‘Royal Beauty Bright’: Seven Questions with Ryan Byrnes [INTERVIEW]

Ryan Byrnes

Ryan Byrnes wrote his debut novel, Royal Beauty Bright, while he was in high school! (Photo courtesy Ryan Byrnes)

When I finished reading Ryan Byrnes’ new historical novel, Royal Beauty Bright, I was speechless. For such a young writer (he wrote this book in high school), he has penned a story that is by turns heartbreaking, humorous, inspiring, and compelling. As you know, we read a lot of fiction set around World War I, but we seldom encounter characters we enjoy meeting as well as those found here. They make for a brilliant, heartfelt tale that is truly a joy to read. Thus we’re thrilled that he stops by to chat with us about his book, and what comes next. We hope you enjoy this exclusive interview! —J&H


J&H: Until now, you have written fantasy novels for young adults. What compelled you to switch gears with Royal Beauty Bright and write a historical novel about the ravages of World War I? Was it difficult to make the transition?

RB: We are coming up on the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI. To cash in on the buzz, a lot of books and movies are coming out about the destruction of WWI. However, people forget the stunning nonviolence of WWI. It was a war where a German soldier sprinted into an enemy trench just to give them some leftover chocolate cake. It was a war where Brits and Germans would idly chat about sports and politics in between fighting. It was a war where thousands of soldiers from both sides essentially went on strike because they “didn’t feel like fighting.” Massive propaganda machines were invented simply to convince people to fight, because most of them just wanted to live in peace. I think these are the stories we should be telling, to teach people that human decency is much more enduring than we think.

After learning about the Christmas Truce of 1914, when thousands of opposing soldiers dropped their weapons and threw a giant Christmas Party, I couldn’t help but pick up a pen. That’s why I lost interest in the fantasy genre as a high schooler. Fantasy is often caught up in castles and dragons, which I feel can distract from the human heart of a story.

J&H: Luther Baker is a complex character trapped in circumstances beyond his control, despite his disability and simplistic outlook on life. In many ways he is reminiscent of characters like John Coffey from Stephen King’s The Green Mile or Lennie Small from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Did these characters inspire you? And why do you think readers find themselves championing challenged characters like Luther? Was it difficult to write his character in a way that was both realistic and sympathetic?

RB: Luther is very complex. He has encyclopedic knowledge on making chocolate truffles, and he is interviewing to work as a chef. He doesn’t communicate himself in the same way as the people around him and is prone to fits of temper when he feels misunderstood. You mentioned Of Mice and Men, which is among the most memorable stories I’ve read, supremely structured. Of course, you have to consider Of Mice and Men within the context of its time, and Steinbeck is dehumanizing in his depiction of mental illness. Lennie and George did serve as an inspiration for Luther and Jim, although my book has a much happier ending. Lennie is a victim because he is differently abled, while Luther is a hero who happens to be differently abled.

J&H: Jim Baker, Luther’s brother, is in many ways his brother’s keeper and guardian angel. Yet there are times when we as readers also discern that Jim has a certain amount of resentment toward Luther, especially in view of how their individual relationships differ when it comes to their mother. Is it difficult to build this kind of dichotomy between siblings and what most fascinated you about the brother-parent triangle while writing these characters?

RB: Very observant! Jim never received his mother’s attention because she always had her hands full raising Luther, and so he acts out a lot, leading him to become a lovable loser later in life. Jim’s mom, on the other hand, has given up a lot to look after Luther. You can see how just about everyone in this book has a love-hate relationship. They are only human, after all. I think these complicated relationships make for interesting storytelling.

J&H: One of the most beautiful scenes in this novel is when you show us Luther making his truffles and sharing them with people at the Warwick County Fair and in his shop. Why was it important for you to shed light on autism in this book? And what do you hope the takeaway is when people finish reading Royal Beauty Bright?

RB: That was a fun scene to write. I really wanted the readers to cheer for Luther; he is making a life for himself as a chocolatier despite all the social stigma. Our sympathy for Luther is the device that propels us through the story, so it was important to get readers to care about him early on. He is the one character in the book who is truly good, whereas everyone else in his orbit has to do all these morally ambiguous acts.

The story never explicitly states that Luther is on the autism spectrum, because it was unknown to science back then. Autism is a spectrum with a wide range of symptoms. Luther’s character is consistent with what some refer to as level 3 autism, which includes a lack of verbal skills, trouble changing tasks, trouble diverting from routines, and more. For this reason, he needs very close attention. After discovering his secret talent for making chocolate truffles, Luther develops socially and moves to level 2 autism. Presenting Luther accurately was very important to me, so I consulted with a psychologist and also a professional who works with mentally handicapped adults.

