Today we have another amazing author joining us. Cat Winters is the author of several mesmerizing novels, including In the Shadow of Blackbirds, which was listed as one of the best books of 2013 by School Library Journal. She has also published two other YA books: The Cure For Dreaming and The Steep And Thorny Way. Cat's newest novel, entitled Yesternight, comes out this Tuesday and focuses on the relationship between a psychologist and her peculiar patient. We are so honored Cat took some time away from her busy schedule to talk to us today.
James: In the Shadow of Blackbirds provides its readers with a glimpse into one of the most fascinating yet oft-ignored times in American history. Can you tell us about that?
Cat: The novel is set in 1918 America, a time when the U.S. mobilized over four million military personnel for World War I, a global conflict unprecedented in size and violence. That same year a deadly strain of the flu rose up out of nowhere. It followed troops across the world, infiltrated communities large and small, and killed more people than the war itself. Out of the grief and chaos arose a Spiritualism craze, which meant people flocked to séances in hopes of communicating with spirits of deceased loved ones. They also visited photographers who claimed to capture images of the dead. Just like modern-day frauds who prey on people during large-scale tragedies, most of the mediums and photographers who claimed to put mourners in contact with the dead were con artists who tricked people out of money.
Everything about 1918 was rife with conflict and seemed perfect for the setting of a novel. Thus, In the Shadow of Blackbirds was born.
James: How did you conduct your research while you were writing this novel?
Cat: As much as possible I try to use primary sources to research all of my novels. That means I’m looking for documents, letters, books, etc., that were created in the actual time period, as opposed to reading only more modern books that quote such resources. I formerly lived in the book’s central setting of San Diego, California, so I’ve walked down all of the streets that I mention in the novel and visited the historical sites that are still standing. I read numerous letters written between WWI soldiers and their loved ones to get a feel for the language and concerns of the time period, and I pored over newspaper articles from the time period. Research is an ongoing process that stretches from the moments a novel is conceived all the way through to the final proofreading stages before the book goes to print.
James: In The Shadow of Blackbirds also deals extensively with ghosts. Have you ever had any experiences with the supernatural?
Cat: I became obsessed with ghost stories in elementary school when I found a book about real-life haunted houses in my school’s library. I loved the rush of terror I felt when I read such stories, and I convinced myself that my room was haunted. I have a feeling most of my paranormal experiences from back then were the product of an overactive imagination and all of that reading.
As an adult I’ve taken numerous ghost tours across the country, including a particularly terrifying ghost and vampire tour of New Orleans during a nighttime lightning storm. I saw a strange mist hovering in the air on that tour, and I always get the spooked feeling of being watched whenever I’m in a place that’s reputed to be haunted. However, I’ve never had the type of experience where I can say, “Yes, that was definitely a ghost.” I’ve spoken to many people who have, though. Strangers who’ve just met me tend to confide in me about their experiences with spirits or show me their ghostly photos on their phones.
James: Mary mentions throughout the novel that she is named after the author of Frankenstein. What similarities do you see between that novel and your own?
Cat: The character showed up in my head with the name Mary Shelley Black already attached to her, and even though I sometimes wondered if readers would find it weird that I was always calling her “Mary Shelley” in the book, I couldn’t imagine her with any other name. The first connection I wanted to make between my book and Frankenstein was the quest for answers about life beyond death and the reanimation of the dead. Dr. Frankenstein brings a cobbled-together corpse back to life, and, similarly, Mary Shelley Black—a curious girl with an insatiable thirst for knowledge—briefly dies but returns to her body for a second chance at life. In some ways she’s both the scientist and the monster. In the Shadow of Blackbirds also digs into Frankenstein’s warnings about playing God and the dangers of disregarding human safety in the name of technology and scientific inquiry.
James: I absolutely loved the haunting images that you chose to include along with the text. Where did you find those pictures? And was your decision to include them in any way connected to Ransom Riggs' novel Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children?
Cat: I’m thrilled to hear you enjoyed the images. I was more influenced by the use of photographs in Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants than by the photos in Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. Gruen’s novel is set in the world of circuses in the 1930s, and throughout the book, she included archival images related to each upcoming section of the story. As a reader, I loved this use of photos and felt it transported me even further into the novel’s historical world. The book became a literary time machine.
Photography plays a major role throughout the entire plot of In the Shadow of Blackbirds. It made sense to me to feature some of the types of photos that were discussed in the novel, namely the early-1900s spirit photographs. Some early readers thought I had made up the Spanish influenza, so I also wanted to incorporate 1918 images to prove that all of this history actually occurred. For the spirit photographs, I worked with the owner of the American Museum of Photography. For the other images, I explored the archives of the Library of Congress and the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
James: In The Shadow of Blackbirds was your debut novel, but you've published several more in the three years since. Which of your other books would you recommend to someone who's just finished In The Shadow of Blackbirds?
Cat: I think it depends on which elements of In the Shadow of Blackbirds they enjoyed most. If they were drawn to the paranormal aspects and/or the feminism of the novel, I’d recommend The Cure for Dreaming. If they liked the mystery, I’d say The Steep and Thorny Way. If they were intrigued by the time period, I’d tell them to try my first novel for adults, The Uninvited, which School Library Journal recommended to teen readers. All of my novels up to this point involve strong female protagonists who stand up against injustices, so in some ways I think of each of these books as follow-ups to my debut.
James: You've written books for teens and books for adults. How is writing young adult literature different than writing adult fiction?
Cat: The main difference is the age of the protagonists—their perspectives. In my young adult novels, my main characters range from the ages of fifteen to eighteen. They’re still supervised by parents or other guardians and struggling for independence. In the course of the novel, they undergo major, life-altering experiences that shape who they’ll become in the future.
In my adult novels, my main characters are in their mid-twenties. Their pasts have already deeply affected them (not always in good ways), and they’re fighting to break free from and rise above their mistakes and reinvent themselves.
James: What's the most meaningful compliment you've ever received from a reader?
Cat: I’ve had people who’ve recently lost loved ones reach out to me and thank me for writing In the Shadow of Blackbirds. I’ve also heard from teachers who’ve told me their young female readers pass around The Cure for Dreaming and excitedly tell each other they’re feminists, as if they’re just then discovering the history of gender inequality. Whenever I hear that I’ve moved or inspired someone—or even gotten them to take a closer look at history—I’m touched.
James: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
Cat: HarperCollins will release Yesternight, my newest novel for adults, in two days! It’s set in 1925 and involves a young psychologist who explores the case of a seven-year-old girl who claims to have lived a past life.
I also recently handed in my next young adult novel, currently titled Odd & True, which Abrams will publish Fall 2017. It takes place between the years 1894 and 1909, and it’s about two sisters, American monster legends, family secrets, deception, magic, and the power of storytelling.
James: What's your favorite place to read?
Cat: Honestly, I get so little time to read for fun these days that I’m happy just to read anywhere. When I’m not writing, I’m either hanging out with my husband and kids or reading books for research. Mainly, I squeeze in the novels I want to read when I’m sitting on airplanes on my way to appearances, which makes the books feel like the special treats that they are.
That's it for today's interview with Cat. But if you have any questions for Cat or want to let her know how In the Shadow of Blackbirds has impacted you, be sure to check out her website and reach out to her on Twitter. And be sure to come back again for our next interview with the amazing Jay Asher!