Order up a highball and and strap on your new shoes. Genevieve Valentine’s debut Mechanique earned her a Nebula nomination, though for her second novel she stepped out of the circus and into the rebellious world of the 1920s. Drawing inspiration from the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” Valentine’s twelve sisters pass their nights in speakeasies—boozing, flirting, and dancing until their shoes wear through. It’s all gin and Charlestons until their ever-watchful father becomes suspicious and decides to marry the girls off to the nearest suitors. After featuring The Girls at the Kingfisher Club on our Summer Beach Reads preview, we were excited to talk with Valentine about the allure of the flapper, Baz Luhrmann’s take on the Roaring Twenties, and her own two left feet.
Bookish: What came first: the desire to retell “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” or to write a story about the 1920s? How did one idea influence the other?
Genevieve Valentine: I’ve always had a soft spot for the idea of the flapper: women who threw off the generation before them with great force, and the sheer vehemence with which they dove into the lifestyle. And there’s sometimes that desperation just under the image of the carefree—the feeling that you’d better party while you could. It was a fair enough neurosis to have, given that the sea change in that the new generation faced a lot of pushback from the older generation, who found the emergence of the flapper boggling or even threatening. That idea of 20th-century women, aware of the changing possibilities for them, coming up against a Victorian father who wanted nothing of the sort seemed to map itself naturally over “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” which begins with a father locking in his daughters at night until their desperation drills right through the floor.
Bookish: Speakeasies began disappearing after Prohibition was ended in 1933, though they seem to be coming back into fashion. Why do you think that is?
GV: I think their coming back into fashion is a symptom of romanticizing an era that’s never really gotten less cool. (There was an equally iconic club culture in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but it tips easily fromMad Men cool into Austin Powers.) But not speakeasies—those cramped clubs full of sparkling sack dresses and rumpled tuxes never seem to age out of being chic. They have the air of rebellion about them in the way a 1940s dinner-and-dance club wouldn’t quite. And really, everybody likes knowing the password to something secret.
Bookish: Are any of the speakeasies that the girls visit based on real places in New York City?
GV: I did research several real NYC speakeasies while assembling background information for the novel, so there are details taken from real places (escape tunnels, alley entrances). Luckily, New York had so many that there’s room for a few that are more imagined than real.
Bookish: Which of the girls are you most like? The least like?
GV: Probably, in my more combative moments, I can end up a little bit like Lou (not an aspirational instinct, but honest). And any author would admit to being a little controlling, so I definitely identify with Jo in that respect. On the flip side, I lack a tenth of Ella’s confidence, Rebecca’s practicality, or Araminta’s dignity, unfortunately!
Bookish: As a lover of film and the 1920s, what did you think of Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby?
GV: Oof, there’s a question! It certainly delivered the feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer muchness of it all. The degree to which you feel that effect was intentional probably settles how you feel about the movie as a whole.
Bookish: What were your favorite fairy tales growing up?
GV: Oh, there’s a long list! Obviously “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” was a favorite, but I also loved “The Snow Queen,” “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” “Snow White” (the creepier the better), “Brother and Sister,” and “The Red Shoes.” [That] was one of many that fascinated and repulsed me in equal measure, which is just as much the job of fairy tales as anything else is.
Bookish: Jo, the General, has the best intentions yet often comes across as cold to her siblings. As a reader, you understand Jo and her motivations: In her heart, her sisters come before anything. What was the most challenging aspect of writing a character who makes hard decisions that her sisters don’t always understand or agree with? The most enjoyable?
GV: I think Jo’s circumstance isn’t an unheard-of situation; many people find themselves the ruthlessly pragmatic, unwilling go-betweens of life. But the hardest part was keeping pace with a character whose emotional state often had to be indicated sidelong, because Jo herself tends not to let her feelings actually occur—they’re just something else to be managed—and you run the risk of her coming across as impossibly cold, though we know that’s not the case. That said, the most enjoyable thing about it was writing an older sister whose love is not of the maternal vein whatsoever! She loves them deeply, but learning to love them as people and not as her charges is a huge part of her journey, and I enjoyed that very much.
Bookish: You’ve said you have a “forlorn flirtation with the Argentine tango.” When it comes to the Princesses’ dances, which would you favor?
GV: The Charleston is such an amazing dance, but in the same way my flirtation with tango is forlorn, it takes a level of balance, trust, and lightfooted freewheeling that, in my case, is best admired from afar. Waltz takes a similar hit. I think I’m destined for the foxtrot, where you’re the least danger to others on the dance floor.
Bookish: What’s your favorite song to dance to?
GV: While I was writing the book, I became awfully fond of a few of the jazz numbers I assigned to the girls. I fell for “Remarkable Girl” so hard that I snuck it into a chapter title despite it being too late for the setting; a fudge I made for love!
Bookish: Did your journeys to vintage flea markets and chests full of vintage photos help inspire this novel?
GV: Living in New York is one of the best things for your hoarding instincts and the worst thing for your wallet! Even though I try to tell myself I have plenty of photos (I do), every time I go looking I find so many amazing shots that I rarely leave empty-handed. There are a few in particular that have inspired things I’ve written or things I still plan to write. And, of course, some of the ones from the Twenties and Thirties I’ve collected have taken on a second life as inspiration for the Hamilton sisters. I collected a statistically significant number of photos of groups of girls glaring down the camera outdoors in the daytime, which ended up being less direct inspiration for moments in the book and more what I imagined Jo’s goal looked like in her own mind: all of them out and happy, a striking image, without knowing quite how to get there.
Genevieve Valentine is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, which won the Crawford Award for Best Novel, as well as a nomination for the Nebula Award and the Romantic Times Best Fantasy of the Year. Her short fiction has been nominated for a World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. She lives in New York City.