Author Interview: Cat Winters

Cat Winters is the writer of In the Shadow of Blackbirds that I got to review just last week! She is the first writer I have ever interviewed and guys, she was so sweet! I wish I were more professional. *ahem* Anyway, onwards with the biography and interview:

“Cat Winters 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 (Amulet Books), is a nominee for YALSA’s 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults and was named one of Booklist‘s 2013 Top Ten Horror Fiction for Youth. Her second novel, The Cure for Dreaming, is coming Fall 2014 (Amulet Books). Cat lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two kids.” – [X]

Clearly you have done some meticulous research for this fabulous novel, but editing can be a rough process and sometimes a writer simply cannot include everything they found during their research trawls. Was there a piece of research you really wanted to include but couldn’t work in? Or a photograph that really intrigued you and was wrench to put aside?

Ah, yes, there were definitely several historical research items and photographs that needed to be put aside. Originally, the book included a major subplot involving a family of orphaned German-American teens and kids, but I was told their story was getting in the way of the main plot. I was still able to include some examples of prejudice and violence against Germans living in the U.S. during WWI, but that aspect of the book was sizably scaled down.

I couldn’t include as many archival spirit photographs as I had originally wanted, because those particular images were expensive to license. The advance reading copy of the book included a wonderful 1918 newspaper clipping that contained an unsettling image of a woman in a flu mask, as well as instructions about avoiding the Spanish influenza.

Blackbirds_Illustration4

Unfortunately, we had to cut that page for the final edition. The book was getting too long.

A few pages in, I was dying to know who was responsible for the design of In the Shadow of Blackbirds. Everything is so purposefully laid out- from the font type to the matching up of photographs to their respective chapters. How closely did you get to work with Maria T. Middleton on the design of this book? Was the placement of photographs something that you got to work on?

Isn’t Maria’s design amazing? I’m completely blown away by how gorgeous this book looks, right down to the blackbird stamp hiding beneath the dust jacket (make sure you take a peek at that beauty). I picked out all the photographs myself and showed Maria where I though they should be placed, and she and my editor were both gracious enough to follow my instructions. I didn’t get to see the cover, fonts, and chapter headers until after Maria designed them, but I loved everything she did with this book. She’s a designer who actually sits down and reads an entire manuscript before starting her work. Back in April, I interviewed her about the In the Shadow of Blackbirds design at

http://thelucky13s.blogspot.com/2013/03/cover-scoop-in-shadow-of-blackbirds-by.html.

The end of The Great War and the middle of the First Wave of Feminism is an interesting backdrop for a character like Mary Shelley Black, especially with her name! Your book does a great job of showing how women were beginning to reassess their understanding of gender norms in the face of global change, and I loved that. However, what I really appreciated was the nuanced portrayal of male characters as well- Stephen, Paul, even Julius, feel so real. Each seem to be struggling with their own understanding of what it is like to be male in a war-torn, disease-ridden, near-dystopian world. How difficult (or easy) was writing these very different boys and men from the view point of someone like Mary Shelley? And what kinds of literature did you feel the need to revisit in order to properly portray the emergence of a new kind of wartime masculinity?

Thank you for mentioning the boys and men in the novel. They often get overshadowed by Mary Shelley in discussions, but they’re such an important part of this book.

Mary Shelley relates better to males than females, so in that sense it was fairly easy for me to write about the men and boys from her point of view. She’s skilled at picking up on males’ fears and weaknesses when they’re attempting to be brave, partly because she, too, prefers to appear strong and in control, even when she’s crumbling to pieces inside.

I read several archival letters that WWI soldiers had written to their loved ones, and all of the men typically sounded like they were doing just fine—everything was just swell over there on the battlefields. Yet whenever I researched soldiers’ experiences in the trenches, I knew most of those letter writers had to have been putting on brave fronts so their wives, sweethearts, and parents back home wouldn’t worry. I really enjoyed showing Stephen’s conflicts about the war and his own masculinity through his letters to Mary Shelley. His letter from the beginning of the U.S. involvement in the war in April 1917 (Chapter 14) contains some of my personal favorite lines from the novel. I also particularly loved writing the characters of Jones, Carlos, and Paul, the young war veterans. All those characters emerged just from reading real-life accounts of the war. The pressure to appear brave, patriotic, and manly was incredibly intense in 1918, but my goodness, those people went through some hellish experiences. I’m sure there were times they just wanted to break down and cry.

I would argue that the truly scary parts of this book are the non-fantastical elements, i.e. the horrific, unglamorous aspects of wartime. There are details that you’ve presented us with that I had never encountered in a classroom setting. Was there a particular part of researching the war that shook you to the core?

I found actual footage of men suffering from debilitating cases of shell shock (what we now call posttraumatic stress disorder) as a result of WWI. The video is extremely difficult to watch, but I made myself do it so I could completely understand how damaging war can be on a person’s mind. It shook me to the core to think that human beings—not anything supernatural or imagined—were the cause of those men’s terror.

While your book is most certainly part historical fiction, it does take a decidedly gothic turn what with the involvement of ghosts. What is your favourite part of working with the horror/gothic genre? Why do you think horror/gothic genres are important to read? (Perhaps I should ask first if you think the horror/gothic genre is an important genre to read?)

I’ve always been a huge fan of gothic horror and ghost stories, so when I write an eerie scene, I get a thrill out of taking readers by the hand and guiding them into dark, evocative places that will get their hearts pounding—the way my own heart pounds when I read a good, spooky novel. Fear is a universally experienced emotion that rules so much of our lives, and I believe scary stories are a way for us to face and deal with our own anxieties and concerns in a safe environment.

Bonus Question! What book would you recommend for this year’s All Hallow’s Read?

Ooh, that’s a tough one. I could recommend so many! Let’s go with a recent release: April Genevieve’s Tucholke’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. It’s a modern gothic tale about a small New England town that’s visited by a mysterious stranger who exudes danger.

Cat’s new book The Cure for Dreaming will be out sometime in the fall next year, and we at The Book Wars look forward to being hypnotized by its contents.