By Cerys-Leigh Phipps.
We are thrilled to welcome Ashley Schumacher to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway, out on 14th March 2023.
Since her mother’s death, Madeline “Gwen” Hathaway has been determined that nothing in her life will change ever again. That’s why she keeps extensive lists in journals, has had only one friend since childhood, and looks forward to the monotony of working the ren faire circuit with her father. Until she arrives at her mother’s favourite end-of-tour stop to find the faire is under new management and completely changed.
Meeting Arthur, the son of the new owners and an actual lute-playing bard, messes up Maddie’s plans even more. For some reason, he wants to be her friend – and ropes her into becoming Princess of the Faire. Now Maddie is overseeing a faire dramatically changed from what her mother loved and going on road trips vastly different from the routine she used to rely on. Worst of all, she’s kind of having fun.
Congratulations on the publication of your third young adult novel! How was your experience writing your third book? Did you come across any differences compared to your last two publications throughout the writing process? Was there anything you found particularly challenging/exciting while writing this novel you had not experienced with your previous publications?
Thank you! And this is such a perfect question for Gwen because this was the first novel I wrote and edited as a parent, so EVERYTHING was different… but also the same? I’m happy to report that despite my aggressive fears, I was still “me” after having a kiddo. The most notable difference was having pockets of time to write instead of long stretches of time to write, but I’ve found I’m much more productive in those pockets than I ever was in the stretches.
Your work often is often categorised into the “Young Adult” and “Romantic Fiction” genre. What makes a good romance story in your opinion, and what would you recommend avoiding? Would you ever consider venturing to a different genre of writing?
It sounds so silly, but in my head, there is a BIG difference between “romantic” and “a romance”. Romantic can mean there’s a romantic subplot that may or may not end in a happily ever after. If a book is categorized as “a romance”, there had better be endgame happily ever after, or at least happily ever after for now otherwise you’re going to have readers with upset expectations and that sets everyone up for failure.
I’m at a happy time in my career when I’m considering lots of different stories both in and out of young adult, in and out of romantic fiction. I think no matter what direction I go, though, readers can always expect my books to deal with similar themes. It’s exciting to think about poking those with sticks in different age categories and genres!
The whole novel is magical within itself, particularly due Madeline’s experience of life working at the Renaissance Faires with her parents. It is interesting how you chose to combine the modern world with the old-timey, medieval period. What inspired you to focus your novel around the world of magic spells, potions, wizards, and magical tokens?
I frequently joke that I’m a fantasy writer in a (for now) contemporary writer’s body and am forever trying to mesh the two. More than that, I think I’m the kind of person that never quite grew out of the possibilities of fairy tales in everyday life. Not just when it comes to romantic partnership, but everything. I think the world is more magical than we give it credit for, and wizards and knights on camels in the middle of Oklahoma felt like a fun way to illustrate that.
The book beautifully deals with issues of grief and familial bereavement and its heart-breaking effects as Madeline loses her mother very early on in the novel. Why did you choose this course of action for the plot and how do you think these events shape both the plot of the novel and Madeleine’s character individually?
If you’ve read any of my work, you know I’m continually fascinated with different aspects of grief. My intention with Maddie was twofold: The familiar loss of a person she loves deeply (her mom), but also the loss of a place (the original ren faire they both loved). Exploring the particular kind of grief that comes with a physical location was new for me on the page, and I think it would have been much more difficult to do without the vehicle of Maddie’s Mom’s passing to help it along.
There’s also the role of motherhood in body image struggles which Maddie deals with in various ways throughout the novel. I think she still would have struggled even if her mom was still with her, but it would have been a different novel entirely.
Madeline, the novels narrator and protagonist, is such a complex yet empowering character, both in terms of her grieving process and her outlook on herself and life. What was your thought process behind constructing her character? Do you see any of yourself in Madeline?
I see a little of myself in every character I write, but Maddie holds a special place for sure.
Maddie, you’ll notice, is very big into objects: Her book of noticings, her prized trinkets… All of these things have to be justified as keepable because of the limited space in her family’s RV. What makes the cut is super important to her, and I see a bit of myself in that, in assigning higher value to objects than others might. I expanded on that shared characteristic while writing Maddie because it made sense in her setting but also in her grieving process.
Following the previous question, a personal favourite moment in the novel is when Madeline is trying on clothes in the Target fitting room and looks at and accepts her body for the first time. This comforting point in the novel is beautifully written and marks a change in attitude for Madeline. Why was this scene important for you to include? Would you argue that the concept of self-love and acceptance is important to discuss throughout literature, especially when aimed at Young Adult audiences?
Oh gosh, yes to all! I’ve already had more notes from early readers on the Target fitting room scene than I have any specific scene from any of my books, and I think it’s because we all need this, no matter our age. (But yet, especially young readers who bear the brunt of a lot of marketing and shame when it comes to body image.)
