with you and to get the opportunity to wish you a happy Valentine’s. 

TL
Thank you, my love.

FB
I love you very much.

TL
Your favorite word, Ditto.

FB
Thanks, everybody. Happy Valentine’s to everybody out there listening. 

We will be back with, what I’m gonna call “All Things Creative,” where Teresa and I are going to talk about some of the other projects we’re working on and the creative process that we go through and give everybody a sneak peek at some other shows and books and things we’re working on. Take care.

TL
Take care.


For the latest updates & news about All Things Alice,  please read our blog and subscribe to our podcast!

ALL THINGS ALICE: INTERVIEW WITH ARNOLD HIRSHON

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 Arnold Hirshon 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.


Frank Beddor 
Thanks a lot for being on the show. I’m chatting with Arnold Hirshon, who’s the president of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America. I’m really interested in the Lewis Carroll Society. I wrote The Looking Glass Wars books and part of my metafiction was some confrontations with Lewis Carroll Society members. When I was first publishing my book in the UK, I was invited on the BBC to talk about Alice and why I decided to write it. There was a little controversy because I’m an American rewriting it and it was even worse that I was a movie producer. So when I got on the show, there were all these Lewis Carroll Society members protesting and they had placards with “Off with Frank Beddor’s Head!” I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m going to be interviewing the president of the Lewis Carroll Society, I got to give that story up to start.”

Arnold Hirshon
Was that the UK society or was that the North American?

FB
I didn’t know there were multiple societies. Maybe you could start by filling our listeners in on the various societies and how the North American Society was formed and your involvement and what the mandate is.

AH
The Lewis Carroll Society of North America, the one I’m President of, started 50 years ago. The basic purpose is to advance the study and interest in any of the works by Lewis Carroll, the mathematical works, logical works, games, puzzles, and of course, the Alice books, The Hunting of the Snark, Phantasmagoria, anything. And it could be any aspect. It can be the literature itself, it can be illustration, music, movies, plays, the whole gamut. All of that is part of our remit. The Lewis Carroll Society in the UK, which is known as the Lewis Carroll Society, continues to do its work, There are also societies in Brazil, the Netherlands, and Japan, and we’re all loosely affiliated in our interest. But ours, the North America society, is probably the one with the greatest reach and the most international membership. About 10-15%, 20% of our members are actually outside of North America.

FB
What do the members do in terms of interacting with all of this work? Because it’s obviously so deep-seated in pop culture, I imagine you could spend your life studying and trying to keep up with it and not even scratch the surface. What are the members mostly interested in?

AH
It’s a combination of things. We have a journal that comes out two times a year, the Knight Letter, which is pretty extensive. It is everything from scholarly articles to fun facts and the latest occurrences found in popular culture, whether it’s a political cartoon or a quote. It includes information about newly published editions, illustrated editions typically, anywhere in the world. That’s one element of our educational programming. 

We also run two conferences per year, one virtual, and one in person. The last one was in Cleveland this past September and we’re looking to hold another one in the fall of 2024 as a celebration of our 50th anniversary. Those topics can be a very wide range. This last time, there were people discussing Alice in popular music and rock music. We had people discussing Alice in dance, Alice in literature, Alice in Japan. So those conferences tend to be a fairly wide gamut. Then we run typically about eight to 10 virtual programs throughout the year which could be an illustrator discussing a work in progress, or a recently published book. It can be Alice in the movies. Those, again, run that whole range and it is not just Alice-related. We also have collectors talking about their collections and latest acquisitions.

FB
That seems like it would be a big section of the membership because there is so much to collect. There are so many interesting books. I have a book, Songs from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Cover of "Songs from 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Through the Looking-Glass'" with image of large Alice surrounded by the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse, and the White Rabbit.
Pages from "Songs from 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Through the Looking-Glass'". One has an image of a teacup with legs decorated in red and black card suits. The other page features sheet music.

AH
Yes, absolutely. I know it well.

FB
I was fascinated with the lyrics. It was published in 1921. The art is amazing.

AH
I have a copy of it sitting over there on my shelves. I actually have both that version, which is the original, as well as a couple of reprinted versions. There’s a delightful illustration of Beautiful Soup in that book, the Soup Bowl has this long pair of legs.

FB
Yes, I love that image. Love it. 

AH
Charles Folkard is a brilliant illustrator. I also have the original sheet music of two of the three Alice in Wonderland songs that Irving Berlin composed in the early 20th century. There’s a whole wide range of things. I was an English major in college so my interest started from the literature side, from the text. But more and more it gravitated towards the illustrations. The Alice books in particular are, by far, the most illustrated books of fiction in the world.

FB
There are so many remarkable facts. It’s the second-most quoted literary work in the world behind the Bible. There are more translations than Harry Potter. I think it’s 175 or 190 countries. I didn’t know there were that many countries.

AH
Sometimes it can be two or three dialects from the same country. It could be Catalan, in Spain, as well as in Spanish. There are also multiple dialects in Chinese.

FB
Is there somebody that collects everything that’s coming out so you have an archive? You brought up political cartoons and during the Trump administration, there was a massive use of Alice in Wonderland to describe the functionality of the government. “Down the rabbit hole” “Off with your head” and “Through the looking-glass”. Tweedledum and Tweedledee were used. Often to great comedic effect. So does somebody collect those things for your society? Or are they just talked about at these conferences?  

AH
It’s all individual collectors. There are some institutions, certainly, that collect but I don’t think that any institution by any means has comprehensive collections, meaning exhaustive, what we would call completist. I am not a completist collector. There were hundreds published by the original publisher Macmillan. So you have the first 1,000, the first 2,000, then you have the first 10,000. Some people collect all of those, every single one. I do not. If I have one good copy of Tenniel, it’s enough, because I use my collection for research and personal interest. I’m not necessarily trying to collect a perfect copy of a first edition of something. I want representative illustrations from that Illustrator. I want something that I can also afford because some of these things can go literally into the millions of dollars, and many of them will go into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

There are certainly some very major collections in not just the British Library, but also in North America at the University of Texas, New York University, the University of Toronto, Harvard, and the Morgan Library in New York. There are probably about 20 I could rattle off that have significant collections. But very often, they stopped collecting at a certain point, they’re not necessarily collecting late 20th century, early 21st century. Because I’m interested in illustration and so many of these illustrators have come out and continue to come out now, trying to keep up with all of the new ones that are coming out is just impossible.

Page from Lewis Carroll's original manuscript of "Alice's Adventures Under Ground" featuring an illustration of the Queen of Hearts and Alice.
Page from Lewis Carroll's original manuscript of "Alice's Adventures Under Ground" featuring an illustration of the March Hare and Alice.

FB
It would be amazing to have an institution that collects everything that they can find in pop culture. My daughter loves Taylor Swift and I recently wrote a blog about her song, “Wonderland” which I did not realize before there was such a thing. Suddenly, I was a very cool dad for 24 hours. There’s so much out there and it’s really interesting. Visually, it’s really interesting, whether it’s the album or, as you said, the illustrations or photographs of gardens. There are cartoons I find terrific and it would be great to have the movie posters.

AH
Absolutely, and not just movie posters but there are also pop culture posters from theatrical productions and concerts. So there are people who collect and there are a lot of people who, like me, have a more specialized collection. Some people collect just posters, some collect just sculptures, or even just soft sculptures. So you get this wide variety of people who have very varying interests and we’re all joined together by sharing some element of interest in the works of Lewis Carroll. 

FB
The original manuscript with Lewis Carroll’s drawings must be very expensive. 

AH
There’s only one copy of it. There have been facsimile editions but the original is in the British Library. Unfortunately, the British Library recently had a cyber attack so you cannot currently access it online but they normally have that available online as well. On the very last page, there was a photograph of Alice Liddell and an oval-sized picture of her and underneath that, he had originally drawn a picture of her. For decades, people had no idea the drawing existed but they finally realized it so now you can see both the original drawing and the picture of six-year-old Alice.

FB
So the listeners realize the book was originally titled Alice’s Adventures Underground and that’s the book we’re speaking of. Is it a book that you can just touch there? I imagine not.

AH
Somebody would have to have a lot of scholarly credentials.

FB
I’m very interested in doing a documentary about Alice, not so much about how deep Alice runs in pop culture, but why Alice is a muse for so many artists like Taylor Swift and the Wachowskis who did The Matrix and using that to bring people into this deeper Lewis Carroll world. Show them things like the Guinness beer ads, which used Alice for years and years and years. 

Why does Alice last? What is it about Alice that inspires us to keep reinventing her to reflect our contemporary world?

Guinness Beer advertisement featuring characters from "Alice in Wonderland" including Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the March Hare.
Guinness Beer advertisement featuring characters from "Alice in Wonderland" including King and Queen and the Executioner.

AH
Just on the Guinness point, those ads were being used to promote the health benefits of beer. They were sending these things to doctors. When it started in the 1930s and through the 1960s, they were using Alice because everybody would know what the cultural reference was. 

But Alice herself is essentially a cipher. Alice is not the main character, all the other characters are the main. All these things are getting absorbed through Alice and she’s learning as she’s going along. She makes for the perfect foil for any number of characters who come into her life and then leave her life in the next episode, which is essentially usually the next chapter. But there are so many ways of interpreting so much of the text. There are so many ways of visually representing Alice. For example, the Disney character is, to some people, more common than the Tenniel version of it. They have no idea that Disney’s was not the first movie, that there had been 50 years of Alice movie-making before Disney showed up on the scene. And he would have done it himself earlier, but he dropped the project and picked it up later. So there are all of those threads that keep coming through. 

There’s so much ambiguity in the story. The scenes are not plotted out in any strict order. You could move the chapters in a different order, not so much in Through the Looking-glass but certainly in Wonderland, you could change the order if you were reading it to a child who never had read the books before. Except for the very beginning and the very end, the child would have no idea what order you’re reading them in, because there’s no logical sequence to it. There’s no description of the backgrounds. There’s no description of most of the things on the table in the Mad Tea Party, they’re not mentioned at all. So that gives, whether it’s a filmmaker or whether it’s an illustrator, license to make it up as they go along. 

FB
To your point, until Tim Burton came along all the other adaptations have had the flaw of being episodic and trying to give agency to Alice. One of the reasons I wrote my novels was to give her that agency. She meets Lewis Carroll who doesn’t believe her story but ultimately, she is destined, and ultimately, it’s her agency. Then she moves through enough of a plot that it feels more contemporary. There was more agency in The Wizard of Oz for Dorothy than for Alice because Dorothy had a very specific goal and there were obstacles along the way, and those obstacles became friends and then they helped her in the end. What you’re saying is that as a cipher, Alice affords creators so many choices with the other characters. That’s probably a really strong reason why she’s such an amazing muse for so many creators. 

AH
That’s the difference also between Wonderland and Looking-glass. I’ve often described Wonderland as a vertical tale. Alice falls down a rabbit hole and then proceeds through things without any rhyme or reason. Her conversation with the Cheshire Cat, “Where should I go?” “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Whereas Looking-glass is a very horizontal tale. Alice has an objective, she wants to get from one end of the chessboard to the other end of the chessboard so she can be crowned queen. Along the way, she’s going to meet people who she hopes will help her along the way and most of them in Looking-glass do help her whereas in Wonderland, many of them don’t care. Hatter and the March Hare, they’re living their own life so they’re not going to do very much to help. Some of the Looking-glass ones don’t either. Tweedledum and Tweedledee are not the most helpful characters in the world.

FB
I think that is very helpful in terms of breaking down the two books. It seems that there are two camps. There’s the whimsical fantasy dream aspect of the texts that people take away and then there is the surreal nightmare in the illogical and self-inflicted insanity that happens in the book. Do you fall into either of those camps? Or, as a scholar, is there another camp that you look at the works from? 

Still image of Alice wearing a blue dress and white smock from Disney's 1951 "Alice in Wonderland".
Twisted Mad Tea Party featuring the Mad Hatter and March Hare by artist Rickey Romero (Mr. Revenge).

AH
It’s an interesting question. I think the difference that you’re speaking to is, in part, is this an adult book for adults?” Or is this a book for children? The first part of what you said to me is more the children’s book, which can be appreciated by children at a certain level. But even in Victorian times, there were going to be any number of references in the text that no child was going to really pick up on. To me, the books are, in essence, adult tales. To really appreciate the text, you do need to be an adult not just to understand the cultural references of Carroll’s time, but to understand the life experiences. When I was a university administrator I would say to people, “Just read Alice in Wonderland and you’ll know everything you need to know about management.” Every chapter will teach you, and sometimes every paragraph will teach you something that you need to know about how to manage in a situation – how to get yourself extricated, how to deal with conflict management. I probably lean more towards your second category than I do towards the first for that reason. 

Many, many years ago I read that one needs to read Cervantes’ Don Quixote as a teen, as a young adult, and in old age, because you will understand and read things into it and see things differently at different ages in your life. I think the Alice books are very much like that. You come to appreciate different things and even those of us who have read the texts many times, and can recite whole passages, will still reread it or reread a chapter or reread one of the poems and see something that we never saw before. There’s so much to distill in every one of those chapters and in each one of the poems. That’s why it’s such a brilliant work. It’s also one of the things that I think separates it from The Wizard of Oz.

FB
I agree with that. I read it to my daughter when she was eight or nine and she thought it was very funny and weird. But during Lewis Carroll’s time, there weren’t all the categories of publishing that we have now. He wasn’t writing for middle grade or YA. So who was he writing for? It’s very satirical of the Victorian era and he referenced the government a lot. He makes fun of the emphasis on memorization in education, but he was telling the story to these young kids. What do you think he was thinking in terms of how his audience was gonna react?

AH
Originally, he had an audience of Alice and her sisters, and himself. He was writing this to amuse them but also himself. So he was not really thinking about publishing it when he first told the tales. Alice Liddell was amused by the stories and she asked him to write them down so he wrote them down and illustrated them. Originally, I think he thought, “That’s it, I’m done.” But then other people read it and said, “You really should publish this.” 

Of course, one of the key elements of the Alice books is they were the first books that did not speak down to children. They were not moralistic tales. This was “Adventures” in Wonderland. I think that was intentional. I think that’s what he was after for his audience, to speak to children as if they are young adults, not to speak to children as if they are little children. Whether Alice herself reread the books later in life and saw things we probably don’t know. But I think that certainly other people, and generations of people, have. I have a granddaughter who’s five years old and I brought her a copy. She can look through the pictures. It’s the classic, “What’s the use of a book without pictures?” I was giving her the five-minute version for a five-year-old. But after I left, her parents told me she went back to the book and she was spending a long time looking at the pictures. Every audience will appreciate it looking for different things. 

Illustration of "Alice in Wonderland" by artist John Vernon Lord featuring a lion, unicorn, and the March Hare.
Illustration of "Alice in Wonderland" by artist John Vernon Lord featuring the King and Queen of Hearts, the Jack of Hearts, and the White Rabbits.

FB
I started with a pop-up book. I think it was the first pop-up book my daughter had ever seen. Any way to engage kids visually and then synopsize the story and use your voice because those things stick with them. Then they’ll come back to it, as you suggested, later in life. 

I know that you’re the son of a photographer and your kids, one’s an editor and one’s an illustrator. 

AH
I am the son of a photographer. My son Daniel is a film editor and photographer who actually published an Alice street photography book, Alice in Manhattan: A Photographic Trip Down New York City’s Rabbit Holes, which uses his own photography with quotes from Alice.

My other son, Michael is an illustrator and a professor of Illustration at the University of Utah. 

FB
That’s where I went to school. That’s wonderful for both of your sons. 

So you would be well equipped to share with listeners Lewis Carroll and his early photography, which would be considered cutting edge by today’s standards compared to where the art of photography was when he first started. I don’t know if many people realize that he took photos of Alice Liddell and some of her sisters and he also had a lot of interesting techniques with his photography.

AH
In the days when he was doing photography, the subjects had to sit very still for a longer period of time just for the exposure to be able to take. So he used to costume more girls, girls and boys, and adults, as well. It was very heavily portraiture, but he would enact scenes. There’s a picture of Alice in a beggar costume. He would have these typically painted backdrops that he would use. He had pictures of people who were prominent at the time. Ellen Terry was an actress, for example, that he photographed. He experimented quite a bit and then when he lost interest, he just dropped it entirely. Probably around the 1880s, he just stopped doing photography entirely.

Photograph of Alice Liddell wearing a beggar costume taken by Lewis Carroll in 1858.
Photograph of Alice Liddell wearing a dress and sitting sideways in a chair taken by Lewis Carroll in 1858.

FB
Will Brooker, the author of Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture, which is a terrific book, has that Alice as a beggar photograph you mentioned on the cover. It’s a remarkable photograph given when it was taken. It’s so vibrant and she comes to life.

AH
His composition was excellent. He knew exactly how to pose whoever he was taking the photograph of. Sometimes it would be two or three children, for example, in the same picture and he would very elegantly pose mis-en-scenes for his audience and that audience was typically the family. He was not setting up a shop. He wasn’t a portrait photographer by trade. Nor was he trying to sell these as works of art. If you try and buy them now, they’re expensive works, but, at the time, he was doing this basically for his own enjoyment.

FB
So far in our conversation, we have only referenced him by his pen name, Lewis Carroll, and not his actual name, Charles Dodgson. In your experience in terms of randomly speaking with folks about Lewis Carroll, do people know Charles Dodgson? 

AH
Probably not. Unless I’m speaking with a mathematician or logician, probably not. Most people who know Carroll’s work reasonably well have some knowledge of him. If you said the name, they would probably recognize it, but not necessarily make the immediate association.

FB
Interestingly, his real name has not become more prominent with all of the outlets out there. It’s always been Lewis Carroll. Because, in my conversations, nobody seems to know who Charles Dodgson is unless they’re a big fan of his.

AH
Right. That was intentional on his part as he wanted to keep his professional life as an Oxford don teaching mathematics and logic, separate from his creative, fictional characters. Especially once Alice came out, people started to know that this Oxford don was Lewis Carroll. But he continued to publish the books under a pseudonym. He had two parts of his life and he wanted to keep them separate.

FB
If you had to choose one illustrated book of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and that’s all you could have in that big library of yours, which one would you pick? Mine is Ralph Steadman’s take on Alice. I absolutely love Ralph Steadman. It’s the lines, the contemporary 60s vibe. It’s not a surreal nightmare, it’s a surreal world. I just absolutely love his Alice book. How about you? 

AH
I was afraid you were gonna ask this question. 

FB
I thought, “Oh he’s a scholar. Let’s break it up a little bit.”

Illustration of "Alice in Wonderland" by artist Willy Pogany featuring Alice in flapper dress and the Queen of Hearts.

