This week, Claire Legrand, author of Winterspell a young adult retelling of The Nutcracker, sat down with us to talk about romance in YA. Between book recommendations and fictional crushes, she tells us about what makes a healthy YA romance, the role of romance in a feminist journey, and gives us the scoop on Winterspell’s Clara and Nicholas!
Spoilers for Winterspell below.
DM: What are some of your favorite YA romances?
CL: I’m really picky about my YA romances, so I don’t have a ton. My favorite is Fire and Brigan from Kristin Cashore’s Fire. You’re giving me a thumbs up—I take it you approve? (laughs) I love them so much. He is my ultimate “book boyfriend”, as people call it. Their relationship feels very mature to me. When I was in high school, I was a very mature, no-nonsense kid and set a strict agenda for myself—good grades and lots of extra-curriculars. I didn’t care much about romance. High school boys held very little appeal for me; I was always attracted to older men. So sometimes when reading YA I have a hard time connecting with the romantic element because even when I was in high school, I wasn’t into high school boys! I tend to be drawn to the romances like Fire and Brigan’s, where the relationship feels more emotionally mature, and everyone is, if not actually that much older than teenagers, at least acting like it. Brigan, for example, is not that much older than a high school-aged boy would be. The difference in Fire is that they’re in this fantasy setting that has forced them to grow up a bit faster than a modern teenager would. As an adult reader, I can therefore connect with them more deeply. I also love Karou and Akiva in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, for many of the same reasons.
DM: Oh yeah.
CL: Those books (DoSaB) are some of my all-time favorites. I just love them. I think it’s really hard to do the whole fated, star-crossed lovers thing well, without it devolving into something cheesy, and Laini Taylor totally accomplished that.
DM: Well something you touched on, was that as an adult reader it’s a little hard to get into YA romances and I know for me, I’m reading these sometimes and I’m like “Girl you don’t know him. You don’t love him.”
CL: (laughs) Exactly!
DM: Then in your book Winterspell, you touched on that instant connection that a lot of YA has but then you also tempered it with the idea that these characters need maturity. They need to grow and learn from each other. How do you achieve that balance between insta-love and slow-burn romance, and what does one approach reveal about the other when you use both?
CL: I should say this disclaimer first: As a reader, I don’t have a problem with “insta-love” done well because it absolutely happens in real life. Insta-lust probably happens more often (laughs) but the point stands.
For the reader, the insta-love element can be incredibly exciting and titillating—just like it is in real life. The reader gets to experience that rush of sudden, primal attraction right along with the character. There is no angst, no questioning—you just feel the spark, the chemistry, and go with it. But after that, once a relationship begins, is when the real work happens, and the character has to answer the tough questions like, “Are this person’s beliefs compatible with mine?” and “Is there a future here?” and “Can I trust this person with my heart?” These questions introduce a new, vulnerable element to the relationship, one that every reader can relate to.
With Winterspell, achieving a balance between those two aspects of Clara and Nicholas’s relationship was challenging. I knew that a lot of readers have a problem with the insta-love trope, and I knew those same readers might balk when the curse breaks and Nicholas is no longer a statue, when he meets Clara for the first time as a living, breathing young man—and bam! They immediately have these feelings for each other. But what’s unique about Clara and Nicholas is that their insta-love is colored by a shared history. They’ve had this connection for years. She has grown up fascinated with him in his statue form, and he has watched her grow up from within the magical prison of his statue form. I worked hard to establish that sense of history in the first part of the book, while Clara is thinking about the statue and we learn about her life up until now. That way, when the curse breaks and they meet in the flesh, and there’s this instant spark of heat, of attraction, of Oh, it’s finally you, that spark would feel earned.
And yet, even with that spark, that sense of history, Clara and Nicholas still have so much to learn about each other. They have this narrow experience of each other and then are thrust into terrible, life-threatening situations that reveal their true selves—and their true selves, they’re dismayed to find out, aren’t always pretty. Nicholas has a dark side and is obsessed with vengeance; and Clara, as a victim of what is essentially abuse, has a lot of fear and self-doubt to overcome. And that’s true to life—even if you’ve known someone for a long time, or just think you know that person well, things sometimes change. You find out things about the other person that surprise you. And if your relationship shifts from friends to lovers, your interactions will change, your whole perception of that person will change. That’s something that Clara and Nicholas struggle with throughout the whole book, all while they’re going on this deadly adventure. Like I said, the dichotomous nature of their relationship—having this shared history and then, at the same time, not really knowing the other person like they thought they did—was challenging. I had to step away a few times during revisions to give myself a break from them, and then return with more critical eyes, to make sure I hadn’t strayed from what I wanted their relationship to be. But writing them was also really fun. Jumping back and forth between writing these electric scenes where you feel the years between them, the stolen moments while Nicholas was a statue and Clara was exploring him—and then writing the tentative, bashful moments when they feel like they’re only just starting to get to know each other. I’m really happy with how it turned out, and I think both aspects of their romance resonate with readers in different ways.
