Thank you so much for talking with us today. We’re super excited for your cover reveal coming tomorrow, and we’re excited to learn more about you and your newest Young Adult novel.
First, Can you tell us a little about The Poppy and the Rose?
The Poppy and the Rose is a Young Adult novel about two teen girls—Ava Knight from 1912 and Taylor Romano from 2010—who are connected by a mystery that spans two continents and nearly a century. When Taylor arrives in Oxford for a summer study abroad program, she meets an eccentric aristocrat who reveals that Taylor’s recently deceased father had a secret life. In order to learn the truth about her dad, Taylor must follow the only clue she has—the story of Ava Knight, a survivor of the ill-fated Titanic and a young woman with mysterious secrets of her own.
Are there specific themes or ideas you like to explore in your books?
A theme that kept coming up in this story was humanity’s hubris—and the disastrous consequences that tend to result when we act as if we have complete control over nature and can subdue it through our technological advancements. That’s obviously a major lesson of the Titanic sinking, but it’s also a theme that’s revealed by World War I, which was called “the war to end all wars,” even though it ultimately launched the bloodiest century in human history. The Spiritualism movement of the early 20th century plays a role in The Poppy & The Rose as well, and the same theme comes up again there—i.e., trying to control fate and forces that are beyond us. This theme is also relevant to our current situation with the pandemic, as we’re being reminded that for all of our advancements, human beings and our social institutions are still very fragile when faced with a natural threat like a new virus.
Another—and far more uplifting—theme is the role memory plays in the redemption and healing of individuals, families, and nations. When things are broken, they must be re-membered (literally “put back together”), and this “healing through remembering” is a major driver for both Taylor and Ava.
You have several books based in certain places. Is this your first novel with a historical element? How was it different to write?
Historical fiction is my favorite genre and what I’ve always wanted to write, so it’s honestly a surprise that I’ve ended up with three contemporary YA novels (though The Poppy & The Rose has a historical storyline as well). I love to travel and I tend to visit places where history is still very much alive in the architecture and landmarks (i.e., Europe), which is why my stories often have a lot of historical references even when the main characters are contemporary. I suppose you could say that “modern people encountering the past” is a common element in all of my stories.
The most challenging aspect of the writing The Poppy & The Rose was weaving Taylor and Ava’s story together in a compelling way that made sense but that didn’t alter important historical events…at least not too much, since Ava’s story also has a speculative/alternative history element! 😊
What drew you to the specific time period, what kind of research did you do, and how long did you spend researching before beginning to write?
I love the atmosphere of the Edwardian period (thank you Downton Abbey!) and I’ve been fascinated by the Titanic since I did a school report on the sinking in 6th grade (and then, of course, there was the blockbuster movie with Leo and Kate in 8th grade 😊). I got the idea for writing a novel set on the Titanic while reading a biography about Margaret Brown (the “unsinkable Molly Brown”), so I made sure she had a major role to play in The Poppy & The Rose, as she was a fascinating person beyond just her role on the Titanic. This book was actually my very first YA manuscript and has been revised many, many times, so the historical details were layered in over several drafts and I felt like I was always doing research throughout the entire process…it’s one of my favorite parts and why I love writing historical fiction.
You have a brand new baby. Congratulations! You also have a toddler. How has being a mom impacted how you write?
Thank you! Finding time (and free hands!) for writing with a three-year-old, a newborn, and a day job is definitely a challenge, but one thing I learned from my first baby was to recognize which part of the writing process I can pursue in a particular season. For example, I’ve discovered that I get a lot of inspiration and motivation to write a new story when I’m pregnant, I love reading, researching, and brainstorming during the newborn phase, and I find it much easier to revise/edit with a baby than write a first draft. So this second time around, I attempted to finish the first draft of a new project (another historical novel) before my son arrived, that way I can spend these next few months revising and editing. If I tried to start a brand new project today with a newborn, it would quickly become overwhelming and frustrating for me, so it really helps to already have a draft to work with, even if it’s super rough!
Do you have a set writing routine?
I used to be an early morning writer and was just getting to the point where I was able to get up an hour or two before my toddler to write…but that’s all changed again! Now I just try to write “in the cracks” whenever I can and have to work to keep my expectations realistic. When I’m with my kids, I often find myself doing a lot of brainstorming and plotting by hand in notebooks, that way I don’t waste a lot of time when I do finally have a chance to sit down at the computer. I already know where the scene/chapter is going, so I can just start writing!
What are you excited for readers to discover in The Poppy and the Rose?
I hope readers will care about the characters—both historical and fictional—and be drawn into an intriguing mystery that makes them think and allows them to experience the Titanic in a new way. I really love the atmosphere of this story, so I hope it’s as vivid and real for readers as it was for me while I was writing it.
What’s the thing you’re most proud of so far in your author career?
One of my goals as an author is to write stories that don’t merely follow current trends but have a timeless quality that transcends generations and appeals to a wide variety of readers (even if they’re labeled “Young Adult”). So whenever I hear from readers who are enjoying my books as a family (parents who read the book first and then share it with their teen or vice versus, for example), I’m proud to have written stories that will hopefully still be speaking to readers 5, 10, 15 years from now.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Dream big and work hard but know that there are many aspects of the publishing journey that will be out of your control (e.g. timing, market trends, etc.). At the same time, reading widely, studying the very best storytellers, and working on the craft of writing itself are all things you can control and should pursue—and you’ll love doing it because you love the art of storytelling!
What are your recent favorite books you’ve read?
Before I Disappear by Danielle Stinson is a beautifully written YA Sci-Fi story with a lot of heart and a wonderfully eerie Stranger Things vibe. I also love historical and YA novels by Amy Harmon and am currently reading her most recent release, Where the Lost Wander.
Thank you so much, Ashlee! We loved learning more about you and can’t wait for readers to get their hands on the gorgeous story that is The Poppy and the Rose. Join us at Pop! Goes the Reader for the cover reveal!
Ashlee Cowles is the author of Beneath Wandering Stars, winner of the Colorado Book Award. She wishes time travel was real, but until that happens, writing books is the next best thing.
Raised in a military family without roots, Ashlee spent her teen years in Europe and enjoys traveling the world almost as much as she loves telling stories.