AH
It’s not an easy choice. I do love Steadman’s illustrations. I love Barry Moser’s. I love John Vernon Lord’s illustrations. Jean-Jacques Sempe, who most people know from his New Yorker covers, published an edition in French in 1961 that is just delightful. They’re all brilliant. If I had to pick one, Willy Pogany was an illustrator in the early to mid-20th century. In 1929 he did a flapper Alice and it is absolutely delightful. It’s just brilliant work. One of the reasons I like it so much is when I started collecting and I was leaving one of my places of employment to take another job, the Pogany edition was given to me as a going away gift, and I always treasured it. 

There were multiple editions published at the same time. There was a deluxe edition and there was a trade edition. One of the things that’s different about the trade edition, the deluxe edition does not have this, ironically, is there are colored end papers. The rest of the book is all black and white line drawings but the endpapers are this montage, this collage of different scenes, all in color. There’s just so much to look at. There are so many things that he was the first to do. That’s really one of the things I look at in my scholarly interest. Who was the first illustrator who did something different?

We’ve mentioned Alice falling down the rabbit hole a few times. Carroll, in his manuscript, has no picture of Alice falling down the rabbit hole. John Tenniel has no illustration of Alice falling down the rabbit hole. It’s not until one of the early American pirated editions that somebody actually illustrates that scene. But everybody is sure they’ve seen it before and in fact, you haven’t because before that showed up in 1898. Those are the sorts of things that I look for. Sometimes it’s in the detail. It’s one of the things I like about John Vernon Lord’s illustrations; there’s just so much to look at in his work. There’s a 21st century Russian illustrator, Ksenia Lavrova, who is absolutely brilliant. It’s hard to come by her editions in the United States, you have to order them from abroad. I actually picked it up in Russia on a trip a while ago, but the color illustrations and the level of detail, you could sit for an hour looking at one illustration and not see at all. That’s how brilliant it is.

Illustration of "Alice in Wonderland" by artist Ksenia Lavrova featuring an old man in a chair flanked by medieval-style soldiers.
Illustration of "Alice in Wonderland" by artist Ksenia Lavrova featuring stacks of teacups, a teapot, and a bespectacled man wearing a large hat.

FB
That’s terrific. Well, definitely going to check that out and the edition with Alice as a flapper.

You mentioned Barry Moser as well. I think he won an award for his Alice book in the 1980s. It seems that every generation reinterprets Alice. In the 1960s there were psychedelic aspects because of the Beatles and the Jefferson Airplane song, “White Rabbit”. In the 1990s there’s the whole tech side of it with The Matrix. What do you attribute that to? This re-purposing of Alice to reflect day-to-day life?

AH
It’s the movement of the illustrator and using themselves, as well as introducing something generational. For example, how does fashion change? If I’m looking at a Tenniel illustration in the 21st century, these fashions don’t mean anything to anybody, right? Pogany’s work in the 20s, the bobbed hair and the flapper dress, and those sorts of things would be very different for that generation. Some of it is speaking to cultural reference in fashion, in the backgrounds, in what’s on the table. One of the things I collect are teapots, no relation to the Mad Tea Party, and I’ve threatened to do a study of just the shapes of teapots in different illustrations. 

I think when you start looking at that, that’s what starts to tell you why things change. They want to bring something new to it and they want to bring something interesting to it. They want to bring out some elements of the story that nobody had brought out before and they want to do it in a contemporary way. For example, there are an increasing number of graphic novels. We talked a little bit about the translations, but if you look at the illustrations that came out of other countries, the dress can be very different. The portrayal of how the characters look, if you look at a Japanese or Chinese or Russian illustration is very different from a French or German or English illustration, which is very different from an American or a Latin American illustration. So some of why it gets reinterpreted in illustration is to make it relevant to the local culture. 

One of the things I’ve looked at is, which illustrators got republished in a country other than their own, and which ones never did and why did that happen? I don’t have a great answer to that. I think in some cases, publishers were looking for what they could republish cheaper, and sometimes the not-very-best illustrations got republished. In Esperanto, it probably doesn’t matter what illustrations you use, but in other languages, it does.

FB
It also speaks to why stories last, because they form timeless bridges that connect generations, cultures, and experiences. Alice just happens to work. You mentioned Japan, which I think has the most editions of Alice in Wonderland of any country. 

Japanese illustration of "Alice in Wonderland" featuring Alice in a blue dress, the Caterpillar, and the White Rabbit.
Japanese illustration of "Alice in Wonderland" featuring Alice in a red dress and various Wonderland characters.

AH
It could be. The Japanese and the Russians each have a very deep interest in Alice, probably for very different reasons. But both have a very strong number of editions.

FB
Stories that are generational and that we hand down, we’re sharing a piece of cultural connection for us to somebody else who’s then taking it and reinterpreting it for their kid.

AH
Part of it goes to the absurdist surrealistic nature of the books, or at least they’ve been appropriated by surrealists and absurdists. Each generation thinks it’s the first generation that has dealt with the complexities that it’s had to deal with and the topsy-turvy nature of what’s going on in its world. That’s why Alice continues to be relevant because it was happening in the Victorian age, it’s happening today, and it’s happening every decade. If you look at some of the very early films, they’re very surreal. That’s why I think these things last because you can pull out these elements that are so peculiar but they’re timeless. 

FB 
That’s very true how timeless it is and you can interpret it in so many different ways.

I also spoke at one of your events probably eight, or nine years ago in New York and showed my artwork and the various books and graphic novels I was working on. I’ve hired a lot of different concept artists, mostly people who have worked in Hollywood and it’s been really interesting to work with them and see how they interpret the material. They’re looking for something familiar, but they want to make it wholly their own and they certainly want to make it part of The Looking Glass Wars world. But there’s always a nod. There’s always a little detail for fans of the original books. I’m always looking to do that, even if I’ve made up all sorts of stories about Lewis Carroll. 

I don’t know if people know that he had diaries and there are missing pages from his diaries. There’s all sorts of speculation about, maybe it had to do with those photographs that he took of young Alice and that the parents were unhappy and things like that. I dismissed that and I said the reason he ripped out those pages is because Alice Liddell was actually Alice Hart from my series and he didn’t want people to know that he co-opted her story. Granted, he thought she was traumatized from being on the street as an orphan. So there are little details that I’ve picked up over the years. I’m not a scholar, but I’m like, “Oh, I could use that. I could repurpose that. That’ll be good.” 

AH
It’s doubtful he ripped out those pages, by the way, it’s more likely that his heirs ripped those pages out of his diaries.

FB
I think Will Brooker wrote about that. He mentioned in his book about Lewis Carroll. Where did those pages go? And what were they about? There was a riff between Alice Liddell and Charles Dodgson over something. I don’t know if anyone’s figured out what it was about.

AH
The original riff was actually between Alice’s mother, Lorina, and Dodson. One of the films that had an interesting take on it was Dreamchild. Wholly fictional, but what a great film.

Still image from the 1985 film "Dreamchild" featuring Alice, the March Hare, and the Mad Hatter.

FB
That really went outside of the books and found a way to tell a story that was edgy and of its era.

AH
And the reenactments of the scenes with her in them with Jim Henson’s workshop were just brilliantly done. 

FB
There was a photograph of Alice when she was 18, 19, or 20 that Lewis Carroll took, and she looks very unhappy. What’s the story behind that photograph? 

AH
I don’t know a lot about it. In most Victorian photographs, people look unhappy for a reason. The exposure time was so long that you could not hold a smile for that long. So rather than do that, they just said, “Hold that.” Because if you started with a smile, little by little it was going to go down, it would almost be like the Cheshire Cat smile. You’re gonna see it disappear. That’s different between the mouth and the eyes. 

But the eyes, she did not have the happiest marriage in the world. So whether that might have been part of what’s being reflected in that photograph. And of course, for Victorian childhood going into adulthood, there was this kind of heartbreak. You’re not a child anymore, you have to behave in a very certain way. Of course, Carroll was making fun of that in the books but that was very true and that’s the way Alice was raised. That would probably also help explain that photograph. She left behind her childhood. 

FB
Lewis Carroll gave us a lot of interesting words and terms, obviously, “down the rabbit hole.” He didn’t invent rabbit holes, but he made it a portal. Wonderland. I don’t believe he invented that either but he certainly invented it as a magical place. “Curiouser and curiouser,” is another phrase. But there are a lot more obscure words that he invented that are in culture today. Why don’t you give us a couple of the not-so-well-known ones? 

AH
Jabberwocky certainly has quite a lot of those words. Frabjous day. Brillig. Slithy toves. There’s hardly anything in that opening verse that he didn’t make up. Of course, Humpty Dumpty has to explain what every one of those words mean. If you string along Humpty Dumpty’s whole explanation, it still doesn’t make any sense. I’ve tried to do it multiple times. Humpty Dumpty gives this whole long explanation and he explains each word, but it doesn’t make a sentence when you get to the end of his description. The vorpal sword is another one. 

FB
I’ve made that into a really great weapon.

AH
There are lots of those things that he either made up or popularized in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise have been without him.

Still image from the 1933 Paramount film "Alice in Wonderland" featuring Alice and the King and Queen.

FB
Who was Humpty Dumpty in that 1930s movie? W.C. Fields? 

AH
Yes, the 1933 Paramount film. Cary Grant played the Mock Turtle. Gary Cooper was the White Knight. 

FB
Okay, so if you were cast in that movie, who would they cast you as?

AH
It would be the White Knight. I love the concept of, “It’s my own invention.” In my work life, I would always come up with these off-the-wall solutions and I always felt like, “It’s my own invention.” Maybe that makes no sense to anybody else and it’s, “Why would we do that?” But I still thought it was a good idea. So I’ve always associated myself with the White Knight. Carroll associated himself with the White Knight. That’s essentially his self-portrait, not necessarily the illustration, but as a character.

FB
I didn’t realize that. I think that is a perfect place to end this very compelling and enjoyable and fun conversation. And your book Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The English Language of the Four Alice Books Published Worldwide, explores the legacy of the four Alice books. Is that available?

AH
We have two editions. There’s the Deluxe Edition, which is a two-volume set available to order if you contact jaredx2@gmail.com. We also have the Standard Edition for Volumes One and Two, which are available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

FB
Perfect. I thank you for being on the show and sharing all your insight. Thank you very much for that. I really appreciate it. 

AH
Thank you, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. 


For the latest updates & news about All Things Alice,  please read our blog and subscribe to our podcast!

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. 


For the latest updates & news about All Things Alice,  please read our blog and subscribe to our podcast!

All Things Alice: Interview with Adrienne Kress, Part 2

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 Adrienne Kress 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.

"All Things Alice" podcast logo featuring Adrienne Kress with images of book covers for "Bendy: Fade to Black", "The Explorers", "Alex and the Ironic Gentleman", and "Hatter Madigan: Ghost in the H.A.T.B.O.X."

Frank Beddor
As a kid, the whole idea of identity and trying on these different identities while growing up is really universal. But what’s remarkable, since I’ve been working in the Alice universe, is how deeply seated it is in culture and how Alice has become such a muse for creatives. We never had this conversation. Can you tell us a little bit about Alex and the Ironic Gentleman? I didn’t know that it was inspired by Alice. How did you use elements of Alice in your book?

Adrienne Kress
The very basic plot is a girl, Alex, has to rescue her grade six teacher from pirates. She was raised by her uncle but he was killed and the only adult in her life who’s a parental figure is this teacher. At the same time, she’s found a treasure map, which is what these pirates were looking for. So it’s also a treasure hunt kind of thing. Act One establishes everybody and begins the adventure and has pirates kidnap the teacher. Act Three, we go to sea. We’ve got the H.M.S. Valiant, we’ve got our good guys and then we’ve got the Ironic Gentlemen, who are the pirates. We have a proper Treasure Island-style, Peter Pan-style adventure. 

But Act Two is very much Alice in Wonderland. Alex has to get to Port Cullis, which is a port town where she’s trying to get a boat. So the journey from her town to Port Cullis, that’s the Alice bit and it’s very much Alice in Wonderland. She’s thrown into a very absurdist world. Even though it’s her world, her world is absurd. Everything is very episodic. It starts with a very strange train sequence that’s my Beckett, existential absurdism. My very first play was that Waiting for Godot style, the circle that never ends. I find it horrifying and deeply amusing at the same time. So it starts with that and then Alex ends up being plopped in a forest. Then in this forest, she comes across different people who are absurd caricatures or, in one case, an extremely ginormous octopus who’s an older English-style lush actor like Peter O’Toole.

Alex has to help solve its problems to move on to the next step, which is yet another person who needs another thing. She’s basically trying to get to Point B but she keeps getting waylaid. I remember my editor being like, “Okay, if we’re going to do this, it’s not very forward moving so let’s make sure that we have no extraneous words.” We did cut one scene where she meets a French horn player, which I was sad about because I used to play French horn which is why that was in there. But she has these scenes and for some readers that’s their favorite bit. I think the Alice fans at heart get it. Then some people are like, “Oh my god, I just wanted to get to Port Cullis.” They wanted that more straight journey.

Book cover of middle grade fantasy adventure novel "Alex and the Ironic Gentleman" by Adrienne Kress.
Alice in the 1951 Disney film "Alice in Wonderland".

FB
They wanted Treasure Island

AK
Exactly. We get there. I just wanted to do a little bit before that.

FB
So if you like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Treasure Island, or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this is a book for you.

AK
I did call it an homage to children’s lit. It’s the first book I ever finished writing. The first children’s book I ever wrote. So everything was very much an homage. Everything was something else. I put friends in it. Previous employers were in it. I tried to represent everyone nicely.

It was just everything I love in a book not thinking it would be published, not even thinking about publishing. Then, of course, there’s the challenge of realizing you have to write a second more challenging thing. I think writing a first book is hard but you’re so focused on this crazy huge accomplishment, “I have this goal and it took me 10 years, but I’m going to do it and put everything I’ve got into this thing.” Then you get published and you start to have a career and somebody asks you for a second book and you’re like, “But I can’t do what I did. I can’t do that all over again.”

FB
I thought it was exactly the opposite. There was something about the first one in terms of not having any pressure because you don’t think it’s gonna get published and you can take 5-10 years, however long it takes. However, once it’s there, and you figured out the rules and the logic, then yes, there’s a pressure. But so much of it’s already a roadmap, and much easier, and the second book certainly took me a lot less time. I did feel pressure from the editors a little bit more, but I was happy that I had already established that, if they liked this world, I’d been working on it. I have all this stuff in a filing cabinet. I’ll just pull more stuff. 

AK
There is a difference. I don’t know why I did this to myself. I’ve now written some series but generally, I always enjoyed standalones. I decided for the second book, I was going to write a completely different story. It was set in the same world but with completely different characters and, a completely different story, and then halfway through, we would bring Alex back into it and stuff. So I think writing a direct sequel has its unique challenges, especially if people really liked the first one. It’s like, “Oh, no, how do I make this as well-liked, if not more well-liked too? How do I write the second book, but not rest on my laurels? There are a lot of challenges with that. But I think for me because I decided I’m going to write a second book that’s completely not the first, I felt again like I was starting a bit from scratch.

Book cover of middle-grade adventure novel "The Explorers: The Quest for the Kid" by Adrienne Kress.
Book cover of middle-grade adventure novel "The Explorers: The Reckless Rescue" by Adrienne Kress.
Book cover of middle-grade adventure novel "The Explorers: The Door in the Alley" by Adrienne Kress.

FB
That’s for sure

You have a whole new series out. You have three books in the Bendy series.

AK
The Bendy books are a series, but they’re also standalones. So we’ve done it again. But The Explorers, which is just mine is a proper three-book series. 

FB
Can you walk us through that? Did you know you were going to have a trilogy when you started it? 

AK
Yes. It was a three-book deal from the beginning. Just from the beginning, it was a very classic, hoping that each book is their own adventure but it had that very classic overarching arc. They had to collect things and they had to rescue somebody by the end.

FB
Were they saying they wanted the book to come out every year or every 18 months? Did you have that added pressure? 

AK
It was every year or 18 months, I can’t remember which, but it was definitely that. So that window where you had to write the whole of the next book and then go through the whole process again and write it in time with their deadlines

FB
I found that very stressful, by the way, hitting a deadline for the book. Because they said you’re going to lose your audience. The audience is going to find some other series.

AK
There’s one book in the Bendy book series, which is in the YA section because it’s a memoir. In the very first game, there’s a book called The Illusion of Living, which is the memoir of Joey Drew, who’s the Walt Disney of this animation studio. So they wanted me to write the memoir, which was a really cool experience writing a memoir about an adult male for a young adult section. But with these three books, the other two are technically Y.A., there’s less of the pressure that you’re talking about, which just blows my mind. “You’re going to lose your audience.” Who says that? But that kind of pressure, when the developers of Bendy decided they wanted the next book, I guess they would talk to Scholastic about it, then Scholastic would come to me and say, “You have to get this to us in two months.” That level of fast. It isn’t the same way as writing a series where they’re like, “We need the next book ASAP for the series.” It was more like, “When we’re ready for the next one, we gotta go, go, go.” 

The front cover of "Bendy and the Ink Machine: Dreams Come to Life" by Adrienne Kress.
The front cover of "Bendy: The Illusion of Living" by Adrienne Kress.

FB
Just to make it clear for the listeners, Bendy is based on a video game. So they needed these books for the day and date of releasing a new game?

AK
I don’t fully know what the decision-making process is there. I’m just happy to be a part of it. So the second game was released this time last year. I think it’s possible that when they finished working on the game, they were like, “Okay, now we would like another book.” They were so focused on the game, as they should be. But I believe it was a year from being told they’d like another book. So that’s even before I’ve written an outline to send to them. It was a year, from that point to the release of the most recent one. This time last year, I would have been knee-deep in writing it.

The most recent one, Fade to Black, came out at the beginning of October and I don’t think I had started writing it last year at the beginning of October.

FB
Let me just get all these titles right. So Bendy and the Ink Machine: Dreams Come to Life was book one, which came out in 2019. Did you have to audition for this? Send in an outline and based on the outline, they chose you or did you have a pre-existing relationship? 

AK
I think they reached out to maybe four other authors and there was very little that they required. They wanted it to be Y.A., set in the studio, the games take place decades after the studio is over, so essentially, they wanted it set in the 1940s. That’s about it. Then I came back saying I’d like to do an apprentice who’s 17, and works in the art department because obviously, the whole point of his game is art. So let’s put them in the art department. They liked that and they were thinking the exact same thing. At that point, all of us who they had asked wrote pages. I think they wanted about five pages but I asked if I could submit 15. So I did the opening which is almost entirely the same opening of Dreams Come to Life. I guess they liked it, which was very nice.

