This summer, Cruella De Vil — the notorious fashionista with a penchant for spotted fur — is getting the origin story treatment with the live-action Cruella.
But what happens before the prequel movie? An upcoming YA novel by Maureen Johnson (13 Little Blue Envelopes) imagines a time before the time before, diving into the iconic villainess’ teenage years in 1967 London.
Inspired by Cruella, Johnson’s Hello, Cruel Heart follows 16 year-old Estella — an ambitious, aspiring fashion designer who runs heists throughout London with her loyal accomplices. After a serendipitous run-in with posh socialites, she finds herself thrust into high society and living the fashionable life she’s always dreamed. But what will it cost to keep up with the rich and fabulous?
Hello, Cruel Heart hits shelves on April 6. We talked to Johnson about her experience carving out a deeper history for De Vil. Read our interview and an exclusive excerpt of the book below.
What about Cruella de Vil makes her a good character to explore in more detail?
Maureen Johnson: It’s fun writing baddies. They get to do the best stuff. When I heard how Cruella’s story was going to be presented in the movie, I was thrilled. Punk Cruella sounded amazing, and writing a YA novel inspired by that was exciting. I am profoundly obsessed with London in the ’60s and ’70s. I have a wealth of knowledge which I can never use and this was my chance! My chance!
What was it like to flesh out the teenage years of such an iconic Disney Villain?
I got to immerse myself in Swinging London — in 1967 — in one of the most colorful, weird times possible. This book is full of music, of clothes, of strange parties and odd people. It’s rock and roll and feather boas and driving to Stonehenge in the middle of the night. Cruella has some fun. It doesn’t all work out, but she has a lot of adventures along the way. I used a lot of real people and places in the book. The names I drop, the locations, the shops — most of them are real. Cruella gets to be neighbors with Mick Jagger and go to the coolest boutiques that probably ever existed.
What were your inspirations while writing Hello, Cruel Heart?
I went to two other Dodie Smith books: The Starlight Barking and I Capture the Castle. The Starlight Barking is an incredibly strange and fun book where all humans fall asleep and only animals are awake. A space dog grants them magical powers and offers them an opportunity to come into the stars with him. Cruella is in that book, but she is asleep. It’s kind of great, but it’s really not what you might expect. I also looked to I Capture the Castle, which is just one of the best teen novels ever and everyone should read it. It has nothing to do with Cruella — it’s just great, and it the highs and lows of being a teenager. It’s also very funny.
What other characters might we see in Hello, Cruel Heart aside from Cruella herself?
Jasper and Horace, of course, are there! Plus some rock stars, dandies, fashionistas, posh people, and one very angry security guard.
And now read this exclusive excerpt from Hello, Cruel Heart:
Hours later, Estella stretched her arms over her head, her back cracking in a satisfying way. The afternoon and evening had slipped away into nighttime. Jasper and Horace were already snoring in their beds. She’d made some progress, but not enough. It was never enough for Estella until it was absolutely perfect. She rubbed her eyes and pushed back from her sewing machine.
“Time to eat,” she said to Buddy.
Buddy, relieved that he could finally leave his post by the sewing machine, followed her as she shuffled to their little kitchen. She filled Buddy’s dish with dog food. There was some cold spag bol sitting on their hot plate. Estella took the pot, sprinkled loads of pepper on the gluey noodles and lumpy red sauce, and ate her supper cold. It was impossible to know whether Buddy or Estella had the more palatable meal.
From there, she went into the bathroom and filled their old tub with lukewarm rusty-tinted water for a bath. Nightfall had brought no relief from the day’s soaring temperatures, and it was stifling in the Lair. Not even splashing in the tepid water stopped the sweat from rolling down her back. She scrubbed herself clean as best she could, changed into a loose nightgown, and headed for bed.
It never got completely dark in the Lair. There was a large circular window that had no covering. Estella stared out at the night sky and the moon that hung over London. She wasn’t tired. Her thoughts wandered, eventually returning to the couple entwined with each other on the grass. What might that be like, to be part of that couple, one half of a whole? How could they be like that, so unreservedly giving of themselves, willing to share their innermost wants and fears with another person?
