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Interview: June 2009

June 2009

Lisa Mantchev's debut, EYES LIKE STARS, is the first installment in a new YA fantasy series, The Théâtre Illuminata Trilogy.
In this interview with's Alexis Burling, Mantchev discusses what inspired her to stage much of the book's plot in the form of a play and elaborates on the messages she hoped to relay from the characters and dialogue. She also imagines the perfect musical score to accompany the novel's prominent scenes, reveals some of her dream roles, and talks a bit about what readers can look forward to in Acts II and III of the series. Much of the action that takes place in EYES LIKE STARS is staged as a play. Is this tactic an homage to the old Shakespearean “play within a play” routine? What inspired you to write this book?
Lisa Mantchev: EYES LIKE STARS began with a name: Beatrice Shakespeare Smith. It landed in my head one day while I was working on a different writing project. With a middle name like "Shakespeare," it had to be set in a theater.
TRC: When you were a kid, did you imagine what it would be like if characters could freely move beyond their scripted book/play lives?
LM: I spent a lot of time imagining myself into my favorite books, where I could be best friends with the characters. I would spend all my pre-sleeping, tucked-in-bed hours imagining what it would be like to meet Sara Crewe (A LITTLE PRINCESS) or the Fossil sisters (BALLET SHOES) or Anne Shirley (ANNE OF GREEN GABLES).
TRC: In the book, Bertie often institutes a “scene change” in order to move the plot along to her advantage. If you could fashion a “scene change” in your life, what would the circumstances be?
LM: Right about the time I need a vacation!Scene change to Paris.No packing. No airports. No stress and no fuss.
TRC: In Bertie’s play, Bertie’s mother says this about the theater: “ …that life…it’s not all roses and curtain calls and champagne on Opening Night. It’s ugliness and filth and greed. The bright lights mask the sorrow, but the sorrow is still there.” Why did you choose to include this?
LM: Theater life is much the same as any other competitive, artistic environment, emphasis on the competitive. There are long-standing jokes about an understudy shoving the leading lady down the stairs, overblown rumors of diva behavior, but I've seen what actors will do when they are desperate to get onstage and prove themselves. I've seen an actress have a shrieking hissy fit over the way her costume was put on a hanger. I've seen ballerinas take off their pointe shoes and peel bloody cotton off their toes. Under all the glory and magic, there's a thread of something melancholy... the years passing, injuries suffered, relationships that crumbled under the stress. Topsy-Turvy, which is a movie about Gilbert & Sullivan bringing The Mikado to the stage, is particularly poignant at the end, when the curtain has come down on their triumphant production, and everyone still has to cope with their difficulties and disappointments.
TRC: After Bertie’s initial failure at directing the cast of Hamlet during their first rehearsal, Mr. Hastings, the Prop Master, gives her a bit of advice: “Play to your strengths. Become the person you need to be.” Is there a message in this for your readers?
LM: I am the person I need to be every day, although my success levels may vary! Some days I need to be the outgoing, convention-attending author, able to exchange witty banter with people I've just met.Some days I am Super-Mom, able to frost a dozen cupcakes in less than three minutes.Some days the To-Do List seems indomitable, but must be conquered.

We are all capable of great things, but I think the majority of our greatness happens when we are challenged by life, by circumstances, by the people around us, and we rise to those challenges.

TRC: How about this next line: “The trick is to let the sheep think they are herding themselves.” Can you relate to that in your own life?
LM: I have a four-year-old daughter, so my days are an endless parade of convincing her to make good decisions AND that she made those decisions all on her little ownsome.

Her: I want chocolate for breakfast!
Me: Chocolate is yummy. So are waffles! Waffles are crunchy and have tiny little jam-holding holes.
Her: (after a moment's thought) I want a waffle for breakfast.
Me: What a good idea!

I've also done some directing, and there were times at rehearsals when I was bellowing over the top of a dozen or more people, and it was exactly like that phrase "herding cats."I just didn't think Mr. Hastings would be familiar with that idiom.

TRC: If you were to attach a score to this book, any thoughts to what music would play during its prominent scenes?
LM: Oh, lots of fabulous full-orchestra pieces. I think the most important song is the tango number, and while I was choreographing it, I had John Powell's "Assassin's Tango" from the Mr. & Mrs. Smith soundtrack playing on repeat.
TRC: Your dedication to your mother is so sweet! Tell us about that day…the audition (and what kind of pie it was!).
LM: The director was a parent of a child in my class at school, and he'd directed us in a short skit of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. He knew I could memorize lines (I might have known everyone's lines...) and just as importantly, he knew he could count on my mom to bring me to rehearsals on time and help out with costumes and make-up.So the night of the audition for South Pacific, he called my house and reminded me to come. She left the half-done pie sitting on the counter to take me... and I cannot remember what kind of pie it was!
TRC: You seem to know all the lingo associated with theater --- catwalk, greenroom, call board, and the infamous line, “There are no small parts, only small actors,” etc. Do you have a background in theater? If so, what role did you most often play? Actor? Stage Manger? Director?
LM: I started acting in community theater when I was seven, wrote and directed a children's play when I was 16, then majored in Drama in college. I've done everything: painting sets, stage management, leading parts, tiny parts, lighting design. About the only thing I cannot do is sew a costume --- I nearly stitched my finger to one on an industrial sewing machine, trying to earn my tech units.But I can make you one with my glue gun instead.
TRC: If you could put on any play of your choosing, what would it be, and what role would you play in it?
LM: I am dearly looking forward to the day when ELS is turned into a huge musical on Broadway (which I'd rather direct than act in, to be quite honest.)I'd also love to play Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, orjust about any soprano part in any musical, because I'm firmly an alto.
TRC: I noticed on your website that you staged a “Fairy-style cake-wrecking contest.” The photos and videos are priceless! Can you explain what this was for those fans who might have missed it?
LM: I dearly love the CakeWrecks website... that's where the fabulous Jen shares pictures of "wrecktastic" cakes with misspelled inscriptions or awful looking frosting. I knew, given half the chance, that my fairy characters would wreck a cake in a completely different way.Probably by jumping on it.So I decided to give away Advance Review Copies and fun little prizes to the people who sent in photos or videos of the wreckage. We called it the Cakepocalypse.
TRC: On the title page, the book is listed as “Act I.” Is there an Act II and an Act III in the works? Any other projects you’d like to tell us about?
LM: There are! The second book in the Théâtre Illuminata series has been titled PERCHANCE TO DREAM, and it will be out in the Fall of 2010. A third book will come out in 2011.I have a retrofuturistic NeoVictorian (steampunk *G*) novella that will be published by Weird Tales magazine, and a similar series in development.