The front cover of "Bendy: The Lost Ones" by Adrienne Kress.
The front cover of "Bendy: Fade to Black" by Adrienne Kress.

FB
And the second is Bendy: The Illusion of Living. The third one is Bendy and the Ink Machine: The Lost Ones and the most recent book is Bendy: Fade to Black.

Also, it was published through Scholastic, which is great because they have such a far reach and they were your original publishers as well. 

AK
They were the ones who published Alex and the Ironic Gentleman. They were the very first.

FB
You’re keeping it in the family. That must have been nice. Do they have an editor that they assigned to these books?

AK
So it’s fascinating and goes back to what I was saying about reluctant readers. They have an imprint called AFK, which means Away From Keyboard. For those who don’t know your acronyms, which I did not, that’s a very cool online acronym. They did the Five Nights at Freddy’s books, which are massive.

I don’t know when they actually started the imprint or whether it was on the back of how successful the Five Nights at Freddy’s stuff was but they do all these video game tie-ins. My editors have all been incredible. What I really liked about it beyond it being fun is that they have this imprint that’s all focused on video game tie-ins and you’re getting all these readers like me, reluctant readers, who might not be into a book going “Well, that is my favorite video game.” I get it all the time from kids and teenagers, “I hate books,” or “I don’t like reading. I’ve never really read a book. But I read this one because I love Bendy and it was really good.” I hope that the Bendy books spark that realization of “There are books for me. I just have to find them. They might not be what even the school is showing me but somewhere there are books for me.” So as the reluctant reader I really, really love that. 

It’s so fun to read certain reviews, like on Goodreads, where they said the author didn’t have to go this hard. No, I did. I have to get themes. I have to get morals. I have to get complicated ethics questions. I love that I’m able to do that and sneak that stuff into these books. Then next year, they’re adapting the first book into a graphic novel, which I’m also super into. I’ve got a graphic novel of my own that’s coming out in 2025 because it takes forever. It’s 250 pages and this incredible artist, Jade Zhang, has to illustrate it. I don’t know how she’s doing it. To me, it seems fast. But they’re releasing Dreams Come to Life as a graphic novel next year. Again, I love that because I think graphic novels also open the world of reading even more.

FB
Are you adapting your own book, the prose, into the graphic novel or are they hiring somebody else to do that?

AK
They’ve hired a writer named Christopher Hastings, who’s done this a fair bit. When I was first told there was going to be a graphic novel I was like, “They probably already have somebody but I could do it.” And then I thought, “No, even though I know how to write a script, how on Earth do you make that book that’s almost 300 pages into a graphic novel?” Even if it’s got the same number of pages, it’s not going to be that same length.

FB
Let’s go to your graphic novel because that’s fascinating. I wrote my prose and then I had no idea what I was doing and then I did a graphic novel and I look back on it and go, “Wow, I made so many mistakes and set up this so terribly.” But it was really, really fun to do and now I understand how different it is. Can you speak to writing your first graphic novel? 

Pencil sketch page from the graphic novel "Hatter M: Far From Wonder" written by Frank Beddor and Liz Cavalier and illustrated by Ben Templesmith.
Finished page from the graphic novel "Hatter M: Far From Wonder" written by Frank Beddor and Liz Cavalier and illustrated by Ben Templesmith.

AK
The way that one writes a graphic novel is you have page numbers, specific pages that you have to dictate, and then what happens in specific panels on those pages. That is what is so challenging. I love it. I think very visually to begin with and I’ve read a lot of graphic novels. So I felt very comfortable playing around with how to use the space and what to do. I have a friend Stephanie Cook, who has a lot of kidlit graphic novels out now, and also is an editor, and she does tons with graphic novels in the comics community in general. So we met up, and I’m like, “Help me.” She told me generally, for middle grade, you don’t want more than five panels on a page. Very pragmatic things like that which were very, very helpful. But generally, I had a good vibe, I had a good sense of aesthetics. 

But what I didn’t know until I was going back over it myself, and then working with an editor on it, was how hard editing a graphic novel is. Because in a book, screenplay, or play, if you need an extra bit of dialogue or an extra section to fully understand what’s happening, “Sure, I’ll put it here.” But if you add a single thing to a graphic novel script, it’s Tetris. You add another panel, and then that fifth panel has fallen off the page. Can I fit it into the next page? Or can I make this page six panels? Or do I need that panel? Maybe I can get rid of that panel? Or do we move everything down? But of course, there are two-page spreads and you have to make sure that you have pages two and three side by side. It can’t be three and four because they’re on opposite sides of the page. It’s math. 

FB
Every page you add is hundreds and hundreds of dollars for the artists because they get paid by the page unless you make a deal with them where they’re part of the authorship. I found the editing process really, really challenging, as well. But the heavy lifting is the artists. Also, the artists can say, “Hey, I can’t fit all those panels,” or “There’s so much dialogue in this particular panel, we’re going to have to move it around a little bit.” I was really leaning on Ben Templesmith.

AK
I’ve given so many challenges to Jane. So the story is called Ghost Circus and it’s about these two kids and we meet these ghosts at the circus.

FB
Not in the H.A.T.B.O.X.?

AK
No ghosts in the H.A.T.B.O.X. 

FB
It’s in the circus, not the H.A.T.B.O.X. Okay. 

Concept art from the middle-grade graphic novel "Ghost Circus" written by Adrienne Kress and illustrated by Jade Zhang.

AK
There are flashbacks to how the ghosts became ghosts and they’re set in all different time periods. So Jade’s drawing 1930s New York and then the savanna with elephants, plus the main timeline we’re in with the ghost circus itself and all the characters there. It’s so impressive. I feel like I’ll know whether or not she had issues or whether she solved them. I think there’s one or two times she’ll do something with a couple of panels and I’m like, “Oh, yeah, that makes more sense.” But maybe just because I was so aware of the middle gradeness of it all, that was very much at the forefront of my mind. So being aware of the number of panels I needed per page. Then before even Jade came on board, editing it and working on it with the editor, he’d be like, “This is too much though. We’re not going to fit that dialogue on our panel.” That’s where the math came in. But it was an incredible learning curve.

FB
But being a playwright, you really had a handle, because that is the closest form to writing for graphic novels.

AK
One hundred percent. Thank goodness I had that experience. Because I did look at other people’s scripts, I wanted to learn, something even just as simple as page one, panel one. I wanted to know how that works. It’s great to have that reason for us to look at what other people have done but it didn’t feel awkward because graphic novel writing comes from playwriting and the scripts look like a play. 

FB
My wife and I are working on a graphic novel and this is her first graphic novel but she had been a staff writer on the show Bones. So she sort of understands but we were having the simplest conversations, “So, on the one page, is it panel 1 through 5, and then on page two, it’s panel six, do you continue?” “No, it’s just one through five and then the next page is one through five.” 

AK
That question makes perfect sense. Like, “You’re not repeating the same pattern?” 

FB
But this time we hired an editor from the very beginning and said, “Okay, here’s the basis of the story.” Then he was saying you have to have a sensitivity reader read it because some of the names and some elements don’t quite line up based on the story. So we’ve done that. It’s really a science, as you say, it’s a math question. There is a lot more going on in the world in terms of when you create something to make sure it’s accessible to all.

AK
I do think it’s quite wonderful because I think we’ve been using sensitivity readers for a while, as authors. Reaching out to people we know or asking our friends, “Hey, do you know somebody who might be able to look over this section because I want to make sure this is as correct and sensitive as possible?” It’s all kind of already existed but I like that it’s been codified as a proper job. It’s something that I think is more front and center of awareness, which I think is important. We had one, specifically for Bendy: Fade to Black, which is set after World War II and the dad has PTSD from the war. It’s thematically important to the story. The whole story is actually about PTSD and mental health, and living with that sort of trauma. I did my level best, researching and trying to make things as sensitive and as authentic as possible, but Scholastic did give it to somebody to read over just to make sure that we were doing it right.

Image from the horror indie video game "Bendy and the Dark Revival" from Joey Drew Studios.

FB
I agree with you. The level of subtlety is really different and we must be mindful. For the graphic novel my wife and I are working on in particular, the characters all come from different places and we wanted to make sure that we were honoring everybody’s heritage and getting it right. Are you interested in World War II much after doing that research?

AK
It’s one of those things that I think is by virtue of being a cinephile there are so many movies about World War II. But then, for my generation, it impacted our grandparents. So it’s a very present thing. You’ve got a real direct connection versus perhaps other history that feels like it’s almost a story. You don’t have that visceral connection, which is why I think I might have struggled with other history classes and other history. It wasn’t until I started doing art history where you could actually go and see the actual works and connect to the reality of it that I realized I did like history. I just need to consume it differently. 

There are a lot of phenomenal YouTube shows that are about the domestic side of history. So a day in the life in Victorian England. What did you eat? Where do you sleep? With the first Bendy book, they wanted it just after World War II. I had been to New York and somebody recommended the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side. They found a boarded-up tenement that hadn’t been renovated, and hadn’t been touched, and from there they started reaching out to families generationally for stories and objects, they looked at census information. What it’s become is you go on these tours and it’s like just walking through history. You’re there. You’re seeing and touching everything and it was incredible. Shortly thereafter, I got the gig for the book and they wanted it set in the 1940s and I was like “Okay, I’ll make it New York.” I know their lives. I know where he lives. 

FB
That’s great. You were destined to write these. Are there going to be more books in this series? 

AK
It’s been such a pleasure and I really enjoy working on them. I know the developers are very focused on the next games as well. They’re very sweet about it, which I’m grateful for because I was very nervous with a pre-existing fan base. I felt the same way about Hatter Madigan.

FB
That was really fun, working on Hatter Madigan: Ghost in the H.A.T.B.O.X. together. I knew I was in good hands when you came up with the idea that he was an insider and not an outsider. Your rationale was that Harry Potter had done that to such great success and there are a lot of other stories that do the same thing, that Hatter being an insider would make the story in this book unique. Once you pitched that, I said, “Okay, that’s a very smart idea.”

Author Adrienne Kress sitting down and surrounded by piles of the middle-grade novel "Hatter Madigan: Ghost in the H.A.T.B.O.X." by Frank Beddor and Adrienne Kress.

AK
Thank you. It was so much fun. The world is, God…creating that world the way that you have, with literally an encyclopedia, is so phenomenal and so intimidating as a writer. I admire so much just the depth of the world-building you had. As we were talking about with Alice in Wonderland, that’s what’s so great about all these adaptations of Alice is everybody’s unique perspective. 

FB
I was really trying to create a jumping-off place. Take some of the motifs and then use that creativity and share the sandbox and see what other people can bring to it. In every conversation I had with you and with other creatives, it doesn’t work unless you bring yourself to it. You bring something unique that you can do. That’s what I’m looking for. I don’t want to be precious. I want to actually break away from it a lot more because I’ve gotten so focused. I think about it in a loop and I can’t break out of it unless I have another voice.

AK
That’s so fair. You were asking me about the adaptation of Dreams Come to Life. There is no way, with the narrowness of focus that I have, that I could possibly bring a unique look to that book. But a new person adapting it would. That’s the crazy part, isn’t it? Getting to write and make stuff up as a job.

FB
How do you balance writing your own work, adapting something, producing, and auditioning? What’s the day-to-day balance that you try to accomplish?

AK
What’s balance? I wish it felt more like I had a plan and I really stuck to it. The truth is, it’s a little bit flying by the seat of your pants. I can’t speak to what they are but I’ve got two write-for-hires that just happened this month. So right now balancing those…and I feel very good about the plan because the jobs are so vastly different. There are a lot of reasons why I can do that. I wouldn’t always say yes to doing two projects right at the same time but these worked very nicely together, they complement each other. But this summer, I had no writing, anything. I didn’t have edits. Nothing was sorted that way. So I decided I really wanted to write. I have a middle-grade story that’s much more in the style of Judy Blume. So not fantastical in any way, more coming of age. I’ve been really wanting to write it for a few years so I’m like, “That’s what I’m doing this summer.” 

It takes place over a summer so it felt like the right temperature because I’m in Canada and we only get this so much. That’s with my agent and we’ll probably go on submission to publishers in the new year. But I’m glad I did that, over that gap in the summer, because then these projects came along and it would be sad because I don’t think I would have been able to balance them with my original work. The key is taking advantage of moments. If you can’t plan everything out ahead of time you can still have a sense of how long a project will take and maybe when that’s done I’ll do this thing that’s more in my control. The pet projects that might not have a home yet. You have to still honor and give space to that project. 

FB
You had a good summer. You finished a new book and you had a movie come out.

AK
Post on the movie was a long post. There was no way you could focus on anything else. I was also injured at the time so that didn’t help. I think you’re well aware that moviemaking can be entirely consuming. 

Adrienne Kress and Ryan Allen in the 2023 horror film "The Devil Comes at Night".

FB
When you’re on set, forget it. You only have so many hours in the day and then you’re gonna lose crew and locations.

AK
Exactly. If I was just acting, that would be different because you have a lot of downtime as an actor on a set. That’s a great time to maybe just get a few words in the computer. It’s much easier to multitask. But as a producer and as a writer on it, you do not have the same level of free time. 

FB
You said fly by the seat of your pants and one of the reasons for that is so much of the work is speculative. There’s the focus you need to finish your book that you’re not getting paid for or the movie that has enough financing just to get it made, but you’re not making any money unless the movie sells. Then depending on how many bills you have to pay it’s like “Okay, where am I putting my attention?” If I need to pay bills, I need that work-for-hire stuff, or for this movie, let’s gamble and see if we have a little payday at the end of it. It does feel like when you’re doing so many different mediums, you’ll fly by the seat of your pants because there is no structure to it. It’s really a self-generated structure. That’s not so easy. 

AK
A lot of people I talk to, even writers who are also doing a day job, I’m like, “Oh, if only I had all that free time.” I am very lucky. I get to write professionally as my job. That is an amazing, amazing gift. It’s incredible. But there are other challenges. There was a long period where I was writing, especially with Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, but I also had a day job. Even once it got published, I still had a job. That job schedule does actually help schedule out your writing too because you only have certain windows in which you can do it. If you have the whole day, it’s very hard to schedule things. 

FB
I had this equivalent when I had kids and it’s like, “Wait a second, I only have from 10 to midnight.”

AK
Exactly. It’s hard. I do really admire people. There are just unique challenges for all of it. In the end, you have to be your own boss. You have to give yourself your own deadlines. With my deadline for this coming-of-age middle grade that I finished, I was telling friends, “I’m a week behind. I know I finished it the next week, but I really wanted to get it done earlier. I’m really annoyed with myself.” And my friends will say, “But it’s your own deadline.” I treat my own deadlines like somebody else has imposed them. 

FB
I agree with that. I think the more discipline, the better off you are. So yeah. 

Before we go, if you were a character from Alice in Wonderland, who would you be and why?

AK
That’s a good question. As a drama major in my art school, every year you had a different focus and in grade 10 a lot of that was performance, putting together a little production. We were very fortunate in our year that we got to do Alice in Wonderland. I was cast as the White Queen, which is what I wanted and I loved playing her. I don’t think I had ever played a flighty character. I tend to get cast as intelligent, grounded human characters. I think the White Queen might have been the first sort of flighty, weird character I got to play. That meant a lot to me. I realized I like playing these characters. I just love the character and her wordplay. Her particular scene that she has with Alice, with all the wordplay, “tomorrow, yesterday, today.” 

Growing up, I’d obviously seen the Disney movie. But there’s a TV version from 1985 and Carol Channing is the White Queen, and she has a song. I grew up with that version. The Jabberwock was so scary that I couldn’t watch half of it because it gave me nightmares, but I still loved it. 

Carol Channing as the White Queen and Natalie Gregory as Alice in the 1985 CBS television film "Alice in Wonderland".

FB
That is a very, very good answer. It might be the best answer of anybody that I’ve interviewed because not all have played the character. So it’s generational from the 80s. 

AK
I’ve always loved her. Of course, I did get to dress as your Alyss and that was amazing. I need to wear that jacket again.

FB
If people wanted to start reading your work, where would you suggest they start? Would you say something like Alex and the Ironic Gentleman or The Explorers?

AK
I’m approaching 20 years since Alex came out, which blows my mind. It’s just a very weird feeling. There’s one boy who wrote this really great review. He sent me an email for Alex, probably one of the first kids who emailed me about a book. I reached out and we had this whole chat. He was 13 at the time, and now he’s an author. 

But I do think Alex is still out there. It hasn’t gone out of print, actually, which is very exciting. A few years ago, pre-COVID, I was in LA and went into The Last Bookstore, and the one thing they had Alex. I was thrilled that Alex was the one that was there. So if you can find Alex and the Ironic Gentleman that was quite seminal as it’s my first book. But if you can’t, yes, go with The Explorers because that’s out there. That’s Random House. 

FB
Thank you so much. This has been a real pleasure. You have such a diverse creative life. I think it’s really inspiring. 

AK
Thanks for having me. It’s so nice to see you again.


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All Things Alice: Interview with Rocco Rotunno

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 Rocco Rotunno 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.


Frank Beddor:

Hey, Rocco, mastermind of the tagline Welcome to the show. Good to see you, man.

Rocco Rotunno:

Yeah, it’s been a while. I was looking up today our first project. It’s been a while. We go back to February of ‘97.

FB:

What? Yeah, Wicked, right?

RR:

It was for Second Wife. Yes, a Cannes sell sheet. It featured Julia Stiles, as you recall, in a small sort of breakout role.

FB:

Julia was clearly going to be a movie star. Because we started that film, we started shooting that film at the end of ’96 or ‘97, we were finishing and I just did not like that title, The Second Wife. You know? anything with “wife” felt, you know, it felt always going to be a melodrama about divorce. So, I came to you to retitle it correct?

RR:

I don’t think it was part of that. What I was a part of was coming up with a synopsis for your one sheet, a sell sheet, I think for Cannes. Now, the irony, was that when you invited me to the screening, my wife and I were sitting in back of Julia Stiles. She was really, really good. And you could tell she had a career, and I kind of tapped her on the shoulder afterward. And I said, “Well, congratulations on your brilliant coming career”. And the ironic thing was that about six months or maybe a year later, I got an assignment to work on 10 Things I Hate About You, which was for Disney Touchstone so that came out in probably was filmed in ‘98 After your film came out ’99. She happened to be with another unknown guy named Heath Ledger.

