Over the last year, author Robert Beatty has spent plenty of time with his head in the clouds. The evening sky, says the writer, provided inspiration for his latest young adult novel, Serafina and the Seven Stars. Set at the Biltmore Estate at the turn of the 20th century, the work is the fourth (and possibly final) installment in his New York Times bestselling series.
As in previous books, Beatty’s titular character must unravel myriad mysteries. Among the most pressing is the uncertain whereabouts of her best friend, Braeden Vanderbilt (the fictitious nephew of George and Edith Vanderbilt). But unlike in earlier novels, Beatty says Serafina’s own sense of good and evil is called into question: “The idea being, what would you do if you came into a situation where you thought you were doing good, you thought you were doing the right thing, but it turns out that these actions had really disastrous consequences?”
The answers to these questions and the book’s other conundrums will be available to readers on Tuesday, July 9, when Serafina and the Seven Stars hits shelves. For local fans, a special, advanced book signing will take place at Barnes & Noble at the Asheville Mall on Sunday, July 7.
With five books published in the same number of years (including last year’s non-Serafina offering, Willa of the Wood), Beatty has a fairly regimented writing schedule. A key feature in his process is feedback. Among his most loyal fans and harshest critics are members of his family. From the start, Beatty notes, his wife, Jennifer Beatty, and their three daughters, Camille, Genevieve and Elizabeth Beatty, ages 19, 17 and 8, respectively, have helped him develop and fine-tune his books before publication.
Along with plot issues, Camille explains, her father is always interested in learning where his earliest drafts succeed and where they fail in maintaining a reader’s interest. Sometimes these critiques come in the form of one-on-one conversations; other times they take place at the dinner table.
More recently, the Beatty family took the discussion on the road, during a trip to New York City. At the time, Robert was just starting Seven Stars. The 11-hour drive presented a perfect opportunity to go over the project’s outline. Ultimately, Robert says, “I ended up describing the entire book to them in detail.”
Along with story advice, the Beatty family regularly helps determine each book’s cover design; the group also assists in selecting the voice actors for the series’ audio versions.
Their collaborative work isn’t strictly behind the scenes, either. Genevieve stars as Serafina in the current book trailers, and Camille appears as Lady Rowena. Meanwhile, Jennifer designed and sewed each of her daughters’ costumes for the shoot. (Elizabeth, who is too young to play a character from the books, has petitioned, without success, to be featured as a costumed rat.)
Working with his daughters and wife, says Robert, brings balance to his career. “To write and complete a novel just takes a lot of time,” he says. “And a lot of that time is spent alone.”
As with his previous four books, Robert wrote much of Seven Stars inside a refurbished barn that doubled as a home office in South Asheville, before his family’s move to North Asheville. Each night, as he left the space, the writer paused to observe the stars shining above his property. The importance of quiet moments and self-reflection, notes Robert, are among the central messages of Seven Stars. “This particular novel is about looking up and noticing the stars and thinking about the fact that those are the same stars that people 3,000 years ago were looking at and telling stories about,” he says. “It’s very much a story that encourages people to absorb and appreciate the beauty of the world we live in.”
The latest Serafina book is also a tale of perseverance and grit, the author continues. “The main theme of the story is you just have to keep going. Even if you’re blind and lost, you have to keep going until you get to a point where you can start to see some landmarks,” Robert says. “The only way out is through.”
WHAT: Serafina and the Seven Stars book signing
WHERE: Barnes & Noble, Asheville Mall, 3 S. Tunnel Road, avl.mx/67p
WHEN: Sunday, July 7, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Free