The Horror

The month of October invites a lot of conversation about what scares us. Halloween is the ultimate culprit—people do horror movie marathons and theme parks create haunted houses that you have to sign a waiver to enter. Front yards are full of lynched skeletons and open graves, not to mention the sugar-crazed kids who mob the streets every October 31st.

I tend to avoid scary things. I’m not a fan of slasher movies or rollercoasters and though someone may one day entice me to try skydiving, I feel like I take my life into my hands every time I drive I-80, so parachutes aren’t high on my priority list.

As a writer, however, our fears tend not to be death-defying or phobia-provoking. Generally, we are not Navy Seals or Bear Grylls wannabes. As riveting as Naked and Afraid can be, I’ll never apply just to research a book. To the outside eye, the things that really set a writer’s heart racing may seem mundane. But I’m sure many of you will recognize—and relate with—some of the things on my list.

The_Scream

The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893.

What scares me most?

  1. Waiting.  Anyone with an active imagination can make the very act of waiting—whether it be for five minutes or five months—an exercise in terror. Waiting to hear back from anyone. Agent, editor, critique partner, reviewer. The horrors that arise can be stifling (they hate it, I’ll never write again, this is the end of my career, they love it but want me to change the main character, they’ll want me to write a book exactly like this next time, etc. etc. etc.) I pity the families and friends of waiting writers.
  1. Failure.  This can be failure on a microscopic level (oh, hell, I got that word wrong) to failure on a global scale (I think I may have made a mistake admitting on a national newspaper website that I totally stalked a book blogger). Usually, the failure is something in between—I won’t get this character to appear on the page as he appears in my mind. I won’t be able to finish this book. I won’t be able to do this topic justice. I won’t sell this book. If this book sells, no one will read it. If people read it, they will hate it. I only have one book in me and it was a fluke and I actually have no idea what I’m doing and my career has ended before it began. Even in the situation where you’ve sold three books to a publisher, a writer can spend the entire time until the third book actually shows up on shelves thinking, “they’re going to cancel my contract.” We can fear every kind of failure, writers.
  1. Success.  You’d think fearing failure and fearing success would be mutually exclusive, but no. If a book gets a lot of buzz before it hits shelves, we can be afraid it won’t live up to the hype. If a book does really well, we can fear that it was a fluke and we’ll never write another (see above). If a book does really, incredibly, amazingly well, what if that paralyzes me and I just can’t write again? (see below). If someone loves (or hates) my book, what if they stalk me?
  1. Anachronism.  This is the term for writers of historical fiction, anyway. For others, it’s the fear of “getting it wrong”. Putting buttons on a Roman tunic or having a 12th century character use the word focus or allowing a Tudor to drink tea. One tiny slip up can feel like the entire world is crashing down upon your head. I’m sure other writers have the same issue—changing a character’s hair color halfway through the book or having someone say, “I know a shortcut from Wandsworth to Heathrow.” (something my husband comments on every single time we watch Love Actually—it totally destroys his suspension of disbelief).
  1. Public speaking. See that leap I made there? From the utterly internal, psychological fears of the writer in the writing process to the external world? That right there is the fear. I can’t tell you how many debut authors I’ve spoken with who are terrified that when their book comes out they will have to get up in front of a group of friends at a launch party and open their mouths to speak. Fear includes public readings and impromptu Q&As. We are not only afraid of being observed by a group of people, we are terrified of saying the wrong thing, offending someone, looking stupid, stuttering and not remembering the title of the book or any of the characters in it. The even bigger fear is that no one will come to hear us speak and we will spend an hour talking to a row of empty chairs and the bookstore maintenance person who sat down on his break and now is too embarrassed to get back up again.
  1. Never writing again. This is my biggest fear. Before Gilt came out, I voiced this (and several other) fears to a writer friend who had published the year before. The fear that if my book didn’t do well, my contract would be cancelled and I’d never write another. She said, “Even if you knew you wouldn’t be published, would you still write?” And my answer was yes. So now I’m afraid that the pain in my wrists will lead to acute neuropathy that will turn into some rare form of disease that no one will be able to diagnose but will render my hands useless. Or I will go blind. Or my brain will be attacked by a flesh-eating virus. And I will never write again. I love it that much, that the worst case scenario for me would be to still be living, but unable to play with words.

We are riddled with fears. Any one of them can be crippling to creativity and several can be crippling psychologically or socially. But we keep doing it. Writing. Querying. Publishing. Public speaking. Because we love it.

