Monday, November 9, 2009

An Interview With *Brian James*! Author of *The Heights*

I really enjoyed The Heights by Brian James. It's a contemporary imagining of Wuthering Heights, the classic gothic romance by Emily Bronte. I loved Wuthering Heights at one point in my life; Heathcliff was a Byronic babe. But, as I wrote in my previous review of The Heights, "If Henry (Heathcliff) were my boyfriend I would punch him in the head. He's so controlling". Which is why I love Brian's re-telling; it tells a story I love in a completely different way. It keeps the same overlying themes and heart of the original classic but lays it down in a new and sobering way. The characters have a squeaky newness about them, even as they feel like familiar figures, and the ending is very different, but the the central story--impossibly eternal love between two unlikely people--remains.

And of course, I had questions, even before I started reading.


What was the absolute moment when you realized you wanted to write a reimagining of Wuthering Heights? What is it about this book that captures you? What is your history with WH?

The initial idea came out of a conversation I had with Jean Feiwel (of Feiwel & Friends, the publisher). She was asking me if I ever considered doing a retelling of any sort. I admitted to her my complete ignorance about Wuthering Heights. Even though I was a English Literature major in college, I tended to avoid Victorian novels. But we left our conversation with me promising to read the book and seeing if I had any reaction to it.

I actually read the majority of the book while in England and Scotland and while I was reading, I could almost picture how the story might play out in a modern setting. The relationship between the two main characters in Wuthering Heights was very much a teenage romance, or least, how most of my teenage romances were...meaning, unfulfilled.

I was really drawn to the aspect of fate and bad timing and missed chances that always managed to spoil their love for each other. I've also always been intrigued by this notion of how as people we assume to know what others are thinking and how this attempt at guessing can often lead us to jump to very inaccurate conclusions. I think Catherine and Heathcliff are victims of that fate in Wuthering Heights.

In your comments to Edge of Seventeen's review of The Heights you admit to hating Heathcliff in WH: "I thought he was abusive and horrible. I actually attempted to soften him, to make his plight more sympathetic. He's the character I changed the most, thus the different name". I found that The Heights is more Henry's story than Catherine's. Can you tell me a little more about your relationship to this character, how sympathy for him developed, your frustrations with Heathcliff, his literary predecessor?

It's true. Few characters that I've ever encountered have enraged me as much as Heathcliff. At one point, I was tempted to throw the book across the room. He was very abusive toward the other characters and I found him to be quite horrible.

As I was thinking about how The Heights would work, I realized that to contemporary readers of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff's actions wouldn't be considered as terrible as they are in our society. I believe Bronte intended the reader to be sympathetic to his plight throughout the novel, but I found my sympathies run out about a third of the way through.

When I considered the character, I wanted to make him more sympathetic and less cruel. Part of that meant giving him a voice. By sharing his thoughts, and by viewing situations through his eyes, the character becomes a different person.

I loved the job you did on Catherine's character. I felt a new shift in my attitude towards her in The Heights, and it even made me look back on reading WH with a softer perspective. How did you develop Catherine? How did she come to you?

It's interesting, my reactions to both Catherine and Heathcliff tend to be different that most. I found that most readers of Wuthering Heights feel Heathcliff to be incredibly romantic and Catherine to be spoiled. I don't see the book that way. Heathcliff was overbearing and closed off. If he had once admitted to Catherine that he loved her, she would accepted him. He didn't. Then he begins acting out and she's left in a tough place.

The other aspect that I wanted to get across with Catherine was this idea that feeling so strongly in love can be a very frightening thing...sometimes so much so that you try to avoid it. This discovery is something we so often realize when we're teenagers. Those first loves are powerful and can be confusing. That's Catherine, or at least, how I saw her. She's very much based on a girl I knew really well through Jr. High and High School.

I actually also came to like the character of Edgar because of The Heights. Or maybe I liked the way Cat and he interacted; there was more meaning as to why Catherine would even like a person like Edgar. Who is Edgar as a character to you? How does he relate to Henry?

In the original, I don't think Edgar is a bad guy. He's only dislikable in the sense that he keeps apart the two characters we all want to see together. But he's genuinely a good guy. He's dedicated to Catherine and he's the only example of a decent father in the story, besides Mr. Earnshaw. He's not as exciting or as passionate as Heathcliff, but there's a certain kindness about him.

Edgar for me is that the guy in High School that always dated the really special girl, but in my opinion, never appreciated just how special she was. He's kind and cute, but also kind of clueless about the real emotions. However, there's is something about this kind of guy that is appealing.

I wanted readers to really pine for Catherine and Henry to be together, but at the same time not resent Edgar. In part, this also comes from my own experiences at that time in my life. Sometimes it's possible to like two different people. You want to take part of this person and part of that person, and since you can't, you can never fully decide what to do.

Are there any references to the world of Wuthering Heights in your book that you hope readers will find? Any particularly important details from WH that you wanted to keep or that needed to stay in your book?

There's no real hidden references, I tried to make everything out in the open. I want very much for people to compare the two books. The Heights is me as an author, sharing the voices of the characters as I saw them. In that sense, it was important for me to keep the situations very much in line with the original book.

Don't you just love the cover for The Heights? Were you involved with cover art considerations? Does having someone create images from your writing give you a different perspective of the story?

I wasn't involved in the cover. With some of my earlier novels, I was very much involved, but have since come to realize that it's best left to the people who's job it is to handle such things. I love what they did. I also love the new paperback cover, which is very similar (it's a photo taken by the artist for his study of the painting).

As for the cover lending new perspective, not really. However, I also write children's books that have illustrations. That experience is very different because the characters are brought more to life. I always enjoy seeing those and seeing how an artist envisioned what I saw.

The internet, do you love it or hate it? Does it help or hinder you as a writer? Are there benefits and/or pitfalls to having a presence online while being an active writer?

I love the internet. It's the nearest complete record of humanity and it's anyone's to explore at will. As far as being a writer, it can be a distraction sometimes, like any form of entertainment. But the one thing it's been great for is the ability it provides me to connect with readers and discuss my books with people who've read them...whether they enjoyed them or hated them. Though, I must I admit, I prefer discussions with those who enjoy them. I'm only human after all :)

Thanks, Brian!

I also tracked down the paperback cover art which is the top image, that Brian references. It's neat that the publishers used both the photographic image and the painted version for each edition.


Bleuette said...

Great interview!

Kelsey said...

Nice interview! I hadn't heard of this book before, I'll definitely have to check it out!(:

Mandy (Edge of Seventeen) said...

Maria & Kelsey: Thanks for stopping by! I'm reading Brian James book "Thief" so check back for a review of another book bythe author. :)

Donna Gambale said...

Great interview! I've always been entranced by the twisted and doomed love story of Wuthering Heights, and Brian's reimagining looks intriguing!

Donna Gambale said...

Great interview! I've always been entranced by the twisted and doomed love story of Wuthering Heights, and Brian's reimagining looks intriguing!

Anonymous said...

Great review!

Is it just me, or does the cover of 'The Heights' remind you of Edward anf Bella?

Mandy (Edge of Seventeen) said...

Donna: I think you'd like The Heights!

Chase: Yeah, actually I was thinking the same thing. Especially the boy in the picture. Holy Pattison.

Brian James said...

I hope all those Twilight fans think the same thing, even if they buy it by mistake, I'll be okay with that :)

ze said...

Hi...i am just curious, is the setting time in 'The Heights' same as in Wuthering Heights or it is in the mordern setting (21st century)?

Brian James said...

The setting is modern day San Fran.


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