Marion Grace Woolley is one of many authors I’ve connected with on Twitter over the years. I’m thrilled to have her here today to talk about her novel, Those Rosy Hours At Mazandaran, a Gothic fantasy novel inspired by The Phantom of The Opera.
Please give her a warm welcome.
- Can you tell us a bit about your latest novel, Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran?
Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran is a dark Gothic fantasy set in 1850s Northern Iran. It takes its title from a reference in Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera which alludes to a time of torture and bloodshed when the Phantom, as a young man, used to amuse the Little Sultana with his Punjab lasso.
The story is told through the eyes of Afsar, the Shah’s eldest daughter. A girl born into ultimate power and wealth, though possessing neither for herself. Like all women of the royal harem, she is born to breed, nothing more. A girl with a sharp mind and wandering imagination, she soon finds friendship with a masked magician in a travelling circus. As their friendship grows, their sinister games spiral ever more out of control.
- You say this book was inspired by Phantom of the Opera. What about the musical inspired you to write this novel?
It was actually the original novel that inspired me to write my own, as it inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber to write a musical. Like many stories of its time, including The Three Musketeers and Anna Karenina, The Phantom of the Opera began life as a serialisation in a newspaper. It was published in a Paris daily between 1909-1910, and became so popular that by the end they released it as a novel.
Although many people do know the story of The Phantom of the Opera thanks to Webber’s musical, the Phantom of the original story is rather darker than the tragic romantic hero he has come to embody in later years. Leroux very much wrote in the Gothic genre, which sought to romanticise death and horror. Leroux’s portrayal is rather less forgiving of his character than the musical.
Throughout the novel, Leroux makes reference to ‘the rosy hours of Mazenderan.’ Usually, when you’re writing a novel, you go into the back history of a character. You explore what happened in their past to make them what they are today. But Leroux never did that with Erik. He simply hinted – repeatedly – at another time, but never spoke of it.
In the 90s, author Susan Kay wrote a book called Phantom, which sought to expand upon that story and follow Erik’s life before Paris. I didn’t want to write another Phantom sequel. Instead, I wanted to explore the Sultana, and the world she inhabited. What made her so important that she shaped a whole story, yet never possessed a voice of her own?
In that respect, Rosy Hours does work as a stand-alone. You don’t have to be a Phan to fall into it, but if you are familiar with the story it adds an extra dimension.
- Can you give us a brief rundown of your writing process?
With historical fiction, or fantasy with a strong historical element, like Rosy Hours, I start by immersing myself in the period. I’ll read as many articles and Wiki entries as I can, trawl through picture archives, listen to music from the region and watch documentaries on YouTube. I think the internet has revolutionized how writers write history. You have access to so much information now, but so do your readers. It’s not like Shakespeare’s day where you could get away with giving Bohemia a coast. There’s a lot of pressure to get the details right.
Once I have a feel for my subject matter, it’s a case of sitting down and typing for a really long time. You just have to trust in the characters to guide you through it. I’m not a planner, and I’m not good with routine. I write when I’m in the mood, somewhere between 1,000-6,000 words per session, depending how engaged I feel. It usually takes me between five to nine months to complete a novel. I don’t really hold with the idea ‘writing something is better than nothing.’ I tried that a few times and what I wrote was so bad I wasted more writing time unpicking it. I’d rather wait until inspiration hits and go forward with confidence.
In between, I spend a lot of time waiting for the kettle to boil and browsing social media.
- What was the hardest part of writing this novel and how did you get through it?
This novel was a bit of a dream to write. Some novels fight you every inch of the way. This one didn’t. For the most part it flowed onto the page. Oddly, there seems to be little correlation between whether a novel is difficult or not, and whether it is good or not. Hard or easy, both can be good, both can be disappointing. You just have to roll the dice and see what lands.
That said, one of the more challenging aspects with this book, especially at the beginning, was smashing my own preconceptions. I’m not Iranian and I’m not Muslim. When I began writing Rosy Hours I had two conflicting stereotypes in my head of what a staunchly Muslim country would look like during the mid-1800s.
On the one hand, I had the image of ultra-conservatism, which we get bombarded with every day in the news: women in full burkas, complete gender segregation, girls confined to the harem. On the other hand, I’d grown up with fairy tales of Aladdin, and in Aladdin all the women dress in skimpy outfits, like they’re about to dance the Seven Veils.
