My guest today is Jax Garren, author of How Beauty Met the Beast, a retelling of the classic fairy tale about a scarred army veteran and an educated burlesque dancer who team up with the Underlight anarchists to fight corporate oppression and the mysterious Order of Ananke. As soon as I heard about this book, I couldn’t wait to read it. It did not disappoint. A sexy, edgy, political, thought-provoking, page-turning read.
JLH: Beauty and the Beast has been my favorite fairy tale since childhood. What made you decide to write a modern version?
JAX: I love Beauty and the Beast, too. It’s not actually my favorite fairy tale–that’s either Sleeping Beauty or Rapunzel. I’m not sure what that says about me that I’m a fan of women locked in towers; I try not to analyze it too much because I probably don’t want to know. 🙂 But I do love Beauty and the Beast.
How Beauty Met the Beast was inspired when my little sister and I were inventing cocktails and watching reruns of that old CBS Beauty and the Beast.
JLH: I LOVED that show. I was a teenager when it originally aired, back in 198–um, blergh, something…
JAX: I loved Ron Perlman’s beastly Vincent, but I also couldn’t quite get behind the lionesque look. Or that he was so dern sweet. The love story in that show was very platonic, and I always found myself frustrated that there wasn’t more of an edge to it.
JAX: My sister and I got to imagining how we’d make a 21st century “beast”–why he looked like a beast, where his fighting skills came from, how the physical change from “human” to “beast” affected him. In the CBS series, the beast had always looked different, but in the original fairy tale he was transformed. That aspect of dealing with such a profound life change is something I find interesting.
And that is where Hauk (my Beast) came from. He’s a nice guy, but he’s not innocent. He hasn’t always looked the way he does, and he knows exactly what he’d do with Jolie (Beauty) if he could! The TV series also spawned the Underlight idea. I’ve always loved the city-beneath-the-city trope in fantasy literature. For my series, though, I wanted to create one with a purpose beyond collecting lost souls.
JLH: How else is How Beauty Met the Beast different from the traditional story?
JAX: The biggest difference (other than the modernization) is the addition of a whole other plot of warring secret societies. Instead of alone in a castle, Hauk works in the Underlight, a nationwide (USA) organization of anarchists. In Austin, Texas, where the story is set, they have developed an off-grid community in the tunnel system under the University of Texas. The society’s main mission is to fight against a priesthood of wealthy corporate powerhouses who worship Ananke, the Greek goddess of fate. The Order of Ananke has taken it upon themselves to make the world run smoothly by trying to control it, whereas the Underlight is all about freedom despite the chaos and cost. This struggle between the Underlight and Ananke is the common thread among future stories after the Beauty and the Beast trilogy is done. I’m currently working on a Rapunzel-inspired plot with Hauk’s best friend as the hero, and I have ideas for Sleeping Beauty and Snow White tales, but we’ll see…
The Order of Ananke ties into another big difference between this and the original tale, and that’s Jolie’s father. In HBMtB Reginald Benoit is wealthy (like the merchant in the original story), but he isn’t the nice guy of the fairy tale. Unknown to Jolie **MILD SPOILER** he’s a priest for The Order of Ananke.**END SPOILER** Jolie does end up in Hauk’s home because of her dad, but not because Jolie is exchanging her life for his. The complicated relationship between Jolie and her father is explored more in the final book, How Beauty Loved the Beast.
Finally, Hauk isn’t a prince turned by a fairy, he’s an ex-Army Ranger from working class Ohio whose “beast” appearance is the result of a fire he lived through while serving in Afghanistan. There is some magic in his surviving the fire and he has some special qualities as a result, but that’s something I’ll let everyone learn more about as they read!
Other similarities and differences start getting into major spoilers, so I’ll have to let readers find out for themselves.
JLH: Your book is described as a paranormal science fiction romance. What are your thoughts about the classification of your book?
JAX: Haha! There was a debate. To be honest, I would’ve classified it as Urban Fantasy, but that was nixed by the publisher. I was surprised when they called it science fiction–that classification hadn’t crossed my mind–but I can see what they were thinking. There’s a little bit of dystopianism to the setting. It’s set in the immediate future in which corporations have continued to gain political sway and aren’t well policed. I actually think this is happening too much already in reality, but I added the Order of Ananke as a sort of conspiracy/ruling force behind it. There’s also some weird science. The Underlight community, the anarchist group that Hauk belongs to, exists off the city electric grid and tries to function in a no-waste manner. There are a pair of young scientists who live there and create weird technological gadgets to make up for what they would otherwise lack.
