Ysabeau Wilce lives a few blocks down from the Chicago bookstore Women and Children First in a neighborhood with enough cafes to keep an army of writers supplied with coffee. There is a Prohibition-era speakeasy in her basement, and an unusually placid border collie asleep in the study where she has been at work completing her second novel, a sequel to her just released debut, Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog.
Wilce, who has a graduate degree in military history, says, 19th-century dime novels always had long titles, such as Red Top Rev: Vigilante Prince, or How He Whipped the Regulators and Saved the World. "I tried very much to write Flora Segunda in the tradition of a dime novel."
Her first novel is an exuberant young adult fantasy set in the city of Califa (which bears, at times, a strong resemblance to an alternate historical version of San Francisco), whose Warlord has made an uneasy truce with the powerful Huitzil Empire. Flora Fyrdraaca, the 14-year-old narrator, a child of a much-decorated military family, longs to flout family tradition and join the Rangers, an elite corps of magic-wielding scouts.
"I come from a military family, and there is a definite caste mentality that I am very familiar and comfortable with. It was natural to make Flora's family a part of that." Speaking about writing more generally, Wilce says, "It's easier sometimes to use real details than to make things up I know an awful lot about 19th-century military culture, and rather than let all that useless knowledge go to waste, I figured I'd recycle it. It's funny for a fantasy writer to say, but I never make anything up when I might be able to use something real."
Wilce, formerly a museum curator, was sitting in on a lecture when the idea for Flora Segunda first came to her. "I was responsible for setup and cleanup at the event, but I didn't have anything to do during the lecture itself. So I was sitting outside the lecture hall, on a bench, bored, and I had a notebook with me. A sentence popped into my head, and I wrote it down." The first draft of Flora Segunda was done in two weeks.
The result is a book that begs to be read aloud, as well as one that should appeal to both teenagers and adult fans of books like M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. As well as a rollicking old-fashioned plot full of pulse-pounding adventure and strong female characters, Wilce's novel offers the enticements of Flora's ancestral home, Crackpot Hall. She gives the 11,000 rooms of the title names like The Hallway of Laborious Desire, The Stairs of Exuberance and The Cloakroom of the Abyss.
"For a few years my family lived in an Elizabethan revival house in Mexico City, of all places. It had a musician's balcony over the great hall-like living room, a full English-style pub and four ramshackle floors. My room was in the garret, at the top of a very narrow set of stairs, and had dormer windows and a slanty ceiling. That house made a pretty big impression on me," Wilce says. "Perhaps because we moved every three years when I was a kid, I'm fascinated by families that have lived in the same house for generations."
When asked where she's lived, Wilce lists San Francisco, Anchorage, Miami, Mexico City, Madrid, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Brooklyn. But she's always brought her books along with her. At present, she's reading Paul Park's A Princess of Roumania, Dorothy Dunnett "for the zillionth time," and Sketches from Texas Siftings. "It's a compilation of comic sketches originally published in a Texas newspaper in the 1880s. Each little essay concerns some aspect of Texas life The Texas Cow, the Pelon Dog, the Typical Texan, etc. They are very funny, plus good research on frontier life. As you can see, I am always reading several things at once. On a good week, I can put away five to eight books. There are a zillion books in the world I hope to get to maybe 10 percent of them before I go to my reward, so I don't waste any time."
As to the early buzz her own book is generating, Wilce says she is surprised and pleased, of course. "I've been working on Flora Segunda for so long that the book had begun to feel like my own private obsession. Now that I've had to let her go out in the cold world alone, it is gratifying to know that there is an interest in Flora and her travails beyond just me!"
Kelly Link is the author of the story collections Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners.