Continuing our author interviews of the 2014 Morris Award Finalists, we turn to Cat Winters, author of In the Shadow of the Blackbirds. Winters takes readers to deadly 1918, when the Spanish influenza spread rapidly across the globe even as World War I continued to rage. Sixteen year-old Mary Shelley Black has been send to live with her aunt in San Diego after her father is arrested for treason. The scene is inconceivable to contemporary teens; ordinary girls covering their faces gauze masks, ordinary boys returning from war with shredded minds and bodies. Winter’s use of historical photographs delivers an additional wallop to this powerful portrayal.
Congratulations! It’s quite an accomplishment to have your debut novel selected for the Morris Award. In the Shadow of the Blackbirds is an excellent book on so many levels, most particularly the detailed historical setting. Is that where your inspiration for the book started, with the time period? Or was it something else?
Thank you so much! I was incredibly honored to learn In the Shadow of Blackbirds was selected as a Morris Award finalist. The news still feels surreal to me.
This book definitely started with the time period. Way back when I was twelve years old, I saw a Ripley’s Believe It or Not TV episode about the Cottingley Fairies, a real-life story of two English girls who fooled the world into believing they had photographed fairies during the tumultuous World War I period. Years later, I came across more Cottingley Fairy info, as well as the history of sÃ©ances, in the 1997 Smithsonian magazine article â€œThe Man Who Believed in Fairies,â€ by Tom Huntington. Ever since I read that article, I’ve been fascinated with the way WWI, the deadly Spanish influenza, and the Spiritualism craze intersected in 1918 to create a tense atmosphere of fear and paranoia. It took me quite a while to figure out how to successfully incorporate that history into a novel, but once I started focusing on the spirit photography fad of the era and decided to make my protagonist a sixteen-year-old girl, everything fell into place.
Why â€œMary Shelleyâ€ Black? Is this a personal tribute to the author Mary Shelley?
Mary Shelley Black was always a strong, vivid character who first tried making her way into a couple other plot possibilities that never actually progressed beyond the idea stages. She seemed like a person whose name should start with an M, so I toyed with â€œMaryâ€ and â€œMoira.â€ Once I decided she’d make the perfect narrator for In the Shadow of Blackbirds, she insisted on being called Mary Shelley Black. I know that explanation makes me sound a little like one of my spirit medium characters, but that’s truly how her name came about. I studied and loved Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a college undergrad, so once I knew I’d be writing from the point of view of a girl named after the author, I let a few other nods to the classic horror story slip into the book.