Hi! Today we’re celebrating the release of Cat Winters’ IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS, out today in the UK and tomorrow in the US. The members of Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks have all taken turns asking her some questions, but first, let’s find out a little more about Cat’s wonderful debut:
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.
Now for our questions:
J. Anderson Coats: What’s one book you *wish* you’d have written?
Cat: My all-time favorite novel is Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I’ve read it over and over since I was nine years old, and each time I revisit it, I discover something new. The characters and the setting are just so powerful and unforgettable, and I love how the story veers between laugh-out-loud funny scenes to gut-wrenching moments that make me furious. It’s a book that needed to be written by a Southern writer, which I’m not, so I don’t think I could have written it even if I had wanted to.
Jessica Spotswood: What are your favorite Gothic novels, and how did they influence IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS?
Cat: In high school I loved the works of Edgar Allan Poe and the Gothic novels of the Brontë sisters. Their dark family dramas and moody atmospheres definitely influenced the creation of the Embers family at the center of my novel, as well as some of my settings. I adored Daphne Du Maurier’s REBECCA and her use of a delicious twist at the end of her story, a writing device I tried to emulate in my own book. My protagonist, Mary Shelley Black, is named after the author of FRANKENSTEIN, a favorite read from my college days. IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS also deals with FRANKENSTEIN-influenced themes such as the power of electricity, reanimated life, and the morbid side of science.
Laura Golden: I love the title IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS! Could you talk a bit about how that title was chosen?
Cat: Thanks, Laura! Originally, I was thinking about calling the book something like THE SHADOW WANDERERS, but my agent, Barbara Poelle, wasn’t fond of that name. For the longest time I called it simply BLACKBIRDS, and after Barbara read the manuscript for the first time, she came back with IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS—which I loved! I can’t give away too many details about the titular blackbirds themselves. Let’s just say that they bother my ghost.
Renee Collins: Does writing such spooky material ever keep you up at night?
Cat: The part that spooked me the most was researching near-death experiences. My main character endures such an experience early on in the novel, and I wanted those moments to be based on accounts of real people who died for a short while and came back to life. One of my grandmothers went through that in the 1960s, and I’ve always been fascinated by goose-bump-inducing stories of her life after she returned. I read THE BIG BOOK OF NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES by P.M.H. Atwater, and some of the information in that enormous volume gave me the chills when I read it late at night. There was an account of a fast-moving, red-eyed creature that some near-death-experiencing children have seen, and that information freaked me out.
Sharon Biggs Waller: How did you research the world of spiritualism and spirit photography for your book? And what was your most thrilling find?
Cat: I read books such as Harry Houdini’s A MAGICIAN AMONG THE SPIRITS, Mary Roach’s SPOOK: SCIENCE TACKLES THE AFTERLIFE, and THE PERFECT MEDIUM: PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE OCCULT, by Clement Cheroux, Pierre Apraxine, Andreas Fischer, and Denis Canguilhem. I also studied historical spirit photographs at sites like http://photographymuseum.com/believe1.html and http://scienceandsociety.co.uk. Sadly, the scariest things I found weren’t the spirits themselves; it was more frightening to read about human beings preying upon the grief of desperate people, making money off mourners’ attempts to find proof of the afterlife. I have seen ghostly photos that give me shivers, but, mainly, as far as historical studio spirit photography goes, they all seem like early examples of trick photography.
Jennifer McGowan: What element of your book has stuck with you the longest since you wrote it–what image or scene (without giving anything away!) has stayed with you??
Cat: Some of the later scenes in the novel—scenes I can’t discuss without revealing secrets—have definitely stayed with me, but I also think often of an early scene between Mary Shelley and her first love, Stephen (aka the book’s ghost). They’ve been childhood friends for years, but they never fully embrace their love for each other until the day before Stephen leaves for war, which is the last time Mary Shelley sees him alive. When I was working on later-stage revisions for the novel, I allowed them to be together just a tiny bit longer, kiss a few more times, before I pulled them away from each other. The scene is all about love and loss and the delicate moments when innocence and childhood end.
Katherine Longshore: What is your favorite of Mary Shelley’s personality traits and how does it fit into (or not) your historical time period?
Cat: My favorite part about Mary Shelley Black is her love of taking things apart, figuring out how they work, and fixing them if needed, which eventually leads to a curiosity about damaged people. She’s the child of a mechanically inclined, free-thinking man and a woman who was a physician in an era when ladies didn’t typically hold such a profession. Therefore, Mary Shelley doesn’t necessarily think of herself as an oddity in her time period, even though she definitely is one. I felt it would be really interesting to see what would happen when such a logical, rational, scientific-minded girl is placed into an era and situations that defy logic.
Thanks so much for answering our questions, Cat!
Cat Winters is the author of In the Shadow of Blackbirds, a WWI-era ghost tale coming April 2, 2013, from Amulet Books/ABRAMS. Visit her online at www.catwinters.com, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.