The paranormal I agree with. There is some magic in it, though not a lot, and Hauk has a few supernatural things about him. In the book-verse, magic is something that most people don’t believe in or use, but it actually does exist. Some characters even use it without realizing it.
I definitely agree with the romance label, particularly if you look at the trilogy as a whole. This first story doesn’t have a happily ever after ending, but the three put together make a romance, and each book shows progress toward that final book’s HEA.
I’m a fan of magical realism where everything seems normal… except this thing. This is a little heavier than that, but for the most part the world is written to feel like you already live there. And then something more happens. Most of it is not out of the realm of what some people really believe in–magic, Pagan gods, conspiracy theories, possession, etc. But there aren’t spaceships or vampires or Dungeons & Dragons style fireball flinging. The romance is heavier; there’s a steamy scene early in, and Hauk and Jolie have tension throughout the book and the series. The main overall point of the trilogy is the building of the relationship between the two.
JLH: How do you feel about mixing genres? Does it make it difficult to write? Difficult to market?
JAX: I love mixed genres–reading it and writing it. It’s fun to be able to play in different worlds and create your own. Why can’t you have magic and weird science in the same story? It does make marketing hard, as exemplified by the difficulty classifying it. It can be hard for readers, too, because when you see “science fiction” or something else on a cover, you start reading with a set of expectations that the book will probably not fulfill. That’s been the most mixed reaction in reviews so far. Some people love the genre bending and some people are like, “What is this? It’s all over the place!” I had fun writing it; some people are going to dig it and some aren’t. Which, you know, is going to happen no matter what. 🙂
JLH: Is this book also a little bit steampunk? It looks like it, on the cover.
JAX: This has been a common misconception, and I think it’s because of Jolie’s outfit maybe? She’s a burlesque dancer, and I assume that’s what she’s dressed for, but I think it’s getting interpreted as steampunk. There are some tiny steampunk-like elements in the story because the Underlight has no electricity, and as a result they use gaslight and clockwork to make things run. Plus Hauk had a leg amputated after the fire and now has a mechanical replacement built by the Underlight scientists. But it’s not a steampunk novel, no. I do love my cover though, even if it’s been giving the book an unintentional steampunk rep!
JLH: When I read the description of your book, “a burlesque dancer and a scarred Army Ranger team up with a colony of anarchists to fight the power,” I was SO excited to read this book. Where in the world did you get your ideas and inspirations?
JAX: Aw, thanks! Well, like I mentioned earlier, the initial inspiration came from 80s TV and vodka–a potent combo. It actually started as a 15K short (less than half the length of the current version, but ending in the same place) that Angela James, the head editor at Carina, asked me to expand and resubmit, and I got initial notes from Rhonda Helms, my editor. They liked what I did with it and the outline for the three story arc, so I got my first sale.
I’ve always liked movies and books with a fight the power message. As I also mentioned earlier, I do think that wealthy corporations have way too much say in government and get away with all kinds of craziness. Each story in the trilogy begins with an Underlight mission inspired by news articles that I’ve read. Jolie Benoit’s dad was inspired by a certain news mogul. After I finished the first version of the story in the spring of 2011, that news mogul got splashed all over the press in a scandal, and I started laughing because it’s exactly the kind of thing my character would’ve done. (Although they don’t physically look anything alike, for those who know to whom I refer. Reginald, my character, is very image conscious.)
As far as the hero and heroine go, I am the daughter and granddaughter of war veterans (Vietnam and WWII), so making a soldier hero is a natural extension of the respect and love I have for men in uniform. My dad is also such a laid back, friendly guy with a great sense of humor. People used to ask if it was hard growing up the daughter of an Army officer, if he was strict or yelled a lot or something, and I had no idea what they were talking about.
As for Jolie, sometimes it feels like a lot of romance novels have uber-handsome, well-sexed (over-sexed?), wealthy men and average looking, klutzy heroines who are just scraping by financially and longing for some good sexytime. There’s nothing wrong with this (I read those, too), but I figured if I was going to have a hideously scarred, blue-collar hero who hasn’t come vaguely close to sex in five years, I could also have a gorgeous, graceful, rich heroine who’s comfortable in her sexuality. Gorgeous, graceful, wealthy and kind are part of the original Beauty and the Beast fairy tale anyway.
The burlesque dancer and aerialist part I added for fun. I LOVE aerial arts and go watch Sky Candy, a local troupe, on a regular basis. Plus Austin, where I live and where the story is set, has a pretty strong burlesque community, and they have proved to be the nicest, most fun group of people.
