As Disney continues to release new, updated stories on some of their fan favorite characters, City of Villains takes a fresh and unique approach to revamping the Disney villains origin stories. Just teenagers, Mary Elizabeth and her group if friends including James, Ursula, and Smee are surviving in the aftermath of the death of magic. Living in an area called the Scar, Mary must investigate the disappearance of her schoolmates while struggling to balance her ambitions to be a detective with her loyalty to the Scar. It’s a riveting tale, and we were lucky enough to sit down with author Estelle Laure and discuss some of the elements of City of Villains!
Nerds and Beyond: First off, congratulations on City of Villains, it’s a fantastic book! Tell us a little about how the idea for this trilogy came about.
Estelle Laure: THANK YOU! This is an intellectual property project I auditioned for a few years ago. I was originally going to audition for a princess retelling, but when my editor-to-be read THIS RAGING LIGHT she came back to me with this concept, which was just strange and cool and compelling enough for me to want immediately to do it. Villains? Something a little noir? Kidnapping? Yes! Very, very badly I wanted to do it. It was incredibly broad as a concept, but then the world began to unfold and the characters came to life right away, which is how I knew I was the correct person for it. I thought about what this world would look like and how the villains might be as teenagers and the whole thing evolved from there.
Nerds and Beyond: Did you always aspire to write a story involving Disney characters?
Estelle Laure: I hardly dared to hope, but when I heard Disney had this initiative of updating and reimagining their characters, I asked my agent to please keep her ears peeled. From that point I was completely fixated on the idea. At the risk of sounding ooky, it felt like my destiny.
Nerds and Beyond: What was your research process like once you knew you’d be writing City of Villains?
Estelle Laure: Thank goodness for Disney Wiki Fandom! To start, I rewatched every movie with any character I thought of using. I looked at some of the more modern interpretations on TV, and then I hit the fandom pages for any quotes, traits, or “Easter eggs” I might be able to use. I also felt like I needed to modernize their looks, so there was a big focus on that piece for me (plus it was super fun). Ultimately though, I really wanted them to feel fresh and original and really like teenagers while also respecting their legacies.
Nerds and Beyond: There are so many Disney villains out there to choose from; how did you decide on Mary Elizabeth as your heroine and what to bring into her story?
Estelle Laure: There are so many reasons, but mainly I needed a fiery, courageous character whose main flaw would be her tendency to be impulsive with an unreasonable emphasis on loyalty. Also mirror magic, things feeling like dreams, portals, and magic being in part controlled based on temper made her the obvious choice. Those are all things that get touched on but not fully developed in the first book, but they come into more significant play as we move on.
Nerds and Beyond: We also meet James, Ursula, and Mally, all spins on Disney villains fans are already familiar with, but much younger and before they have the classic “villain” characteristics. How did you balance keeping the core elements of the characters while also putting your own twist on them?
Estelle Laure: That’s a really good question. Giving them backstories that made sense to me and letting them have some of the characteristics they have as villains really helped. I wanted them to feel three-dimensional and like real people. So Mally is mean, Ursula is naughty, Hook is running a gang… you know, there are traces of who we’ve always known them to be, but now they have urban, relatable origins too. As long as I know what I’m working with I approach pretty intuitively and follow my gut about what they say, etc. At some point they do become larger than life, of course, but the balance lies in deep understanding. That said, this is very different from an introspective, internal story. This one moves fast and should be lots of fun to read.
Nerds and Beyond: Was there any particular character you really enjoyed writing?
Estelle Laure: That’s like making me choose between my kids. I love all of them, honestly. I do think Ursula is especially fun because she’s always up to no good and even as a teen she’s low-key blackmailing people all the time and definitely says what everyone else is thinking. When it comes to writing dialogue, she’s probably the most fun, but they’re all a blast.
Nerds and Beyond: Mary Elizabeth struggles with her trauma and there are elements of mental health laced throughout the story. Was that an important element you wanted to include or did that happen later in the writing process as her character developed?