FB:

Yeah, little-known guy, Heath Ledger. I know. One of the reasons that I love doing this podcast is because I often learn more about my fellow writers and their backstories. Your career and your job are really fascinating because I don’t think it gets as much press. You guys are behind the scenes. Just kind of walk us through all the different things that you’re called upon to do as a freelance writer in the marketing of television and movies.

RR:

So little anecdote here, we had an acquaintance of my wife, and she had known her for a few years. And when they’re getting a little closer. She said, “So what is it exactly that your husband does?” And so my wife tried to explain, “he kind of writes a promotional copy in lines for films, it’s kind of film marketing, film advertising”. I think she gave her one of my lines, which I’m not going to say, but let’s give you a good one, the famous line from Alien. So you have a poster where you don’t really know what’s going on. They were really careful not to show the creature. And the poster line was “In space, no one can hear you scream”. Which is brilliant. It tells you everything. Tells you it’s in space, right? It tells you its horror in an upscale way, not in a slasher way. And it really encapsulates everything, and really did the heavy lifting. And so, the woman paused for a second, and she says, “So he gets paid for that?” And so, what I do starts with the written word or at least some sort of a concept of what a project is going to be about. And I’ll get to read a script, or in some cases, there may be a semi-finished version of the film or TV show. And I’ll read or watch that. And, you know, I’ll make my notes about what I think it’s about or what are some important things.

FB:

Part of what you do is coming up with clever, humorous, totally appropriate taglines or phrases because you have very few words. Like I just saw a one sheet for Meg, the shark movie. And the tagline was “New Meg, Old Chum”. Now, that’s a pretty good tagline. And you mentioned Alien, which was a classic. And so, when you’re coming up with that process, there are I would imagine, hundreds and hundreds of versions. Until the studio or whoever your partners are in the marketing, you know, say “This is the one”. That’s not so easy. From my standpoint, that seems really hard, which is why I always reach out to you, what are the creative elements that you use to come up with that stuff?

RR:

The main thing that sort of starts me off is I’ll write down things. I’ll have some information from the client, though that in a brief, they’ll say, “Well, we kind of want to sell the film this way”. So I keep an eye out for those things. Or, you might want to use some lines from the film. They kind of have an idea, maybe sometimes not so good of an idea, of how they want to sell the movie. And they want to touch on a lot of different things, perhaps. They call that writing to these buckets. So, they might say, “We have five ways we’re thinking about this”. And ultimately, what happens though, is to kind of hedge their bets a little bit they’ll also do some market research and have some focus groups. And so, different things can happen along the way, they may initially want to show one thing or say one thing, and I’ll be called in and that’ll be called, like an “exploration”, that’s basically the best way to put it. Copy exploration. And yeah, I personally could work to 300 different titles or 50 to 100 or 150 taglines, then come back and do some more. And it just takes some time. It’s trying to figure out you know, and more often than that ends up in the last minute.

FB:

I want to go to some of your tag lines. And I want to start with 10 Things I Hate About You because as you pointed out, that was starring Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger when he was up and coming. The movie, Wicked premiered at Sundance Film Festival, and Julia Stiles was really discovered at the Sundance Film Festival, which was in 1998. And she then went on, as you said, right after that, to do this Disney movie 10 Things I Hate About You, which you alluded to is sort of a teen rom-com setup of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. “How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways”. That’s good. That’s actually good. Because, you know, in a romantic comedy, two people that clearly don’t like each other, come to fall in love. Right? That’s the essence of romantic comedy. So just walk us through that process for you.

RR:

Yeah, I think clients and the general public respond to things that are twists on something that’s commonly known. That is familiar. So, that’s how I got to “How do I loathe thee?”

FB:

So, you work as a freelancer. Do you work with different boutique advertising agencies? They call you up and say, “Hey, this is what we’re doing”, or does the studio call you directly? How does that work?

RR:

It can be either or both sometimes, but generally, I would say it’s the boutique because that’s what they do. The studio generally is in charge of handing it out to the boutiques and the boutiques to me, and occasionally it’ll be the studio itself, but that’s rarer.

FB:

I don’t want to embarrass you, Rocco, but I’m really impressed with a lot of the taglines you’ve done – so let’s go through some of them, and just tell us quickly, you know, what you were thinking of? What were you aiming for? So, the first one is, “Take What’s Yours”. This was for season one of Succession.

RR:

Conflict, you know, what drives every story? Right?

FB:

Absolutely. Conflict. And conflict, that’s going to come up a lot. And that’s certainly going to come up with the next tag that everybody’s gonna know, “War is Coming”. Everybody knows that is Game of Thrones. But the difference is, this was for season two. So, people had watched this first season. Tell us what the thinking was there.

RR:

Yeah, in this particular case, it’s similarly done in successive seasons. And it really is the arc of the seasons together. And so, what do we want to put out there? They’ve been teasing war. And now it is coming and then the next season is, you know, “this one takes the throne” or something. Building on that story arc across seasons.

FB:

Here is one of my favorites. “Life’s not a word. It’s a sentence.” It was a while ago, but that was Oz for season one. That’s very clever.

RR:

The show has in it a little bit… I don’t want to say it’s lite because it’s about prison. But at the same time, I think especially with HBO premium, hopefully, clever, intelligent, right? You know, that’s what they want.

FB:

Well, here’s one of your comedies. And the tagline is “Smart, Is the New Sexy”. And smart is the new sexy is why that show is one of the biggest, most successful comedies ever. And of course, we’re talking about the Big Bang Theory.

RR:

It was impossible to know it was gonna be any different than any other show, but it just gives the idea these are intelligent people, and it’s not going to be your usual comedy. It’s going to be a sitcom, but not a super silly lowbrow one. I mean, obviously, the people in it are all very educated. And so, you’re getting something a little bit different.

FB:

Rocco, I came to you, obviously, about The Second Wife/ Wicked, but when I started writing my novel, The Looking Glass Wars, I knew it was a reimagining of Alice in Wonderland. So, I wanted to find a way to sort of capture the history, of Alice in Wonderland and culture and redefine it and re-reposition it for a contemporary audience. And, the title of books is really important. I always knew The Looking Glass Wars was going to be the title because it speaks to something very familiar, but it adds that dynamic of war and something ominous, and there’s something bigger going on. And then for the next book, Seeing Redd, I knew the title. And then for the third book I was struggling for a title. And I came to you to help with all of these. So I think my question to you is, how much did your knowledge or your sense of Alice and pop culture influence any of those titles you came up with?

RR:

Well, definitely Alyss being a stronger figure, stronger girl, rather than, you know, being swept around by all these characters. She’s taking charge, she wants to get her Queendom back. She’s in control. I think it’s just trying to get the idea of, you know, just a little shorter, a little bit more punch. So yeah, it’s a little combination of your input, things I knew about the original story, but more specifically your interpretation of the story. Going back to some file, and seeing if there was something that I put down, it could work, exploration.

FB:

So, you know, for instance, there was “Burning Borders”, which I really like, and I particularly like it today for whatever reason. You also had “Cross Border”. There was “Border Rains” and “Border Power”. But you know, you’re right, the exploration is great because a lot of times that exploration will produce phraseology or a couple of words that I can use in the marketing of social media that allows for like a little variation on what the story is. In that, why don’t you share your history with Alice in Wonderland? How did you come to Alice? Was it through the books or the movies or something else?

RR:

Actually, through the Disney film, you know? There are many, many versions. And it was the animated Disney animated film, which, of course, they kept everything a little bit lighter. But you know, there’s such classic elements to it. That’s why it’s continuously retold, but the story itself is classic. And you see reverberations of it everywhere. So, I think yeah, for me, that was that was the initial and then your re-invention of that story.

FB:

Well Rocco thank you so much for joining. It’s really fun to hear the stories and what went into them. I appreciate it.

RR:

Thank you Frank!

All Things Alice: Interview with Tom Schulman

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 Tom Schulman 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.


FB

Let’s talk about the Writers Strike and the work you did on the negotiating committee. Our friend Ed Dector told me that you got a standing ovation for the work that you guys did, and the concessions that you got from the studios. What do you think? How do you think that’s going to translate moving forward? I believe you guys ratified it yesterday. It seems universal that you guys came out on top with almost all of the items that you were looking for.

TS

Obviously, you never get everything you want but I would say we got the vast majority. We certainly got something in every area we were asking for, which is unusual. There was nothing we put on the table that we didn’t make gains with. We didn’t leave any of the writers behind. As often happens with these negotiations, the companies figure out the comedy-variety writers are a very small minority of the Guild so the Guild would never hold out just for the comedy-variety writers so they tend to not give them anything, and the people who are making the deal, the negotiators for the Guild, essentially have to leave them behind. But that didn’t happen this time.

FB

What I’ve been hearing, though, is that the producers are going to be looking for smaller budgets. Which makes some sense because they were running rampant with their production costs. How do you think that’s going to affect the writers and the deal they have moving forward?

TS

They’ll blame it on us, of course, they’ll blame it on the WGA strike and the SAG strike. But this was happening anyway so I don’t really think it’s strike related. If anything, the strike was an opportunity for the companies to all contract at the same time, which is hard for any one company to do. It made it easier for them to all say, “Netflix has to contract, we all have to do it”. This was something that was coming.

FB

Your latest film, Double Down South, is a high stakes gambling movie about keno pool. I’ve known you for a very long time and you’ve written some amazing movies, but can you describe writing a script that you know you’re going to direct? Is the framework a little bit different?

TS

No. I write everything as if I were directing it as if I were making the movie on the page. To the extent that I feel like I need to describe things if it were just a script for me, maybe I’d leave those things off. But it’s gonna go out to artists, crew, actors, and so forth so it needs to read exactly the way a regular script would read.

FB

This story is really about an outsider breaking in. That’s a very popular trope, especially if you do it well. What do you think it is about the underdog story that resonates with viewers?

TS

We are all in that situation at some point in our lives, at least most of us. People can relate to those feelings of being on the outside looking in and having to struggle to find your way in a world that is not as familiar as it hopefully will be at some point. That sense that everybody knows everything about this except you so you’ve got to somehow find your way through all that.

FB

Describe the movie for the listeners. I didn’t know anything about keno pool until I came to your screening. What was the inspiration?

A gritty set photo from the new film Double Down South, directed by Tom Schulman. Lili Simmons sizes up a shot while playing Keno Pool surrounded by other players.

TS

The inspiration was that I used to play that game back in my youth when I would visit pool halls. It’s an unusual game. It lasted about 100 years from the early 20th century to the end of the 20th century and it was banned in 17 states because it was such an intense gambling game. They put a very thin board on the top quarter of the table and the board has holes drilled in it for every ball in the pool rack and a double hole in the middle. There’s a little ramp up off the felt of the table onto the keno board and the board is very, very smooth. The holes in the board are drilled precisely, so unless you hit the hole exactly, the ball will loop out. It’s by far the hardest shot in pool, there’s nothing that even approaches how difficult it is to get a ball in its hole.

What’s diabolical about the game is this double hole. If you make a double on the break, the bet doubles, and you get paid double, and you get to break again. If you double on that break, the bet doubles again, and so forth. So, a novice, like I was the first time I played, can get into real trouble. The first time I played it, the guy who had won before it got to break and made a double. I got ready to give him $1, which was a lot of money to me at the time, and he said, “No, you don’t understand you owe me $2. It’s double.” So, I gave him another dollar. He makes another double and he said, “That’ll be $4.” And I’m like, Oh my God, $4. I said, “If you win on the break again, do I owe you $8?” And he said, “You’re a smart kid.” I said, “Well, I don’t have $8.” He said, “Well you got that watch you’re wearing.” Fortunately, he missed and I got ready to shoot, and somebody if I missed it’d be his turn again and then it starts all over. So, the first time I played I didn’t get to shoot.

FB

So, you really didn’t play.

TS

There was this woman who came into the pool hall every so often and played keno with all those guys. I was fascinated by her and made some notes very early in my career about her and then just forgot about it. Then right when COVID hit, I was thinking about what to do and I remembered her. I started making notes and then the story came to me about this woman who’s trying to make it in the man’s world of keno pool, which in this case is played at a falling apart plantation house way out in the sticks in Georgia, where the best come to play keno pool.

FB

What was terrific about it was the blending of suspense and drama with some comedy. What were you striving for in terms of tone for this film?

TS

I worked from story first. Story will give you those elements of tone but I think there’s always humor in any story because the interactions between people are going to create that. But those things give themselves to you as you write, staying on story, figuring out the dynamics between the characters, and so forth. As the story evolves to get to the ending is really all I do, and the humor just hopefully comes in the middle of that process.

FB

How was getting back in the director’s chair after many, many years?

TS

It was scary. Years ago, when I made 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, which I know bazillions of people haven’t seen, you deal with things like lack of sleep, feeling like you’re playing chess with the universe every day because the elements change so abruptly. You’re constantly rewriting for that sort of thing. So that really worried me and the lack of sleep on 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag was just a killer. I was getting three, or four hours a night and getting pretty frazzled. Some of the difficulties making that movie just made me really afraid to direct again. But this time, we had a great crew and a great cast. I still only got four hours of sleep, but I was never tired.

A photo from the new film Double Down South, directed by Tom Schulman. Lili Simmons leans over the table to make a shot while playing Keno Pool.

FB

But Double Down South is an independent film so it was a little smaller than 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, which was a studio movie, so you probably had more freedom on this one. But then with independent films, you have all these budgetary restrictions, which is what I confronted with Wicked. It was really fun to be making the movie and making the moves wherever you needed to make them but it was mistake after mistake and they compounded each other. On the studio movie, you have all these resources, and you have longer days and more staff and crew. So how did that play out in terms of the budget and the number of days and how you could make your days?

TS

It was really scary. We had nothing in the budget for overtime. You’re shooting a day and when that day is over, you’re out for the day and if you can’t get this done in 22 days, without overtime, then start figuring out what you can jettison.

FB

What happened on locations where you had to move and you were trying to get shots? Did you ever have to reduce the amount of coverage or did you get really creative?

TS

We were really only in three locations, the interior of the plantation house was one location, the exterior was several hundred miles away in South Carolina and we shot it in Georgia, and then the third was pretty close to that house in South Carolina. So, when we moved to South Carolina for the last four days of the shoot, it was pouring down rain, which is great for the atmosphere but hellish when you’re trying to shoot, and we had shots with moving cameras on cars, and the lens just got soaked. Fortunately, I had a cinematographer, Alan Caudillo, who has to be one of the fastest in the business. We’d be talking about whether I’d gotten all the coverage I needed on one side of the room and Alan would say, “Don’t even think about it. Let’s flip it and if you need something else, I can turn it back around in about four minutes.” That was a huge help. He had a great look at the same time. I also had a whole assistant direction department who would say, “Unless we bother you, you’re doing fine.” They took a lot of pressure off and it was terrific to not have people hitting their watches and going “We’re in trouble,” more than twice throughout the whole shoot.

FB

You also had a good friend in Kim Coates as the star, a friend of ours who we’ve golfed with for many, many years. I’m assuming based on what you just said, the schedule didn’t allow you guys to play any rounds of golf during the shooting. But Kim, as a good friend, I’m sure was a great collaborator.

A gritty set photo from the new film Double Down South, directed by Tom Schulman. Kit Coates watches as Justin Marcel McManus lines up a shot while playing Keno Pool

TS

Kim was a prince and we had four or five days of rehearsals, which you sort of have to have in a movie like this. If we had had to spend time each morning during the shoot figuring out the scene and rehearsing it, we would have never made it on that schedule. So, a week of rehearsals allowed us to make the movie in the way we did and Kim was 100% there the whole time. The actors all stayed in the same Victorian bed and breakfast and bonded, which helped to create the dysfunctional family that is in the movie.

FB

You discovered the lead actress, Lili Simmons, right?

TS

She had already been discovered to a certain extent. She had a big part in a series called Banshee, a really terrific show which was not as successful as it should have been. She’s been working since she was 18 or 19 years old and has done a lot of great stuff.

FB

She really did an amazing job and captured the essence of that sense of the outsider in that character. And she really pulled off the pool playing.

TS

Our friend Matt Craven, is an actor and also a phenomenal pool player, volunteered to spend as much time as necessary to teach her how to play pool. They played every day for a couple of weeks and she got pretty good. She made a couple of doubles.

FB

You went on a film festival tour and won the Audience Award for Best Feature at the Omaha Film Festival and the Jury Award for Best Feature at the Cordillera International Film Festival. Congratulations. What was that like?

TS

It’s so exciting. In this day and age, it’s not typical to even get to see your movie with an audience at all. In this case, I’ve seen it at five or six festivals, and it’s really fun to see a crowd react to the movie.

FB

Years ago, when I read the script for 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, it made me laugh out loud, and I thought it was going to be really successful. Then you had a really difficult experience. What happened on that movie in terms of, the little 1000 cuts that took away from the vision you had originally created in the script, which felt so funny and vibrant? Was it a casting thing?

TS

We cast a part that was not the lead first, over my objections and way early. To make a cast work, you’re always making sure that chemistry is right. We might have cast Andy Comeau, who plays the lead, anyway but we ended up casting opposite this other character. Ultimately, that was driving all the decisions about not only the casting but the writing, which had to change to accommodate the casting. It was infuriating and quite obvious to me that you cast your lead first and then everybody else is in orbit around the lead. I would say that was the biggest mistake.

FB

I think people are interested in why movies turn out so bad. The point is you make these early choices and you can’t catch up. I mean, I think it was Hitchcock who said, “90% of a successful movie is casting.” So, you had a 10% chance and that’s really unfortunate. Then I guess because you’re a first-time director, people feel like they have more leverage and power over you. But then you’re the one who’s in director jail as if you made all these creative mistakes and you don’t get to direct a movie for 10 years.

Actor, Joe Pesci holding a gun to the head of another actor, while David Spade looks on. This is a scene from the 1997 film: 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag.

TS

I remember the night after the movie premiered and the studio, Orion Pictures, pretty much dumped it because they sold itself to MGM two weekends before we opened. On the Monday before the movie opened, I got a call from the head of marketing at Orion, who said, “I just want to say I’m sorry. I can’t tell you right now, but you’ll know by the end of the week.” It was really painful. Then of course, the morning after it opened, my phone rang at 4:30 in the morning and it was my ex-agent who said to me, “Schulman. Five years.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He goes, “Director jail. Five years.”

FB

That’s terrible. Let’s go back to when you first came into the business because you had a really crazy successful run in the late 80s and early 90s. Is it true that Dead Poets Society was your first produced movie?

