Author Vera Strange is here to bring young Disney fans the scare of a lifetime with her thrilling new series Disney Chills. The first book in the horror series, Part of Your Nightmare, is out now and fans are already raving about the story of Shelly Anderson who has a run in with none other than Disney villain Ursula! You can read our review here. We sat down with Vera to discuss everything about the creation of the tale from inception to publication, so read on to learn all about Part of Your Nightmare.
Nerds and Beyond: Tell us a little about the origins of your new series, Disney Chills, and the way it differs from your other published work.
Vera Strange: Disney Chills was a project that an editor approached me with last fall. The idea was to bring iconic Disney villains into our contemporary world and have them haunt kids. Each book would feature a different Disney villain. He said he thought I’d be the perfect writer to tackle it! Disney asked what villain I wanted to write first. I knew right away that I wanted to do Ursula from The Little Mermaid. She’s a sea witch and a diva; she has major personality. I had to pitch ideas and auditioned with some chapters. My other books are sci-fi with fantasy elements. I have The 13th Continuum trilogy out (Turner Publishing). That’s a YA series. I also write graphic novels. My debut Spectre Deep 6 with my artist Jules Rivera is about ghost soldiers brought back to carry out secret missions, although now that I think about it, that book does involve paranormal and spooky, ghostly elements. I’ve always written horror, but more worked on films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and short stories. I had never written horror for middle grade readers before—but I was so down to tackle it!
Nerds and Beyond: How did you end up deciding to publish under the pseudonym Vera Strange for this series?
Vera Strange: That idea came out of a collaboration with Disney. We thought that it would be fun to have a creepy pen name for the kids that discovered the series. We wanted them to be scared and wonder … who is Vera Strange? Middle graders are still at an age where they can believe this stuff is real. We tossed around different names and went back and forth. I love the name that we finally chose.
Nerds and Beyond: What made you want to write Ursula first?
Vera Strange: Ursula is my favorite Disney villain of all time, although there are some close seconds. I was a kid when The Little Mermaid came out and it made a big impression on me. Ursula is a sea witch. She has magic powers. She’s the queen of the deal! She wears make-up underwater like a major diva. Her unfortunate souls are so creepy. I also love villains with personality. Ursula has personality to spare!
Nerds and Beyond: Shelly’s love for sea creatures and the ocean emanates from the pages. Are you a sea lover as well or did that arise as the story developed?
Vera Strange: I love to write underwater stuff—Shelly and I share that fascination with the ocean. The 13th Continuum largely takes place in an underwater colony where humans survive after the surface of the Earth was destroyed. I hold a major fascination with the deep-sea. There are even huge references to the original Little Mermaid fairytale in that book and a kraken (my homage to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). My graphic novel Spectre Deep 6 even has underwater elements incorporated into the storyline. The final set piece involves a submarine. And “Deep Six” means to kill someone, but it really refers to the depth a body must be buried at sea. I even live on the beach in Malibu—I named my pad the “Mermaid Palace.”
Nerds and Beyond: The story definitely has a Goosebumps feel to it. Was that intentional?
Vera Strange: Yes, those books were a huge influence on me as a kid, along with books by VC Andrews and Christopher Pike. We wanted to write a Goosebumps meets Disney style series of creepy books for kids. But also, I wanted to make Disney Chills super scary, even for adult readers. I love Stephen King and Clive Barker and horror movies. I wrote the scares same as I would for an adult reader, figuring it’s better to be too scary than not scary enough and that Disney could pull them back if needed. But they never touched the scare sequences! I’m already hearing they’re giving readers nightmares, which makes me super happy.
Nerds and Beyond: Disney is unique in that fans already know of Ursula. Was it challenging to write about an already existing character?
Vera Strange: Challenging—but a fun challenge! I loved the idea of getting to add to Disney canon and bring these villains to life in a brand new context. We’ve really never seen them in the contemporary world. That’s a new twist! Plus, fans associate Disney with happy endings. I really wanted to change that. I think I succeeded. Nothing good happens in the end of Disney Chills!
Nerds and Beyond: How did you decide what to include from Disney’s existing stories with the sea witch?
