Vera Strange (who may or not be Jennifer Brody) initially wanted to follow her passion for storytelling into film production. While pursuing this career at Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes and then at New Line and then at various other companies, Strange developed a desire to pursue the craft of novel writing. One of her first publications was 2016’s The 13th Continuum: The Continuum Trilogy, Book 1. In addition to other Continuum stories, Strange has started writing novels under the Disney Chills publishing label – the first one being Part of Your Nightmare. Strange also teaches people how to write novels on the Writing Pad. Wanting to learn more about Strange’s career and Part of Your Nightmare, I was able to interview her for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were stories you loved? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
Vera Strange: I grew up obsessed with Nancy Drew books, then graduated to The Hobbit. My dad got nervous that I’d never read anything besides Nancy Drew (I’d read a book a day!), so he paid me ten bucks to read The Hobbit. That was a lot of money back then! I think I was in sixth grade. That very much paid off later when I landed the job working for the Executive Producer and New Line studio head on the Peter Jackson movies. Of course, I loved The Hobbit and that book was a gateway drug to the rest of The Lord of the Rings, then Stephen King (the greatest YA author who isn’t technically a YA author), Anne Rice, and more. I also always loved A Wrinkle in Time, Stranger in a Strange Land, 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter Mars series (also thanks to my father). Major Harry Potter nerd. I also love Vonnegut and Asimov’s Foundation series, which is a huge influence on my sci-fi The 13th Continuum trilogy.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to be a professional writer? Was there a moment in which this goal crystalized for you?
Vera Strange: Honestly, it wasn’t until I was a little bit older. Originally, I wanted to direct movies and work in Hollywood. I attended Harvard (spoiler for next question!) and studied film and art. I interned for a production company at Disney, then moved to LA and started in the assistant trenches, first for Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (I’m a huge horror buff), then I moved over to New Line. I wanted to direct, but it was very clear there wasn’t a path for women to do that back then, so I moved more into producing and working as a studio exec. However, after working with so many amazing authors like Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman and Cornelia Funke and more, I wanted to write my own books. It would’ve been easier to write scripts probably with my film background, but the stories I wanted to tell were big worldbuilding sci-fi. That started me on a journey to teach myself how to write novels. I’d never even taken a formal writing class, but I loved reading. It turned out that was a great start.
Yanes: I am painfully jealous that you got into Harvard. With that said, what is the most pretentiously Harvard thing you’ve ever said? Do you ever refer to other Ivy leagues as community colleges?
Vera Strange: Honestly, I’m super chill and didn’t fit in that well at Harvard, even though I got a great education. I was born in the Virgin Islands and grew up in the mountains of Virginia, where I attended public schools. That’s a world away from Harvard. At college, I was a weird alternate film and art major in a biker jacket and Doc Martens, which isn’t the norm at Harvard. I think Economics is the most popular concentration. Harvard does open a lot of doors, of course, and I’m grateful for the opportunity it provided me.
Yanes: You have been teaching creative writing for years. What are some common mistakes you think people make as they are learning how to write stories?
Vera Strange: Oh my, so many! And the truths is that I taught myself how to write, so I probably made all of them. That’s part of why I teach novel workshops for the Writing Pad. I love helping other writers learn about novel (my favorite medium) and avoid my mistakes. It’s so rewarding. This summer, Writing Pad also asked me to teach a workshop for teen writers. I said yes immediately. I’ve long mentored for the Young Storytellers Foundation, where we teach creative writing to fifth graders in low income schools. With the pandemic, so many kids are stuck at home and need stimulation and inspiration. But the biggest mistakes are not understanding the structure of how to tell a story and also not having strong voice in story, both of which can be learned. Writing is a craft!
Yanes: Your latest book is Part of Your Nightmare. What was the inspiration behind this story?
Vera Strange: Ursula! With each of the Disney Chills books, I’m trying to channel the themes and voice and vibe of the villain I’m tackling. Part of Your Nightmare is Ursula’s book. What’s so fun is that I’m the first person to bring these iconic Disney villains into the real world. For my book, I created a fictional seaside town called Triton Bay. Shelly’s family owns the local aquarium and she’s s total nerd like me for undersea life, so I packed the book full of fun educational stuff. The big mistake she makes is that she gets peer-pressured into littering in Ursula’s ocean. Big mistake! But I wanted the book to have strong environmental themes and also themes about peer pressure vs. staying true to yourself.
