Alumna empowers girls through Crisanta Knight: Into the Gray

Geanna Culbertson sits on brick steps while signing a blue hardback novel.

Culbertson was inspired to start writing her series of heroine-centered fantasy books after taking a class on fairy tales at USC. (Photo courtesy of

Following the release of her seventh book for The Crisanta Knight Series, Geanna Culbertson spoke with the Daily Trojan about her experiences as a former student at USC and how that translated into her writing skills, passions and ventures. 

The Crisanta Knight Series is empowering fantasy-genre books primarily read by middle-grade and young adults. The base concept of the series focuses on the children and siblings of famous fairy tale characters who live in a magical world called “Book,” where they train to be the main characters of future stories. Culbertson, who was a public relations major with a triple minor in marketing, cinematic arts and critical approaches to leadership, features strong heroine leads in her series. Having written her first three book manuscripts while she was still a student at USC, she has spent almost a decade working on The Crisanta Knight Series. In the last few years, Culbertson has balanced a full-time job as a digital marketing manager while also crafting fairy tales for the series in her spare time.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Daily Trojan: First off, I would like to congratulate you on your seventh book release. That must be so exciting. Can you speak to your experience writing The Crisanta Knight Series?

Geanna Culbertson: It’s been really exciting. I always knew very important plot points and twists that were going to happen, but uncovering extra details, new characters and new worlds along the way has been really fun. I think it’s a good sign when you’re writing, if you’re very excited, and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe that just happened,” but you’re the one who made it happen. It’s been a lot of fun and taken me to a lot of places I never thought possible. I’ve toured about 10 states now with different book tours and speaking to conventions at elementary schools, libraries, like a huge range of people from a lot of places. It’s a really cool thing to see so many different parts of the country and get to know people from all different walks of life who connect with something you’ve created — that’s definitely been one of the more rewarding parts.

DT: OK, let’s backtrack a little. Can you tell me a little bit about your thesis at USC, “Beauty and the Badass” — “Origins of the Princess-Hero Archetype”?

GC: “Beauty and the Badass” — “Origins of the Princess-Hero Archetype” was something that had started to really draw my interest in sophomore year, when I started my book series. I was already writing about the characters in my series, the daughters and siblings and these fairy tale characters new and old. Something that’s always been really important to me that I’ve always loved growing up is superheroes and princesses. I felt like growing up, it was unusual to me that most of my favorite characters, literary heroes, etc., even cartoons, were boys. I was realizing maybe that, with a lot of girl-driven stories, it’s changing that for sure. Girl-driven stories really do focus more on like the romance and delicate aspects of femininity, whereas hero stories, where it’s a male main character, there’s a lot more character exploration going on in different areas of what makes a person a person. I was already by then really deep into my book series, and that was helping me develop my characters in my world. I spent like a couple of years trying to figure out a formula for what made a hero princess archetype tick in terms of vulnerabilities, strengths, tropes and just really analyzing what worked and what didn’t. I think that really helped in terms of my understanding of what I was writing and who I was writing for.

DT: What gave you that idea to begin The Crisanta Knight Series? How does that relate to your thesis?

GC: I took the most amazing class called “Classic and Contemporary Fairy Tales” with Aimee Bender. I was doing all that [fairy tale] research, reading all those books, and everything was starting to spark ideas inside of me. Then we had to do a final project for the class. I was really brainstorming, and I came up with this map of this world, and that ended up being the basis of all the kingdoms in my book series. Between that and the WRIT 340 class, I just had this great big idea that I needed to crack open and go for, so they just kind of started feeding into each other.

DT: The Crisanta Knight Series is full of strong and original heroines. What was your inspiration or influences when creating these characters? Was there anyone maybe you had in mind when you were creating them?

GC: I really wanted to write books where we care about the valiancy and vulnerability of the main character and her journey. It’s a lot of internal arc as much of an external arc because even now, if I go back and look at book one, two, etc., [Crisanta Knight is] such a different person, all of my main characters are than they were when they started. I’m a big fan of getting people to appreciate the value of change, and taking advantage of their potential and just striving to be more in life. That’s what I really wanted to put into my characters and the overall themes of my book. So creating these characters was as much about trying to discover the answers to the questions as it was trying to create something that someone like me and a lot of other girls, and people in general, would love. 

DT: Can you tell me a little bit about the plot your book follows? How do your characters progress throughout the series? 

GC: My main hero is the title protagonist, Crisanta Knight and she’s the daughter of Cinderella. She, along with other famous fairy tale descendants, goes to a school called Lady Agnue’s School for Princesses and Other Female Protagonists. I would say my five main characters are her [Crisanta Knight], the younger sister of Little Red Riding Hood, the daughter of Snow White, the younger brother of Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, and also a character called Daniel, who is a new protagonist, because not all people who go to these schools have these relationships to fairy tales past. As this larger than life plot develops, it ties in a lot of worlds like our world, Earth, we also just go to a lot of other worlds where we deal with mystical characters, you know, King Arthur, the Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Toyland, Sleepy Hollow.

There’s a lot of great internal arcs and storytelling, because it’s a coming of age story. You have characters who start at 16, when the story begins, my time is over. They’re 18, and just really figuring out how to take fate into their own hands in this world. It’s really driven by traditional storytelling tropes and convention and just trying to define yourself.

DT: What would you say your writing style is?

GC: I read a review where someone said that my writing style was like a chocolate covered pretzel, so sweet and salty. And I like that, because it definitely does describe my style in a sense. I like to have really fun, sassy moments that make you giggle, but I also have moments where they’re very serious and deep. 

DT: Do you have a most memorable experience as a writer?

GC: One of my very first events, right after Book Three had come out, I got asked to do a presentation at a middle school in Florida for their Friends of the Library event, where the middle schools each picked one book to read and then have the author come to speak. They brought me down to the auditorium, and there’s about 600 kids in the audience all cheering. I gave my full speech on stage, and I did a reading and I took a Q&A. It was this larger than life experience. I sat there for a minute processing what just happened, but it really showed that people can like what you create and care that you’re there. I think that really impacted me because I’ve always been trying to live up to that amazing feeling where my books made people feel so excited.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Lady Agnue’s School for Princesses and Other Female Protagonists. The Daily Trojan regrets the error