This is why I think writers are some of the bravest people I know. We face our fears. And keep going.

What fears have you overcome recently?

Cat Winters and THE CURE FOR DREAMING Interview

CureforDreaming_finalcover (214x324)[1]Today we celebrate the much-anticipated release of THE CURE FOR DREAMING, by our own Cat Winters, available now from Amulet Books, and which Kirkus Reviews calls “[a] gripping, atmospheric story of mind-control and self-determination.” The Corsets, Cutlasses & Candlesticks bloggers interviewed Cat about this, her second YA novel following the stunning IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS.

About the book:

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.

Interviewer interjects: “Wow! That sounds really, really cool.”

About Cat Winters:

Cat was born and raised in Southern California, near Disneyland, which may explain her love of haunted mansions, bygone eras, and fantasylands. She received degrees in drama and English from the University of California, Irvine, and formerly worked in publishing. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS, was named a 2014 Morris Award Finalist, a School Library Journal Best Book of 2013, a 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults pick, and a 2013 Bram Stoker Award Nominee. Cat lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two kids.

Our Interview:

From Jennifer McGowan: THE CURE FOR DREAMING is your second book, but it’s a standalone, so you didn’t have a “built in” world to rely upon. What made you choose this subject as the focus for your second novel, and what was the most challenging part of writing it?​

You’re exactly right, Jenn: with standalones you have to start from scratch and build an entirely new world. I began writing THE CURE FOR DREAMING around October 2011, when I was waiting to see if IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS would even sell to a publisher. I didn’t want to put all of my eggs in one basket, so I decided to come up with something entirely new that would still fall into the category of YA Gothic historical fiction.

At the time, I was listening to Kristen Lawrence’s eerie and dreamlike Halloween music (see HalloweenCarols.com), which put me in the mood to write something theatrical and Victorian, with a dash of horror. Erin Morgenstern’s THE NIGHT CIRCUS–a novel about Victorian magicians–was all the rage that fall, so instead of using the same subject matter, I decided to turn my thoughts instead to the idea of a late-nineteenth-century stage hypnotist. For a long while, I had also wanted to write about the suffrage movement in the early twentieth century, and a thought struck me: “What if a man hired a hypnotist to rid his daughter, a budding young suffragist, of her rebellion?”

The most challenging aspect was figuring out how to create the supernatural qualities of the hypnosis itself. I go beyond real hypnosis and allow my character to see the true state of the world and gender roles in 1900 America. I didn’t want to come across as completely anti-man, so I tiptoed on a delicate line, showing that the women’s rights movement has never meant that women hate all men, but still also portraying the stifling restrictions placed upon females in an era when women were treated as second-class citizens. ​

From Laura Golden: Olivia Mead is a strong and headstrong heroine who strikes me as the type who becomes more determined to fight the status quo the more people tell her she should simply follow the rules. Was there a specific woman who inspired Olivia? What parts of her can you see in yourself?

I’m so glad you asked this question, Laura, because I haven’t yet had a chance to talk about the historical figure who inspired one of Olivia’s pivotal scenes: Nellie Bly. I became intrigued by Bly, a pioneering Victorian-era journalist, as a child when I was given a book about her. When Bly was nineteen, she became enraged over a disparaging column in the PITTSBURGH DISPATCH titled “What Girls Are Good For.” She wrote a rebuttal under the name “Lonely Orphan Girl,” and the editor was so impressed, he ended up seeking her out and hiring her as a writer for the newspaper. I won’t say too much about Olivia’s similar experience in THE CURE FOR DREAMING, but she does read an opinion piece that infuriates her and writes an anonymous rebuttal—despite the fact that she’s been hypnotized into verbally silencing her anger.

I see a great deal of myself in Olivia, especially the Olivia who appears at the beginning of the novel (minus the controlling father and Victorian lifestyle). Like her, in high school I was shy and bookish and extremely awkward around boys. Speaking my mind amid people I didn’t know well sent me crawling into my shell. Olivia’s journey toward gaining confidence and strength is certainly one to which I can relate.

​From Sharon Biggs Waller: Hypnosis is such an interesting subject. How much research did you do to learn about it? Actually, what I really want to know: have you ever been hypnotized?

​I’ve had two experiences with hypnosis, Sharon. The first occurred in high school when a stage hypnotist performed in our gym. I remember being flabbergasted by the things he was able to make people do, including convincing my sweet and conservatively dressed Spanish teacher to dance like Madonna—and my teacher started unbuttoning her top in front of everyone! The hypnotist stopped her before things went too far, thankfully, but I remember being shocked and astounded.