TS

I had written two movies that I sold as spec scripts that ended up being made at ABC as movies of the week and bear very little resemblance to what I wrote. Then I sold a script called Love at Second Sight about a psychic detective agency solving crimes that haven’t been committed yet. But that got eviscerated too and just plummeted into the ocean maybe six months before Dead Poets came out. My parents came out here and we went to a screening of Second Sight at Warner Brothers. In the end, my dad just leaned over to me and said, “You better find something else to do with your life.” Well, well, wait,

FB

Tell me about your mom and dad and your writing and your aspirations versus theirs. What did that look like at the dinner table?

TS

My parents were great about that. My dad was a doctor and I had gone to college as pre-med. I was doing well and I said to Dad, “I think I’m gonna go ahead and commit and go to medical school.” He said, “You grew up with me as a doctor. Do you really want to do that? Did you pay close attention to what my life was like, in the early days, and how little I saw of you? I’ve loved part of it, but I haven’t loved it all. Think about it.” And I thought to myself, “Maybe I don’t really want to do this.” So, two, three years later, when I started getting interested in making movies, they were like, “Writer? Director? You’ve never been a particularly good writer. You make Bs on your essays. But if that’s what you want to do, give it a shot.”

I got into USC film school and came out here and was kind of too cool for school and quit. And they were like, “What’s going on? What’s happening with you out there?” It was a dozen years of being in the wilderness, waiting for something to happen. My parents were supportive and worried at the same time.

FB

Let’s talk about those dozen years and where story comes from and the ideas you mentioned at the top of the show. At the beginning, what was coming to you in terms of things that you thought would make good movies?

TS

I started writing horror films. I had gotten very lucky that after I quit USC, I was sitting on a wall trying to figure out what to do and this guy walked up to me and said, “Little Tommy Schulman? I was a teacher at your high school. I heard you were out here.” I told him what was going on so he sent me to a place called the Actors and Directors lab that was run by Jack Garfield, who had been a theater and film director, and brilliant teacher, and I enrolled in that workshop the next day. The first class I was at, I was sitting in the back just trying to figure out what the hell was going on and one guy walked in and said, “I just got a contract to make 75 educational films over the next three years and I need a crew. Anybody in here done that?” I had worked making commercials in Nashville so I raised my hand and I had a job for the next five years. We’d make the film in three weeks, take two weeks off, then do it again.

So, I had two weeks in between every cycle to write and about two years into it, his wife met some people who wanted to finance a low-budget movie. He came in one Monday and said, “I need a script by Friday. Can anybody write a script by Friday? I’ll pay you $5,000.” I raised my hand and they asked what I wanted to do. I said that if we were gonna make a low-budget movie, let’s make a horror film. He said, “How about a mummy movie?” So, I wrote a script called Sarcophagus about this mummy that is brought to a university atrium. It was pretty scary and my boss liked it but the backers were Mormons and said they couldn’t back a horror film. Eventually, they came to me and said they liked the script, they just couldn’t do it but they offered to pay me to write another movie. So, I wrote a script called Mondo Jocko with my friend Paul Davidson, which was sort of Kentucky Fried Movie or Everything You Want to Know About Sex but in the world of sports. The Mormons loved it and they let me shoot a day of it as a test. But the night after they screened it, the lead producer died of a heart attack, and long story short, it never got made. But now I had this little horror film Sarcophagus and Mondo Jocko as sample scripts. I sent them out and ended up getting an agent, Bettye McCartt, who, as it turned out, was one of the important people behind the scenes in the making of The Godfather. She was Al Ruddy’s assistant at Paramount and she knew the ropes at the studio. Anyway, she became my first agent. Then it was writing spec scripts, mostly thrillers, horror films, and stuff like that.

Actor, Robin Williams, sitting in a classroom in a scene from the film: Dead Poets Society.

FB

You’ve had a number of comedies like What About Bob? and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. But then you had this major drama, Dead Poets Society, that you won an Academy Award for. After that, did the folks in town want you to write other dramas? How did that all work?

TS

They wanted comedies. Honey came out a few weeks after Dead Poets came out and Honey made more money and was more reproducible. They consider movies like Dead Poets Society, as a kind of one-off, so if you have another idea that sparks them or really hits them in the gut, they’ll do it. But they wanted more comedies, more mass-market comedy.

FB

Did you have an actor in mind when you were writing Dead Poets Society? Or was it just the story, as you said earlier?

TS

That story started working its way into my brain in the late 70s, early 80s. I had a girlfriend and we would go out for sushi many nights a week, and I would start telling her about that story. She kept saying, “Keep working on that. I love that teacher.” I wrote a draft in maybe 1983 and it was all about the teacher and it didn’t work so I put it in a drawer. Two years later, I woke up and went, “Oh, it’s about the students. It’s about his effect on the students.” And then the story started to really put itself together.

My agent sent it to Steven Haft in the early going. Steven had made a movie with Robert Altman and was trying to get stuff made. He read it and liked it and then nothing happened. What happened was a director named Jeff Kanew had a deal at Disney to make a musical. He was looking for somebody to write an ensemble movie and an agent sent him Dead Poets Society. He called back and said, “I don’t want to make this musical anymore. I want to direct that.” So, the studio bought it for him. Then came the problem of casting it, his ideas and theirs were different. He couldn’t get Robin Williams at the time to say yes. Robin wouldn’t say no but he supposedly had some misgivings about the director, which turned out to be true. But anyway, it didn’t work. So, Disney eventually gave him the chance to set it up somewhere else with other actors who were not well known. He couldn’t get that done and then it reverted to the studio and they eventually got Peter Weir to direct it.

FB

How lucky all of these little steps along the way were to get to the final product, which won the Academy Award for you.

Were you on the set rewriting because Robin Williams was so known for improvising? How was all that managed?

TS

The bizarre thing was that, from the first day, Robin was always so on script. He knew it word for word. It just didn’t have any life to it. I was panicking and we only had Robin for one day and then he was going off to do a play in New York for two weeks, and then we would get him back. I was standing by Peter after each day going, “Oh, my God.” And he goes, “I know, I know. Just be quiet. We’ll fix it.” And nothing happened. So, Robin left, and I said to Peter, “What are we going to do?” He goes, “We got two weeks to figure it out.” So, when Robin got back to set, Peter had him do an improvisation. We were in the classroom and improv was, “If you wanted to teach these kids something, what would you teach them?” He decided to do Shakespeare and he did that improvisation that’s in the movie where he’s John Wayne doing Macbeth. As soon as Robin was improvising, he understood what he was not doing with the script, which is that the dialogue is just like stand-up, you’re looking at the kids to see if they’re getting what you want. You’re teasing them, you’re cajoling, and doing all that stuff. He just got it immediately after that and it was full of life, and problem solved.

Actor and comedian, Robin Williams, standing in the center of a group of young men posing for a photo. From the set of Dead Poet's Society.

FB

When you were talking with your girlfriend and you were working on the character, in the original script, how much of your history is in it? Because it’s a movie that’s about nonconformity. Your father actually pushed you away from following the path of conforming to what he did. It seems like those two came together to, at least mathematically, really tell a personal story.

TS

I write to understand what I think. That’s what happened here. You just start writing this teacher and pretty soon you figure out what he’s about. I always knew he would be in this tightly wound institution. The rebellion against that environment came naturally.

FB

And the casting of the of the students was really magnificent. They all felt so lived in. Your characters often feel lived in. How do you get to that point? What are you thinking, and trying to create that has that feeling? Because they were some of the most lived-in teen characters that I’ve ever seen in cinema.

TS

It’s partly the writing and partly the direction and the casting. From the writing standpoint, once I understand the function of a character in a story, I cast around in my mind for people I know from my life. It could have been somebody in kindergarten or in college or after college, but who do I know that would fit the role of that character? Enough that I can put their face and their person in that character. Every character is cast out of my life that way. They’re behaving the way I think they would behave, and maybe that gives it more life.

FB

You did take acting classes for a while. I’m assuming you were taking acting classes not as much to become a great actor but to improve your writing or directing and how to work with actors.

TS

I understood the mechanism. I certainly did not have the courage or the sense of freedom to be able to just let go in front of even the small audiences we had. When I started the Actors and Directors lab, I told Jack I wanted to direct and he said, “Then you’re gonna have to act.” That was forced on me and for good reason because the process of acting and the process of writing and directing they’re all very connected.

FBIndecent Proposal was an unusual development process in terms of you didn’t write it, but you optioned the book.

Image from a scene in the movie: Indecent Proposal, featuring Robert Redford and Demi Moore playing poker.

TS

My next-door neighbor was Alex Gartner, who at the time was working for a company that was making an early version of The Handmaid’s Tale. Alex was reading Indecent Proposal, and he would come over every morning at like seven to play ping-pong for an hour before he went off to work. And we would talk about the book while we played. The basic premise of the book is a billionaire paying a woman a million dollars for one night. It seemed like a really interesting idea, but the way it was worked out in the book, not so much. Alex and I had optioned the book for next to nothing and I took it to Teddy Zee at Paramount, who was a junior executive there, and Teddy loved it and bought it. Alex and I both thought we needed a woman writer for the project, it should be told from the woman’s point of view. So, we hired Amy Holden Jones to adapt the novel. By the time we turned in the script, Teddy had moved to Sony, the regime who bought it were no longer there, but the new guys really wanted to make it.

They inadvertently tipped their hand as to how much they wanted it because they didn’t know that they owned it when we turned in the script. So, they called me on Monday and said, “Oh my God we have to have this. What do we have to pay for this?” So, just being kind of impish I said, “Well, I’m gonna have to think about it.” They said, “Oh, please don’t do this to us. Please have lunch with us.” So, we met in the executive dining room and I just tormented them before I finally said, “You know, you own it already.” They really really wanted to make the movie so we had some leverage.

FB

That’s an amazing experience. Other than that, what would you say are the most enjoyable moments that you’ve had either working on a set or writing a script where you felt so in the zone or having an actor take your script?

TS

There have been so many good ones. Obviously, the Dead Poets Society experience was so amazing, having Robin and that cast and Peter, who was so collaborative. He just said, “I want you here. Feel free to say anything you want.” Robin was just such an easy person to work with and such a good guy. That would be the standout. Double Down South was a great experience, as well. I love the cast; they were just all so involved. It was a pretty small crew, only about 40 people or so. Everybody was really working together and they were so supportive. A great way to get this thing done. As a director it was unbelievable. I did have one scene that I had to reshoot because I woke up in the middle of the night and went, “Oh, my God, I blew that scene.” The A.D. department just said, “We don’t know how, but we will make this work. We’ll get you in there.”

FB

What was your first introduction to Alice in Wonderland?

A black and white drawing of people playing chess. From Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland".

TS

I’d read Alice in Wonderland, probably freshman year in high school. I had a teacher who essentially told us, this is almost like a puzzle within a story within a puzzle. Then in college, I took a class where Alice was on the curriculum, and we read a book called The Annotated Alice. Which is, oh, my God, you can tell every word, every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph, every character. The depth of the thing is staggering to the point where you can’t really even absorb it all. It’s so amazing. So, I knew Alice had been written by a genius, and therefore, I was too intimidated. It’s a book that’s almost a key to a whole universe that is not there on the page. So how do you absorb that? Hats off to you for taking it in this other direction with The Looking Glass Wars.

FB

I know you’re into politics, and I don’t know if you’ve seen how many headlines there were during the Trump Administration that said “We’re down the rabbit hole. We’re through the Looking-glass. We’re all mad here.” And Kushner just came out and said the best way to contextualize the Trump presidency was through Alice in Wonderland.

TS

Absolutely. Metaphorically, Alice in Wonderland has probably been used in that way as much as any modern text out there. It stands the test of time that way. Nothing like it has really survived, has it?

FB

Think about Winter Wonderland, and how often we’re using it to describe magical places. I suppose Middle Earth or Oz, are equivalents they use a lot. But Wonderland is really part of our language.

TS

But once you get to Middle Earth, and you understand the rules, then it’s consistent. Wonderland is always changing. It’s always morphing. You can’t really feel grounded there. It’s hard to find something like that but it’s so ungrounded that people could stick with it.

FB

This is why there have been very few Alice in Wonderland adaptations that have been successful, except Tim Burton’s. But the second movie didn’t really work because there’s not a grounded logic to the world, which is what I’ve attempted to do with The Looking Glass Wars. I wanted to bring a kind of Middle Earth style where there are rules and governance and logic to it.

If you were to describe your golf game using Alice in Wonderland as a metaphor, what would that be?

TS

I would have to say I’m like the Mad Hatter.

FB

You’re not Humpty Dumpty?

TS

I’m the Mad Hatter with the notion of a little bit of anger all the time.

FB

Thanks for sharing all those great stories and the ups and downs of the creative process. And congrats on your new movie. Where can where can folks see Double Down South?

TS

It’s going to be at the Three Rivers Film Festival in Pittsburgh in mid-November, and then it’s coming out in about 60 cities in mid-January for about a month and then it’ll be on all platforms.

FB

Well, it’s a terrific movie and I’m sure audiences will find it. Thanks for coming on.

TS

This was so much fun. I’m so glad you had me on the podcast.

Image of Hollywood Director, Tom Schulamn, known for blockbuster films like Dead Poets Society. Here he is sitting in from of a brick wall, at a desk with some old books on it, while smiling for the camera, about to be interviewed by Author, Frank Beddor.

For the latest updates & news about All Things Alice,  please read our blog and subscribe to our podcast!

All Things Alice: Interview with Jendia Gammon

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 Jendia Gammon join me as my guest! Read on to explore our conversation and check out the whole series on your favorite podcasting platform to listen to the full interview.

A group of books by Jendia Gammon on a blue background. The Questrison Saga's "Accretion Book Three", The Shadow Galaxy and The Inn at Amethyst Lantern. This image is the title card for the All Things Alice Podcast by Frank Beddor, where he interviews Jendia Gammon, which is a pen name for Dianne Dotson.

FB

I need to clarify something. Dianne Dotson, is that your real name?

DD

I have two pen names. The self-published pen name is J. Dianne Dotson and I also have Jendia Gammon. Jendia is a combination of Jennifer and Dianne and Gammon is my maiden name. I had self-published under J. Dianne Dotson and I had a couple of book deals before I got an agent. Those books are out this year, The Shadow Galaxy and The Inn at the Amethyst Lantern, and are under J. Dianne Dotson but that will not be my name going forward. I have a lot of projects already out under Jendia Gammon. I have a story, “Copper”, in the latest Interzone Magazine, which is a wonderful magazine that everybody should subscribe to. I have stories in multiple anthologies coming out as well as magazines. My traditional pen name going forward is Jendia Gammon and I won’t be going back to Datson. But with the new release coming out, you can still find me under that name.

FB

Let’s talk about the theory behind a pen name because it’s hard to get one’s name out there ever, let alone with multiple names. If you’re a super-famous writer, sometimes that happens, but what’s the thinking for you in using these pen names?

DD

Doing the split from indie publishing to traditional is one factor, but it isn’t the only one. I have lost both my parents. My mother passed away earlier this year and I really wanted to dig back into my heritage, the Gammon family from East Tennessee with our Irish ancestry. In a way, I’m honoring my parents and their memories. I wouldn’t be the writer I am without my dad, who was a storyteller and indie-published author. My mother worked in publishing and it was sort of destiny that I would not only become a writer but I would also eventually form my own publishing company, which I am doing with my husband, Gareth L. Powell.

I really wanted to distinguish between those two phases of my life. I self-published The Questrison Saga and then got a couple of deals under my belt before moving forward with traditional publishing. I have books on submission right now with my agent, one of which is a high-fantasy dragon and the other is a sci-fi horror thriller. I’m also working on a very campy, Southern California-based horror novel due in December which is very raw and funny. I’m writing in multiple genres for multiple age groups.

For my purposes, changing my pen name was a split of meaningful life moments, and returning to my heritage and Jendia was an old nickname. I liked it for SEO purposes for the web because Jendia is more unique. I’m a content manager for a biotech career-related website so that’s at the forefront of a lot of my thinking. Also, I know a couple of British authors who have three pen names. One of them is John Courtney Greenwood. Then there’s the author Stark Holborn, who writes science fiction under that name but uses two entirely different names for two other types of books, one of which is historical fiction, and the other is for cozy mystery. I think it’s important that if you’re going to write something wildly different from your primary genre, you might want to consider a different pen name because you develop a certain persona for each one. But then again, I also do feel strongly that as Jendia Gammon, I want to be like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, and write everything I feel like writing. I do feel though, that science fiction, fantasy, and horror are my brand. That is the Jendia Gammon brand.

FB

Do you think of being gender-neutral when you’re picking a pen name? I’ve noticed some authors do that because they’re writing a lot of characters who are not their gender, or they’re writing in a sci-fi space that is historically prejudiced against certain genders.

DD

I think traditionally, in the 19th century into the early 20th century, quite often you would have initials only if it was a woman writer so they could pretend to be a male writer because you weren’t given the same space. Although Mary Shelley, bless her, bucked the trend on that one, and without her, we wouldn’t have modern science fiction as we have it, and maybe not horror either. But then I think of one of my favorite authors, L.M. Montgomery. She didn’t have to be L.M., she could have been Lucy Montgomery. But, in the early 1900s perhaps it was more favorable for her and maybe she actually liked that. But I do feel that it isn’t necessary to do that today. I view the The Questrison Saga as a success and I was J. Dianne. The reason I picked J. Dianne was because I love L. Frank Baum.

Cartoon book pencil drawing from L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz", with Dorothy comforting the cowardly Lion, while two Scarecrows and Toto, the dog look on.

FB

One of my favorites.

DD

Those original Oz books had a huge influence on me and my wacky worlds. Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland did as well. Those two definitely shaped me and my early reading history particularly.

FB

Tell me about Alice and your early influences. Was it something that your parents introduced to you? They seem to have been very influential. I can feel how important that upbringing and your parents’ influences have been on you and how you want to honor that. You also seem to have really honored it in your work ethic and in the stories you’re telling.

DD

Thank you. They were quite different people. I’m much more my father’s daughter, but at the same time, I certainly have my mother’s pragmatism. My father was the dreamer, the journeyman, and the writer. My mother was down to earth. She was the editor, the lineup type operator.

A lot of the mythology that I read was directly due to Dad’s love for mythology. But then again, while I don’t have the same attention to detail that my mother had, I know how important it is and I’m looking at everything that way. But they didn’t introduce Alice to me. My sister did. I’m the baby by almost 10 years. I had three older siblings who were teenagers starting in the 70s, so it was a hot mess when I was born. But my sister would read to me when I was a little bitty thing and she read Alice in Wonderland to me many times. I had crazy white blond hair so instantly I was like, “Oh, I’m obviously Alice.” It was also important for me to have adventures on my own, separate from these legendary older siblings, who are all dynamos in completely different ways. Of course, I identify with Alice in that regard, having your own adventures and being independent was huge to me. I loved Alice for that, and I loved the dreamlike and strange qualities of Wonderland and the Looking-glass world. I actually really love looking Through the Looking Glass. When I was in sixth grade, I performed “The Jabberwocky” in front of the entire class.