Yanes: Why do you think Disney’s villains have such a strong fanbase? On this note, what do you think it takes to be a classic Disney villain?
Vera Strange: Disney has the very best villains. A story is only as strong as the villain. I always teach that. Honestly, I think almost all of their villains are classic in their own ways. I’m already writing the fifth book in the Disney Chills series—and there are so many more villains I’d love to write. I hope they extend the series for this reason. My favorite villains are those with personality. Ursula certainly qualifies! She’s a diva. She’s a sea witch. She wears make-up underwater. She’s the queen of the deal. When Disney first approached me to write this series and asked me what villain I wanted to do first, I said Ursula right away. I loved writing Dr. Facilier/The Shadow Man for the second book. In that one, I got to tackle New Orleans and write a witch doctor. He’s one of the best of the recent villains! For the third book Second Star to the Fright, I wrote Captain Hook. That’s probably my personal favorite book so far, though it’s super hard to choose.
Yanes: Part of Your Nightmare features Ursula. Over the years many fans have begun to see Ursula as villain they understand. Why do you think Ursula has continued to develop such a passionate fanbase?
Vera Strange: Because she’s basically a sea witch diva! She’s so much fun. As with any great villain, you also understand her point of view and what she wants. The movie is also incredibly strong with beautiful imagery and animation and phenomenal music. Flotsam and Jetsam are also super spooky and rad. I love the poor unfortunate souls! I did get to put all of these elements into Part of Your Nightmare. Getting to add to Disney canon is a dream come true.
Yanes: Just as important as Ursula is that this story centers on Shelly Anderson, a young girl dealing with her parents splitting up and desperate to be cool at school. When did Shelly come alive to you?
Vera Strange: Shelly came alive for me very quickly! I was trying to understand what would make someone litter in the ocean, especially someone who loves marine life and whose family owns and aquarium. I came up with the idea that because of her parents splitting up—highly relatable situation—she had to move and change schools and start over. That also means she had to leave her old school and friends behind, where she was popular, and become the “new girl” at a new school. No wonder she’s desperate for new friends and willing to do anything to impress them and keep them. Of course, that does backfire. You don’t want to litter in Ursula’s ocean!
Yanes: Part of Your Nightmare is – as of now – the first in three novels you are writing under the Disney Chills banner. How do you see these three novels as being thematically connected?
Vera Strange: Actually, I’ve already finished the fourth book—and I’m writing the fifth book in the Disney Chill series right now. It’s amazing how much confidence Disney has shown for my weird, spooky little series. They’re connected in that they all feature iconic Disney villains imported into our world—and they’re all mega creepy with dark endings. Nothing good happens in Disney Chills (spoiler alert!). Disney is known for happy endings, but I wanted to craft something truly scary and memorable. For each book, I try to channel the villain into the story and tackle the themes and vibe of the original film.
Yanes: When people finish reading Part of Your Nightmare, what do you hope they take away from it?
Vera Strange: Nightmares.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Vera Strange: I am working on a ton of great stuff always! My debut sci-fi graphic novel Spectre Deep 6 with my artist Jules Rivera published last month. It’s about ghost soldiers carrying out missions for our government in exchange for cay passes to haunt their old lives and fix their unfinished business. That will be a trilogy! We just delivered our second graphic novel called 200 that publishes in February 2021. It’s also sci-fi about a world where there’s a Cure for aging and illness, but most people can’t handle immortality. So, when you turn 200 years old, you must take a test that will determine if you can live forever, or if you’re cracking up and must be euthanatized for the sake of society. That’s based on a short story I wrote and will also be a trilogy of books! Meanwhile, I should be publishing a short fiction collection of weird tales—tentatively called A Year of Living Monstrously—and we’re working on making my Continuum trilogy into a TV show. I think I have five books or more publishing in 2021 alone, including three Disney Chills!