Some might argue that we don’t hear from Luther’s point of view enough. The book is narrated by everyone except Luther, and this is not done to dehumanize him, but to make the readers care about him even more. By withholding his narration, we build suspense because the readers are constantly wanting to know, “What’s Luther doing? What’s Luther thinking?” We get to see how his brother is angry at him, how his fellow soldiers are inspired by him, how his mother loves him, which I think humanizes him more than a simple first-person narrator. It’s indirect characterization.

J&H: Rodney Stoker is one of my favorite characters here. He grew up around the Baker brothers, and has valid reasons for having an innate fear of Luther. Therefore, why do you think he acts as a buffer between Luther and the rest of the men in the trench, and how does his relationship with Luther change over time?

RB: During WWI, propaganda was everywhere. Boys were raised to play army and dream of fighting. Rodney fell into this trap, whereas Luther freely points out the absurdity of the whole war. It’s fitting that Rodney is afraid of Luther. Throughout the story, Rodney witnesses surprising acts of nonviolence by soldiers on both sides that convince him of the war’s absurdity. Rodney even witnesses a “mock battle” where soldiers purposely aimed at the dirt just to look busy in front of the officers. We the readers are Rodney, and Luther is teaching us a better way.

J&H: Toward the end of the novel, you relate how the Christmas Truce of 1914 came to pass. In a way, the events are both inspiring and curiously magical. What was it about this event that captivated you most?

RB: It’s hard to believe that thousands of opposing soldiers essentially went on strike and threw a Christmas party, halting the war in some places for up to a month because they didn’t feel like fighting, but it actually happened. It was real. I want to remind people that grassroots movements are powerful, that change can happen when people band together, and that sometimes sweetness survives.

Since I wanted to make the book applicable to our time, I touch on the refugee crisis. In the book, we meet three little French girls who have fled their home, and I really wanted to highlight their innocence. That’s why author proceeds of this book are going to the Immigrant & Refugee Women’s Program, a nonprofit that teaches English to newcomers. Consider donating!

J&H: Now that you’ve written both fantasy and historical fiction, which direction would you like your writing career to go in the future and what are you working on next?

RB: I have written another novel, and six agents have requested to read it so far. I think getting a literary agent will be the best way to get my stories into people’s hearts. I’m also applying to graduate school for creative writing, so hopefully that works out.

Thank you for having me! I enjoyed this interview!

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Ryan Byrnes' ROYAL BEAUTY BRIGHT

Blank Slate Press

ABOUT ROYAL BEAUTY BRIGHT

After an autistic man ends up in the trenches of World War I, a nun-turned-journalist dances with treason to care for him, and a candy store clerk posing as Santa Claus risks everything to bring him home.

While in France, Luther meets Ethyl, an aspiring journalist who tries to expose his plight. As Christmas approaches, Luther sinks into despair and Ethyl is threatened with punishment.

Back home, Luther’s brother Jim enlists with the British Army Postal Service. His job, delivering sacks of Christmas gifts to the front-line soldiers, is a cover for his plan to rescue Luther. The plan is made even more difficult by three refugee girls convinced that Jim, with his bag of gifts, is Santa Claus.

Jim and Ethyl finally cross paths with Luther on Christmas Day, 1914, when they witness one of the most uplifting spectacles of nonviolence in history, when thousands of soldiers broke orders and refused to fire on each other during the Christmas Truce of 1914.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ryan Byrnes is a St. Louis native. His first foray into writing was founding the publishing imprint, Avency Press, where he wrote one illustrated chapter book, The Adventures of Wheatail, and four young adult fantasy novels in the Son of Time series.

Since then, he has worked with a publishing company, a literary agency, and various aspiring writers seeking to self-publish.

Ryan now lives in Iowa as a student in mechanical engineering and English. Between work hours, he builds Mars Rovers with his roommates, plays with cats, and watches Wes Anderson movies.

Find out more about Ryan at his website, RyanByrnesWrites.com, like him on Facebook, and follow him on Instagram and Goodreads.

ROYAL BEAUTY BRIGHT
By Ryan Byrnes
304 pp. Blank Slate Press. $16.95

Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours bannerPurchase Royal Beauty Bright at one of these fine online retailers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, IndieBound, and Powell’s.

Royal Beauty Bright is brought to you in association with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

HFVBT Royal Beauty Bright

About Jathan Fink
Jathan is a journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. He is also a travel junkie, foodie and jazz aficionado. A California native, he resides in Texas.

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