I was a super nerd and to be up in front of these kids and just be full of gusto was just absolutely horrifying but empowering at the same time because I was doing something related to something I loved. But that was absolutely the first moment of like, being a true dramatic person.

FB

You talked about the whimsy of Alice in Wonderland, but a lot of people interpret the story as horror, because of what happens with Alice. You have the same interpretation I have which is, that there are all these creatures and there’s all this chaos but in the middle of it, Alice is keeping her head, as long as the Red Queen is not around. I did not read it as horror yet quite a few people have, what do you make of that?

DD

The thing about Alice in both stories is that she’s finding out about herself and that can be very scary, no matter your age. Using the mirror, as a comparison, she’s looking in a mirror and reflecting upon herself. That’s her looking glass. A reader coming into that may not be quite ready to look in the mirror. There might be monsters on the other side of that glass that they haven’t slain yet or dealt with or escaped. I think that’s where the horror interpretation is coming from. How comfortable are you with yourself and your journey? Some of it is frightening on paper. The Jabberwocky is quite terrifying. You would not want to run into that fella in a dark alley. But at the same time, knowing there’s this allegory within the journey is what matters more to me. But not everybody is comfortable going into that space.

FB

The journey of self-discovery in the story is really powerful and has always resonated with me.

DD

It’s probably because of Alice that I channel that in a lot of my characters, who are going through a journey of self-discovery, at times, it is terrifying, and other times, it’s wonderful in ways they didn’t anticipate. Like in The Inn at the Amethyst Lantern, the main character has to become a leader. She’s a 14-year-old in this futuristic lunar punk society that is faced with a threat from our time that she has no point of reference for and she’s got to rally not only herself and her own insecurities, but an entire team of teenagers to stop another apocalypse.

Book Cover for "The Inn at the Amethyst Lantern" by J. Dianne Dotson, featuring a young girl, shrouded in purple light from the lighthouse, and holding a teal, aquamarine colored moth, with her back turned to the audience.

FB

Do you think that’s why Alice has resonated for over 150 years? Thematically it is very adaptable to a new era and we keep re-inventing it to reflect what’s going on right now. For me, the world is so upside down and so chaotic. Facts are not facts and logic is not logic. So the illogical world of Wonderland and the adventure that Alice is on feels exactly like what’s going on.

DD

Looking-glass too, because I’ve heard the phrase so many times in the past few years, “We’re really through the looking-glass now.” With any fracture point in human history where there’s been a massive event, such as a World War, political crisis, or pandemic, we have the instant reaction of wanting to cling to something familiar. But then we look at that thing and we suddenly see a new meaning in it. We see ourselves in it again, but not as children. Maybe we could see ourselves as children starting over again, because we’ve had to reboot and reboot and reboot, again through major loss on a big scale. A lot of people don’t want to look at it like that. They want to go back to their regular world, they don’t want to be in this weird new world again. Then other people thought their old world was crap and they want to be in Wonderland or make their own Wonderland. I think some people have really tapped into that, which is what I’ve been doing with my stories. We just were attaching meaning because we feel like we’re dangling so we need to grab for something. Finding all these different interpretations fascinates me but it makes sense in the context that we’re just trying to figure this out as a society and as individuals.

FB

You hear Winter Wonderland a lot because it represents a magical, happy, beautiful cloud, the idea of escaping into a better place. You hear “down the rabbit hole” and “we’re all mad here all the time.” Interestingly, it finds its way into politics and pop culture. Alice seems to be a muse for us creators and writers. Mine’s pretty direct but in all the people I’ve interviewed, they’re often talking about just what you suggested, a time in your life where you were introduced to it and you took that inspiration, that theme and you put it into one of your stories.

DD

Sometimes that wasn’t even intentional. Sometimes I look back and go, “Oh, my God, it’s obvious now.” There’s this sibling relationship. There’s this girl who has to go into an unprecedented situation with a lot of monsters and weird stuff. The line is right there. That template of having that at a young age is so interesting. I wonder what it must be like as an adult to discover Wonderland. It would be amazing to get that perspective.

FB

I think people pull this collective history of Alice into their thinking, so you can’t separate all these years of influence. So usually people are, they’re trying to figure out the influence. Is it really the original? Or is it the Jefferson Airplane song plus the Beatles song plus The Matrix? It’s a tapestry.

DD

You hear the phrase “red-pilled” all the time, right?

FB

And it was “eat me” and “drink me” in the Lewis Carroll stories. So it’s gonna continue to morph and influence culture. You talked about The Wizard of Oz and Gregory Maguire’s Wicked was a big deal. I called Gregory when I started writing The Looking Glass Wars for advice and he told me to do a musical. Because, with the first novel, he had sold about 500,000 books, which wasn’t anything compared to what happened with the musical.

DD

That was a true phenomenon. It’s interesting to think about how stories eventually become myths. It’s quite possible that Alice is starting to enter mythology, as is Dorothy. These are new myths, as is Luke Skywalker. These are our new fairy tales versus ones that are ancient. So, these become the new myths and the new fairy tales.

FB

I’m glad you brought that up because I’m interested in myth and folklore in storytelling and I do like that idea of a new myth. One of the archetypes is obviously good and evil. But lately, I’ve been thinking about what people are looking for thematically. Yes, good and evil. But it seems to me that people are wondering what’s real. Because the world seems so fake and when facts are not facts, then what do you have to hold on to? What do you think?

DD

I’ve seen both things going on, where people go back, but then it’s all fantasy because nostalgia tricks us. It’s the pill we take when we choose to not want to believe reality. Our own stream of reality, what we’ve been through in our lives and culture is itself a constantly evolving and nebulous thing. If we stopped the present, what are we now? But we often think in terms of, “Oh, that was a better time”. But if you really were there and you experienced it, was it really a better time? It’s a matter of kind of collectively wanting to forget, wanting to toss the sting and sip the honey. So there’s that coming into play. Now we have the “wonderful” A.I. coming on. Say nothing of taking some of our writers and artists’ jobs. But, like in Blade Runner, we’re very much questioning what makes us human. How do we retain our humanity in a world in which AI is increasingly prevalent? Technology has unified us in ways that would seem miraculous, but at the same time, it’s easier to split off into our own little pockets.

FB

You have a deep background in science, you write science articles, and you work for a biotech company. You write space operas, I think of Star Wars or Dune, which is one of my favorites.

So how do you take that technology and cultural relevance and craft your worlds?

Book cover for "The Shadow Galaxy - A collection of short stories and poetry" by J. Dianne Dotson. This cover is a black and white mountain valley, with a dark red, starry sky, where the galaxy above looks like a human eye.

DD

The Shadow Galaxy is a collection of short stories and poetry and there are sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and some fairy tales, set in Appalachia. One in particular is relevant right now, and it’s called “Roder” and it’s a heartbreaker story. It involves a human woman who discovers a robot she falls in love with, like the movie Her. But we become attached to these artificial people and science fiction, it’s often a trope, but it’s understanding our own humanity by considering the other of the artificial person. I think that building from the grounding of, you always want to appeal to someone’s humanity, no matter if you’re writing something that’s set in deep space, or underground in a cave, or in some strange realm that appears on a foggy night. But you also have to introduce that feeling of uncertainty and to do that you need to think ahead in terms of, what if this fantastic thing happened? Or what if this really terrible thing happened? How do we react? I always like to frame the science in everything that I write, because I like to insert ecology in fantasy, science fiction, and horror. In fact, in the dragon book that’s on submission right now, there’s a lot of ecology to it and there’s a lot of environmental interaction between different species. Frank Herbert’s Dune is a good example of using ecology. I don’t always stick to what I know but I like a grounding, just so a reader can connect with something that exists in the real world, even if they’re being transported to another place.

FB

I like how you mix science fiction with fantasy. But how would you describe the difference between high fantasy and sci-fi? Obviously, there’s all the space and alien components but from a world-building perspective, in terms of whether it’s creating the magic or the technology behind the weapons or the science, what’s in your head? Do you do a lot of research?

DD

It depends on how grounded you want to be. For example, I took a long sword class because there was a character who has to learn how to wield a sword and I needed to know how that feels and what you would need to do. So, there is research that you need to do if you’re doing a sword and sorcery story but the technology in most fantasy realms is magic. That is the main form of technology but you do have other forms of tech. You have swords and staffs and things like that. It depends on what level you want to play in. Is it a magic sword or just a regular sword?

A lot of times people like to say that magic is technology we haven’t invented yet, and there’s something to that. We’re often inspired by these fantastical stories to come up with something that would have seemed like magic 100-200 years ago. That was one thing that I thought Star Trek did really well because on the face of it, it seems like science fiction but they were doing some pretty fantastical things. But it’s nice to come around the world thinking that way. I’ve got technology and physics, or the skewering of physics depending on how hard sci-fi it is, versus introducing any fantasy element into the sci-fi. The spectrum of strictly adhering to science as we know it, versus projecting something that could be that we just don’t know yet.

Because I have a science background, I have a bias toward wanting to get more of that into my work no matter what genre it is. However, my husband, Gareth L. Powell, does not have a science background, and he writes science fiction novels so you can do some research. I do encourage it because scientists love it when you ask. For the thriller I just recently finished, I had to talk to somebody at NASA about something they’ve been working on because I needed to have a real-world parallel or at least a comparison and I wanted to make sure that I had some things right. So they don’t mind at all, reach out to them. It depends on your level because I do know some sci-fi writers who have never done the research and that’s gutsy. I wouldn’t be able to do that. But at the same time, they might be coming up with things that project their other perspective onto something that could potentially help us in the future that scientists could then take.

FB

What about the characters’ dialogue? If it’s a sci-fi story and you’re dealing with scientific topics or eccentric things that are going on, you’re going to be putting words in their mouth. Then in a fantasy world, it could be a language or terminology that you completely invent. But at the heart of it, how do you pierce the humanity in the magic and the technology? That’s what people really care about in the melodrama of the space opera.

DD

I like to tap into characters who are trying to figure out who the heck they are. So I keep going back to that well and asking each character who they are. A friend of mine will set up a fake interview of each of his characters to ask them what their favorite things are, and what scares them. I think that’s a brilliant idea for building characters because it really grounds them as part of the world, that is world building is making a great character. You could have the most incredible setting out in the stars or another fantasy realm, but it does not matter if the characters don’t capture the imagination. You have to add that human element and the interactions with other species or people depending on your worlds and give tension or distrust, or friendship or love, or whatever it is. It’s so incredibly crucial to any story that you write.

FB

That’s what we humans crave. That’s what we relate to.

We met in 2017. We talked on the phone and I don’t recall how we met each other but I do recall you asking for advice. I want to tell my listeners that as a writer who’s been published and who traveled a lot, I have a lot of aspiring writers who’ve asked me for advice and told me about their books. And I never heard from them again. But for me to see your books start to come out over the years and you build up your portfolio of work and your readers has been really quite delightful and a joy. So, what were those words of wisdom that I shared that motivated you to this deep level of writing?

Image of all 4 book covers for the "Questrison Saga", featuring fantasy and sci-fi imagery of grand spaceships and space ports in other galaxies. Heliopause, Ephemeris, Accretion, Luminiferous are each of the 4 book titles.

DD

I had written the bones of The Questrison Saga when I was a young teen. After years of tumult in moves and then becoming a parent, I finally came back to it and finished it. But then I was floundering. What do I do with this thing? How do I get this out there? So then a mutual friend of ours was like, “Oh, you might want to talk to Frank Beddor.”

I had no idea of your history at all, so here we are having this conversation, and you said, “Tell me about Heliopause.” So I just tell you about it and you go, “That’s the best verbal pitch I’ve ever heard.” I was like, “Oh, cool.” But then I realized, “Oh my God, he’s a producer. He hears pitches all the time.” So that was a real confidence boost. I felt boosted anyway, but then coming back around and realizing that you hear pitches all the time, it was really wonderful. I really thank you for that because it did give me confidence and you read it in a very rough state. You encouraged me. You said there was a good story here and to get it polished and get it out there.

I originally wanted to self-publish because I knew we were at a state in which we could have a very high-quality self-published book and I knew nobody would want the saga the way I wanted it. But I did, after much cajoling, go through the court process and became close with several agents. But finally, I decided, “Not with this series. This is too close to me. I have to do this my way.” And I didn’t realize how much work that would mean and how much self-promotion but I’m glad that I did it because I got myself out there. You have to get yourself out there for readers to find your work if you don’t have a big publishing house behind you. So it was a lot of work and very satisfying. It taught me a lot about publishing which will be essential in starting my own imprint.

But you gave me such a great push at the right time and I thank you forever for that. Then we reconnected in 2019 when I was attempting to get some work in Hollywood and, at that time, we were talking about show bibles and that was good practice to come up with those things. It helped me think differently about making characters and describing them. That became relevant for making synopses for being on submission with an agent.

FB

The process of creating a synopsis and a mini-bible for a TV show is almost exactly the same for a book and a publisher or an agent. There are all these things that they want you to do on spec to get their attention. I’m happy I steered you and was one of the many people influencing your success.

But let’s go back to that first book, Heliopause. What were the choices in terms of being an independent publisher of your own books? I was really struck by the quality of your cover and the way that you dealt with the fonts and the title. These are really delicate, important issues that help people choose your book and publishers get really anal about their influence on that because I ended up using a lot of the artwork that I had commissioned and Penguin had to license the art for me to put it on my cover. But I was so thrilled because I love the artwork and I thought it was better than anything they could have come up with. But they’re also really good at it and I’ve made a few bad mistakes by trying to influence covers, especially in Germany, where I saw their artwork and I told them that can’t be the best artwork you could come up with but turns out, that’s what Germans like.

Fantastic science fiction painting of a very large space port, with spaceships docking and taking off, hovering in orbit over a blue planet.

DD

Tapping into culture is a really good point and something that I have to consider when I start publishing other authors’ books. For my purposes, I already had a very defined sense of what I wanted. I wanted to give a nod to Vincent Di Fate and John Berkey, classic sci-fi covers that looked painted. I didn’t want them to look too CGI. I wanted a classic look that was really vivid and gorgeous. The artist Leon Tukkar did the front and the back of these paperbacks. It’s a wonderful spread of art.

What you want is you want it to look like something you would go and pick off the shelf at a bookstore. You want it to look as though someone else did it. I see a lot of people started to use AI art, which I’m not fond of, for multiple reasons, because I like to pay artists for their work.

FB

Was it digital only to start with or did you print them as well?

DD

I did paperback and ebook through IngramSpark Lightning Source because they have global distribution and it’s print on demand for the paperbacks, so it’s freshly printed and shipped off from the distributor directly each time it’s ordered. Then they upload multiple forms of ebooks, everything from Kobo to Kindle and all the other formats to all the major booksellers. It’s slick. Really straightforward and simple.

FB

It’s so satisfying to have the finished book and, now for you, the finished series. How was this experience? Was it primarily for the love of the series, the creative part of it? Or were you able to make enough money that you would do it again? Or is that why you’re going to a publisher now? Tell me about your thinking and the financial realities of something like this.

DD

The financial reality is that you will spend a lot more doing this than you would have imagined unless you’re only doing ebooks, and the royalties are better if it’s an ebook only because you don’t have to deal with the supply of paper and that sort of thing. All the costs that go into making a physical book have jumped significantly in the past couple of years. The benefit of self-publishing is that you do have complete creative control and that’s highly appealing. I don’t just slap stuff up, though. I had two editors and I paid them, which is not cheap either. I think it is the most worthy expense aside from the cover art because you need somebody to read through it and offer advice and copy edits, and then you need a proofreader.

Then beta readers for sure. Because they’re gonna find something that none of the rest of us found because we all have looked at it too many times. Usually, I like to send them the manuscript pretty early, once I have edited it a few times and read through it. You need BETA readers because when you’re doing it yourself, you don’t have this whole team working on getting these books out. It’s only you and you need to invest in the right people to help you make these books the best they can be because people will absolutely respond if it’s poorly made or if there are glaring errors.

FB

Now that you have a traditional publisher, having that experience, will you ever go back to self-publishing?

DD

That’s a good question, and a little complex, considering I’m starting my own imprint, which is primarily meant to publish other authors but theoretically I could put my own book out on my own imprint at some point.

The Shadow Galaxy came out on March 3 and was published by Trepidatio, which is an imprint of JournalStone and then The Inn at the Amethyst Lantern is out from Android Press. Lantern is my first young adult novel and it’s sci-fi fantasy mixed and Shadow Galaxies is cross-genre. I have a short story collection related to The Questrison Saga. I need to decide if I want to self-publish but to be honest with you, the goal now, having an agent, is to get a pretty big publishing deal and get global reach because it’s just a different world. I don’t have a publicity team and even if I did, it wouldn’t match Big Five publishing. It depends on what you want to do. If you’re doing this just for the joy of it and you want to do the small circuit and go to all the cons and have a table, there’s beauty in that. You can sell a decent amount but you will be capped in your potential for the audience and potential for income, and, of course, you have your own expenses to add in. So you have to think about that. Also, you’re more likely with traditional publishing to have someone discover it and perhaps option it.

FB You have a big sales team that visits the independent bookstores regularly and they talk up the book. But even that pales in comparison to what they ask the author to do in terms of building a community of readers and fans, whether it’s through schools, comic cons, or speaking engagements. That is really the most crucial thing. Because once you have that community, and those early adopters and those people that really love your work, you already have your foot soldiers when you release a new book. They’re your beta readers. They’re out there spreading the gospel.

Image of J. Dianne Dotson, or Jendia Gammon sitting in a book store at a book signing event.

DD

That’s something that you can do even if you’re not like me. I’m an extrovert writer but I know a lot of writers are introverts as well and there are still avenues to build that community. What’s really interesting to me is people discovered The Questrison Sage in multiple ways. I had some discover me at a table at a con and just literally selling, throwing out my pitch every other minute. You have to have that sales pitch down.

FB

How did you come to rent a space or a table at a ComiCon? Who inspired that? Because that’s something that I did in 2005 and I was blown away by how many people wanted to buy books because I thought it was a comic book convention only. People loved reading and I thought, “This is the place to launch novels. I don’t know why all the publishers aren’t there.” How did you realize that was such a sweet spot to get your book out?

