Maureen Johnson shares what it’s like to write a book about an iconic character – Cruella de Vil!

This May, the notorious fashionista Cruella de Vil is getting the origin story treatment with the live-action Cruella.  But what happens before the movie? Inspired by Cruella, Maureen Johnson’s Hello, Cruel Heart follows 16-year-old Estella — an ambitious, aspiring fashion designer who runs heists throughout 1967 London with her loyal accomplices. After a serendipitous run-in with posh socialites, she finds herself thrust into high society and living the fashionable life she’s always dreamed. But what will it cost to keep up with the rich and fabulous?

Maureen Johnson is the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of many YA novels, including 13 Little Blue EnvelopesSuite ScarlettThe Name of the Star, and the Truly Devious series.She has also done collaborative works such as The Bane Chronicles(with Cassandra Clare and Sarah Rees Brennan) and Let It Snow (with John Green and Lauren Myracle), which is now a Netflix movie. Check out YEM’s exclusive interview with Maureen Johnson here!

Young Entertainment Mag: Has being an author always been something you aspired to be?

Maureen Johnson: Oh yes. Ever since I was a little kid. I have no other skills.

YEM: What are some tips you have for young writers starting out?

Maureen: Don’t worry about being published—don’t even think about it. Don’t worry about being “bad” at writing. If you want to learn how to write, you have to do the learning, which means trying things out and learning how your voice sounds, how story works, how to edit, how to listen. It takes time! So just do your thing and don’t worry!

YEM: What kind of research did you have to do for this book in terms of both the character of Cruella de Vil and the setting of 1960’s London?

Maureen: 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.

YEM: What are your favorite types of characters to write about?

Maureen: I don’t think I have favorites. You have to find a way in to every character, so you end up having feelings about them all.

YEM: When did you start writing Hello, Cruel Heart?

Maureen: At the very start of the pandemic. I live in New York City, so things were bad here. I was inside all of the time, so it was nice to time travel to London in 1967.

YEM: What do you hope your readers take away from this book?

Maureen: A sense that they’ve been to London during a wild summer. The music, the fashions, the feeling in the air.

YEM: If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?

Maureen: Strangely, keep doing what you’re doing. We learn how to write by writing and messing around, and that was what I was up to.

YEM: What is your schedule like when you’re writing a book?

Maureen: It varies wildly, depending on where I am in the process. The start of a book is usually looser, as I’m looking around for the material, testing some things out, putting some things down and working out what the story will be. The further in you go, the more you know where you are and what you’re making. With Hello, Cruel Heart, things actually went pretty quickly as I’ve been doing research on this book all my life, so I was pouring out accumulated ideas. When the writing really gets going, the days get pretty long. I usually pass out at the finish line as I hand it over.

Emma Stone as Estella in Disney’s live-action CRUELLA. Photo by Laurie Sparham. © 2021 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

YEM: What should fans of Maureen look forward to in the future?

Maureen: I have two other books coming out this year. The first is The Box in the Woods, which is a Stevie Bell Mystery. That comes out on June 15th. The second is called Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village, which is exactly what the title says it is. That comes out on September 14th.

Please find Maureen’s HELLO CRUEL HEART at any online or local book seller.

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