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Disney Gets Spooky: Disney Chills Series Interview with author Jennifer Brody

Are you ready to be spooked… Disney style?

Some months ago we published our review of Part of Your Nightmare – the first book in the Disney Chills series – by Vera Strange. 

To celebrate the release of Part of Your Nightmare this week, we caught up with the clever author herself, Jennifer Brody, aka Vera Strange, and spoke about Hollywood, spooky stories, Disney villains and all things in between…

Jennifer, thanks for chatting with us at The Disney Blog!

Jennifer: I’m so honored to be here chatting today! And so excited that our spooky little series is finally coming out in the world.

From Harvard to Hollywood to a MG Disney series, you have had an exciting career! Tell us a bit about how you got to this point and what you have learned along the way.

Jennifer: I’ve always loved telling stories across multiple platforms—film, TV, books and more. Actually, I didn’t plan to become a writer. I studied film at Harvard and moved to Hollywood, starting in the assistant trenches. Interestingly, my first internship was for a production company on the Disney Lot in the Old Animation building. The company was in production on a little movie called … Donnie Darko. Eventually, I worked at New Line and my boss made The Lord of the Rings, The Golden Compass and more. It was a dream come true. I loved my work, but found myself wanting to tell my own stories. 

But there was a hitch—I wanted to write books more than scripts. So, I started teaching myself out to write novels. The result was a little book called The 13th Continuum that went on to publish and become an epic trilogy. That started me on a publishing journey. Now, we’re pitching that trilogy as a TV show. I’m also writing two series of graphic novels. My debut Spectre Deep 6 came out this spring … and of course Disney Chills!

Mostly, I’ve learned to write what you love and go after your dreams. Don’t take no for an answer. Seek out great mentors. Learn as much as you can along the way. Persistence is key and believing in your work. Never forget that one single reader is everything.

There are some great lessons in there for us. Thank you!

You are publishing your Disney Chills books under the pseudonym ‘Vera Strange.’ You have published other works under ‘Jennifer Brody.’ Can you tell us a little bit about how this decision came about? 

Jennifer: I consulted with Disney on all aspects on this series. We decided that it would be fun for the younger readers to have a pen name where they would wonder … who is Vera Strange? That’s still an age where they can suspect disbelief. Of course, we wanted it to sound creepy, too. That would help set the tone for the series. 

Have you always been a Disney fan? 

Jennifer: Always. Who isn’t? My grandfather actually consulted with Walt Disney himself on the classical music for Fantasia back in the day. I grew up watching all the old Disney movies, some with him like Fantasia, Bambi, and Sleeping Beauty, which was my always favorite. I probably watched it a hundred plus times! We also had the Disney Channel, which I watched nonstop. Then came The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast. Those films all blew my mind as a kid. It’s an honor to write classic Disney characters and bring them to life in a next context. 

Tell us about your Disney Chills series. Where did it all start and what is the collaborative process like working with Disney? How is it different from previous writing jobs?

Jennifer: I absolutely love working with Disney on this series! It all started with an editor who know some of my author friends. The children’s writing community is a small one. He approached me with the idea for the series and thought I’d be a perfect fit., I think he was right! I loved the idea from the beginning. I chose to write Ursula for the first book because she’s the best! For the first two books, Disney had a short pitch for the concept. But starting with the third book about Captain Hook, I started pitching my ideas for stories. I do work closely with my editor on all aspects and usually write an outline. I’d say the process is a bit more collaborative and reminds me of Hollywood a lot. But I love collaborating—a great editor will always make your work better. That’s the case here.

The series has been described as Disney’s version of Goosebumps (by R. L. Stine). How would you describe it?

Jennifer: Ha, that’s how I describe it! Disney meets Goosebumps. But I would like to think that our series has its own style and preoccupations. As a kid, I was obsessed with the original Brothers Grimm tales. There’s also great history of creepy books for middle grade readers. I loved Christopher Pike and V.C. Andrews, then later Anne Rice, Stephen King, and Clive Barker, who are all huge influences. Additionally, I’m a huge horror buff and worked on a lot of horror movies, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake and Freddy vs. Jason. I’d like to think I brought a lot of what I learned to writing this series.

Three books in the series are currently available for preorder: Part of Your Nightmare (based on Ursula), Fiends on the Other Side (based on Dr. Facilier/Shadow Man) and Second Star to the Fright (based on Captain Hook). Did you choose these villains?

Jennifer: It’s a mix! I chose Ursula because she’s amazing. She’s a sea witch. She’s a diva. She wears make-up underwater. She’s so extra, and I love it. I love villains with personality. Personality goes a long way! Disney requested Dr. Facilier/The Shadow Man for the second book, but I was very down to write him. He’s easily one of the best newer villains in the Disney canon. He’s a witch doctor with a backdrop of New Orleans and voodoo. Plus, now I know that they’re redoing Splash Mountain to have a Disney’s The Princess and the Frog theme, so I’m guessing that’s a factor in the decision. The third book went a little different. Disney gave a list of some ideas, but I hit them back to ask what villains were popular with this age range. The answer was … Captain Hook. I guess, Jake and the Neverland Pirates was big when these readers were kids. 