I think if you cracked open my writerly heart, that scene would have an entire chamber all on its own because it means so much to Maddie, but also would have meant so much to me at her age. Learning that our bodies are good bodies no matter what any person or commercial or societal pressure says is a lifelong lesson for a lot of us—me included—but seeing a triumphant moment where Maddie could look at herself honestly and lovingly was healing for me in ways I don’t think I’ve entirely processed yet.
Although there is a sadness to Madeline’s character, her blossoming relationship with Arthur is light, fun and emotional. Talk us through the process of writing their love story, what inspired their relationship dynamic and journey?
I wanted the fat princess to have a love story for the ages, and sometimes that looks like the handsome prince, and sometimes that looks like what could have been the handsome prince who gave up his crown for a lute. Maddie was at a point in her life where she needed someone to lovingly annoy her into getting out of her head and her routine, and Arthur was the perfect hero to do it.
I had a blast writing my first non-brooding love interest. 10/10 recommend.
At their first interaction, Arthur nicknames Madeline “Gwen”, which he uses to refer to her throughout the whole novel, and is also the name that appears in the novel’s title. What significance does Madeline’s almost “alter-ego” hold for you, and why did you decide to put this name in the title?
I don’t want to give too much away since the nickname plays a role in later parts of the story, but I will say that I think we all reach points in our lives where we wonder about our own alter-egos. Some of those are of our own creation, and sometimes they’re the creation of others and we like them so much we keep them. We’re always shifting and growing as people and sometimes it’s fun to give names to the different versions of ourselves we meet along the way.
Alongside the mystical world of Renaissance Faires, a theme that flows throughout the novel is the concept of fate and destiny. Do you agree with Arthur that fate allows for our lives to play out a certain way, or with Madeline and the idea that we can “tame the world” how we see fit?
It depends on the day, honestly, but I usually side with Maddie. I think she and Arthur both waiver on their stances on fate throughout the novel, and that was intentional! Maybe it comes down to some days we feel like we’re in charge and some other days we don’t and call it fate.
If you could describe The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway in three words, what would they be?
Merriment, Confidence, Huzzah
(Okay, everyone should know I spent the longest on this question BY. FAR. and this is what I came up with.)
What was your main intention when you were writing the novel? What was the key message you wanted to convey to readers?
Ah, another question I could spend forever contemplating, but I think I most wanted to express that everyone has their own story of how they got to where they are. Also that we all are constantly writing and rewriting the stories in our heads of where we want to go, and it’s totally normal to scratch things out, add new things in, and start in new places altogether.
What has your experience been like as a female author in the Young Adult genre? Are there any challenges you have had to overcome due to your gender? Also, what advice would you give other female authors hoping to break into the industry?
In complete honesty, I’m in the very privileged position of working with a mostly female team on all fronts. My agent is female, my editor and her assistant are female, and much of the publishing team I interface with is female. I feel very supported and have felt that throughout my writing career even as I made the leap to parenthood. I don’t feel that there were any challenges to overcome based on gender, but I’m also white, cis, have a partner who believes in my career and is an equal participant in child rearing and running our household, and a pedigree of other privileges that made being an author much smoother.
Across the board, my advice to new writers is to find your people and find them as soon as you can. I see more and more established authors running critique partner groups for newer writers to have a place to meet and discuss their work. There are often social media matchups, too, and if you can physically attend writing retreats or workshops in your area, I highly recommend that, as well! No matter how you identify, finding people you jive with on a human level AND a writing level is paramount to your long-term success. I most definitely would not be working on my fifth and sixth books if not for my critique partners and writing support group.
Now that The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway is ready for release, are there any future projects you are excited to work on? Maybe a sequel for Madeline and Arthur?
Authors are big fans of the phrase “never say never” because you really never know what projects could pop up in the future, but as of now I think of Maddie and Arthur’s story as complete. I knew the ending before I began writing the book, and that ending held up through all the iterations in part because I think it’s the right place to leave the characters.
As for next projects, I’m super excited to be finishing up edits for my fourth YA novel, In the Orbit of You which will come out next year (2024) and I’m already a little sad that my time with Nova and Sam is almost up!
Ashley Schumacher is a young adult author represented by Thao Le of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency and a graduate of the University of North Texas with a degree in creative writing. She is also a firm believer that reading is the best education a writer can receive. Ashley is a lifelong supporter of libraries, independent bookstores, and the booksellers and librarians that bring stories to their perfect readers.
She lives in a small town north of Dallas with her husband, son, and more books than is strictly necessary. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s either singing Disney songs, finding new and exciting ways to pester her family, or trying to find her inside voice, which has been sadly missing since birth.
Ashley’s Instagram: @ashwritesbooks
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