The Tragedy of Lost Talent: Marie Lu on Mozart’s Sister and The Kingdom of Back

We are so excited for The Kingdom of Back to be the ParnassusNext March selection. It is the story of the Mozart siblings, Nannerl and Wolfgang, their music, and a magical kingdom. Many thanks to author Marie Lu for answering my questions about this fascinating book. —Rae Ann Parker, Director of Books and Events for Young Readers, Parnassus Books

Rae Ann Parker: The idea for The Kingdom of Back came to you many years ago. What was the origin of the idea and how did it evolve over the years?

Marie Lu: I’ve always found Mozart and his music fascinating, but it wasn’t until I read a biography about him that I learned he had an older sister named Nannerl who was supposedly every bit as talented as he was at the piano and music composition. Also in that same biography was a tiny detail that captured my imagination: when the two Mozart children were young and toured Europe together, they invented for themselves a magical kingdom they called Back in order to pass time in the carriage. I knew then that I had to write a story about this kingdom and about this prodigious young girl that history has forgotten. Of course, this story was written over a decade ago, before Legend. It just didn’t sell. Over the years, I changed a few details about the book — the magical kingdom, the relationship between Nannerl and her brother — but the majority of the story stayed intact.

Marie Lu. Photo by Primo Gallanosa.

RAP: How did you know the time was right to finish the book you started so long ago?

ML: I don’t think I really felt like there was a right time — I just kept tinkering on and off with the story for years. My agent and I joke that we must each have 50 different iterations of this book in our files. At some point, though, my agent felt it was ready enough to send to my editor. I still can’t quite believe it’s finally coming out.

RAP: How did you choose the balance between the story of the Mozart siblings with the fantasy aspects of the novel?

ML: I wanted the kingdom to always be supporting Nannerl’s story, not overtaking it. In the end, it’s a book about a girl frustrated with the limitations of her time, and the restraints put on her creativity. I wanted to include enough of their magical kingdom to reflect her yearning, her mind, and the tragedy of her lost talent.

RAP: What is your favorite part of the magical kingdom you created?

ML: Hyacinth. He is a fae creature in their magical kingdom that evolved with the story as it changed. I found him the most difficult to nail down but one of the most fun things to write.

RAP: In your research for the novel, what was the most surprising thing you uncovered?

ML: In 2015, an Australian researcher claimed to have discovered Nannerl’s handwriting in an early music notebook used by her brother to learn music. It supports a theory that appears in the book — what if some of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s earliest music was partly written by his sister? If this is true, it means that some of Nannerl’s music did indeed survive, invisibly, under her brother’s name.

RAP: If you could travel back in time to spend one day with Nannerl, what would she tell you about herself?

ML: That she could compose, just as well as anyone else — but also that she loves her brother dearly.

RAP: And finally, we ask everyone: What’s your favorite thing about indie bookstores?

ML: Always, the heart. There’s just an air of magic and soul when you walk into any indie bookstore, because they are always run by people who have a passion for sharing stories with others. I feel very safe there, as if someone has invited me in from the cold to sit a spell and get lost in other worlds. It’s a nostalgic feeling that never gets old.

Order a signed copy of The Kingdom of Back, or find out more about ParnassusNext, our young adult subscription box!