Upping the Stakes on 'Jane Eyre' in 'Within These Wicked Walls'

Debut author Lauren Blackwood is all about the fiery chemistry between her main characters in her Ethiopian-inspired retelling of the classic novel.

Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.

Warning: Interview contains spoilers.

Melissa Bendixen: This is Audible Editor Melissa Bendixen, and I'm here with author Lauren Blackwood, whose debut novel, Within These Wicked Walls, is garnering lots of excitement and praise right now from the young adult world for its fresh concept. Welcome, Lauren.

Lauren Blackwood: Hi, Melissa. How are you?

MB: I'm doing good today. I'm so excited to have you here with us.

LB: Thank you. Me too.

MB: So Within These Wicked Walls is an Ethiopian-inspired Jane Eyre retelling about Andromeda, or Andi as we call her, a young debtera who is tasked with ridding a castle from the Evil Eye. Can you explain to listeners who might not know what a debtera is?

LB: I guess it's not really an exorcist, but that's the closest term, I guess I could say. They construct amulets against the Evil Eye to ward away bad luck and such, and they also sing and dance in the church. So spiritual as well.

MB: I thought it was so fascinating after I finished listening to Within These Wicked Walls that I immediately went and looked up, "What culture does this come from? Where does this come from?" I'm curious, what appealed to you about the debtera for your story?

LB: I just thought they were these incredible people who… Of course, I added some fantasy elements, so it's not as extreme as I made it, but to be able to construct something that would keep away evil, I just feel like it takes a sort of mentality, you know, and a connection to the spiritual world and creativity. And that's pretty admirable as a musician myself. I'm pretty excited about that.

MB: Yeah, that's pretty cool. I love that Within These Wicked Walls really leans into the supernatural, and Magnus, the head of the house and love interest of Andi, is way more charming and romantic than the original Rochester in my opinion.

LB: Oh, thank you.

MB: What is it about Jane Eyre that drew you in for retelling?

LB: Really the romantic trope is the main thing. So the romance about, you know, they don't get along, they butt heads at every turn, and then they fall in love. Like, what's not compelling about that? And then it's in this really creepy place that's dark all the time. I mean, it's not their fault they have candlelight and stuff, but it's huge, it's dark, it's creepy; weird stuff is happening all the time. It should have been a haunted-house book from the get-go, but you know.

MB: A haunted wife.

LB: Yeah. I mean, essentially.

MB: So now we have the Evil Eye to replace the wife.

LB: Yeah, yeah. I thought that was important that I changed the wife upstairs to something that is not dependent on race because I always thought that was a little messed up. So I'm like, let's just make it completely some sort of monster ghost evil presence that is bigger than life.

MB: Yeah, totally. One of my favorite parts was the tenderness that develops between Andi and Magnus and how healing it was for Andi to form a loving relationship that was such a stark contrast to her relationship with Jember, her mentor and father figure. The moments of banter and openness between Andi and Magnus were just such a joy to listen to. I'm wondering, can you tell me about your approach to writing their chemistry?

"When you find someone who understands what you were saying and can express it, that is so special, so special."

LB: Oh man, the dialogue was always very important to me, and it's always been one of my strengths. So I thought, well, you know, you start off with the Jane Eyre aspect of it. They are little barbs shooting at each other and they don't really get along, but there's this sort of chemistry that's like, "Ooh, I like you." But like, "Hmm, do I like you? You're kind of getting on my nerves."

So I added that aspect along with the fact that Andi and Magnus have never really been able to connect to someone this way. Well, Magnus not for the past three years. He can't really hang out with anybody because he's cursed. Just them coming together and sort of needing that connection added another layer to their dialogue. Because really they were the only two who could talk to each other this way. So it was them being little brats a lot of the time. But through that, they're connecting on a deeper level. I really love that about the book. That was one of my favorite parts, writing their dialogue.

MB: I'm thinking of the moment in particular where Andi asks him, "What do you actually like?" And he's like, "Well, I like eye contact." And he says this while he’s intensely looking at her.

LB: Oh my gosh, I love that part. That was one of my favorite parts. I was like, screaming in my own head while I wrote it, because this is the most intimate thing you could do, but in a very Jane Eyre type of way, you know? It's super intense because the meaning behind it is very, "Look, I like you, I get to look at you."

It was surface level of what he meant, but then it was definitely like you could feel the tension in that one exchange. And I was just like, "This is fire." And I mean… Do I sound like I'm bragging? I really like that scene. I was really enjoying writing that. So I'm like, yes, this is their chemistry and it has to remain like this.

MB: Totally. It was such an intense like, "Oh, intense boy moment." 

LB: Yes. And it wasn't even with the monsters or anything, it wasn't even with the manifestations. It was just a social interaction—she didn't want to be there, and then they have this tense moment and it's like, "Ooh, spark, spark, sparks." I love it.

MB: When you come across a scene like that, did you plan it out or are you more of a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sort of person, where as you're writing it just kind of comes out and then you get to fangirl over it in the moment?

LB: I definitely get to fangirl, because I generally get to know my characters and then write. And as I write, the characters kind of just guide what the conversation is. So I have a little outline of, "Oh, this has to happen here for Jane Eyre purposes." But the actual conversation, the way it went, where he was talking about the eye contact, that was guided by the characters. And I was like "Oh my gosh" the whole time. "Oh my gosh, I can't believe this. I can't believe this is happening. These characters are great." 

MB: Well, that was such an awesome moment. That was the moment I think that it really clicked for me that I was just like, "Ooh, Magnus."

LB: Yes, Magnus chemistry.

