I recently had the pleasure of interviewing author, actress, and playwright, Leanna Renee Hieber. If you haven’t done so already, please also check out my review of her latest book, A Summoning of Souls, which was just released for sale.
- In your Spectral City book series, you envision an alternate late-19th century New York City in which ghosts exist and assist the spiritualists of The Ghost Precinct in solving mysterious crimes that aren’t easily solved by conventional means. I notice you also serve as a ghost tour guide in NYC. In what ways has this helped develop your characters and storylines?
Leanna Renee Hieber: My work as a ghost tour guide is directly entwined with this series. So many of the haunted areas I mention, aspects of why the ghosts in the series remain, come from real events and truths, such as the idea of a haunted atmosphere around Washington Square Park, where over 20,000 human remains are underneath the park, due to yellow fever and cholera epidemic, the land there was not only a mass grave but used to be an execution site.
Another example of real history informing my choices is the spirit of my beloved little Zofia (a reader favorite), a Polish immigrant and her ghostly Ukrainian ‘sister’ Olga who I mention died in a garment district fire. The two remain as spirits to help the living out of dangerous situations. These ghostly girls are a reference to the many 19th century garment district fires that were driving the labor movement to seek change. Unfortunately, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, a site I talk about a great deal, was a tipping point and in that disaster, 146 died, mostly women, as young as 14. Zofia and Olga represent the struggle that workers like those who died at the Triangle had been waging for decades. My ghosts are a way to set the scene and talk about New York’s complicated history all in one.
- How much of your characters and story arcs are preconceived prior to writing, and how much develops as you write each book or series? Did anything “surprise you” as it unfolded throughout this series, anything that took a dramatic turn from what you had originally envisioned?
Leanna Renee Hieber: I have a general idea of where I’m going but a lot of the development happens along the way, particularly via the characters. I was delighted by how the chemistry between Eve and Detective Horowitz just naturally blossomed. They won my heart immediately and I realized I had to make their connection a far more central part of the story. I’m such a character-driven novelist that sometimes it’s hard for me not to write tons of side quests and extra character interaction that I then have to re-write to better suit a more action-focused plot.
I think what surprised me most was how vibrant each of the characters in this series felt to me, I really understood them all and they immediately felt like close, loving family. I hope they do for my readers, too. One big, inclusive, found family of all kinds of people from all different perspectives. That’s what makes for an interesting life and novel.
- How do you choose names for your characters?
Leanna Renee Hieber: In this series it’s a bit of family legacy. I chose the Whitby name to be a nod to Dracula, and Eve is named for her Grandmother, aka Gran, Evelyn, who has proven to be one of my favorite characters I’ve ever written as she’s been with me now as a crossover character through three series. Names sort of come to me during my daydreaming phase for each book, and the name has to fit the character essence I’ve already imagined. I’ll sometimes look up the meanings of names if I’m trying to decide between two and pick the one that carries with it the more appropriate meaning. I love wandering through graveyards, I find them peaceful and beautiful, a way to honor and pay respects to the dead and I also write down striking names along the way.
- Many readers and fans enjoy learning about unique personality traits of their favorite authors and actors. What are some of your personal quirks?
Leanna Renee Hieber: I’m a lifelong Goth who dresses in various levels of period clothing every day, so I’m hard to miss at a convention, I’ll be in full Victorian mourning. I’ve begun using the tagline “if you like my clothes, you’ll like my books, I dress like I write.” Being a Goth and Gothic novelist goes well together and suits both my books and my passionate interests. It doesn’t surprise anyone that I have a theatre background as I love doing readings of my work; everything I do has a bit of a performative angle, while still being very true to my personality. I think authenticity is key, otherwise it looks like you’re trying too hard. So one of my personal quirks is living life with a bit of drama and a completely, consistently anachronistic style. I really do live what I write.
- You write about ghosts and mediums as the basis for the Spectral City alternate universe. Do you have any personal beliefs regarding ghosts or other supernatural phenomena?
