I was beyond ecstatic this week to have the chance to interview the author of In the Shadow of Blackbirds and 2014 William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist, Cat Winters. In the Shadow of Black Birds is Winter's debut novel and after reading it last year, it quickly became one of my favorite books of 2013, maybe even of all time. After reading In the Shadow of Blackbirds, I will read anything she publishes. The book taught me an abundant amount of infromation about WWI, seances, spirit photography, and I love the gothic themes running throughout the book. Now lets get on to the interview with the genius behind it all, Cat Winters.
For people that haven’t read the book, can you give a brief description of In the Shadow of Blackbirds? What can people expect from reading this story?
In the Shadow of Blackbirds is the story of a logical, scientific-minded sixteen-year-old girl named Mary Shelley Black (after the author ofFrankenstein) who’s forced to deal with WWI, the deadly 1918 Spanish influenza, and a ghost. It’s a blend of historical fiction, mystery, horror, romance, ghost story, and a coming-of-age tale…and it’s best not to know too much about the plot before you head into the book.
With WWI, spirit photography, and seances being a large part of the story, what initially sparked your interest in these topics?
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 WWI time period, two girls in Cottingley, England, claimed to photograph 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.
When I was older, I read the Smithsonian magazine article “The Man Who Believed in Fairies” by Tom Huntington, and once again I learned about the fairy photography hoax. The article also detailed the history of séances in the United States, and that’s when I knew that all of this strange and heartbreaking history would make for the perfect backdrop for a novel.
There were multiple characters in the story, like Mary Shelley Black, that had very admirable character traits. Do you see any of your own character traits in any of the characters, male or female, in In the Shadow of Blackbirds?
Mary Shelley Black is how I would have liked to have been when I was a teen. I was extremely shy and had trouble speaking my mind, whereas she’s unafraid to say what she feels and fights tooth and nail to protect people. I feel I’ve become more of this type of a person as I’ve gotten older, but it took me a long while to get there. I tend to be a worrier like Aunt Eva, but I’m not sure if I would have desperately fed my loved ones so many onions during the Spanish flu (although it’s hard to say, never having faced a plague myself). Stephen shares my love of words and my enjoyment of viewing the world artistically. Now that I think about it, I’d say I probably have the most traits in common with Stephen.
With there being a few adults, such as Aunt Eva, that play a large part in the story, what do you do differently when writing a teenage character and an adult character?
I don’t think I consciously considered how I would write the teenage characters versus the adult characters. Looking back, I suppose in this particular book it all came down to the level of hope in a person. Mary Shelley Black is forced to deal with some of the worst horrors the world can offer, yet even during her darkest, most cynical moments, she’s still a fighter, simply because if she does survive, she still has so much of her life to live. She needs and wants to make the world a better place. I tended to make the adults in the novel see the world in more desperate terms. They’re more willing to turn to drugs or scams or other means of escape because their internal level of hope is so much lower. They manufacture a sense of optimism through other outlets.
In the story, it is evident that you did a large amount of research. Where did you gather this information about WWI and other elements in this story?
If you head to blackbirdsnovel.com, you’ll find some of my favorite reference books, history-related websites, historical images, and 1918 movies, all of which helped me with my research. I also pored over WWI letters, personal accounts of the Spanish influenza, and literature from the time period. I've lived in the novel's two primary locations, Portland, Oregon, and San Diego, California, and I used to be a member of the San Diego Historical Society.
A major cherry on top in this book are the eerie pictures that really give the reader a visual of what you are writing about. How did you choose the pictures that were put in this story and why did you choose to have pictures?
I’m so happy you enjoyed the photos! Photography plays such a major role in the novel that it simply made sense to include archival images…plus I wanted to ensure people didn’t think I was making up this apocalyptic historical setting. Initially I planned to only include spirit photographs to show readers what those looked like during the time period. However, those particular photos are expensive to license, so I only included a few, and then I turned to the Library of Congress and the National Library of Medicine for WWI and Spanish influenza images. It took me a while to find the perfect photos and posters to illustrate the novel, but I was pleased in the end with everything I was able to use in the book. My publisher, Amulet Books, was on board with the images the entire time and even used my suggestions for where to place them.
What books would you suggest to fans of In the Shadow Blackbirds?
Born of Illusion by Teri Brown and The Diviners by Libba Bray also deal with the Spiritualism fad that gripped the United States as a result of WWI. Picture the Dead by Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown is a highly enjoyable YA novel that involves the early days of spirit photography during the U.S. Civil War. A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Licier, which I haven't yet read, is an upcoming YA novel that also portrays a Portland teen girl’s ordeals with the 1918 Spanish influenza, so I have a feeling that book will become one of the top read-alike suggestions for In the Shadow of Blackbirds.
Can you give a brief description of your book set to be released in Fall of 2014, The Cure for Dreaming?
I’ll need to wait until April before I can share the cover and an official catalog synopsis, but here’s the description that was given to librarians at the recent ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia:
Olivia Mead is a headstrong, independent girl—a suffragist—in an age that prefers its girls to be docile. It's 1900 in Oregon, and Olivia's father, concerned that she's headed for trouble, convinces a stage mesmerist to try to hypnotize the rebellion out of her. But the hypnotist, an intriguing young man named Henri Reverie, gives her a terrible gift instead: she's able to see people's true natures, manifesting as visions of darkness and goodness, while also unable to speak her true thoughts out loud.
The novel is slated to be published October 2014, and it will also contain a collection of historical photographs and artwork. Pre-ordering is already available at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1419712160.