We really love the titles, by the way. Nailed it!

Jennifer: Disney loves their puns! My favorite so far is Second Star to the Fright. It makes me so happy. Glad they resonate. 

How did you pick and choose what to include from Disney canon and what to leave behind?

Jennifer: My stories are focused on villains, and their counterparts such as Ursula’s sea eels Flotsam and Jetsam and Dr. Facilier’s “friends” from the other side. Before each book, I do an intensive rewatch to channel the villains’ voices and characteristics. It’s like doing an impression. I need to get the brushstrokes of catchphrases, cadence, how they talk. Disney really does have the best villains! They’re all so distinctive with fantastic personalities and worlds. I also try to adhere to the core central themes of the original stories and transport that into these new stories that take place in contemporary settings.

Ursula, Shadow Man and Hook are traditionally up against some iconic Disney heroes and heroines: Ariel, Tiana and Peter Pan (and Wendy). What was your process for crafting new, equally compelling protagonists?

Jennifer: As mentioned in the last question, I try to stay true to the themes of the original story even when crafting a new modern protagonist. Furthermore, I try to write complex characters with depth, strengths and weaknesses. Every book also does have a core lesson. Horror always revolves around a transgression. The protagonist makes a mistake or does something that they know is wrong but for compelling reasons. That then invites in the horror … triggering the villains to come after them. 

Was Shelly, Jamal, or any of your characters inspired by anyone in particular?

Jennifer: I think we’re always inspired by the people in our lives, even as we’re crafting fictional protagonists. For these kids, I definitely try to remember my middle school experience and channel all the angst of those tween years into these characters. 

Who is your favorite character from the books and why?

Jennifer: Aside from the villains—who are really a great focus of the books—I love Shelly and Enrique and their friendship in Part of Your Nightmare. Her annoying little brother Dawson is also really fun. I grew up with two younger brothers, so I know what that’s like. But each book has unique characters that I love for different reasons. 

There are many significant themes readers may reflect on in the series including peer pressure, popularity, deal-making and its associated risks, righting wrongs, and the importance of friends and family. What themes or lessons were particularly important to you such that you felt compelled to include them?

Jennifer: Yes, I wanted to tackle real issues that kids face even while writing a fun, creepy horror story. I hope by addressing these central ideas—even things like parents splitting up, feeling jealous of your sibling—that kids would relate and feel less alone. This year (2020) has been especially challenging. Books helps us cope in hard times. They can provide a roadmap. And they can warn us about bad decisions to avoid.

Which of the three stories did you have the most fun writing and why?

Jennifer: Candidly, I LOVED writing Second Star to the Fright. I’d always wanted to write a pirate book. Also, getting the chance to add to the Peter Pan canon was such an honor and joy. I also love the theme about … a boy who doesn’t want to grow up. Because that’s so relatable. And what else can a Peter Pan story be about?

Which was the most challenging and why?

Jennifer: They’re all challenging in different ways! The first one was hard because I was breaking the entire tone and POV for the Disney Chills series. The first book sets the series into motion. Each book is a whole new story! And always, it feels like the one I just finished was the hardest, ha! The fourth book is actually finished, and right now I’m working on breaking the fifth book already (we haven’t announced the villains yet). It’s pretty amazing to already be greenlit on a fifth book when we’re just publishing the first, but Disney has been so supportive of my series from eh beginning. I feel very lucky.

What resources did you look to for inspiration in writing the series?

Jennifer: Aside from the original Disney films, of course, I looked to a lot of the horror movies and books I loved, especially those that I worked on. The original Brothers Grimm fairytales. I wrote the scares to be really scary, even though the book is for younger readers. It’s always better to be too scary, then pull it back, rather than not scary enough. Luckily, Disney never pulled back any of my scares! The endings are also super dark and mentally creepy in a way that I hope leaves readers chilled

Can we look forward to more books in the series? If so, can you give us any hints about what villains might come next?

Jennifer: Yes, as I mentioned, I’m already penning the fifth book in the Disney Chills series. The fourth book is off to the races! Just finished the revision two weeks ago. I’ll give a hint … these might relate to some new movies Disney has coming next year. Beyond the fifth book, I really hope we extend the series. There are so many more villains that I’d love the opportunity to bring to life in this new, creepy context. 

What do you ultimately hope readers get out of Disney Chills?

Jennifer: Nightmares.

A big thanks to Jennifer for spending this quality time with The Disney Blog. You can pre-order the first three books in the Disney Chills series right now on Amazon where a portion of your purchase price will help support The Disney Blog. Thank you.