MB: And this is great segue, because I have to say that the narrator, Nneka Okoye, was next-level in the way she tells the story. I want to play a clip for listeners so everyone can see just how much emotion and authenticity her performance lends to your work. And I'll also say, listeners, note that there will be spoilers from this point forward, so if you have not listened to Within These Wicked Walls, either turn back now or be forewarned. 

Nneka Okoye as narrator: "You have to understand, I don't trust easily, if at all. I had made myself vulnerable to you. You said you wanted to be with me and then it came out you were engaged. I felt betrayed. So I protected myself by pushing you away. I'm sorry."

He got up quickly and knelt in front of me. "Oh my little gentle heart. You had every right. I'm so sorry."

"No, I'm sorry."

"I'm sorrier."

I chuckled, shaking my head. "Are we really going to argue over who’s sorrier?"

"Of course we are," he said, grinning. "You act like you've never met us." I laughed as he kissed my hands.

LB: Oh my gosh.

MB: Isn’t that such a good moment? You can hear in her voice she's shaking with emotion in this clip.

LB: So good. So good.

MB: Again, listeners, that was Nneka Okoye performing a clip from Within These Wicked Walls. So I'm wondering, how does it feel for you as a writer to hear your words performed so deeply by a narrator?

LB: Oh gosh. It just takes it to a whole other level. You imagine it in your head and you're like, "Okay. Yeah, this sounds great." But then you get someone who actually knows how to emote that out to the world, and it's an out-of-body moment, you know? Because this voice sounds like Andromeda and it's got the spirit of Andromeda and it's just coming out and... Am I making sense? It's a very deep moment. I'm emotional because that's my first time hearing it. So I'm like, "Wow." When you find someone who understands what you were saying and can express it, that is so special, so special.

MB: Yeah. To have the words that you've written be so deeply understood that they're taken and used to actually bring it to life.

LB: Yes. I'm emotional, just so good, so good.

MB: Everything about the Evil Eye curse is so detailed: how at 10 every night the waking begins and how the Evil Eye manifests in its most deadly state as a hyena, and how no one without an amulet can make eye contact with Magnus, the cursed, which is kind of why that sexy scene earlier is so potent—you realize she shouldn't make eye contact with him. But anyway, all that aside, I have to know, what sort of research or background work about the Evil Eye did you do to prep for the novel?

LB: There's not a whole lot just online, so I had looked at some scholarly journals for research about it, and of course I took some creative liberties afterwards. So I looked at that and then I looked at the actual website for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has a lot of great information, so for the church side of that, I used that. And then for the Evil Eye in the house, I used the scholarly journals. It was a lot of research which I then spun my own creative way on. And so a lot of the research didn't get used after I had already searched for it, and I'm like, "Okay, that's fine." But yeah, a lot of it is super accurate.

MB: Well, it's always good to have the background work. What made you decide to use the Evil Eye as your scaffolding for the haunted house in the first place?

LB: It's just crazy how ideas come together, because I really can't write books unless the idea comes together organically and I'm like, "Yes, this is it." So it was a combination of watching Jane Eyre one day and I'm like, "Why isn't this house haunted?" And then a combination of, separately, these were two separate ideas. I like to research mythology and folklore randomly sometimes. So I go down the rabbit hole and I'm researching and I find this article about the Evil Eye, and I'm like, "Oh my gosh, this is incredible."

The Evil Eye is in so many cultures, but I was very much drawn to this version of it. It sort of just snapped together, very organically it came together. And I'm like, "Wait a second, haunted house in Ethiopia? It could only be haunted by the Evil Eye. That would be perfect." So yeah, it was very much not in my control. Much like the dialogue from the characters, with the characters guiding it. It sort of just clicked.

MB: It's almost like the story possessed you in a way.

LB: Ooh, ooh. Yes. 

MB: It's so nice that we get that beautiful depiction of Andi on the cover, facial scar and all. And I like to imagine this image as the portrait Magnus draws of her, where she gets to see her own intense beauty through the eyes of another. What do you hope listeners will take away from Andi's relationship to her own appearance?

LB: Oh my gosh. Yeah, that's such a real thing, isn't it? Nobody sees themselves how they actually are. You know, her value of her beauty is kind of based on that scar, and that's the first thing people see, and she's very self-conscious of it. So she's like, "Oh, I'm not cute 'cause I got this big old scar on my face." And no one really tells her she's cute. So, you know, she kind of goes by that. I mean, people have told me, the way she describes herself, they're like, "She's cute.” But she doesn't see it that way.

So I really like that the cover is actually her and people are like, "She describes herself as plain, but she's cute on the cover." And I'm like, "Well, isn't that real life?” I just thought it was nice that Magnus was the one who was like, "Hey, you're actually really pretty." And he says it, but that's not the most important thing to him. And so he's not worried about her scar. He's not worried about anything but the two of them connecting. So, you know, it's all about perspective, because it's from Andromeda's point of view. We're in her head only. That's where it comes in, "Oh, I'm not cute." But is she cute? I mean, the reader can decide that.

MB: Yeah. That's so true that everyone else sees you differently than you see yourself. And usually you see yourself more negatively than everyone else.

So I know you're working on your next book right now. Can you tell us about it or about what you might be working on at the moment?

LB: I can't really talk about it, but similar vibes to Within These Wicked Walls, but it's going to be in Jamaica instead of Ethiopia, because that's my heritage. I was like, let me write about Jamaica. So yes, similar vibes, I'll say. Magical vibes.

MB: Okay. I'm tapping my fingers together in anticipation. Well, with that, Lauren, thank you so much for speaking with me today. And, listeners, you can get Within These Wicked Walls on Audible now.

LB: Thank you, Melissa.

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