After six glorious seasons of Once Upon A Time, I realized how enamored I was with reimagining Disney characters. There was something so intriguing and captivating about rewriting the classic stories with more depth, giving life to characters that became frozen in roles of just princess or evil villain.
Even though Once Upon A Time ended a few years ago, authors like Estelle Laure are doing amazing work by taking our favorite characters and giving them new stories, making us fall in love with them all over again.
Her new book, City of Villains, out now from Disney-Hyperion reintroduces readers to young Ursula, Maleficent and Captain Hook. Like Riverdale’s gritty reimagining of the Archie comics, this combines noir and crime thriller with all fun Disney magic and nods to the world we all grew up loving.
Read on for our interview with Estelle where we discuss why she chose these villains for her first book, how true crime inspired her and how she gets her ideas!
Your latest novel, City of Villains, reimagines the origins for infamous Disney villains such as Captain Hook, Maleficent, Ursula and the Queen of Hearts—what was it about these specific characters that made you want to focus on them?
My own personal taste, I suppose. For me, making Ursula into a believable teenager made more sense than Mother Gothel. I reached back for the classics that might be ripe for an update, because some of the newer ones felt too close in our recent cultural history. No one needs a new hot take on Elsa. I don’t think we’re there yet. And Maleficent? Well, I couldn’t resist. Still, by the end of book three my hope is Disney fans will have at least caught glimpses of their preferred villains.
Did you draw on any other reimaginings or depictions of these characters—like Once Upon A Time or previous Disney novels—or did you start completely fresh?
I did watch Once Upon a Time when it was on, so I’m sure it subconsciously leaked in somewhere—like Hook is real good looking in that show and also in my book— but I really tried to stay pure to the vision for this series as a complete reimagining of those characters with just enough of the recognizable personalities and “Easter eggs” to keep fans happy. What I did do was spend a lot of time on fandom pages gathering as much information as I could. I reread Alice in Wonderland and anything else I could get my hands on because I wanted to create really dimensional characters while still making them larger than life. It was a fun process, but I’m fully aware that any new interpretation is likely to be polarizing.
City of Villains is a great mix of gritty mystery and Disney magic—a combination that seems antithetical—what was it like balancing that?
The thing my editor kept telling me is just because it’s a mystery/procedural doesn’t mean we want to leave out the wonder. Every villain has a huge moment at the end of their movie just before they’re vanquished, and that’s still something that needs to be there in this series. It still needs to feel like there’s fairy dust on it and that those big moments are happening. I basically tried to weave both threads at the same time, making sure there was never too much space between magical incidents. It was a little bit of a tightrope act, but this being the first in a series, I’m really excited about where it’s going.
In your bio and previous interviews you mention that you’re a True Crime fan and like to be scared. What is it about the genre that interests you and do you have any recommendations for readers who might be interested in getting into True Crime?
Oh, this is a good question. I am first and foremost fascinated by the psychology of perpetrators. It amazes me over and over to find out how cowardly many of them turn out to be when they’re discovered. I have this need to understand the nature of evil because I think it’s very tricky. I’m riveted by good detective work and I also think true crime stories are great places to pick up information about narcissism and psychopathy as a writer. I have SO MANY REASONS. As far as true crime goes, even though there’s far too much of scantily clad women, I love Forensic Files because the bad guy is always caught. It’s like the cotton candy of true crime. The Night Stalker documentary has some of the best detective work I’ve ever seen, plus a great capture; Amanda Knox; Kidnapped in Plain Sight; Mommy Dead and Dearest, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. So many.
For podcasts, I love My Favorite Murder, True Crime Garage, Jensen & Holes and more in-depth series like Serial, Slow Burn, Someone Knows Something, Embedded, Accused. There are so many really great ones. I love Ann Rule’s books, but mostly stick to video and audio. When I read Helter Skelter as a teenager I got so scared I couldn’t go up the stairs in the house to get to the bedroom. I was frozen in place. I’m careful now since books seem to infiltrate deeper parts of my psyche. I do like to be scared by fake horror movies, but when true crime terrifies me I make myself take a break. I sometimes cannot believe what human beings are capable of.
From contemporary YA fiction, speculative fiction, picture books and now a Disney Villain novel, you’ve written across age groups and genres, how do you get your ideas? And how do you decide what to focus on next?
I always have this fear that I’m going to wake up one day with no next story and just be blank, but I’m fortunate that hasn’t happened yet. I try to keep myself curious and inspired and open to that moment of magic where an idea comes and plants itself.
Fans of the book will love to hear that it’s the first in a trilogy. While we wait, what do you recommend we read next?
The last two books I absolutely loved were Fable by Adrienne Young and Lore by Alexandra Bracken. If you’re into adventure and extremely interesting main characters, I feel completely confident in those recommendations.
City of Villains by Estelle Laure was released on Jan. 26, 2021.