Astrid Scholte’s young adult fantasy debut Four Dead Queens transports readers to a world united by four queens. Each queen rules over a region and they work together to maintain peace. But what happens when a murderer slips into the palace and begins to kill the queens off one by one? The Bookish team has been anticipating Four Dead Queens for months, and to celebrate its publication, we caught up with Scholte to talk about the world of Quadara, murder, and the memory she’d like to relive over and over again.
Bookish: Quadara is split into four regions, each with a distinct way of life. How did the society you live in today help to shape the societies you created in the novel?
Astrid Scholte: Our reliance on technology certainly influenced the development of Eonia and their emotionally suppressed society. I wanted to explore what it would be like to take this reliance to the extreme and imagine how it could impact humanity. In direct contrast, I wanted Archia to have no access to technology and to focus on nature and physical work, similar to medieval times. For Ludia, I thought about all the things we do in life for enjoyment—art, literature, music, and celebrations—and wondered what a society would be like that only concerned itself with those things. Toria was inspired by Victorian times (hence the name) which are known for industrial progress and developing cities.
Bookish: If you had to choose to live in one of the four regions, which would it be? Which would you never want to live in?
AS: I’d want to live in Ludia. It encompasses all the things I love: literature, art, music, entertainment, and much more! I’d love to roam the colorful streets and winding canals, eat the fluffy pastries (they would have to be gluten-free!) and revel in the constant party atmosphere. I’m a big kid at heart, so anything that captures my imagination is where I’d want to be.
The quadrant I couldn’t imagine living in is Archia. As much as I admire their passion for nature and a hard-working way of life, I would miss technology. Especially TV!
Bookish: The narration moves between Keralie, our protagonist, and the four titular queens. Why did you choose to tell the story this way?
AS: While Four Dead Queens is fundamentally Keralie’s story, I wanted to include the queens’ POVs so the reader could gain insight into their quadrants, backgrounds, and beliefs. I wanted to show how vastly different the queens were from each other and how they still worked together in their common goal for a peaceful nation. Having their POVs allows the reader to feel closer to the queens. It also makes it more impactful when they are murdered on the page.
Bookish: Guilt and regret both play a major role in the book for characters like Keralie and Queen Marguerite. What drew you to this theme?
AS: I think it’s natural to dwell upon things that don’t go as planned or question life-altering decisions. I often think about what ifs: What if you decided to go in one direction rather than another? How would this impact your life? As someone who had moved around a fair bit, from America to Melbourne, to Sydney, to New Zealand, back to Sydney, and then finally back to Melbourne, I often wonder how these moves impacted my own life, and how things could be different if I had gone down another path.
Bookish: Many mysteries, including yours, actively subvert readers’ expectations. How did you go about crafting the twists and turns of the novel?
AS: As a pantser (a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer), I don’t plan my novels, so I don’t know the twists and turns from the outset. I’d written about a third of the novel when the inspiration for the murderer struck me. Initially, I was shocked, so I knew it would also be unexpected for the reader. I then went back through the book to put in red herrings and clues.
One piece of writing advice I heard many years ago from the wonderful Australian author Kate Forsyth is to think of the middle of the novel as a hinge, and how everything should go in a different direction after that. This is something I keep in mind when writing as it prevents a “saggy middle.”
Bookish: A medicine called HIDRA is important to more than one character in the book. As its origins were explained, it reminded me of the HeLA cells discussed in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Was that the inspiration? What other books inspired you while you were writing this novel?
AS: Interesting! No, I haven’t read that book. HIDRA was actually inspired by a health issue I had a few years ago, and how during this time, I longed for an instant cure. I wanted to explore the idea of what people would do if there was such a thing as a cure-all, and how it would be managed by those in power.
As for books, I was inspired by Agatha Christie novels on how to write a whodunnit—especially her Poirot series. I’ve been a fan of murder mysteries since I was a kid and thought it would be unique to have a traditional style murder mystery but set in a fantasy world.
Bookish: Comm chips (tiny disks where memories can be stored) play a huge role in the novel. What’s a memory you would want to record and relive?
AS: I’d love to relive watching Hamilton for the first time in NYC! After loving the musical for years, I finally saw it in May 2018 and it blew away all my expectations. I live in Australia, so it’s not often I can see musicals on Broadway. That’s definitely a memory I’d love to revisit!
Bookish: Quadara is a vast land, but the book mainly focuses on Keralie’s region and the palace. Do you hope to tell more stories set in this world?
AS: Definitely! I wanted the world of Quadara to feel like it lived and breathed outside the pages and beyond Keralie’s journey. There’s certainly a lot more I could explore, including the two quadrants we didn’t get to visit in Four Dead Queens. We’ll just have to wait and see!
Bookish: Many Bookish readers are also book club members! If book clubs were to read this book, what are two discussion questions you’d want them to talk about?
AS: First: What would you do if you uncovered important information about a crime, but in using it, you might incriminate yourself? Would you take the risk to do what’s right? Or protect yourself?
Second: If you were a queen of a nation, what parts of society and culture would you do your utmost to protect? What do you value the most in your life?
Raised on a diet of Spielberg, Lucas and Disney, Astrid Scholte knew she wanted to be surrounded by all things fantastical from a young age. She’s spent the last ten years working in film, animation, and television as both an artist and manager. Career highlights include working on James Cameron’s Avatar, Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin and George Miller’s Happy Feet Two. She’s a visual writer and aims to capture the vivid stories that play like movies in her head. When she’s not writing, she’s painting her favorite fictional characters and obliging her furry overlords, Lilo and Mickey. Four Dead Queens is her debut novel.