An Interview with 2014 Morris Award Finalist Cat Winters

In the Shadow of the Blackbirds by Cat Winters

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 séances, in the 1997 Smithsonian magazine article “The Man Who Believed in Fairies,” 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 “Mary Shelley” 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 “Mary” and “Moira.” 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.

Mary Shelley’s reaction to the chaotic, dangerous world around her is so perfect for a sixteen year-old. She is matter-of-fact about the dreariness of death and isolation, but definitely aware that she is cheated of a normal life by outside events. Why did you choose a teenager to tell the story? Why a girl?

I’ve always found that something special happens when younger people narrate stories about the world’s darkest moments. Innocence, hope, and even humor seep into the tale, far more than if an adult were telling the story. I loved the idea of guiding readers through the horrors of 1918 through a teen voice that was logical, curious, resilient, whip smart, and stubborn. Mary Shelley is jaded and cynical at times, but at other moments she feels she can heal the world. The character showed up as a girl, so that’s how I let her stay, although readers might notice I played around with gender roles a bit. This is essentially the story of a courageous girl who embarks upon a dangerous crusade to save a boy.

The use of historical photographs adds so much to the reader’s experience. They are very powerful – stark, eerie, and otherworldly. Can you tell us how you selected these images? Were there others that you would have liked to include?

1918 PosterI’m thrilled readers have enjoyed the archival images. Photography was always an essential part of the plot, so it made sense to place actual historical photos into the book. Originally, I planned to only use early-twentieth-century spirit photographs, but those photos are expensive to license. So, I included just a few examples of these “ghost” shots and expanded to images from WWI and the Spanish influenza, strategically placing the photos throughout the book so they would help illustrate the plot and provide some clues about the central mystery. The National Library of Medicine proved to be particularly helpful in finding photographs and investigating the rights status for me, and I even had a team of archivists hunting down a lost image at one point. I couldn’t use that particular photo because the high-resolution copy simply wasn’t available, and we had to delete an instructional flu mask poster to trim down the page count, but I’m so pleased with the photos and WWI posters we were able to use.

In 1918, it seems like séances straddled a line between entertainment and true comfort to the bereaved. Photography played a strong role in establishing the validity of such spiritualism. Did you find some incredible “spirit” photographs in your research?

Most of the spirit photography from the late 1800s and early 1900s looks incredibly phony to the modern eye. The “spirits” in the images are obviously two-dimensional drawings or the results of trick photography. However, I’m always impressed with the way early spirit photographer William Mumler doctored his post-Civil War images to make it look like ghosts were holding onto their living loved ones. There’s a famous photo of Mary Todd Lincoln posing with the “spirit” of her deceased husband, and Lincoln’s transparent hands rest on her shoulders—a fascinating photography feat for a time period that occurred long before the age of Photoshop.

Mary Shelley and Stephen are physically together for just a small part of the novel, but the unwavering passion of their relationship makes his return to her believable.  Their affair has the classic, fated feel of the best period romances. Were you inspired by any other literary lovers, by chance?

Yes, definitely. As a teenager I devoured classic Gothic novels, such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. In high school I even filled three spiral-bound notebooks with my own Rebecca-inspired novel, which I called The Days of Devonshire. I also loved Poe’s poems and stories about doomed lovers, especially the tragic and morbid “Annabel Lee,” and I adored old Alfred Hitchcock films like Vertigo and Spellbound, which involved tales of obsession, mystery, and murder. All of those early influences played a role in Mary Shelley and Stephen’s love story.

One of the most powerful elements of the novel is your portrayal of the returning soldiers. I’m sure many readers were horrified to learn of the widespread disfigurement and “shell shock.” How did you find so much specific detail about these men?

Shell Shock by Wendy Holden

My research on WWI soldiers started with reading Wendy Holden’s Shell Shock and Meirion and Susie Harries’s The Last Days of Innocence: America at War, 1917-1918. I’m descended from WWI and WWII soldiers who returned from the wars relatively unscathed, but my heart broke to pieces when I read the various ways people were mentally and physically affected by the brutal WWI battles in the filthy, fever-infested trenches. I found some incredibly difficult-to-watch online video footage of men from the era who suffered from “shell shock” (the time period’s name for post-traumatic stress disorder), and I read fascinating articles about the masks created to hide facial disfigurement from trench warfare. If anyone has seen the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, the character Richard Harrow wears such a mask. The fields of mental health and reconstructive surgery were put to the test and forced to advance because of this war.

I have to thank my editor, Maggie Lehrman, for encouraging me to lengthen Mary Shelley’s visit with the veterans in the Red Cross House. Originally, her visit consisted of one brief scene containing very few characters aside from Paul Spitz, but Maggie wanted to see more of the veterans, and that’s how Carlos, Jones, and all the rest of the recuperating soldiers emerged. It’s a scene that seems to haunt readers more than any other part of the book.

The section of Frederic Manning’s poem, The Trenches, is well-placed in the pages before Mary Shelley meets the men at the Red Cross House. It warns Mary Shelley, and the reader, of the terrible things the soldiers have experienced. The final lines also inform the title. Was this poem the inspiration for the blackbird motif?

I’m glad you enjoyed the placement of that poem. The blackbird motif actually originated with one of the historical photographs. I won’t go into detail in fear of spoiling key plot points, but the image that gave me the idea shows up in the book right before the big reveal.

I had studied WWI poetry in both high school and college, and when I was working on In the Shadow of Blackbirds, I had a feeling I would easily be able to find a chilling reference to birds in the writings of a real-life soldier. When I came upon Manning’s “The Trenches,” I knew I had to have Mary Shelley stumble upon the poem when she’s seeking answers in the library scene. Because this is a book about the horrors of WWI that doesn’t actually take place in the middle of the fighting, I had to carefully choose the ways I presented the war to allow readers to feel they had still experienced the battlefields.

Please tell us about your next book, The Cure for Dreaming, scheduled to be released in Fall, 2014.

We don’t have an official catalog synopsis yet, so I’ll give you my unofficial version:

The Cure for Dreaming is set in 1900 Portland, Oregon, and involves quiet, bookish Olivia Mead, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a dentist who’s feared for his love of tooth extractions. Olivia attends her first women’s suffrage rally the same day Henri Reverie, a talented young stage hypnotist, arrives in town for a week of performances. Dr. Mead, terrified of modern-minded women—especially suffragists, temperance crusaders, and his own rebellious ex-wife—hires Henri to remove unfeminine thoughts and dreams from Olivia’s head…yet the hypnotism cure doesn’t go quite as planned. The book will include a collection of late-Victorian photographs, theater posters, and dental imagery that will likely make you thankful for our modern era.

Sounds great! Your fans are already lining up

Diane Colson, currently reading Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross and listening to Longbourn by Jo Baker and read by Emma Fielding.