Written by bestselling author Maureen Johnson, Hello, Cruel Heart centers on a teenage Estella, Cruella de Vil before she becomes the 1970’s Cruella we’ll see in the upcoming live-action film, Cruella. Set in the summertime of 1967 London, the book follows 16-year-old Estella who wants nothing more than to become a fashion designer for all of London’s elite. She’s young, ambitious, and full of talent. Estella finds herself a petty criminal, stealing to survive with her makeshift family, including Jasper and Horace who she meets upon her arrival in the big city. After a run-in with a few of London’s elite, Estella must learn to navigate the world of upper society. We sat down with Johnson to discuss bringing Estella to life and adapting the Cruella we all know into this new, exciting novel!
Nerds and Beyond: First off, congratulations on the launch of Hello, Cruel Heart. It’s a great read with really vivid storytelling! Tell me a little about the beginning stages of research and story planning.
Johnson: It started with reading and absorbing all the story information I had about Cruella, the movie. I got to see the character as she would appear and know what she would become in the events following Hello, Cruel Heart. I also went to two other Dodie Smith books: The Starlight Barking and I Capture the Castle. The Starlight Barking is an incredibly strange and fun book where all humans fall asleep and only animals are awake. A space dog grants them magical powers and offers them an opportunity to come into the stars with him. Cruella is in that book, but she is asleep. It’s kind of great, but it’s really not what you might expect. I Capture the Castle is just one of the best teen novels ever, and everyone should read it. It has nothing to do with Cruella—it’s just great, and it has the highs and lows of being a teenager. It’s also very funny. I had some story points and tonal notes from those—and from there, I went off on my own!
Nerds and Beyond: Everything takes place in the late 60s. What elements from that time period did you know immediately you’d be including in Estella’s story?
Johnson: I knew a genuinely embarrassing amount. I’m obsessed with late 60s London and I always have been. Always. So I was ready to write this book. It’s possible that I have never been more ready to do anything. So I was able to pour in so many things I loved into the story in detail—things like the design collective, The Fool, who worked with the Beatles and ran around London in rainbow colored capes, painting murals, playing flutes, and making the wildest clothes anyone had ever seen. All the music that came out of London at the time. All the art. All the colors. The mysterious boutiques with the painted over windows. And while that was going on, the same London was full of crime, of buildings still damaged by the war. I put Estella right in the middle of it all—the rock music, the hideouts in the rubble, the gangs of thieves, and the revolutionary fashion.
Nerds and Beyond: Music is a huge part of the book, from the parties centered around music to her interactions with The Electric Teacup. Did you know early on that you wanted music to be a big aspect?
Johnson: Oh yes. It started with the music for me.
Nerds and Beyond: Estella is focused on jumpstarting her fashion career. How was it to write those quirky fashion designs of hers? They all sound so uniquely glamorous!
Johnson: It’s all based on real fashions from that time. It’s hard to overstate how wild they were.
Nerds and Beyond: We see some familiar faces. Did you know right away you wanted to pull in characters like Jasper and Horace for Estella’s story?
Johnson: Well, I knew what happened in Cruella—I know what role they play in that. They are very much Cruella’s brothers, her closest friends.
Nerds and Beyond: The Cruella we know seems to really have no moral compass, but Estella very much does. Was it difficult to strike that balance between Cruella and Estella?
Johnson: Cruella is the voice inside Estella’s head that tells her not to trust other people. It’s a voice of fear, and it grows more malignant with time.
Nerds and Beyond: Did you have a favorite character to write other than Estella?
Johnson: There are two characters called Magda and Richard who come into Estella’s life. They’re a pair of siblings, very rich, very connected. I was able to pour a lot of specific things I knew about London at the time into them. I don’t want to reveal what they ultimately get up to, but they were a lot of fun for me.
Nerds and Beyond: What do you hope readers will take away from Hello, Cruel Heart?
Johnson: A trip to the streets of Swinging London — the music, the fashion, the fun.
Hello, Cruel Heart is available online and at your local bookstore now!