DD

I’m a nerd myself and I have been to some conventions, also, I just asked other writers what worked for them. So looking to people who are successful and constantly gathering that information because it changes with time and we have to adapt. Obviously, in 2020, we couldn’t have in-person events so we had to quickly pivot to online. That actually turned out to be pretty great and those online events are continuing. People from all over the world will join and they’re paying to see different writer’s perspectives and to learn how to write books and publish and promote and all these different things.

I take notes at every convention I’m at and I haven’t had a table in a few years, but I’ve been a panelist and that’s another way of getting support. You’re gonna have a huge audience that has never heard of you or your work before. I’ve been on Star Wars panels. I’ve been on panels about how to write psychologically rich characters. I made a panel for the Nebula Awards, based on an article I wrote called “The Ecology of World-Building” for the Science Fiction Writers Association. I’m gonna be part of a pretty impressive writers’ workshop at a university this coming spring and I will be leaning into ecology for genre fiction. So you lean into whatever your specialties are. But in terms of the actual boots-on-the-ground sales you have to decide if you want to invest the money to be there because it costs a lot depending on the convention. I started out small and CondorCon in San Diego was intimate and there were a lot of book-buying visitors. Honestly, splitting the cost of a booth or table with another writer is the best thing because not only does it save you both money, but you also have a booth buddy.

FB

I’m a fan of the smaller cons. They’re creator-driven and they’re more exploratory and they’ll take risks and try things, especially when it comes to selling. But what you said about the pitch is so true. You have to get that pitch down to 30 seconds.

DD

You also need your display to be very visually interesting. It also doesn’t hurt, in my case, to have my double chocolate brownies. But you can have a poster made of your book cover so it captures attention. That’s how I’ve sold a lot of books. First, you draw them in and then you give your pitch. They go with it or they don’t, but that visual is essential.

FB

I normally ask people, if they were a character from Alice in Wonderland, who they would be and why. But since you and I are both fans of the 14 Wizard of Oz books if you were one of the Wizard of Oz characters, who would you be?

DD

That’s really hard because I love so many of them. I love Ozma a lot. I loved it when she was kidnapped. That sounds terrible but she seemed too powerful at that point. She had been tipped and went back and forth, been the boy and then the girl, and then took her role as leader of Oz and she seemed a little too locked up in herself. Then she gets kidnapped. A powerful fairy queen gets kidnapped. Pretty incredible. I actually loved that because you saw more of her humanity than her fairy side. Of course, I love Dorothy.

Advertisment for the book, "Copper" by Jendia Gammon, Illustrated by Vinayak Varma. Featuring a fish-shaped robot, about to get prodded by the silhouette of a female protagonist.

I also love Tik-Tok, one of the first robots in literature. He was a wind-up copper round bowl of a fella and influenced one of my short stories. “Copper,” the short story, is about a robot in the near future who develops an interesting ability after his person undergoes tremendous grief. It’s a touching story and it’s kind of wacky, just like the Oz books and Wonderland. Copper is a very interesting character. I love riding robots. There are robots in a lot of my writing. Even The Inn of the Amethyst Lantern has some really interesting house bots that perform multiple functions depending on the time of day or night. I’ve always been fascinated by robots so Tick-Tock is one of my favorites, although the Sawhorse is pretty great, too. I’ve always loved the dynamic between the Tin Man and Scarecrow, and, as flawed as she was, Eureka was fascinating. I have actually illustrated Ozma and Billina, by the way, in the Art Nouveau style. I love illustrating the Oz characters.

FB

I’ve really enjoyed this. I’m a huge fan of Carl Sagan and he has a quote about imagination – “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere.” You have used your imagination to carry us off in many different directions and stories, and I think my readers and listeners are going to enjoy discovering you and your work. I hope they’ll pick up some of your novels and enjoy them as much as I have. So, thank you for being on All Things Alice. It’s been a real pleasure.

DD

Thanks so much. It’s been great talking to you.


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All Things Alice: Interview with Bad Hats Theatre

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 Fiona Sauder, Landon Doak and Victor Pokinko of Bad Hats Theatre join me as my guests! Read on to explore our conversation and check out the whole series on your favorite podcasting platform to listen to the full interview.


FB

Thanks for being on the show. I’m always excited to talk to other creators who have used Alice as a muse to tell stories.

I want to talk about your theatre company, Bad Hats. Tell me the story.

FS

Bad Hats started in 2015. It was co-founded by me and an artist named Nicola Atkinson. And over time, through making work with friends that we’ve met through the community or school, we started to figure out how it was logical for this group of people to run a company. Everyone found their place in Bad Hats over the years and now we’ve got a cohort that spends all its time figuring out how to make space for writing and producing new musicals. Many of these are adaptations, likeAlice in Wonderland. The name Bad Hats came from a friend of mine in Ottawa. Their name is Megan and I bought us matching hats. Megan’s head is very small and the hat kept falling over their eyes and they kept going, “Bad hat. Bad hat.” Bad Hats Theater just had a ring to it. We just ran with it and it became an umbrella under which now all these fine folk sit with me.

VP

The other cool thing that we realized in recent years is that Bad Hat is a British-ism for sort of a bad egg or shit disturber, which suits us. We all started as actors, primarily and we grew into various roles, writers, composers, producers, directors, and music directors. But we’ve always been interested in shifting the paradigm within the industry and doing things a little bit differently.

FB 

Interestingly, you mentioned everybody started as actors, because, when you’re an actor, often you feel out of control because you’re waiting for somebody to give you an audition. It’s a very vulnerable place to be over a long period. I too started as an actor and was looking to empower myself by writing stories and suddenly that opens up a doorway to something else.

Fiona, you’re the writer, so you adapted Alice in Wonderland, and Landon and Victor, you both composed the music. The show is a contemporary spin on Wonderland that takes us down a rabbit hole with Alice, a girl with a lot of questions. What is your contemporary spin on Alice?

FS

We had done a production of Peter Panthat was very successful and ran for many years in Toronto, and around Ontario and is being licensed across Canada now. That was a flagship production for the company. Following that we knew we wanted to tell another story that could feel like it fell in sequence, after Peter. We felt like Alice was a character of a slightly older age than the story we had told with Peter so we blindly picked up the book, knowing some of the general pop culture stuff everybody knows about Alice and knowing the lore and fame and global adulation for the book. We didn’t know when we started what the spin would be. I had read it, making furious notes, and I remember when Landon read it for the first time, they called me on the phone, I said, “So what are your impressions? Where do you want to go with it? What do you want to do?” And the first thing Landon said was, “Have you noticed how many question marks there are on every page?” It’s true. Alice is a girl who cannot stop asking questions. She’s in a strange place but particularly her curiosity and curiosity as a central focal point of the books drew us in.

I was thinking maybe we can set this in a place that begs questions and has a lot of questions in the fabric of our beginning.  And at that exact moment, I came around the corner onto my street and there was a little children’s school desk sitting on the sidewalk. I told Landon, “I gotta go. I have an idea!” So, I picked up the desk, brought it home, and I sat with it, and thought we should set this in a classroom. So that’s what our story does. It’s a contemporary classroom. Alice and her classmates have been given a homework assignment that Alice is really struggling with and she, unlike her classmates, can’t help but ask questions about all the things around her. She’s banished to the corner of the classroom and she sees a rabbit out the window in the schoolyard, and the story unfolds.

Bad Hat Theatre group sitting in school desks on stage for their performance of their unique adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Each actor is a student, raising their hands from their desks.

VP

It’s an “all about you” assignment and one of the questions she’s asked is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Everyone in the class has their own answer but Alice says, “How can I possibly decide? There’s so many things that I could be.” So she’s scribbled 1000s of answers – fireman, dentist, doctor. She finds it a bit unfair. It’s a really amazing commentary on the school system. What business do we have asking a nine-year-old or a 12-year-old what they want to do for the rest of their life? And extrapolating that further, what business do we have asking high school students to make giant decisions about their future education? So that’s the struggle that she goes through, which leads her down the rabbit hole, literally and figuratively.

FB

That’s really interesting because Alice has been read by multiple generations and it’s captured a large part of our shared imaginative history. When there are creators like yourselves, who can plumb the zeitgeist of what’s going on and come up with a theme.

What were you hoping your show would add to the Alice cultural canon that you have pulled from to come up with this story? What would you want people to take away?

FS

I think with all art, one of the best, and maybe the only thing we can do is offer a piece of ourselves. In this, we all felt like we wanted to write something that was for everyone but also to heal something that felt like it was out of tune in ourselves. I think all of us who wrote the show wrote something we felt like we needed, which was a reminder that as we peek into adulthood, in our show Alice is peeking into adolescence. But for us, we felt like we were peeking out of that into a set of rules, responsibilities, and expectations that we’d heard about in our youth and now were ours to action as adults and leaders in an arts organization and just people trying to move through the world. We were at odds with some of those rules, and some of those responsibilities.

This idea that we can’t go and reinvent ourselves. I’m not just saying change your hair, but change what your values are, change your job, change your lifestyle. We felt a bit stuck, even though we’re in this bubbling, constantly changing arts sector. We still feel that and so we felt like we needed to give ourselves, as well as our audiences, a reminder that we are forever peeking into potential new versions of ourselves. It’s not that adolescence starts and you have to become this new, complete version of yourself, and then you’re 20 and this needs to happen now and then you’re 30 and you have to have answers to these questions. It’s good to have questions for the entirety of your life. You can continue to reinvent yourself as you grow.

And with all our shows that are for all audiences, we take the things we knew as kids and try to give them back to the elder generations that are in the audience. So kids feel seen when they come to our shows and the more adult audiences that bring the kids feel like, “Oh, I used to have that wisdom. Where did it go?” That’s a lot of what the purpose is.

FB

I was going to ask you, Landon, because, in the mission statement, you talk about getting back to that childhood curiosity, that childhood imagination, which is where so much great creativity comes from. How do you access that part of you to come up with either your performances or the music that you write?

LD

I think to be a successful artist, you always have to hold on to that part of yourself. There’s a reason children are so imaginative and children. I think it’s because we come into the world as creative and imaginative beings but pretty quickly, we’re told we have to start to become something and our options become increasingly limited the older we get in terms of who we can become or the way we’re seeing in the world. Just being an artist at all, you have to fight to keep that part of yourself alive. As Fiona said, when we were creating the show, in our version, Alice is peeking into adolescence, and we were peeking into adulthood. For example, when we were working on Peter Pan, we were all right out of school. We didn’t have careers yet, or reputations, we had everything to gain and nothing to lose. But after the success of Peter Pan, stepping into writing Alice, it was sort of our sequel and we were going, “Can we do this again? What happens if we fail?” Our version of Alice is reminding ourselves as creators to do what Alice does in the play, which is to keep asking questions, rather than just trying to answer all of them. Because questions are a place where creativity can flow and thrive and answers are a place of absolutes. It’s a definitive place when you have an answer to something. There’s less room to grow. There’s not really somewhere to go when you have the answer to something. But a question is such an open door.

The original is about a young girl who’s on her way to becoming a proper young British lady. So I don’t think we needed to retell that story, but you can translate that story to any young person having to become anything. Being able to step into a version of ourselves is such a wonderful opportunity we all have but it can also be really limiting. There’s something, specifically about music, a lot of musicians will know the four chords in any key and how many successful pop songs are built off of the four chords. Well, as a musician today, I won’t let myself write a four-chord song, because I know that’s basic or that’s amateur or that’s been done so often. But when I was younger, before I knew my music theory, I would play the four chords and feel like I had just come up with the greatest hook of all time, because I wasn’t aware I had been writing a four-chord song. I think there’s a reason a lot of the most famous pop songs in the world were written by teenagers and by young people because I think when you become an older musician, you judge that type of work, and you go, “It’s been done. I can do better than that. I can find something more interesting to listen to.” But sometimes the simplest is best and I think that’s why children and young people create some really amazing art. It comes from that place of discovering something new for the first time, and not knowing that there’s somewhere else to go yet.

Image of 3 actors from Bad Hats Theatre group, performing Alice in Wonderland. They are jumping on the stage with the White Rabbit leading two others in a song and dance number.

FB

After Peter Pan, which is a huge story that’s been around almost as long as Alice, how do you confront the anxiety of failure? It seems that what you are saying is you remind yourself about asking yourself questions, as a device to move the creative process forward. Is that true for all of you?

FS

I would say so. I think what resonated for me, and what Landon was just saying reminded me, was the naivete you have when you write a first draft of something is bliss. We often say “first thought, best thought.” Then we’ll go through drafts, drafts, and drafts and then someone will go, “What if it was this?” And we’ll be like, yes. And then we’ll go, “That was actually how it was when we began, which is interesting.” You write a first draft and you feel good about it. Then the hard part comes when you have to take it apart and make it better. It’s not impenetrable, but it feels good to have it feel good for the first time.

In terms of the anxiety, that’s a good question. You can only do the next right thing, right? If I zoom out and think “How will this feel on opening night a year from now and people are seeing it for the first time and those people saw us do X Y, Zed art before and have X Y, Zed expectation?” You could go down a rabbit hole very quickly. But you have to go back to focusing on the micro, “Do I like this line? Is this funny? Does the music want to come in here? Or here?”

You just have to put one foot in front of the other and the joy that we have is that we’re all really good friends, and we laugh a lot. We’re really lucky. I spend most of my days working with these goobers and we have a wildly fun time and we get to put a lot of ourselves in the piece. You keep going and hope for the best and I think we have to make room for artists also to fail. We have to be allowed to make bad work and I think that’s something that we’ve learned. Post Alice, not because Alice was bad, it was a huge success, but I think the pressure in a way only grows and we’ve only just now started talking about how it’s okay to fail forward. My dad used to say a B.B. King line, “You better not look down or you might not keep on flying,” which I think is a good one. If I look down at what’s possible in the darkness of what could go wrong, or the way I could fall, I will. But I think it’s also okay to go, “If I do fall, it’s okay. I’ve got all these people who will catch me and I’ll catch me and you need to learn.” There’s gonna have to be darkness and lightness in the process.

VP

There’s the adage, “You have your whole life to write your first novel, you have your whole life to write your first play.” Peter Pan, there was no expectation. No one knew who we were. Personally, there was a lot of fear of failure regarding the sophomore project. We do other things outside of these major productions, our mainstream flagships. We do a lot of other things. We have development programs, we do smaller plays, and we do workshops. But Peter Pan was a big thing and suddenly people go, “When’s the next one ready?”

We have the extreme privilege that our work has been programmed time and time again, which doesn’t happen very often. We managed to do several runs of Peter Pan from 2015 to 2019 and that afforded us visibility and presence in the landscape while being able to work on Alice, whichwe started working on in 2018 and premiered on stage in 2022. Now we’re doing little rewrites, and we’re coming back for a remount and we’ll do little rewrites before we do it again in 2024. We have two stops planned for 2024, so it’s nice that we have this time to make iterative art. But we weren’t rushed to do the thing. Honestly, the pandemic helped. We suddenly felt we had the time with it. We could actually put forward something worthwhile with a message.

LD

If I can add one more thing about the fear as an artist, there’s an element of mindfulness. You have to practice just not looking at it and giving it too much of your attention and energy. It’s the same thing as having the thought, “Am I going to make rent next month?” That’s only so useful to actually helping you make rent next month because sometimes the anxiety and the fear can just become debilitating. Sometimes the pressure can prompt you into creativity but sometimes it can actually inhibit creativity.

As Fiona said, about how much we make each other and ourselves laugh within a creative process, it’s important to lean on those moments. Because, when the pressure is out there and opening night is on its way, and you’re thinking about all the important people coming to your show, it can be a debilitating thing. It’s true and it’s the reality but I find it’s just often not that useful to give it too much attention. So, I really just try to practice not looking at it. The other thing is, when I was a younger artist, I didn’t think too much about what other people thought. I just knew I was making myself and my friends laugh and that was enough. Then in this process, at the beginning, you start thinking, “What are people going to think? Are they going to like it? Is it going to be as good as next time? Can we maintain this status we’ve risen to?” Again, I find that fear just gets in the way and the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve been able to go back to that youthful place of just trusting my taste and trusting the way I make my friends laugh in a room and I’ve just gotten better at trusting that if I like something chances are other people will probably like it, as well. I’m an audience member. I consume a lot of art. So, my taste must count for something.

Still image of actors on stage, performing Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for the theater. This is Bad Hats Theatre, on stage with chess board lighting, with a red hue.

VP

This relates to something that you had mentioned, Frank, about Lewis Carroll’s, “Who am I?” thesis. Our director has been with the piece for a very long time since we started writing in 2018. Her name is Sue Miner. She was in the interview for the job and we said, “This will be the project, these are the requirements.” And she said, “This is all fine. As long as I can stay Sue, I can do anything.” That’s something that resonated with me a lot and I know it resonated with Fiona as well. It inspired a lot of that element of saying that it doesn’t matter who you want to be when you grow up, as long as you stay you, as long as we as artists stay ourselves in the creation of it, you can get through anything, and you can push through any barrier. The ultimate answer to who we want to be when we’re older should just be ourselves.

FB

Landon, you mentioned that Lewis Carroll wrote his piece as a reflection of Victorian England. This is a question for all three of you. Why do you think it is that Alice in Wonderland still resonates with audiences today? Why is it that you can take something that was written 150 years ago, and put a spin on it? What is it about that story, do you think?

LD

I do actually think there is something to be said for the ’60s and ’70s psychedelic drug experimentation era, the hippie movement, and the Beatles. I do think the Caterpillar sitting on the mushroom smoking a hookah and the Mad Hatter play into it. I don’t know if that is Lewis Carroll’s intention but it seems that the hippie and psychedelic culture has taken Alice on as an icon.

FB

That’s true. For the 60s, Alice is a reflection of the decade of the era. The music, in particular,  speaks to that.

The Matrix took Alice and made it about the internet and falling down that rabbit hole and tech. Each decade reimagines it, which is the great thing about some of these stories, they can be retold so they have meaning for a contemporary audience. As your play or your musical is doing with your theme that is personal to you. As you said earlier, it’s a reflection of who you are and that becomes part of the canon.

Fiona when you were writing, were there themes coming from the original that you said “These are universal themes of identity or logic.” For me, the world is so illogical and facts are no longer facts so Alice is the archetypal story of illogic and it seems relevant now.

FS

I think you hit the nail on the head that the universality exists in Alice receiving a world that is a mirror of the real world, and its illogical aspects. Why is time counted the way that it’s counted? Why does the sun come up over there and go down over there? What is gravity? Why do our door handles open this way? I think her changing sizes and all the things that happened physically to her when she’s in this world have so many nods to how a person moves through life. How do they move through the world? How do we fit into society? Your life can be one way and you get a phone call, you get information, and then you’re in a completely different universe.