Estelle Laure: For Mary in particular, it’s very important that she be fractured from the beginning because the plot is built on her two sides disagreeing with each other. There’s the part that is loyal to the Scar and her friends and the part that’s loyal to the chief and her ambitions of eventually becoming a detective. Coupled with her childhood trauma, she’s going to be a somewhat unstable person. I would argue that almost every teenager deals with some difficulty like anxiety or situational depression at a minimum. It’s part of growing up and inheriting a world we didn’t make. I think it’s only honest to include elements of mental health challenges in any story about teenagers, but in this case it is something I built into the character from the beginning because I need her to be on very uncertain ground. In fact, I toned it way down from where I started.
Nerds and Beyond: I’m a big true crime fan and I loved the crime elements as Mary Elizabeth works with the police to try and solve these disappearances and ultimately help the Scar. Can you tell us about including those elements in the story and where the inspiration came from?
Estelle Laure: I am a HUGE true crime fan (high five). I listen to podcasts constantly and have watched Forensic Files as comfort TV for as long as I can remember, because the bad guy always gets caught. I’m the first person to jump for any new Netflix documentary, too. I think the psychology behind it is fascinating. What makes people snap? How does sociopathy work? What constitutes insanity? I’m terrified by all of it, so I think looking at it square makes me feel better. I also think it’s important to acknowledge victims and learn their stories. I always say if I hadn’t been a writer I would have been in forensic psychology. That’s part of why this felt like a natural fit for me. I know how the investigative rabbit hole tends to unfold, and I know how frustrated and vulnerable detectives feel when they’re chasing someone who is actively hurting people. The stakes are high and the hours are long, sometimes for months or even years, so building that in was incredibly satisfying. I would hear something in a podcast and go, oh yes, THAT! I just watched the Night Stalker documentary and pulled a couple of things from that one for the second book. Unfortunately, inspiration is everywhere.
Nerds and Beyond: The world building elements are incredible, and it feels like there is still so much to learn about the Scar and magic. Were there any challenges to working with such a rich story where anything is possible?
Estelle Laure: Yes. I had to make rules for myself. I was fortunate enough to really have free reign in my creation of the Scar. Places like Miracle Lake and the Evergarden were so much fun to develop, and you’re right, since magic is dead at the outset except for a few places, there is a lot that needs to be unfurled. The main thing was to figure out magic’s personality. Why did it leave? How does it feel? By making magic its own character, I was able to make decisions about its functions and limitations. It’s been excellent developing all the powers and thinking about what works with everyone’s personalities. I have the best job!
Nerds and Beyond: There are also a lot of smaller Disney references for fans to enjoy. Were there certain Disney movies and/or characters that are near and dear to your heart that you knew you had to include?
Estelle Laure: Maleficent FOR SURE. Captain Hook and then of course Smee. Mary’s alter ego, which is a spoiler, and then a few more that are going to come more into play as we go on. Ursula was part of the original idea and I’m so glad, because she is a delight. On the non-villain side I’ve always related to Bella the most so she had to be in there. As far as the movies, I tried to put in something from every movie I pulled a character from.
Nerds and Beyond: We have to talk about that gorgeous cover! Were the gothic/noir vibes intentional and how did you settle on this style?
Estelle Laure: Yes. I think we always wanted this book to appeal to fans of graphic novels, mysteries, procedurals, and we wanted it to be clear that this isn’t a totally innocent, young book either. It has some teeth and we needed something to reflect that. I freaked when I saw the final product. It’s perfect.
Nerds and Beyond: Book 1 is all about Mary Elizabeth’s struggle between her head and her heart; what can we expect for her in the coming sequel?
Estelle Laure: Now we’re stepping into a broader context in terms of what’s going on in the Scar and Monarch as a whole and her main struggle is about whether and how to integrate the pieces of herself that are threatening to rip her in two.
Nerds and Beyond: Without spoilers of course, will we meet any new teenage Disney villains?
Estelle Laure: Jasmine and Aladdin will be players in the second book, I can tell you that much. I think you can look forward to a pretty massive cast in the third book, because you know… IT’LL BE BOOK THREE!
Nerds and Beyond: Lastly, what do you hope your readers will take away from City of Villains?
Estelle Laure: I hope they’ll take away that no matter what life throws at you, you can always rise to it and then chase it and beat it down until it stops moving. Wait… I mean hope. I want them to take away hope and a little magic!
City of Villains will be available both in stores and online January 26.