Vera Strange: Firstly, I wanted to capture Ursula’s personality and use imagery and elements that would be spooky and ethereal. I also had to include Flotsam and Jetsam, her creepy eel cohorts. The yellow eyes are so freaky. I love the image of them popping up in the ocean with one glowing yellow eye each. I focus on the villain stuff. I do also reference the Poor Unfortunate Souls (how could I not?). They’re one of the creepiest elements of the original movie. They try to warn Shelly, but she doesn’t listen, of course.
Nerds and Beyond: I especially enjoyed the scene of Shelly and the gang sneaking into a college library to do research on the local myth. What were your own research methods and is Ursula’s myth based on an actual local legend/myth?
Vera Strange: In all truth, I made that all up (ha). But I guess, that’s my job. I love crafting intriguing backstories and mythology. Ever since my Continuum Trilogy, I’ve been known for my complex world-building. It’s nerdy, but I adore doing it and find it super challenging. I’m glad you loved that set piece! It was one of my favorite to write. I love it, too.
Nerds and Beyond: Was Shelly inspired by Ariel at all? She is a very compelling protagonist!
Vera Strange: I think Shelly is actually a bit more worldly in some ways than Ariel. But I wanted her to have a true love of the ocean and sea creatures, which she shares with Ariel. It’s interesting though. Ariel is fascinated by the surface world, while Shelly lives on the surface but is fascinated by Ariel’s underwater world. It’s kind of the reverse, but a similar longing. Shelly also experiences a reverse curse kind of. Ariel gets legs and goes on land. I won’t spoil what happens to Shelly—but she does get to experience the ocean!
Nerds and Beyond: What is your favorite scene from the book?
Vera Strange: I love the first time Shelly visits Ursula’s underwater lair. I also adore some of the scare sequences (which I don’t want to spoil). The library research trip you mentioned was so fun. I’m a big nerd for libraries. And I love the ending! In fact, that’s a big thing with Disney Chills. I love all of the endings so much!
Nerds and Beyond: Part of Your Nightmare just released, but you’ve shared that you are already working on book four with five planned. Do you have a favorite villain and protagonist so far and why are they your favorite?
Vera Strange: Actually Book #4 is finished and off to the copyeditor! I’m about to start drafting the fifth book. I just broke the story and writing it up for approval. Books 4 and 5 are timed to coincide with new Disney live action movies next year. It’s so hard to choose, but my favorite so far is Captain Hook. It’s called Second Star to the Fright and comes out in January 2021. I think it’s already up for preorder. I’m a huge Peter Pan fan, so to get to add to that canon was special. It’s also the first book that was entirely my original story (as opposed to a collaboration).
Nerds and Beyond: Your next book, Fiends on the Other Side, focuses on Dr. Facilier. How was it switching from writing a small oceanside town to bustling New Orleans? The voices and settings must be very different.
Vera Strange: One of the things I most love about Disney Chills is how different each book is! They’re all standalone with new characters and settings inspired by the villain. I love that we go from the quaint seaside (fictional) town of Triton Bay to the bustling, culturally-rich historical city of New Orleans. It does require more work on my end to break each book, channel the villain’s voice and characteristics, plus the themes from the original stories. I do think this will keep the series fresh, hopefully for many more books. I’d love to do more villains.
Nerds and Beyond: We have to ask, how were the final titles chosen? Part of Your Nightmare, Fiends on the Other Side, Second Star on the Fright… they are all excellent!
Vera Strange: Disney loves their puns! Honestly, those come from Disney. But I love how playful they are and invoke spooky elements, but riff on the original stories. They make me smile. The covers are also outstanding. Disney has the best artists. I just saw the French covers for the first two books (out in France in October) and they’re gorgeous, too.
Nerds and Beyond: If given the opportunity do you think you’ll continue the series beyond book five?
Vera Strange: Yes, I would love to write more Disney Chills books. Disney has the best villains, and there are more that I’d love to tackle in new books. Hopefully, they’ll extend the series. The reader response has been super positive so far. I’d love to see it continue for more books like Serena Valentino’s amazing Villains series. She’s the best!
What do you hope young readers will take away from Part of Your Nightmare?
Vera Strange: Nightmares.
Part of Your Nightmare is available now from your local bookstore or online now! Fans can also preorder the next two books in the series, Fiends on the Other Side and Second Star to the Fright.