For an admitted sci-fi nerd growing up in Virginia, being given the monumental task of reimagining some of Disney’s greatest villains, like Captain Hook, for the company’s new Chills series, is a dream author Jennifer Brody could never have imagined.
But the Harvard graduate finds herself living that dream, contracted for at least five books in the Chills series, starting with Part Of Your Nightmare, a book starring Ursula from The Little Mermaid. In the Chills series, Brody, writing as Vera Strange, tells modern ghost stories featuring iconic Disney villains.
As Brody points out the first book doesn’t come out until July 7, and she is already working on book four. And yet somehow even with that vigorous schedule the prolific Brody has two new graphic novel series out with collaborator Jules Rivera.
The two are quickly becoming a dynamic duo in the graphic novel world with their first series, Spectre Deep 6, just coming out this month. And the second, 200, launches in November.
From working on Lord Of The Rings and the Golden Compass at New Line to star author, Brody is having a breakout 2020. I spoke to her about what it is like working with Disney, how her grandfather worked with Walt Disney himself on Fantasia, and where her fascination with ghost stories comes from.
Steve Baltin: Which series began first?
Jennifer Brody: I would say they were conceived and developed right around the same time actually, which is interesting.
Baltin: Did they separate themselves since many people believe good writing leads you the direction the story is supposed to go?
Brody: I think that’s true. You set an idea in motion and then the roots kind of grows on its own. And then to a large degree you’re working, especially in fiction, in service to the story. You’re looking at what it needs and where it’s going to go. These were different processes though. The Disney books are absolutely in collaboration with Disney. It’s their brand, their iconic characters. I’m working with a big corporate giant to bring something to life that is good and that services the brand. Versus Spectre Deep 6 that’s a graphic novel. So that really came about from an idea but then grew with my artist [Jules Rivera]. With Jules we have a partnership and a collaboration. She makes my work better, I make her work better. We have different skill sets — I’m really strong on story and structure, she’s an artist and super visual the way she sees things. So it’s a different process. Interestingly though both books are paranormal involving ghosts. And I didn’t realize that until they started to publish. Spectre is military, but about soldiers brought back from the dead as ghosts. And then in the Disney books the villains are ghosts and haunting these contemporary children. So they’re both supernatural ghost stories, just very different.
Baltin: How did the Disney collaboration come about?
Brody: Disney approached me. There was an editor at Disney who had worked with some friends of mine and knew me from the young adult Continuum trilogy that I wrote and was a fan of my work. And when this came about he knew I loved horror and worked on a lot of horror movies. He approached me about the idea. Disney auditioned several writers though, and I was one of them. I had to write some sample chapters and pitch them. I wanted to do Ursula [Little Mermaid] first. So I did and they hired me. They said I wrote great middle grade voice, they loved what I was doing. Originally it was a three-book deal. But after the second book they were so happy and hot on the series that they extended to an additional two. So I’m under contract for five already. I’m working on book four and the first one is not even out for a month.
Baltin: How much are you writing to fit the Disney vision versus having total freedom to take the characters where you want?
Brody: The first two are Ursula and then Doctor Facilier, who is also known as Shadow Man, from The Princess And The Frog, who’s quietly become one of their best villains. He’s like a witch doctor, it’s New Orleans, it’s voodoo. It’s really cool and a fun contrast with Ursula. And then the third is Captain Hook and that kind of was a surprise. He wasn’t on the list originally when we were looking at villains. But they asked me who I wanted to do for book three and I looked at their list and I wasn’t sure about it. So I said, “You’re Disney, you must have market and brand research. This is for middle grade readers, eight to 12, what villains are big for this age range? Who do they want to read?” And they hit me back with Captain Hook cause apparently on Disney Junior there is a Peter Pan show that’s very popular and those kids are this age now. They love Captain Hook and I was excited cause Captain Hook is so iconic, I’ve always wanted to write a pirate book, he is one of my favorite villains, he’s part of the Peter Pan canon and universe, which is a really exciting sandbox to play in. So that’s how Hook came about. And Hook was the first one where it was completely my original story and everything. I think it’s my favorite so far. The Captain Hook book is really cool. But all the books are scary and dark.
Baltin: Were you surprised at all by the series since feels different for the Disney brand?
Brody: They have the best villains. Disney has phenomenal villains throughout their series. And movies like Maleficent have really been working for them. I think this is such a no-brainer and this series really is Disney’s Goosebumps. It really is intended to be creepy books for middle grade readers of these characters. It is different, but it’s also, to me, such a no brainer. I’m starting to get those tweets of like parents with their daughter, who has read the book three times now. I think these are very binge worthy and kids will love them. But I know at this age if I’d seen this is my school library or bookstore I would’ve wanted to read them right away. Kids love creepy things.