In college I took a drama class in which a professor used us as guinea pigs for his theory that actors could perform better under hypnosis. I remember the experience being extremely relaxing. I was aware of everything that happened, but my body felt heavy and utterly at peace . . . and I ended up impressing the professor with whichever Greek tragedy monologue we happened to be performing while hypnotized. I used these two experiences, along with a great deal of research into the techniques of hypnotists and early-Victorian mesmerists, to create the hypnosis scenes in THE CURE FOR DREAMING.

CatBW[1]

From J. Anderson Coats: Both IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS and THE CURE FOR DREAMING have a delightful undercurrent of the supernatural running through them. What tips do you have for integrating supernatural elements into historical narratives without one overpowering the other?

I love this question, Jillian. I use two key methods for integrating supernatural elements into my historical narratives:

1. I start with a heightened version of reality that already involves fear. A ghost doesn’t appear in IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS until a hundred or so pages into the novel, but my protagonist, Mary Shelley Black, is already coping with a paranoid world that’s suffering from the strain of a world war, the terror of a lethal flu pandemic, and a growing obsession with spirit photography and séances. Even if my ghost never made his way into the novel, my protagonist would still be frightened. Readers are already expecting to be scared.

The same is true with THE CURE FOR DREAMING. The book opens in a theater on Halloween night in the year 1900. Olivia—a fan of horror novels, especially DRACULA—experiences a hypnotism show on a grand stage filled with glowing jack-o-lanterns, organ music, smoke, and magical young performers dressed in glamorous attire. Her imagination is stirred, even before she’s ever hypnotized. By setting up the scene of an imaginative girl spooked and entranced by the theatrics of a Halloween night, I can then easily walk my readers into my more supernatural scenes.

2. I give plausible explanations to my supernatural elements. My characters typically aren’t born with otherworldly powers. They’re regular people from bygone eras, but something happens to them that triggers the paranormal in their lives. With IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS, Mary Shelley gets struck by lightning and endures a near-death experience that awakens an ability to communicate with spirits (a phenomenon that some real-life near-death experiencers have claimed to have encountered).

In THE CURE FOR DREAMING, Olivia is hypnotized into seeing the world the way it truly is and people for who they really are. In my mind, she’s already a girl who can figure out people’s true natures, but before she’s hypnotized, she doesn’t pay close attention to—or she chooses to ignore—the ugliness and other hard-to-swallow realities around her. The hypnotism holds up a surreal magnifying glass to what she probably already knows to be true. My young hypnotist character, Henri Reverie, uses genuine hypnotism commands and methods, grounding the book in reality, but the result goes a step beyond normal hypnotherapy.

​From Katherine Longshore: As a person who loves great titles but finds it impossible to think of one, I have to ask—where did THE CURE FOR DREAMING come from? And can you tell us a little about how it applies to Olivia’s story?

Oh, thank you, Katy. I’m glad you like the title! I started off calling the book THE MESMERIST, but, as my agent and I both agreed, it seemed like we could try for something with a little more pizzazz. When I first sent the proposal to my agent, I included this sentence: “I’m currently calling the book THE CURE FOR DREAMING, but I’ve been compiling a list of other potential titles, such as MESMERIZING, HEAR ONLY ME, WHEN YOU AWAKEN, and THE AWAKENING OF OLIVIA MEAD.” She liked THE CURE FOR DREAMING the best.

The name came to me in the middle of one of my title-creating brainstorming sessions. I realized the main issue in the book is that a man is trying to cure his daughter of her “unladylike” dreams of voting and receiving a higher education, and it hit me: why not call the novel THE CURE FOR DREAMING? I immediately ran the title past my sister, who loved it, partly because she’s a big fan of the band The Cure. :)

From Jessica Spotswood: What’s the most interesting bit of research you found for THE CURE FOR DREAMING?

Ooh, Jess, that’s a hard one for me to decide. I found so many fascinating details about women’s suffrage and stage hypnotism, but I will say I particularly loved diving into all the gory details about Victorian dentistry. Originally, I made Olivia’s overbearing father a doctor, but I realized how much creepier he’d be if he were a dentist—and how his fondness of extracting patients’ teeth would correlate well with his desire to remove his daughter’s rebellion from her head. My starting point was a book called THE EXCRUCIATING HISTORY OF DENTISTRY: TOOTHSOME TALES & ORAL ODDITIES FROM BABYLON TO BRACES, by James Wynbrandt (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000). Some of my favorite finds made their way into the novel, such as the tendency of dentists to use leeches on patients’ inflamed gums to suck out the blood.

