Today I’m incredibly lucky to be able to bring you an interview with Cat Winters, author of In the Shadow of Blackbirds. This book was hands-down my favorite read of 2013 and I read A LOT, guys. It takes place in 1918, when the Spanish influenza and the war have created a nightmarish reality for sixteen-year old Mary Shelley Black. Here’s the blurb:
In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?
Featuring haunting archival early-twentieth-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time.
Cat – thank you so much for agreeing to answer a few questions on the Scream Queens today and congratulations on being named a Morris Award finalist! I can’t blubber – er, tell you enough how much I loved your book and I’m dying to get the inside scoop on how/why it was written so let’s dive right in.
WHAT INSPIRED THE IDEA FOR IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS?
The earliest seeds for this story were planted way back when I was twelve years old. I watched an episode of the TV show Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and learned that during the World War I period, two girls in Cottingley, England, claimed to have photographed fairies in their backyard. Adults who were devastated by the war wholeheartedly believed the girls’ phony photos were genuine, including scholars and expert photographers. That struck me as a sad yet fascinating nugget of history.
It took nearly three decades, a couple manuscript attempts, and a conversation with my agent, Barbara Poelle, before the plot of In the Shadow of Blackbirds fell into place, but that show about those fake fairy photos and the widespread grief during the WWI era is where everything first began.
ARE YOU A FAN OF GHOST BOOKS? WERE THERE ANY THAT INFLUENCED YOU STRONGLY?
Yes, I love ghostly tales! I became hooked on the subject of ghosts when I discovered a book about real-life hauntings in my elementary school library, probably around the age of seven or eight. My earliest ghostly fiction reads came from my school’s Scholastic Book orders: 13 Ghostly Tales, edited by Freya Littledale, and The Ghost Next Door, by Wylly Folk St. John. I also loved creepy 1980s kids’ movies like The Watcher in the Woods and Something Wicked This Way Comes. If a story gave me nightmares, I held it in high regard.
The ghostly novels that influenced me the most were Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. When I was in high school, I devoured haunting, tragic, Gothic stories from the past, and I still enjoy those types of tales. Some of my more recent favorite ghost books include Sarah Waters’s A Little Stranger and Laura Whitcomb’s A Certain Slant of Light. Diane Setterfield’s Bellman & Black, just published this past fall, is an extremely recent favorite, although I debate whether you could call that particular haunting a ghost.
I’M INTRIGUED THAT YOU CHOSE THE NAME MARY SHELLEY BLACK FOR YOUR PROTAG – WERE YOU THINKING ABOUT AUTHOR MARY SHELLEY?
Mary Shelley Black pretty much showed up in my head with that particular name, and I couldn’t imagine calling her anything else. I did worry people would think it was an odd or cheesy choice to name a protagonist after the author of Frankenstein, especially when other characters call her “Mary Shelley” and not just “Mary.” However, the character is quite comfortable being a little on the odd side, so I let her keep the name, and I had fun slipping in some other Frankenstein references throughout the book.
THE HISTORICAL FACTS THROUGHOUT IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS ARE FASCINATING AND INTENSE AT TIMES, ESPECIALLY THE PHOTOGRAPHS. HOW MUCH RESEARCH DID YOU HAVE TO DO PRIOR TO WRITING AND HOW DID YOU SELECT THE IMAGES YOU ULTIMATELY CHOSE TO SHOWCASE?
I conducted quite a bit of research both before and during the writing of the book. In fact, it was an ongoing process that didn’t stop until I turned in my last stage of edits. I used reference books that covered everything from food rationing in WWI to Harry Houdini’s encounters with Spiritualism, and I pored over archival WWI letters, personal accounts of the Spanish influenza, 1918 photos, silent films, newsreels, and literature from the time period. I’ve included links to some of my favorite research websites and reference books—and shared 1918 images and movies—at http://www.blackbirdsnovel.com.
