First Second Books will be publishing Castle in the Stars from Alex Alice, a French graphic novel writer and artist. His bestselling first two series, The Third Testament and Siegfried, have been translated in more than fifteen languages.
Castle in the Stars is a genre-bending tale of adventure, international intrigue and space conquest, set in the romantic castles of nineteenth-century Europe.
I had the pleasure of asking Alex a few questions about his inspiration and creative process, and how he melds history, science, and fiction in a compelling narrative.
Melody Schreiber: How did you get inspired for the story, and what has the research and creative side of telling this story been like?
Alex Alice: The story is about a nineteenth-century space race, starting with a secret Bavarian space program. I guess this is where it all started for me – Bavaria! I went there on a trip with my father when I was about my character’s age, and that’s where I met King Ludwig. That is, when I first discovered his greatest castle. It was a stormy day in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, and there it stood, all turrets and parapets and statues, high above a lake and against a backdrop of cloud-covered mountains: Neuschwanstein Castle.
It was for me the supreme expression of romanticism. I was reading The Lord of the Rings back then, and had a chance to get familiarized with the Wagner Ring cycle. And suddenly all this fantasy seemed to take shape in the form of this castle. That’s precisely what the king intended – to live inside a mythical castle. The figure of this tormented, romantic nineteenth-century king who had made his dreams turn to stone has stayed with me through the years and I always wanted to portray him in a story that would fit his larger-than-life character.
So that’s one inspiration for the Castle in the Stars story, on the romantic side. The other aspect of it is Jules Verne. I have a long history with this author. My first school bore his name, and the spirit of adventure in his novels are still a huge influence on my work. But his biggest influence on Castle in the Stars was actually a huge letdown: in the novel Around the Moon, the nineteenth-century astronauts don’t make it to the moon! Such a disappointment. I wanted to follow in their footsteps and discover this cosmos of the nineteenth century, where the idea of life on the planets of the solar system is a certainty to most scientists.
There was a whole world of science-based imagination I wanted to explore. For years I’ve lived with this world, collecting science books of the era and finding the strange and often very poetic ideas these people had on the cosmos. I had a world, but I didn’t have a story. And then I realized that my world was the story. The actual conquest of nineteenth-century space: that would be my story. What was missing was a great character. That’s when King Ludwig came back to me. An eccentric, a visionary, he was just the missing piece I needed. It all came together rather quickly from then on.
MS: I love the idea of a futuristic yet historical story. How much is based in science and history, and how much is science fiction?
AA: One thing I love about the story is that it’s not easy to file in terms of genre. I have a ton of influences that I’ll gladly acknowledge, but I wanted it to be its own thing. I wanted to tell a story where you don’t need any previous knowledge of genre, or history, or any sort of reference to get it. It begins in the real world but, from the first scene, a discovery is made that will change history. And then the world-building is the story.
In order to do that, to ground the setting in reality, I wanted to have as much historical accuracy as I could. And so the historical characters, locations, geopolitical context, are all as real as I could make them. You’ll meet King Ludwig, Prussian Chancellor Bismarck, Empress Elisabeth and a few others, and I tried to keep them as true to life as I could.
Locations are also heavily researched, although I always put my feeling for the place before absolute accuracy. I did go back to Castle Neuschwanstein, and it was a fantastic experience. I had a chance to visit it at dusk, when the tourists were gone, and to see it all as my characters would. I took a lot of notes and drawings.
All in all, I’m sure I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but the only conscious decision I’ve made to alter history (outside of my sci-fi argument, of course) is the construction date of the castle. Construction of the castle actually began in 1869, but I needed to set the story before the Franco-German war of 1870. And I really wanted it to be almost complete when my characters get there. So in my story the builders must have worked really, really fast!
As for the science aspect of the piece, I tried to stay true to the hypotheses of the time whenever I could. My goal was to make a story that would have been believable at the time, so I studied nineteenth-century popular science and astronomy. Some of the theories I put forward, such as the existence of a substance called ether, or the idea of a low atmosphere on the moon, are actual scientific hypothesis of the time. And the same goes for the idea of planet Venus as a dinosaur-filled jungle world. These ideas were in scientific papers before they became subjects for science-fiction. And to us now, they feel like fantasy. It makes you wonder what scientific hypothesis of today will seem like fantasy in the future.
MS: I’ve seen a few of the pages from Castle in the Stars on your website and Facebook page, and they’re gorgeous. How did you choose watercolor art for this book? Did you consider other methods? What are the benefits and challenges of watercolor in a book-length work?
AA: Thank you. It’s a process I dreaded for years. You have little room for error, which can be daunting at times. I guess I needed the experience of my seven previous books to finally accept the challenge.
The main benefit for me is the pleasure of working directly on the final result, to actually be able to hold the finished page, lettered and in color, as a physical object. It also forces me to have a very clear idea of what I’m trying to achieve before putting a pencil or brush on the page. The process requires commitment and therefore concentration. Both are crucial to my well-being, and working on a computer has a tendency to rob me of them!
In terms of challenge, it means precisely that – to be able to summon up a clear enough vision of what I’m going for. If I don’t have that, I have a tendency to lean too much on a sort of realistic auto-pilot, where I get into too much detail and lose the narrative drive of the page. I love a certain “less is more” esthetic to watercolor, so it’s really about knowing when to stop – especially as far as comics are concerned. Not too soon, because you have to get the exact effect you’re going for, and not too late because you’re ruining it. I made a number of mistakes, but I’m hoping to learn as the story unfolds!
MS: This book was first published in French, and the edition with First Second will be an English translation. What’s it like to work with a translator on a work that’s already been published in another language?
AA: The translation is just getting started now! As far as text goes, I went for a rather formal tone most of the time, even for the kids, while trying to stay dynamic and engaging. I played with some funnily outdated French expressions, I wanted it to feel sort of timeless. I am anxious to see the work of the translator; I’m sure I’ll learn a lot!
The steampunk fantasy graphic novel Castle in the Stars by Alex Alice will be released from First Second.