One of my favorite reads this summer has been The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg. I was given the amazing opportunity to interview her at this years San Diego Comic Con. Here is a description of the book and my spoiler free interview. Enjoy!
Welcome to the Kingdom… where ‘Happily Ever After’ isn’t just a promise, but a rule.
Glimmering like a jewel behind its gateway, The Kingdom is an immersive fantasy theme park where guests soar on virtual dragons, castles loom like giants, and bioengineered species–formerly extinct–roam free.
Ana is one of seven Fantasists, beautiful “princesses” engineered to make dreams come true. When she meets park employee Owen, Ana begins to experience emotions beyond her programming including, for the first time… love.
But the fairytale becomes a nightmare when Ana is accused of murdering Owen, igniting the trial of the century. Through courtroom testimony, interviews, and Ana’s memories of Owen, emerges a tale of love, lies, and cruelty–and what it truly means to be human.
- Throughout The Kingdom, you list a few authors. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Maya Angelou, and Tolstoy.
Are they some of your favorite authors and how have they inspired your writing?
Growing up I was very obsessed with Jane Austen and so many classic writers. I think that the books that you read when you are 11,12, 13 or so; you know its such a formative time so they become like real people and their worlds feel so real and kind of an escape. So I think in the book its kind of the same for Ana as shes downloading all these classic stories and they offer her an escape. It’s her way of not having to be this perfect girl, she gets a quiet moment she can run away with these other characters.
2. You built an amazing fantasy world in this novel, has fantasy always been the direction you wanted to write and when did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I love fantasy, I always have. For me its really more about the story and sort of the particulars of that story. So I don’t really think about writing to a
certain genre its more about the characters and whats going to happen to them. My first book was a contemporary romance with a supernatural twist
and this is obviously a mashup of Scifi, Fantasy, Crime Thriller and Romance. So we’ll see where we go next book by book.
3. Different books are also mentioned throughout, Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karina and even The Nutcracker play. How much of an influence did they play while you were writing this novel?
The fantasist are created to mirror humans. In order to do that really well they have to know everything about the worlds different cultures. They have to download classic literature, languages, math, science and history. So I think it was interesting to think about what would they need to know in order to do their jobs efficiently. Also what was interesting to me for that was watching the ways they internalized the characters, Eve has an obsession with Anna Karina. Anna has a tendency to go back to Romeo and Juliet and kind of see the world thru that lens. I liked watching them internalize things kind of in a way even their programmers wouldn’t expect and taking them in some ways to a darker, even tragic place.
4. With the way the sisters collected items from the outside world and there being mermaid performances, was The Little Mermaid also an influence?
Definitely! I love the little mermaid, I always have. I’m really excited for the new one they have coming out in the next few years. The casting is awesome!! I wanted to be a mermaid my whole life, when I was a little kid I would hold my breathe under water and try to swim out as far as I could and my parents would be like ‘Enough!’ I think in terms of character stuff Anna and Ariel do share some similarities. They both have an adventurous spirit, Anna like Ariel, is sort of fascinated by the human world but knows as much as she can perform it, she knows she can never be a part of it and I think that is really hard for her to process. So The Little Mermaid wasn’t like a huge influence, but it definitely played a part.
5. I read that the idea for The Kingdom came from stories your mother used to tell you about the summer she spent working at Disney World. Do you find yourself visiting other theme parks and attractions and wonder what kind of things are going on behind the scenes there?
Having grown up hearing my mom tell stories about the real life of what goes on at Disneyworld and when she worked there it was the 1970s,
so the park was brand new. But things were very different. There were lots of drugs flying around, there was a lot of sexual harassment and divas.
There was a period where Tweedle Dee wouldn’t leave her alone. But they would also get to ride the rides till dawn, play manhunt in the castle
and stuff like that which was so cool. So yeah anytime I go to a theme park, I’m always looking around and wandering what do they really do here. What’s it really like to work here. Who’s getting along, who’s not. And in The Kingdom, the fantasy is so beautiful and glittering on the surface but there are so many cracks and there’s rot seeping in. Like whats really going on? I always think about peoples motivation about wanting to escape reality and like why? And Especially if the fantasy is sort of morally ambiguous, what does that say about us and wanting to escape?