I knew these were two extreme ends of a spectrum, and that neither of them were likely to be an accurate portrayal of women in the harem where Afsar grows up. So it was a big challenge for me to research the middle ground and to infuse my tale with a sense of authenticity.
- What character did you struggle with the most and why?
I think it is always difficult when an author takes on characters with cult status. The Phantom of the Opera is so entrenched in popular culture, it’s so well known, that you run the risk of upsetting a lot of people. Choosing to return to Leroux’s Gothic roots makes things tricky, too. Most people know Phantom from the musical adaptation. Erik is a character who inspires much greater sympathy in Webber’s version – less torture, less murder, less of everything except singing.
I rather took the other approach – more torture, more murder, less singing.
- Did you spend a long time looking for a publisher for this novel? What was the submission process like?
I was in a bad place when I wrote Rosy Hours. I’d had three novels published by two publishers, and neither had sold. The publishers were enthusiastic about the books, but they were also very small, without marketing budgets, designers, even an editor in one case.
By that point I was completely disenchanted with the publishing process. I put everything I had into Rosy Hours and called it my last attempt.
That’s when Ghostwoods picked it up. I had a really quick response and they were so enthusiastic that I said ‘yes’ without really expecting much. Rosy Hours came out in February 2015 and I’ve been ridiculously happy ever since. Ghostwoods are a fair trade publisher, which means they split their profit fifty-fifty with their authors. The best deal I’d had before was 12.5% – and 12.5% of nothing is, erm, nothing. They put a little marketing money behind it, the eBook debuted at #6 in the Amazon Fantasy/Historical chart, and I’ve just received my first book advance.
No, it’s not all about the money, but I get a sort of tingle down my spine when I earn money from writing. It’s the same tingle I got when I was offered my first publishing contract. A little spark of joy which lies dormant in between, when things aren’t going so well.
As writers, I think we live for that spark.
- Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran is also published in audiobook format (read by one of my favourite writers, Emma Newman). Why did you decide to publish in this format as well?
I’m thrilled Emma provided the narration on this. I’ve just ordered her Split Worlds trilogy, and become a huge Tea and Jeopardy fan since working with her.
Being honest, it wasn’t my decision. Which formats to publish in are up to the publisher, and I was madly excited when they told me they were thinking of doing this. I did get to give a little input. I listen to a couple of the audition tapes, because they auditioned voice artists, and I helped check each of the chapters as they came through. It was such a fun experience. Also a little spooky to hear your words being spoken by someone else when the only voice you usually hear is the one in your head. Emma did such a great job.
Whenever possible I think it’s helpful to have stories in different formats. We’re all individuals, and we all have preferences over what we prefer: hardback, paperback, ebook, audiobook. Whatever gets a story out there and into people’s imaginations is great.
- What marketing techniques have worked well for you so far?
I usually live in Rwanda, but I’m back in the UK at the moment, doing a bit of book promotion. I’ve got talks lined up at a literature group and a library.
Twitter is so helpful in getting the word out, and I’m an avid blogger, but I do find that face-to-face events really make a difference. There are so many books out there on the market, but it feels totally different reading a book once you’ve met the author. I know this myself. I read a wide variety of books, but the authors I go out of my way to follow are usually people I’ve met. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but it adds something to the story.
Book festivals are also a fantastic place to meet other writers. I’ve stayed in touch with several from past events, and that’s led to other, unexpected, opportunities, like getting an interview in Writing Magazine or back blurb for future novels. Often in arts communities it’s as much about who you know as what you know, but the nice thing is you can always get to know people.
- If you could give an aspiring writer any one piece of advice, what would it be?
Surround yourself with people who support you, and who enjoy good wine.
- What are you working on now that readers can look forward to?
I’ve just signed a second contract with Ghostwoods Books for The Children of Lir, a re-telling of an ancient Irish legend, and now I’m working on my first trilogy, The Secret Order of the Literati, a magical tale of mayhem and literature.
It begins with a rumour, an exciting whisper. Anything to break the tedium of the harem for the Shah’s eldest daughter. People speak of a man with a face so vile it would make a hangman faint, but a voice as sweet as an angel’s kiss. A master of illusion and stealth. A masked performer, known only as Vachon.
For once, the truth will outshine the tales.
On her birthday, the Shah gifts his eldest daughter Afsar a circus. With it comes a man who will change everything.
ISBN-13 978-0-9576271-6-1 Paperback
Also in eBook and Audiobook