From Susan Hill Long: Cat, the wraparound cover of THE CURE FOR DREAMING– gorgeous and evocative! Can you tell us a little bit about what went into the making of it?

I’m glad you love the dust jacket as much as I do, Sue! The scene on the front cover is a photograph of an actual hypnotized Victorian girl. I found the image when I first researched late-nineteenth-century stage hypnotism, and I included the photo inside the manuscript, right before the opening chapter. My Amulet Books editor, Maggie Lehrman, and designer, Maria T. Middleton, liked the image so much, they decided to use it on the cover.

I love how Maria chose to place only half of the image on the cover. It looks like the young woman is floating off the chair. When you look at the dust jacket on the hardcover, however, you’ll see, as you just said, that the image wraps around to the back. In some ways, I think the full image, which includes ropes tied around the young woman’s legs, is even more shocking than the idea of her levitating.

You can see the full photograph—minus the color and the spooky wallpaper created by Maria—in the novel’s book trailer:

Thank you for chatting with me, ladies!

A Week in the Life of Jess

One of our suggested blog prompts was Daily Life for a Writer, but one of the things I find most fascinating (and occasionally frustrating!) is that I don’t have much of a daily routine. I don’t have children yet, and my husband is a playwright and an adjunct theatre professor who mostly works from home, so our schedules are pretty much of our own making. Here’s a sample of how I spent my last week:

MON
- sent a writing friend a present for her book birthday
- packed up swag packs for #YASH winners and other misc packages while listening to First Draft Podcast
- post office trip
- lunch outside at a cafe – veggie chili in the nice fall weather!
- coffee shop to work on reader emails and a blog interview
- pick up prescription at drug store
- metro to friend’s house, hang out with her & her baby for an hour
- go with friend to her mom’s neighborhood book club to discuss SISTERS’ FATE

TUES
- went to Chestertown (my undergrad college town, where my husband’s teaching a class this semester)
- had lunch with husband
- visited former college prof that husband is now co-teaching class with!
- walked downtown and strolled around shops
- sat by river & read book for an hour
(What did I do that evening? I forgot to write it down & totally can’t remember…)

WED
- finished reading a book for blurb & sent author & editor the blurb
- caught up on reader email
- read short story revision for PETTICOATS & PISTOLS anthology
- watched a lot of TV (GOTHAM, THE FLASH, THE ORIGINALS)

THURS
- taught writing workshop for teens
- did a 10p crit for MCS client
- answered some questions via Goodreads’ Ask an Author function
- studied some author newsletters in prep for doing mine
- emailed about Shut Up & Write Nov event planning
- listened to 2 First Draft podcasts while walking/commuting to class
- read crit ms for an hour 

FRI (semi-sick day)
- read crit ms for 4 hours
- saw a play about Marie Antoinette with husband
(What else did I do?? I didn’t take very good notes…)

SAT  (semi-sick day, sinus cold)
- napped a lot
- created Facebook event for Gettysburg Library visit in Nov
- went to see Tiny House plays (very cool)
- dinner & drinks with friends afterwards
- read for an hour

SUN 
- made roasted tomato soup
- made butternut squash soup
- cleaned house a bit
- hosted a backyard fall get-together with friends

As you can see, this week was heavy on socializing and writerly miscellaneous. I’d intended to get lots of editing and critiquing done on Fri & Sat but was felled by a pounding sinus headache. In the first half of October I’ve been focused entirely on finishing PETTICOATS & PISTOLS edits for my authors and MCS paid critiques, before I switch back to working on a proposal of my own. When I’m drafting, I aim for 1000-1500 words a day, 5 days a week – and I tend to write a lot in the evenings, so I don’t go out quite as much – so if I posted one of these in two weeks, it might well look ENTIRELY different!

What about you? What does your writing life look like? Does it vary a lot from week to week?

The Paperback Release of IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS . . . and How I Learned about Post-Publication Patience

Blackbirds_paperbacksYesterday saw the paperback release of my debut novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, a 1918-set tale involving a bright and logical sixteen-year-old girl who’s forced to deal with WWI, the Spanish influenza, and a ghost. The hardcover came out in April 2013, and my publisher, Amulet Books, decided to wait to release the paperback right before the publication of my second novel, The Cure for Dreaming. In fact, the paperback includes a sneak peek of The Cure for Dreaming.

Because eighteen months have passed since the book first entered the world, I’ve had time to think about the most important lesson I’ve learned as a published author: patience.