Baltin: Could you have ever imagined growing up in Virginia one day you’d be writing an original story with Captain Hook in it?
Brody: No, it is mind blowing. And I think to some degree, partially because we haven’t really published, it hasn’t fully internalized or sunk in. And recently I’m like, “I actually think a lot of people are gonna know and read these. And wow, these are characters…” Sometimes it’s easy to feel unworthy to the task. My grandfather worked in classical music and worked on Fantasia with Walt Disney back in the day. Disney, famously was a huge classical music fan. So my dad did get to meet Walt Disney. But as a kid in a small town it was just so hard to fathom that could be real. And now that I’m actually writing them it’s so cool. It’s the biggest nerd out ever.
Baltin: How do you approach writing them since you are writing for characters that people have an established relationship with?
Brody: It’s been kind of an interesting process coming to all of the characters because I do have to work with Disney and get brand approval. But channeling the villains is a whole thing. For me when I know I need to write them I need to get their voices right. So I go back to the original and watch the movie and listen to how they talk and listen to the sorts of words and terminology they use because I am to a degree needing to import that. And all these characters are so iconic and they talk very differently, act differently and have different mannerisms. So Ursula is the diva, she’s a sea witch, she wears makeup under water. Then we get a Doctor Facilier and we’re in New Orleans and it’s this witch doctor and voodoo land. That is totally different from Captain Hook who is a pirate and talks like a pirate. So I’m trying to do a good job writing and channeling into these characters and bringing them to life.
Baltin: Why the Vera Strange pseudonym for the Chills series?
Brody: We collaborated on the name thinking it’d be really cool to do a creepy pen name for the kids where they could say, “Who is Vera Strange?” And make that feel iconic and creepy. And we went back and forth on a couple of names. It just seems to work. I kind of like having an alter ego. And it does help to differentiate the series from my other work. But also for the longevity if this goes on and on. We’ll see if I write all of them or not. It depends on a lot of factors. It helps with a series like this. It’s intended to be ongoing so they’ll all shelve together no matter who writes them at the bookstore. I love writing this series. It’s been really fun to set all of it in motion and set the tone and create it.
Baltin: Who is the one character you really want to do before you’d pass it off though?
Brody: I’d really love to take a stab at Maleficent. I think she’s the clear choice. Sleeping Beauty has always been one of my favorites. There is the whole film series now, although this would obviously be very different than that. I also would really like to do Jafar because the Aladdin universe is fantastic. It’s iconic. I love that era of Disney. I think Aladdin might have been my favorite. I love that movie.
Baltin: Coming on to Spectre Deep 6 how much of the series came from you and Jules together?
Brody: Spectre was more of a collaboration. We have a second graphic novel, called 200, and they both sold in three-book deals. We’re knee deep in working on 200 and it comes out in November. And 200 was different because 200 is based on a short story I wrote that we’ve adapted. So that one was more I already had it. With Spectre it was my idea. “What if guys die and they’re brought back by military scientists as actual spectres, and they can be kind of super heroes, but a paranormal way into a new story?” I hadn’t seen anyone do this take on it. And so I immediately thought of Jules as the person. Graphic novels seemed like the right way to bring this to life as well cause it’s so colorful and I wanted to do a team of six diverse characters. So we went to the Ace Hotel one afternoon and did most of the world building just hanging out, cause it’s a lot of world build — what are their powers, how do they work, what are the limitations? Spectre took a lot of work, on the story, the characters, the design. When we look back that work was a crazy process. But something that is very unique and we’re very proud of and we’re excited to get into Spectre Deep 6 two and expand on it. We have great ideas for the second book. And we’re also hoping to make it into a TV show as well and we’re in process on that. So there are a lot of fun opportunities going on.
Baltin: Were there other franchises that you looked at as role models for Spectre Deep 6?
Brody: Yeah, I would say that is what is exciting about what is going on in graphic novels is you’re starting to see a lot more edgy ideas coming into it, more diversity, more unique storytelling. We’re starting to see some really original, fascinating content. Umbrella Academy is a great example where they are totally misfits. The Boys, on Amazon, is another one. Watchmen is amazing. So in terms of how to build it into a trilogy I look at classic story structures and Spectre Deep 6 really is a classic trilogy, where it will have an arc where we follow the main cast of characters. Whereas 200, which is going in more of an edgy, Sin City, adult Philip K. Dick noir-ish sci-fi, is going to be more of an anthology style series and definitely a little more experimental with structure and form. But it’s been fun doing both so we get to showcase two different muscles and two different worlds that really contrast nicely.