JLH: Agreed. Burlesque seems to be growing in popularity here in North Carolina, too, and I’ve met some of the dancers. Wonderful people. The dancers and the audience have so much fun, and there don’t seem to be the body-image issues seen in mainstream media.
JAX: I volunteered at the Texas Burlesque Festival to help with research and, in addition to helping backstage, I got to interview several dancers. I will never forget being in this huge dressing room with maybe fifty performers in various states of undress (and in burlesque, undressed is REALLY undressed). I was interviewing Coco Lectric, a local performer who’s made a name for herself on the national scene, and asked her what brought her into burlesque and why she stayed. Her answer surprised me. She asked if I’d heard anyone complain about the size of her own ass. I blinked. Thought over the weekend. Looked around the room at dozens of women (and a few men) of all shapes and sizes, many of whom were lounging around in pasties and a g-string. And I realized I had not once heard a single comment about body shape. It was pretty astounding.
A common story among the dancers I interviewed is that that they got into burlesque to see if they had the courage to do it, almost like a personal dare. But something changed when they’d completed their first routine; being that naked in front of a cheering crowd made them realize that all the things they’d picked on about themselves–the shape of their butt, the size of their chest, the cellulite on their thighs–were meaningless. Everybody’s shaped differently, and everybody can be sexy just the way they are. It’s a great vibe to be around.
JLH: Part 2, How Beauty Saved the Beast, comes out in February and the finale, How Beauty Loved the Beast, releases in May. Is each a stand alone episode with a beginning, middle and end, or are they more like parts of a serial? I assume they should be read in order?
JAX: Though each story does have its own plot arc, they definitely work better in order. It’s the same hero and heroine throughout the three. The titles tell you pretty much exactly what happens in each. They meet in How Beauty Met the Beast, which is the shortest work at 38,000 words (a little over 100 pages). How Beauty Saved the Beast is longer (52,000 words; around 175 pages). It develops their relationship and, like the title says, Jolie has to do some rescuing. How Beauty Loved the Beast is the longest at 73,500 words (about 225 pages) and it’s the one with the big finale–both with Ananke and with the relationship.
I did a lot of research into burn scars and the physical, psychological and social challenges that survivors of severe burns have to work through. Intense is an understatement. One thing I didn’t realize when I first had the idea was that the medical treatment for burning is often more horrific than the burning. It can last for months of repeated surgeries while the patient lives in isolation because of the danger of infection. As their suffering at the hands of doctors continues, a lot of burn survivors start to associate any form of touch with pain, even long after they’ve left the hospital, making them very protective of their new skin and unwilling to let people close to them physically.
Plus there’s the whole psychological trauma of having to look at yourself in the mirror and not recognize what you see. When my story starts, Hauk has had a few years to deal with the physical ramifications of his scars and emotionally handles his transformation pretty well as he’s fighting for the Underlight. But as much as he’s attracted to Jolie from the first time he sees her (she’s hanging from a hoop with almost no clothes on while singing about being naughty; I’m not sure that it’s love at first sight 😛 ) this type of trauma is not the kind of thing anyone can just jump into a relationship from. All three books were fun to write, but as Hauk and Jolie (finally, my editor would tell you) start taking the relationship to the next level, it got particularly daunting to be emotionally honest. I’ve never written anything that challenging in my life!
JLH: How long have you been writing and what else have you written? Any WIP you’d like to share?
JAX: Oh, my, I’ve been writing my whole life! I started taking it seriously a few years ago, and just kept writing and taking classes and submitting until I got my break. I’m currently polishing up a New Adult Urban Fantasy called Angel of Air and Earth (although, who knows; maybe a publisher will call it a contemporary romance heehee). I’ve also started to work on the next book in the Tales of the Underlight, this one based on Rapunzel with Brayden, Hauk’s best friend, as the hero and a woman we’ll meet in How Beauty Saved the Beast (book 2) as the heroine. The leads are so wildly different from Hauk and Jolie. Brayden is a hacker with a handsome face, a glib tongue and a penchant for lock picking, and the heroine is… well, I’ll let you meet her in the next book! I’ll just say that she’s more than a little Type A and she and Jolie don’t get along particularly well. Or at all. It’s been really strange jumping from writing Jolie’s point of view to the point of view of somebody who can’t stand her!
JLH: I can’t wait to read it. Thanks so much for visiting, Jax, and I wish you all the best success!
For more information about Jax Garren and the Tales of the Underlight series, see JaxGarren.com.