Anyone who’s ever tried to get a book published knows that patience is required from day one. First you need the patience to simply sit down and write the book. Then you need to take the time to polish and revise the manuscript, share the book with early readers, and submit the work to literary agents. At that point, you then wait and wait and wait to see if the book will get published.

If you’re fortunate and land a book contract with a publishing company, more waiting ensues. You wait for your editorial letter to arrive from your editor and then for all the other various editing stages. You wait to see the cover, and then you have to wait to share the cover. Most importantly, your patience is put to the ultimate test when you’re given a publication date that’s slated for eighteen months to two years–and sometimes even longer–after the day you first learned your book would be published.

CatWinters_Powells2

The April 2013 launch party at Powell’s Books, Beaverton, Oregon

Once that publication date at long last arrives, there’s cheering, there’s tweeting, there’s celebrating. In my case, my mom, whom I don’t see too often these days, flew in to Oregon from Ohio for a week. My sister flew up from California for my book launch party, and one of my best friends from college drove down from Washington state. We ate cupcakes. We went out to dinner. I signed dozens of books for readers.

Then, one week after the publication date passed, Mom flew back to Ohio, everyone else returned to their respective homes, and it became other authors’ turns to celebrate a release date. All I heard was silence. My book didn’t suddenly race to the top of the New York Times bestseller list or land me a spot on The Today Show. Life as I knew it hadn’t really changed. I was still a mom living in the suburbs of Portland, OR, driving my kids to school and cleaning up dog poop in the yard . . . still hurrying to squeeze in writing time and trying to get another book published.

Thankfully, I had a strong support team of other debut authors, who assured me postpartum book release depression is a very real thing. We hear so many stories of authors climbing to instant fame and having their books celebrated by the world, and so it’s a strange and surprising feeling to watch one’s publication date come and go with one swift rush of excitement. It’s hard to replicate that surge of sheer joy in the weeks following a publication date.

However, I learned a little secret about the way the YA book world works: buzz keeps building over time. Unlike what I’ve heard to be the norm in the world of adult fiction publishing, you do not need to have your book become a bestseller in the first weeks of publication in order for people to continue talking about it. In fact, some of my major book reviews for In the Shadow of Blackbirds didn’t even show up until after April 2013.

CatWinters_GrossmontHigh6In May 2013 I got to fly down to my book’s setting of San Diego, California, and promote the novel in high schools. While there, I learned the book had gone into its second printing. I also learned the novel was starting to receive award nominations.

Over six months after the book debuted, I found out In the Shadow of Blackbirds was a 2014 Morris Award Finalist, which suddenly gave the book even more attention. In January 2014–nearly a year after the book debuted–I got to fly to Philadelphia and celebrate with all of the other Morris Award Finalists at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting.

VestinucernychptakuSpring 2014 saw the publication of the first translated edition of the novel, a Czech edition, as well as a Scholastic Reading Club paperback edition.

Eighteen months post-publication, to my utter surprise, I’m still receiving awards and accolades for the book (I just accepted the Oregon Spirit Book Award this past weekend), and I’m still hearing from both brand-new and established fans. If I could go back to the version of me who was driving home from dropping my mom off at the airport, wondering if that was it for my book, I would say, “Just stop! Have patience. Your job was to write the strongest book you could possibly write, and now it’s time to let others spread the word about your work.”

That’s the other valuable nugget of info I learned about writing YA fiction: readers of YA novels are amazingly supportive. Thank you so much for your incredible love and enthusiasm for our books. It’s meant the world to me.

Order the paperback of In the Shadow of Blackbirds online: 

Guest Post: On Accidentally Writing Historical Fiction

Today we’re welcoming debut author Robin Talley to the blog for a guest post! Her powerful debut, LIES WE TELL OURSELVES, just released yesterday. Congratulations, Robin!

robinI never set out to write historical fiction. Before LIES WE TELL OURSELVES, everything I’d written ― everything I’d even considered writing ― was set in the here and now. I’d never dreamed I’d write a story that didn’t feature high school hallways full of blue jeans, cell phones, and homework assignments cribbed from Wikipedia.

Then I had an idea I couldn’t shake ― a novel set during the school desegregation movement in Virginia, about a black girl and a white girl who fall in love ― and I realized I had no choice. I’d accidentally become a historical novelist.

