Robert Beatty's middle grade debut, Serafina and the Black Cloak, is a unique blend of supernatural mystery, Southern historical and rich fantasy. Readers are sure to love this brave, brash and rather unusual heroine whose true identity may prove to be a puzzle of its own.
When a terrifying cloaked man starts abducting the children in the grand Biltmore Estate that Serafina (secretly!) calls home, she must defy her stubborn father's orders to lay low and band together with some unlikely new friends to find the missing victims and put an end to this otherworldly threat once and for all.
We asked Beatty a few questions about the history of Asheville, North Carolina, fine-tuning the spookiness of a story and more.
What inspired you to set the book in your own hometown of Asheville, on the grounds of the grand Biltmore Estate?
I love the history and beauty of Biltmore Estate. I enjoy exploring its rooms and corridors. Whenever I’m there, I envision all the stories—both realistic and imaginative—that could take place there. I think people really yearn for stories about places they love, and I’m definitely not alone in loving Biltmore.
This story is set in 1899—can you tell us about the historical research you did in preparation for your writing?
My concept was to create a spooky, mystery-thriller in a historically accurate setting, to mix an engaging fantasy within a historical texture. I researched the house and the time period extensively, both in person and in books. I’ve read every book on Biltmore and the Vanderbilt family that I could find. My goal was to make the setting and historical details of Serafina and the Black Cloak true to life, and I asked the museum curators at Biltmore to double-check the manuscript for me.
Although there is plenty of humor and adventure in the book, there are also some very dark and scary elements. What made you want to write a Gothic novel for a middle grade audience?
When I set out to write Serafina and the Black Cloak, my goal was to write a story that would engage my daughters and keep them on the edge of their seats. I wanted to write a story about a very unusual, but heroic girl who must face not only many dangers, but the mystery of her own developing identity. My wife and daughters helped me refine the story and the character. Among other things, I drew upon my daughters to help me fine-tune the level of spookiness to their liking.
Why did you decide to leave your career in the tech industry in order to pursue writing full time?
I’ve been passionate about writing all my life, but it had always taken a back seat to my entrepreneurial career. As the founder and CEO of an Internet software company, I was working ninety-hour weeks and totally loved it. But when my wife was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of 31, it hit me hard. I decided to change my life, focus on my family, and pursue a new dream—one that was more conducive to a life at home. So I sold my company and started writing full time. My wife went through treatment and is now in remission. Our third daughter, and to some extent Serafina and the Black Cloak, are the rewards of our continued life together.
Has having three daughters influenced your writing in any way?
I literally write with and for my daughters. At dinner each night we brainstorm ideas, develop stories, and work out the details of the plot and character. When my daughters get home from school each afternoon, I better have the next chapter done or they get mad at me! They listen to and provide feedback on every version of every page I write, guiding me toward the story they want to hear. This has been a family project with my wife and daughters from the beginning, and continues to be that way today. For example, my wife and daughters have been deeply involved in the making of the book trailer for Serafina. They helped develop the script and fine-tune the editing. My wife made the beautiful dresses that we used in the trailer, my 15-year-old daughter trained the dog, and my 12-year-old daughter played the role of Serafina.
Serafina is not your average heroine—what do you love most about her?
I love how in many ways she is a strange creature of the night, with unusual and even somewhat unsettling characteristics, but in many other ways, she’s innocent, frightened and finding her way. I also love that she has a real fierceness to her, but a good heart.
What was your favorite book when you were Serafina’s age, and how has it influenced your writing?
I started writing novels when I was Serafina’s age, which I think is another reason that I love writing about that age. Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with the writing of Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, and Charles Dickens, but when I was a kid, I loved medieval fantasy novels like T.H. White’s The Book of Merlin and The Once and Future King. Despite the dark forces that my characters must face along the way, I’ve always been a romantic at heart. I love a traditional hero’s journey. Or better yet, a heroine’s journey.
Do you have any future writing projects planned?
Yes. I’ve begun the sequel for Serafina and the Black Cloak.I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Disney Hyperion will want to publish it and that there will be a few people out there who will want to read it. But in the meantime, I know there are three particular little girls who are demanding it.