Originally, I planned to only include examples of the early-twentieth-century spirit photography fad, but I discovered those archival “ghost” images are expensive to license, so I only chose a few to use for the book. I then moved on to photos and posters from WWI and the Spanish influenza (the National Library of Medicine and the Library of Congress proved to be particularly helpful in that department). I specifically looked for images that would complement what was occurring in the story and help me turn the novel into a literary time machine. My agent, editor, and designer let me choose the images myself and place them where I thought they would work best, and then the designer, Maria T. Middleton, worked her magic and made the entire book look wonderfully dark and haunting.
THE BOOK TAKES PLACE MOSTLY IN SAN DIEGO, CA. WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO CHOOSE THAT LOCALE?
My husband and I moved to San Diego right after we were married in our early twenties, and we lived there until 2003. The city means a great deal to me—it’s where I got my first post-college job, celebrated the early years of my marriage, bought my first house, and had my first child. I belonged to the San Diego Historical Society when we were there, and I was fascinated by all the historic homes, several of which involved real-life ghost tales (the Whaley House and the Villa Montezuma in particular). Setting the book in the city simply felt like the right choice when I considered my deep connection to the area and San Diego’s history, plus it made sense that Mary Shelley’s father would want her to head to a warmer climate when the Spanish flu broke out.
WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN WRITING THIS BOOK?
The basic plot has always been the same, but the first draft contained a surplus of extra characters and supernatural situations that distracted from the main storyline, and at times the book felt like a ship overburdened with cargo that had a good chance of sinking. Early readers, including my agent, helped me trim everything down to the bare essentials, and then when we sold the book to Amulet Books, my editor, Maggie Lehrman, helped me figure out how to make the book stronger by deepening the characters’ relationships and digging further into the 1918 world. So, all along, I’d say the hardest challenge was making sure I didn’t overdo or skimp on anything, while keeping my main mystery in focus. And that’s precisely why critique partners and editors are so important!
THIS IS MORE OF A COMMENT, THAN A QUESTION BUT I SERIOUSLY THINK THAT IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS WOULD LEND ITSELF NICELY TO A MOVIE. SO GET ON THAT, HOLLYWOOD!
Thank you, Lindsay! I do have an agent actively working to sell the film rights, but I try not to think about that side of the business too much. As a film buff and a writer who sees her books cinematically in her head, I would be really curious to see how someone would turn IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS into a movie. However, sometimes I think about all the terrible things I made my characters endure and wonder if I could bear to watch their ordeals on the big screen. I might suffer some authorly guilt, especially when it comes to a particular scene toward the end.
I SEE THAT YOU HAVE ANOTHER BOOK COMING OUT FROM AMULET THIS YEAR – THE CURE FOR DREAMING. CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THAT?
We don’t have an official catalog synopsis yet, so I’ll give you my unofficial version:
The Cure for Dreaming is set in 1900 Portland, Oregon, and involves quiet, bookish Olivia Mead, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a dentist who’s feared for his love of tooth extractions. Olivia attends her first women’s suffrage rally the same day Henri Reverie, a talented young stage hypnotist, arrives in town for a week of performances. Dr. Mead, terrified of modern-minded women—especially suffragists, temperance crusaders, and his own rebellious ex-wife—hires Henri to remove unfeminine thoughts and dreams from Olivia’s head…yet the hypnotism cure doesn’t go quite as planned.
The book will include a collection of late-Victorian photographs, theater posters, and creepy nineteenth-century dental imagery that will likely make your molars ache. 😉 It’s slated to release Fall 2014, likely right before Halloween.
THANK YOU SO MUCH, CAT. ITS BEEN AN ABSOLUTE PLEASURE TO HAVE YOU HERE TODAY AND WE WISH YOU THE BEST OF LUCK IN ALL OF YOUR FUTURE WRITING ENDEAVORS.
Thank you, Lindsay! It’s an honor to have been invited to the Scream Queens’ hangout!