DM: I was very happy with how you wrapped it up, which was by saying that these few days they’ve spent together are very meaningful but they aren’t the end-all of their relationship. They still need to go back to their own worlds; they still have other commitments before they can commit to each other. They need to establish that trust in the real world, over a longer period of time, and I really enjoyed that reality.
CL: I’m so glad you liked that! That was really important to me. I don’t know if you read the epilogue—
DL: Oh I read the epilogue!
CL: (laughs) So the canon is that they do begin a relationship together, eventually—but only after they’ve each taken care of business in their own lives. And even then, it’s not always easy for them. They have a lot of things to work on, as individuals and as a couple, and of course that’s how relationships work in real life, right? There is a major romantic element to Winterspell, but ultimately this is Clara’s story. She begins as this traumatized, frightened, passive girl and becomes a powerful, fully-realized woman—but even at the end of the book, after everything she’s gone through, that journey isn’t over for her. She still has a ways to go to become who she’s supposed to be, and she has to see that through before she can even begin to think about exploring a relationship with Nicholas and addressing the associated emotional baggage there. And that’s true of any healthy relationship: In order to make it work, you first need to know yourself. It was important to me that Clara and Nicholas had that time to finish figuring out themselves before moving on to the next step together. Not the most sweep-you-off-your-feet romantic ending for them, I suppose! (laughs) But certainly a healthy one.
DM: You’re right, much of this is Clara’s journey to gaining agency over her body. At the beginning of the book she has a very warped sense of her own sexuality and what romance is and what love is. What impact did that storyline—Clara’s journey in a sense—have on the plot, specifically the plot point of her surrendering control to Nicholas?
CL: When I started planning Winterspell, I knew I wanted to focus on the erotic undertones of both the Nutcracker ballet and the original fairy tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann. These undertones are hard to see in most productions of the ballet—obscured by smiling, dancing kids and layers of sparkly tulle—but they’re there. With that in mind, I quickly realized that this would be a story of Clara’s sexual awakening: Coming to terms with her body and her sexuality. Feeling comfortable in her own skin. Knowing her desires and not being ashamed of them. That’s something a lot of teenaged girls—and even adult women—struggle with. So when I designed the story’s structure, I made sure that the plot served to help Clara explore different parts of herself. For example, when Clara is hiding out in Pascha’s brothel, and later, when she is a prisoner in the Summer Palace, she is forced to come to terms with things like sex and nudity, her body and her desires. And this all leads up to a moment, later in the book, when she realizes she has the power to make her own choices. That her sexuality has power. That her body has power. That she is a powerful being, and that her power is nothing to be ashamed of, and that no one can take that from her. When she chooses to surrender her power to Nicholas, in order to more effectively fight for her family and for his kingdom, it’s not a moment of weakness. It’s an empowering moment, one in which she realizes her strength and realizes she is the only one who can decide when and how she uses that strength.
DM: If we’re talking romance we also have to talk about the twisted, warped YA romances where there is that psychosexual relationship between the heroine and who we think is the antagonist. Winterspell has that dynamic in the relationship between Anise and Clara—but this time the villain is a girl. Why is that dark twisty relationship, regardless of gender, important to YA? Why do you think it’s appealing?
CL: I have to first mention another dark and twisty YA relationship that just popped into my head—Alina and the Darkling, from the Grisha trilogy.
CL: I’ve only read the first book, but what a great, complicated relationship.
DM: You’ll like the ending. Just saying.
CL: Yeah, I need to actually finish the trilogy. I have them; they’re sitting on my shelf! But my TBR pile is a sad, never-ending thing. (laughs)
Especially for teenaged girls, who are trying to figure out who they are and what they want, reading about these darker relationships is incredibly appealing because they allow the reader to explore different facets of their personalities in a safe way. The reader can examine these relationship dynamics in the context of this larger, entertaining story and ask themselves important questions, even if only subconsciously: How do I feel about this complex, dangerous relationship? What do I believe in and would I be willing to fight for this? Or would I give in to this powerful antagonist, and why? What does that say about me? And I think stories and characters that help you explore that primal part of yourself will always be appealing for that reason. They both resonate with your deepest id and also get you thinking.
DM: It’s not a common relationship dynamic given to non-heterosexual pairings, however. Why was it important to keep that dynamic in Winterspell?