Leanna Renee Hieber: I’m believer, but one who is a skeptic first and then once every mundane explanation is ruled out, then the only thing left is a paranormal one. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of ghosts and ghost stories from a very early age. I’ve absolutely experienced a countless number of paranormal experiences that have affected my 5 senses and engaged my 6th sense, my whole life.
Whether hearing sounds that would be impossible to be made without spectral help (at the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem) whether going into a sort of ecstatic trance as a very small child using complicated words I hadn’t yet been taught that translated to the time my great grandmother (for who I am partly named) had passed on from her mortal coil, to feeling a friendly but ice-cold grasp on my elbow in the most haunted part of Manhattan’s Merchant House Museum, to sharing uncanny messages that folks seem to need in times I don’t know they need them – it’s all very real and something that feels very normal and organic.
There’s a lot about my characters that come from my own beliefs and experiences but I’m not here to tell anyone how to think or what to believe. My spirituality is very open and flexible, based on the general idea that there’s a hopeful energy out there greater than any one of us that’s loving, accepting, forgiving, inclusive and affirming. I’m not here for violence, negativity or crossing boundaries whether that’s between people or my psychic experiences. My characters do a lot of shielding and that’s important too in my lines of work. Staying grounded, careful and yet still open is the way I’ve been able to stay true to myself and learn from others and their spiritual practices too.
- What do you read in your free time? Do you have a favorite genre to read for pleasure? Which authors have most influenced you?
Leanna Renee Hieber: I’m admittedly behind in my reading, so beyond all the research I engage in for my books, I end up reading books I’ve agreed via my agent or publisher to blurb, I mostly try to keep track of my talented writer friends. While my earliest and most direct influences were 19th century Gothic writers like Edgar Allan Poe and the Bronte sisters, I am very passionate about keeping track of the books my friends write as best I can. I’m blessed to know so many talented writers across every genre. A book that really stands out for me recently is Zoraida Cordóva’s Incendiary; a YA fantasy with incredible world-building, historical precedent is utilized as an engaging framework and she’s got a hook/twist that’s really amazing. Highly recommended.
- In addition to authoring many books, I see that you are also a playwright and actress and even design Gothic and steampunk jewelry for sale online at your TorchandArrow Etsy shop. I find myself constantly pondering and exploring the topic of creativity. Many years ago, I wrote a blog post in which I asked readers if they practice more than one form of art, exploring multiple venues as a means of expression. What are your favorite creative outlets, and which ones best express who you are?
Leanna Renee Hieber: I find that having more than one artistic discipline means each of my respective disciplines are informed and enriched by the others. My collegiate degree was in theatre performance with a focus in the Victorian era and my thesis project was a one-woman show adapting 19th century poetry for the stage, so from the beginning of my professional career, I was already mixing my favorite things into artistic blends of writing, performance and historical exploration. Jewelry allows me to focus on an entirely different part of my brain and it’s a wonderful escape, I can lose myself to it for hours putting pieces together, restoring vintage jewelry and/or doing new things with old parts that need a second change at a new style. My jewelry carries similar principles as my writing; I create things with gothic, historic, whimsical and/or fantasy flair that have elements of retro-style and/or fantastical reinvention in each piece. Each of my disciplines is an interconnected facet of a renaissance-style life in the arts. I feel like I’m able to weather the uncertainty of any of my many industries by not having all of my creativity tied up in only one discipline.
- It seems the main plot line with the primary antagonist has been tied up in this last book. Will the series continue, or was it intended to end as a trilogy? For readers looking forward to future Leanna Renee Hieber work, are there any hints you can provide about what is next on the horizon?
Leanna Renee Hieber: I wrote this third book as a conclusion to the trilogy, as I wanted to bring things to a satisfying close with each of the three books’ central mystery resolved. However, I will be continuing on in a different capacity with these characters, I really adore them, so I’ll likely do some novella installments with the side characters, giving them some focus and adventures while Eve and Jacob, still in love and adorable, would be tied up with the pending trial and prosecution of the villain.
I’ve got several ongoing novellas contracted with Scrib’d / Bryant Street Publishing and my next project is continuing my Dark Nest series of psychic space opera tales, so a fun change of pace, but still many similar paranormal principles apply.