In Virginia, my home state, the battle over school desegregation came to a head in early 1959. Up until then, courts had ruled that Virginia schools had to integrate, but the governor and other state officials had been fighting those rulings with everything they had, and schools had remained segregated. In January 1959, though, the courts passed their final ruling, declaring that the all-white Virginia schools that had been barred to black students would have to open their doors.

On February 2, 1959, seventeen black teenagers walked through the doors of six all-white schools in Norfolk, Virginia. The state’s problems with racial conflict and discrimination were by no means over, but it had turned a corner from which there was no going back.

liesMy book, LIES WE TELL OURSELVES, is set in a fictional Virginia town, but it’s drawn from the experiences of those first black students who integrated all-white schools in Virginia and other states across the southern U.S. So I decided my book would open on that same day ― February 2, 1959.

The problem was, I had no idea what it was like to actually be a teenager in that era. I only knew that I couldn’t rely on the nostalgic mythology of teen life in the 1950s ― innocent, wide-eyed kids listening to Buddy Holly and wearing poodle skirts dancing at sock hops during what was supposed to have been a “simpler time.”

The teenagers I was writing about were living on the front lines one of the greatest social upheavals in modern history. They were focused on trying to stay alive. There was nothing “simple” about what was happening to them.

I needed to know what it was like to live in 1959, a time when Jim Crow laws allowed stores and restaurants to ban gay customers, women weren’t allowed to open bank accounts without their husbands’ permission, and being gay was a crime in all 50 states.

So when I started doing research, I knew I needed to learn about the Civil Rights Movement and the lawsuits that brought down school segregation. But for my story about the day-to-day lives of two teenage girls to feel authentic, I also needed to know where my characters would’ve hung out after school, who would’ve sat with whom in the school cafeteria, and how a high-school senior going on a first date would’ve styled her hair.

reachSo in addition to reading a lot of research books, memoirs, articles, and oral histories about the historical events of the time, I also watched educational videos from the 1950s about everything from how to handle nuclear war to the importance of good posture. I read teen novels from the era (my favorites included REACH FOR A STAR by Florence Crannell Means, chronicling a girl’s freshman year at Fisk University in Tennessee in 1957, and MR AND MRS BO JO JONES, about a teenage pregnancy in 1963) and teen etiquette guides like Elsie Archer’s LET’S FACE IT: THE GUIDE TO GOOD GROOMING (sample tip: “Acne bumps say you’re growing up”).

I watched some of the big movies from 1959, including Some Like It Hot (which features a fake lesbian kiss that probably shocked me even more than it did audiences at the time) and Imitation of Life (critically panned when it was released, and now considered a classic).

And I spent a lot of time at the library pouring over old yearbooks. Everyone had the exact same haircut, but you could see the skirts get shorter and the knee socks get higher from year to year.

With everything I read or watched, I took all of it with a grain of salt, conscious of the censorship and morality guidelines in that conservative, post-World War II era that restricted what could be shown, said, or even hinted at. And the more I came across the same old values ― girls should be meek and not speak up; it’s the duty of all Americans to fight against Communism; a nuclear family with a stay-at-home mom is the ideal to which we should all aspire ― the more I had to remind myself that not everyone at the time actually believed that. Each time and each culture creates its own persona, but that doesn’t make it real.

the UK edition

the UK edition

By the time I sat down to write LIES WE TELL OURSELVES, I had a lot of opinions, about both the school desegregation movement and American 1950s culture in general. Once I’d begun pouring myself into the story, though, I realized my opinions didn’t really matter. All that mattered was the story I was telling.

The research I’d done had informed every word I wrote, but I wasn’t writing a treatise. I was writing a story about a girl named Sarah and a girl named Linda and what they believed about the time they were living through.

The next book I’m working on is a contemporary, but I hope to write another historical novel someday. I recently wrote a short story set in the late 1960s for the upcoming PETTICOATS AND PISTOLS historical anthology, and it reminded me how much fun it is to learn everything I can about a time and place that’s a part of our collective past. It’s so easy to get sucked in, knowing that all of this stuff really did happen ― even if the characters I’m writing about are people who exist only in my head.

Because there’s a lot to be said for learning about something that shaped who we are today. Even if it starts out as an accident.

Robin Talley grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, writing terrible teen poetry and riding a desegregation bus to the school across town. A Lambda Literary Fellow, Robin lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife, plus an antisocial cat and a goofy hound dog. When Robin’s not writing, she’s often planning communication strategies at organizations fighting for equal rights and social justice. You can find her on the web at www.robintalley.com or on Twitter at @robin_talley. And you can add LIES WE TELL OURSELVES on Goodreads here.