It was really important to me that, as part of Clara’s journey, she encounters someone who is a mirror version of herself—specifically another woman, not much older than her, who is powerful instead of powerless. That mirror image is Anise—a woman in touch with and accepting of her own body. She’s not ashamed of herself, and she doesn’t apologize for who she is. Anise rules the kingdom of Cane with absolute power. Clara came from her own “kingdom” of New York City with a sense of powerlessness and helplessness, having been blackmailed and manipulated by various political figures. Whereas Anise revels in her power, Clara felt like she had none. I wanted her to look at Anise and see who she could be—and also see who she didn’t want to be, aka, a ruthless, bloodthirsty dictator. Through her interactions with Anise, Clara asks herself tough questions: If I was in Anise’s position, how would I use this power? What are the good parts of Anise, and how can I achieve those things for myself? What are the parts of her that I reject? And by answering these questions, Clara made some pivotal decisions about the kind of person she wanted to be
DM: What kind of formative fictional love stories impacted you when you were a young adult?
CL: I think my first fictional crush was actually Calvin O’Keefe from A Wrinkle in Time.
DM: Yes! He’s so cute!
CL: When I was eight or nine or whatever it was, and read the book for the first time, I knew immediately that I was in love with him. (laughs)
DM: Because he accepts Meg. He doesn’t try to change her, make her softer y’know? She’s all sorts of hard edges.
CL: She is wonderfully hard-edged and he loves her for that, and accepts her for who she is. He’s just so…he’s a rock.
DM: He’s ideal.
CL: I just love him! Honestly? Now I want to re-read the book and swoon over Calvin.
DM: Do you think there is a responsibility to portray healthy relationships in YA? And how do you balance that with the expectations of your audience?
I think a writer’s first responsibility is to write stories that are true, stories that reflect the world as we know it. That means we need to talk about real emotions, address real questions, talk about real, tough subjects—whether we do so in a realistic or fantastical setting. That also means we need to explore both healthy and unhealthy relationships, because readers will encounter both kinds of relationships in their lives. I do think that anyone who writes children’s or YA fiction has an additional responsibility to make sure that unhealthy relationships aren’t romanticized. It’s not about preaching; no one wants to be preached at, especially not young people. But there should be a moment when the reader can step back and recognize that the unhealthy relationship being portrayed is, in fact, unhealthy. In Winterspell, for example, there is a moment when Clara realizes that, as much as she pities and feels real love for Anise, Anise is manipulating and using her, and is too far gone down a road of violence and hatred to be saved—and it’s not Clara’s responsibility to save her. That’s a pivotal moment for Clara—and, I hope, for the reader—and a huge step toward Clara’s own empowerment.
DM: Do you have any YA crushes?
CL: As I mentioned above, I’m pretty picky about this, but I love Brigan from Fire and Akiva from Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I also love Hector in The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Tor from The Hero and the Crown, and Jared from Incarceron. And maybe it’s weird to talk about having crushes on your own characters, but oh well—I love both Nicholas and Anise from Winterspell, especially the all-grown-up Nicholas in the epilogue (which you can download for free from my website!).
DM: What do you look for in a fictional crush?
CL: It really depends on my mood! Sometimes I like the brooding anti-hero with the hidden heart of gold. Sometimes I like the solid, rock-steady “good guy”—like the previously mentioned Calvin O’Keefe. I’m always a fan of world-weary characters who seem older than their years. Characters who are passionate about something—a cause or an idea. Looks are fun but certainly not everything. I don’t need my love interests to have chiseled abs and cheekbones! In fact, the more unconventional, the better. I keep coming back to Fire’s Brigan—he is not conventionally attractive, but his sense of duty, his steady, focused personality, and his loyalty to his family make him irresistible to me.
DM: He is indeed! Well, thank you so much for chatting with us!
CL: Thank you for interviewing me! I love these characters so much, and it’s always a treat to talk about them.
Winterspell can be found in your local bookstore.
The clock chimes midnight, a curse breaks, and a girl meets a prince . . . but what follows is not all sweetness and sugarplums.
New York City, 1899. Clara Stole, the mayor’s ever-proper daughter, leads a double life. Since her mother’s murder, she has secretly trained in self-defense with the mysterious Drosselmeyer.
Then, on Christmas Eve, disaster strikes.
Her home is destroyed, her father abducted–by beings distinctly nothuman. To find him, Clara journeys to the war-ravaged land of Cane. Her only companion is the dethroned prince Nicholas, bound by a wicked curse. If they’re to survive, Clara has no choice but to trust him, but his haunted eyes burn with secrets–and a need she can’t define. With the dangerous, seductive faery queen Anise hunting them, Clara soon realizes she won’t leave Cane unscathed–if she leaves at all.
Inspired by The Nutcracker, Winterspell is a dark, timeless fairy tale about love and war, longing and loneliness, and a girl who must learn to live without fear.