Because they were normal, Estella thought. Because they went to school and had homes. They didn’t live in lairs with boys they had met on the street. They didn’t pick pockets for a living. They would go on to do normal things. Estella despised the thought of normal—but in this case . . .
. . . perhaps normal would be all right.
She shook her head, tossed from left to right and back again, then sighed and turned the light back on.
There was no point entertaining these kinds of thoughts. She reached for one of the many library books she kept by her bed. Estella loved the library, even though she didn’t quite understand it. They didn’t charge you for books—they let you take them. But you needed a library card, which meant giving things like your name—your real name—and address. That was not something Estella could do. So she simply took the books quietly. Sometimes she even brought them back to the library when she was finished, and placed them on the shelves where they belonged. Not always, but sometimes.
She opened one book on eighteenth-century textile design, then another containing drawings of flowers.
Is this all you’re destined for?
Estella winced. Of course. Cruella.
She wasn’t sure when she had first known Cruella existed. That part of her had probably always been there, in the way she had grabbed for her toys in frustration and in the manner she had stomped off to school. It was Cruella who had helped her beat the bullies who tormented her. Her mum had been the one to first identify Cruella by name.
“Now what do you say to Cruella when she tries to get the better of you?” she would ask.
“Thank you for coming,” Estella would reply, “but you may go now.”
“Good. Now say goodbye to her.”
“Goodbye, Cruella,” Estella would say.
But Cruella never really went away. She took a few steps back, but she was always following, always there. Estella could hear her footsteps.
In many ways, Cruella had kept Estella alive when she arrived in London, alone and frightened. Sure, Horace and Jasper were a big part of it, but Cruella kept her going. Cruella liked taking purses and wallets. Cruella didn’t care about breaking the law. Cruella wasn’t disturbed by a conscience. Cruella grabbed what she needed and kept her heart hard. Estella might have cried herself to sleep many nights, but Cruella never did. Cruella kept calm and cool. Cruella survived everything.
Cruella could also be bossy and annoying. Like tonight.
She tried to bat Cruella’s question away, but it floated back into view. She was sixteen now. She might not have been going to school, but she had her natural intellect and instinct, and she had these books. She did well teaching herself. Maybe she didn’t get to everything, but she knew what she needed to know. She would be just fine. When you were brilliant—and she was unquestionably brilliant—you didn’t need a piece of paper to prove your worth.
She returned her focus to the drawings.
Is this all you’re destined for? Making disguises? Cold spag bol? Rusty water?
Cruella again, her voice buzzing around inside of Estella’s head.
“I’m not going to have to live like this forever,” Estella said out loud, very quietly. “I’m going to be a designer. A famous one.”
That shut Cruella up for a moment. Estella turned back to the books.
Is that all?
“Is that all?” Estella said to herself. “What else is there?”
In reply, her mind floated to the image of the couple on the grass. Not just them, but the whole group of students laughing and talking together. They were part of something more than themselves. They were friends.
She was part of something, too, Estella reasoned. She had Jasper and Horace and Wink and Buddy. They were all snoring away around her.
This is it? Cruella’s voice pressed on. Forever?
“I don’t know,” Estella answered out loud. “I’ll figure that out later.”
Maybe later is now.
“Oh, very profound,” she replied, a sarcastic edge to her tone, before realizing that she was having this conversation with herself possibly because there was no one else to have it with.
That kind of proved Cruella’s point. She fell into smug silence.
Estella shut the books angrily and went to the window, one of her favorite parts of the Lair, which had somehow survived the war and subsequent years of neglect. London was like that: so many things had taken a battering, be it from the perils of war or weather or that greatest and most constant threat, Father Time, and yet they still stood—a million beautiful little pieces of history. Things survived only to be rediscovered, revered, celebrated. Like Estella. She had survived and would keep on surviving, and the world would discover her, know her genius.
How? The answer was more work. She would make her clothes, and somehow, the clothes would take her to where she needed to be.
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