I read somewhere that essentially, the Hero’s Journey is, the Hero sets out on his quest, completes the quest, comes home, and everything is changed. Whereas the Heroine’s journey is the Heroine sets out on the quest, comes home, and spends the entire journey trying to get back to how it was before to level the playing field. Alice, especially in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, comes out at the end and goes, “Oh, that was strange,” and then continues on her way. I rebelled against that a little bit. I felt like I needed to make a hero. The gendering of this is so silly and dated but in terms of those two structures, I wanted to have things changed for Alice when she got home. This is only to say that I think there’s a quest-like nature to it that has just as many heinously illogical things that everyday life has had in all the decades that this story has been popular. Life’s been nonsense since it was written so I think we keep going back to these things that make us feel a little bit seen and make us feel like our frustration with the structures of the world and the rules of the world are reflected to us.

Image of Alice, running across the stage. This photo is taken from Bad Hat Theatre's unique adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

FB

I agree with that. I also agree with the idea that her adventure is a quest. But she’s so passive in the original and asking questions helps give her some agency, but she doesn’t have the traditional or classic Hero’s Journey. That also bothered me, which was one of the reasons I wrote The Looking Glass Wars.

But let’s get into the music because Landon, you brought up the Beatles and “I Am the Walrus,” which is a classic song that was inspired by Alice. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is another one. There’s so much music in culture that is inspired by Alice. There’s something about the poetry of music that lets artists explore these themes and allows Alice to be a muse. What kind of musical influences have you had for your show?

LD

I heard some artists talk about influences and how early on in your career as a songwriter you’ll just hear the influences. So, when I was a younger songwriter, you’d hear a lot of the Beatles, a lot of traditional musical theater, a lot of pop punk, a lot of Green Day. You’d hear one of my songs and go, “That sounds like this Paul McCartney song or that sounds like this Green Day song.” Then the more influences you gather as an artist, the more you can’t actually hear those specific artists and those specific influences, and instead my artistry gets to be at the forefront, which is an amalgamation of all these different influences. But I do feel now like there’s a little bit of a Landon Doak style. Now I collaborated on the music with Victor, and Victor has a background in a lot of classical music, actually, and we have very different tastes. Although David Byrne is definitely a crossover, which is definitely a whimsical flavor.

The ’60s-70s psychedelic movement is a massive influence on the type of music I write. I’m definitely a Beatles fan but I’m a Paul McCartney fan, first and foremost. I think he’s one of the greatest songwriters of all time. So that’s definitely an influence on my writing. I also listened to a lot of musical theater and I listened to a lot of rap and R&B, as well. So this show, I guess, would span from pop to folk to a little bit of R&B. Then, Victor is a really accomplished pianist. Typically, as a songwriter, I sit down on the guitar, but there were times when Victor would play piano. He would start playing something and I would say, “That! Take that part and loop that over and over again,” and that would be the impetus for me to write a certain song in the show.

But you could write albums upon albums from this text. There’s so much poetry. Lewis Carroll touches every theme and idea under the sun. There are a lot of different styles of music in our show. My influences are the main influences you’ll hear so it’s some version of contemporary pop, folk, and musical theater. I find a lot of contemporary music these days is blending what we perceive as genres and so you’ll hear a lot of that in the show. Victor did a lot of the instrumentation. I typically write the chords, the melody, and the lyrics. But Victor was the one who really steered the ship about what instruments are going to be where and what instruments are going to make up which song. We use these instruments called melodica, which are little pianos that you blow into that’s got its own kind of whimsical sound.

VP

The reason that this instrumentation is so important is because these are actor-musician shows. Everything on stage is being played by the actors singing the song, so you might be noodling on the piano and you jump off, you play the dodo for a bit, and then you jump back on the piano, or you go over to the electric bass and whatever.

As Landon said, I’m a classical pianist. I also was a concert tuba player and brass player. So I played a lot of that in my previous life and then I decided to ditch music and become an actor, and then it all worked its way back. The reason I was laughing about David Byrne was just that I find his music so funny, profoundly so. I love the themes of home that he brings into everything he writes, but one of the reasons that we got drawn to David Byrne as an influence of the show is Landon and I were really interested in the idea of time in music when we started writing this. That was the first launch point, we were performing Peter Pan one day, and Landon and I were backstage and we just started jamming right before one of our entrances, talking about what we can do with time and music, how do we make that come across? A lot of those ideas were pushed to the side by the end of it because you need to make it palatable as well. You can’t have this disjointed strange, amelodic stuff happening on stage. But David Byrne is someone who I really admire for his ability to manipulate time without anybody realizing it.

The most “out there” one we went with was the Tea Party song, for which I wrote three songs in three time signatures and overlapped them over each other. Which was one of the most sadistic things I’ve ever done. The band is like, “I can’t believe you make us do this every night.” Everyone’s just sweating the whole time. But it is one of those pretty insane and counterintuitive songs, which we eventually wrote lyrics overtop of and remarkably it worked well.

But to go back to the instrumentation, I didn’t want anything that sounded too normal. I didn’t want it to be the classic pit band on the side. I wanted it to feel whimsical and we found these melodicas, which are functionally speaking the keyboard side of an accordion with a hose or just a little trumpet mouthpiece that you blow into, and it blows air through it in a similar way that the bellows of an accordion would work. It gives you this kind of “whah” sound as the reeds themselves are in dissonance. We liked these little instruments because they were portable and they were so squeaky, honky, and strange, while still producing enough sound to be able to actually orchestrate with. So we have piano, bass, and these three melodicas. For percussion, we have a cajon, which is a drum box on wheels that zips around the stage and then we have a clarinet and a trumpet, as well.

The great thing about it is Fiona is the queen of this cajon and it’s literally flying around as she’s ripping on the drums and then she passes it to someone else and someone else sits down and starts going. It’s a really fun and accessible way of presenting these kinds of musicals because families and adults and kids and whoever comes to see it, are watching us have an insane amount of fun.

Photo from Bad Hat Theatre's production of Alice in Wonderland, during a musical number. The White Rabbit is playing the melodica, while Alice is standing on her desk, presumably singing a song.

FB

That sounds genius. I think anybody listening after that description would want to run out and see this show.

Because you’ve talked about lyrics, are there some lyrics that you can share with us that capture the theme of your show?

FS

I love all of the lyrics of this show. The first lyrics of the show are always really important. What is the first thing we get to hear? The first thing we hear in our show is the clock ticking, giving the audience a sense that something’s gonna happen. But the first thing that Alice sings is “I can’t help but wonder why don’t others wonder too?” It’s this big ringing question in her of, “I can’t stop my brain from being curious about everything.” Why is it called noon and also called 12 o’clock? Why don’t the other times have names? And why don’t we say we tuck our pants into our shirts instead of our shirts into our pants? She sees things and she has these branches of questions that come off of it. Our proposal is that this is true for everyone. We’ve just trained ourselves not to ask them. We’ve gotten really practiced at it and we need to unpractice it.

FB

That’s terrific. It’s very expressive of what you’ve all been talking about. Is there a song that people have latched on to that they sing on the way out?

LD

There are a lot of styles in the show so depending on what you’re into, you might latch on to something different. The Queen song where we first meet the Red Queen, it’s the Red Queen in our version, and the song starts, “What’s it gonna be? What’s it gonna be Alice? Since you gotta be, what’s it gonna be Alice? You could be a queen, you could be a queen, Alice. You could be free, you could be a queen.” It’s this hip hoppy song that really gets stuck in people’s heads.

Two of my favorite numbers are the opening number, which we call “Curious,” and the closing number, which we call “Questions”. They book end the show really well and they’re two sides of the same coin. Alice starts in a place where she is curious, and you’d almost think the natural place to end a show would be “Answers”. But it’s not. It’s “Questions”. The show ends with this open-door question mark with Alice inviting her class and the audience to not actually answer those questions and to remain in that curious place. There’s a recurring line in the first song, “I’m not curious, I’m not interested/It doesn’t matter/It doesn’t even matter.” It’s Alice talking to herself to try and beat away that curiosity but by the end of the show, she’s embraced it. It’s actually after a run-in with the Caterpillar, who tells her that you don’t need those answers and you don’t need to figure out who you are until you aren’t who you were, then you are who you are and that changes you will learn,” is a lyric the Caterpillar sings and by the end of the show, that final song starts, “Do you have a question? Go ahead and ask it.” That’s the note we leave the audience on.

The White Rabbit and the Red Queen from Bad Hat Theatre's on-stage play production of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

FB

That’s very powerful. I really like that. You guys have worked on a lot of fantasy with Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland and I know you have a Chronicles of Narnia story coming up. Why do you think certain stories or music can stand the test of time? Especially these fantasy stories?

VP

These three stories 100% spoke to the times they were written in but they are universal in terms of the mirror they put up to society. It creates a beautiful canvas for a few reasons. The first is recognition. People know when they go into Alice in Wonderland, they’re going to experience the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar, and the Queen of Hearts. So you can take that and subvert it. You can really ask the audience to see those characters and those moments in different lights and reflect on their own lives in that way.

I also think one of the reasons these fantasies especially endure way longer than contemporary stories is because technology is not as prominent a factor in those stories. Technology in the sense of swords and shields or in the sense of clocks, absolutely. But these aren’t people sitting on their cell phones or their laptops. There’s a universality to it because it is not rooted in time. Even though Narnia is set post-World War II, it’s also in a different world and in a different time. Even though Alice was written in the 1860s, you can translate it because Wonderland is out of time and place, similar to Neverland in Peter Pan, which was written in the early 1900s. With each story, you’re transported away from regular life.

LD

As Victor said, fantasy allows you to imagine a multitude of life experiences and a multitude of timelines in the same human experience. I love how Star Wars phrases it, they start everything with “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” To us, it looks like the future but Star Wars is technically set in the past, just in a different galaxy. Those types of worlds, they have no timeline and they exist in a different dimension.

Stories last because the human experience hasn’t changed that much. Since the beginning of time, we were all these little biological beings who have this innate sense of love and then we’re at war all the time. So being a human is this weird little equation of the amount of time I have and the love I need to feel or give, and what to do with that love in the amount of time I have. I think that’s been true of the human experience forever and that’s never going to change. Pop culture references, history, politics, and our values as people do change but when you set a story in a fantasy world, you take it outside of that stuff. You take it outside of time, but the fundamentals of being a human are going to be the same no matter what dimension or period you’re in.

FB

I agree. I think these universal truths and emotions bind humanity and the stories reflect that. It doesn’t matter when they were written because, at its essence, it’s about the human experience. Love and reinforcing certain values that we all aspire to is evoked over and over again in these stories and it doesn’t matter what era you’re in because you’re telling that same universal truth.

FS

When in your life you interact with a specific piece of art also matters as well. We may have seen Alice as a Disney film when we were young or we read the book. I read Peter Pan in grade 11 and I remember going, “Oh my god, this is the story for me right now in this moment of my life.” And then I read it again and again. I think of each person as a tuning fork and we each have a note. Then when you pick up a piece of art, whether you listen to a song, look at a painting, or read a book at a different age of your life, it goes in harmony with that tune, your pitch, in that moment of your life in a different way than it will when you’re in your 60s or when you were five years old. The spirit behind all our shows is inspired by the idea that we can present this piece of art and it’s going to be in harmony with people of different ages throughout the audience in different ways but everyone is going to blend and make a chord together.

FB

That’s the whole reason that when stories enter the public domain, folks like us take those and reimagine them to be relevant for a contemporary audience.

I find it interesting how many times we’ve used “down the rabbit hole” today or you said, “Oh, I’m gonna use that pond again.” I don’t know if people realize that Alice in Wonderland is literally the most quoted book in the world, except for the Bible. By far, “down the rabbit hole” is Lewis Carroll’s biggest contribution to the English language, and most of the time we use that metaphor to mean a time suck of some sort. But we also use it to mean a guilty pleasure. “I’m down the rabbit hole of whatever show you’re watching.” So, what rabbit holes of guilty pleasures do you enjoy separately from your work at Bad Hats?

LD

I’m in a nature rabbit hole. I’m very fortunate that my family has a little cottage out in the Kawartha Lakes and it feels like a rabbit hole. You’re right about this “down the rabbit hole” thing. It’s something we all say all the time, and it feels like you’re down a thought loop. You’re stuck in a hole that you need to somehow find a way out of. But it’s interesting that in all three stories we’re adapting, they all go through a magical portal at some point. This is common in a lot of stories but in Peter Pan, Peter takes the Darling children out the window and they end up in Neverland. In Alice, they obviously go down a rabbit hole and end up in Wonderland. In Chronicles of Narnia, they walk through a wardrobe and end up in Narnia. Anyway, my rabbit hole is the woods, escaping the city of Toronto and disappearing into this magical place I’m in.

FB

That’s great. Very true to the original.

VP

I was actually counting earlier and by the time you mentioned how many times we’d said down the rabbit hole, the count was six. I feel like you should have a counter on the podcast because I’m sure this happens every time you interview anyone. But I don’t know if I could pinpoint one exact thing. I’ve been going on this pretty fantastic journey through British panel shows. It’s comedians on really inane talk shows that are all just about playing stupid games together or who’s lying or doing trivia because they love pub quizzes and trivia. You wouldn’t think it’s that entertaining but it’s that British wry humor and there’s a sort of a circuit so you see them go from one show to another and you kind of follow your favorite ones. I’ve honestly found a guilty pleasure in watching all of these shows, Would I Lie to You?, QI, 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, and Taskmaster.

FB

That’s definitely a rabbit hole and you have a rabbit picture on your wall. So you’re really hitting the theme heavily.

FS

My answer is pretty boring. I’ve been knocked down a puzzle rabbit hole for the last year. I just can’t stop doing puzzles. It’s funny that you said things that aren’t Bad Hats and the sad truth is that most of my time is spent working at Bad Hats or for other companies I freelance for so one of the only things I can do to stop myself from working is to sit down and have to go, “Where does this line or match up with another line?” It’s just a busy thing for my fingers and my brain. Often another positive but unfortunate result of that is it allows enough space in my brain for new thoughts to come in and I get back up and get to my computer and I start writing other things. So, it’s a breeding ground for all kinds of stuff.

Two people holding umbrellas, and dancing upon a multi-colored circle. From the on-stage play: Alice in Wonderland by Bad Hat Theatre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

FB

I always ask this question and, as you guys are all performers who have done Alice, it’s probably going to be much easier for you. But, if you were a character from Alice in Wonderland, would you be, and what part of your personality is best reflected in that character?

FS

I relate pretty hard to the characters I play in the show. My primary character is Tweedle Dee, opposite Landon’s, Tweedle Dum. I relate in the sense that those two characters represent our relationship really well which is just playing off each other and constant tomfoolery. It feels like I get to run around in a playground that I built with my best friends. It feels very true to my specific relationship with Landon. If I was a character in Wonderland, it’s hard to say. On different days it’s different people. Sometimes I feel like I get a bit White Knight-ish. But I do really relate to the characters in the show, there’s a reason we kind of wrote them for ourselves.

LD

I think what makes these characters in the book, not just in our version, but in the book so relatable is that none of them feel like full people. They all feel like aspects of all of us. Like Fiona said, on different days, I probably relate more to different ones. We played Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, who, in our version, are constantly saying the phrase, “Let’s go!”. They’re these two characters who have a positive outlook on everything and are really jacked up on learning stuff. They’re the first people in our version who Alice stumbles upon who aren’t telling her what she should do and how she has to do something. They’re open to anything that can happen and they think, “Let’s go learn a thing, and let’s go on an adventure.” I think Fiona and I, as artists and as creators, on the days where we get a little too cerebral, and we’re looking for the answers, and we’re looking at the fear, you’ve got to adopt that Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum, attitude of, “I don’t know the answer, but let’s go look that place.” We also play the Mad Hatter and the March Hare opposite each other. There’s sort of this duo-ship that we get to play with.

I would say, I want to be the Caterpillar but I think I’m often Alice, living in this place of questions and dealing with the anxiety that that place can cause. But I would want to be the caterpillar who, like Alice, is living in a place of questions, but is so at peace with not having the answers.

VP

I think if you want to hit it on the head, White Knight was my first response. But it’s funny because there’s the original book and then there’s the adaptation we’ve done. Your listeners don’t necessarily know the adaptation we’ve done but Fiona has fused Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass in a lot of ways. So Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are in our version of Alice, even though it’s not in the original adventures, we’ve combined them in that way as well. It’s almost hard for me to say because I feel now I’ve experienced this stage version more than I’ve experienced the book. So, my perception of reality is a bit skewed in that sense, but I do see parallels between myself and both the White Knight and the Dodo. I also relate to the Mad Hatter as portrayed in our show.  The concept behind it is Alice stumbles into a dinner party and it’s all adults talking. It’s the idea of what someone younger might feel like witnessing the most inane adult conversation.

“How are you? I’m busy. Oh, me too. So busy. So busy. Isn’t that hard? Oh, it’s so hard.” Just complete nonsense as she’s trying to chime in and they go, “Why don’t you sit here at the kids’ table and they continue with their inane banter. I’ve become that a little bit of my life. I send Fiona memes a lot of being like, “How are you?” “Busy, busy.” And she’s like, “This is just art imitating life imitating art imitating life. So those three are my go-to.

FB

Those were excellent answers and it’s been such a pleasure chatting with you. I’m going to say that my takeaway is the creative energy the three of you have. There’s a synergy to what you’re trying to accomplish that comes through. It’s a really beautiful thing to see and to witness and listen to. I think my audience is going to enjoy this episode immensely and I know that they’re all going to want to see your show whether it’s in person or if you put it on film one day, we all hope to see your Alice in Wonderland.

FS

Thanks so much for having us on. It’s such a delight to get to go back and think about the source material since we’ve lived with it as an adaptation for so long. It’s such a great universe to get to play in and we’re really lucky to have gotten to go there and that people liked what we did in the sandbox of Wonderland. I do hope your audiences can find their way to Toronto in the winter to see it at the Soulpepper Theatre in the Distillery District. If not, I have a hunch it will be around for years to come in different locations. So, look out for us.

LD

It is great to get back to the source material. I haven’t thought about this for a long time. I have a newfound appreciation for one of the babies I made. So, thanks for giving that to us, Frank. And thanks for having us.

FB Enjoy your rabbit holes and thanks again.

Photo of Bad Hats Theatre ensemble cast for their production of Alice in Wonderland. 9 cast members are standing on a stage, in costume, looking through window pane frames. 3 members of the cast are holding musical instruments, including a bass guitar, a melodica and a cajon.

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