6. Were the characters of Ana, her sisters and Owen based on people from your real life?
I think that all writers borrow some things from real life. Change and use pieces of people who they love or don’t love. Pieces of real life always kind
of sneak in. I think Ana definitely has some characteristics that I feel that I have. She’s not based on me at all but I’m a people pleaser, I love animals, and I would rather hang out with animals most of the time. If I’m at a party and there’s a dog at the party, that’s where I am. So we share that and I also feel like as a woman I can relate to that sense of growing up and have to look a certain way or behave a certain way and this sort of performance of being a girl. So I can relate to that, but you know it wasn’t a direct link necessarily to real life. But I got to explore some of my own anxieties through her.
7. The love story between Ana and Owen is pretty unconventional. What made you want to have them fall for each other, versus leaving them as just friends?
I am a hopeless romantic, so I always want there to be a romance in whatever I’m reading or watching. It’s just part of my nature I think and I think for Ana, I really liked the parallel to sort of team this big feeling of first love for a teenager. She’s kind of going thru the same thing she’s evolving from this sort of half human girl, in a way shes like a teenager going thru those emotions for the first time. So I thought that was kind of a fun parallel to explore. Having emotions that are very human like, sometimes the lines become very blurred. So I wanted to explore the love
side even though they are clearly very different, they still have a great connection.
8. I love the format of the story, interviews and court testimony. What inspired you to write it in that format and will you write future novels that way?
I’m a big fan of books that are mixed media that uses different elements to tell a story. Whether it’s photos or letters or trial documents. I didn’t set out
to do that necessarily but because of what the story is, kind of crime thriller, court room aspect. It seemed like a really natural way to allow the reader to feel a part sort of how the trial is unfolding, they get to uncover the clues at the same time thru the different media and I liked being able to bounce around and see it in different views in a unique way. I love court tv and I love crime podcast, so it felt very natural. As for other books, we’ll see.
9. The Kingdom is being described as Westworld meets Disneyland. Are you a fan of the Westworld television series?
So this is question ‘Ive been getting a lot and I feel like I’ve shocked some people with this answer, but I’ve never seen Westworld. And I really want to watch it because I love Evan Rachel Wood and Anthony Hopkins. I love pretty much anything HBO does. But I’ve never seen it. I had been working on this book for like 3 or 4 years and when the show started at first I was like I cant wait to watch it! But then I was like oh wait I better not because I didn’t want to influence my writing so I’m kind of waiting. But now that its out, I think its safe. I have to finish Stranger Things, Big Little Lies Season 2 and then maybe I’ll watch it.
10. In the book, phones are forbidden for the Fantasists, but every where they look in the park, guest always had their noses buried in them. Do you feel that technology really has taken over so much of peoples lives? Do you limit yourself or catch yourself and think ‘Oh, I’ve been on Twitter or Facebook for too long?’
I feel like I’m in the generation that grew up without all this. The internet came out when i was like 12 or 13, I got to be a kid in a world without smart phones and it was really fun. I feel sad that my son won’t really have that. Technology is amazing and has allowed for so many things and keeps people connected, but I do think there is such a dark side to it. It can totally take over your life. I feel like socially, especially for kids, its horrible for their very fragile self-esteem as their developing. Even for adults it can be very harmful. So I try to limit it as much as I can and I certainly try to be careful of it around my son and model not being obsessed with my phone. But we’re all obsessed. It’s gone so far that I don’t think we’re coming back from it. I think its probably going to get worse.
11. What are you currently working on and with the way The Kingdom ended, can we expect a sequel?
I’ve been getting this question a lot and it makes me so happy that people are excited for more in this world. For now the book is a standalone. It was sold as a standalone and I hope the story feels complete. I did my best to make it feel complete but certainly I would be open to do more in this world. We’ll just see what happens, maybe if enough people tweet at me or something ill be inspired to do a prequel or a sequel. But for now, its just a standalone.
Thank you so much to Jess Rothenberg and Macmillan for this great interview! The Kingdom is available for purchase now in book, e-book and audio book format.