I’m thrilled to welcome debut author Cat Winters to the blog today! I absolutely adored In the Shadow of Blackbirds (you can read my review here), and I was so excited when she offered to answer some questions. Not only that, but there is also a very special giveaway at the end of this post! (And when I say special, I mean it—it’s one of a kind!)
BB&B: Welcome to the blog, Cat! You know how much I loved your book, and I appreciate you taking time out of your very busy schedule to answer some questions:) The setting for In the Shadow of Blackbirds was a remarkable choice. You chose a period of history when so many bad things were happening and life was extremely difficult for many people. Was it easier to write from this place of horror, than say choosing a more “friendly” period of history to write about?
Cat Winters: Thank you for having me! This book pretty much started with the history itself. A while back I read an article about the origin of Spiritualism (séances, spirit photography, Ouija boards, etc.) in Victorian-era America, and I learned about the resurgence in the belief in spirit communication during the WWI time period. The more I dug into the history of 1918, the more I discovered all the real-life horrors: the violence of trench warfare, the deadly Spanish influenza, the fearful atmosphere of “superpatriotism” gripping the U.S. The time period itself was absolutely terrifying, even without the spirit communication factor, which I suppose did make my job of writing a horror story easier. I’m currently writing a Gothic historical novel set in a “friendlier” time period, so I’m digging a little deeper into the characters themselves to find the horror.
The story begins in Portland, Oregon (where you live) but mostly takes place in San Diego, CA. What made you choose San Diego as the primary location?
I’m a Southern California native, and I spent the first nine years of my post-college life in San Diego. That’s where I found my first real job, enjoyed the early years of my marriage, and had my first child, so the city is near and dear to my heart.
Furthermore…San Diego has an intriguing ghostly side, despite its sunshine and warmth. One of my favorite activities while living in the area was visiting its alleged haunted sites: the Hotel del Coronado, the Villa Montezuma (home to a Victorian-era Spiritualist), and the Whaley House, which was officially designated a haunted house by the U.S. Department of Commerce. I find the idea of a Gothic version of sunny California to be absolutely fascinating.
I’ve been to the Hotel del Coronado, and it’s definitely got a ghost! There are so many historical details in your book, and they add a wonderful layer to the already engaging story. Did you spend lots of time doing research for your story?
Yes, I spent literally years conducting 1918 research. Originally, I had written an entirely different book set in this time period, but it never went anywhere. When the idea for In the Shadow of Blackbirds arose, I dove even further into the era and found a wealth of details I knew I had to use. You can visit http://www.blackbirdsnovel.com to see some of my favorite reference books, history-related websites, historical images, and 1918 movies, all of which helped me with my research. I also pored over WWI letters, personal accounts of the Spanish influenza, and literature from the time period.
Have you yourself ever had a ghostly experience, one that just can’t be explained?
When I was thirteen, I woke up one night to the sensation of my blankets getting pulled off my bed, and then something ran its finger down my spine. As soon as I could move, I bolted to my sister’s room and spent the rest of the night with her, wide-eyed and terrified. When I got up the next morning, my mom discovered I had a fever, so that phantom visitor was more than likely a fever hallucination. Even though I know there’s a rational explanation for that ghostly encounter, I still can’t sleep on my stomach because of it.
How cool! What books, authors, movies or other type of media influenced you to write In the Shadow of Blackbirds (or writing in general)?
In the Shadow of Blackbirds was mainly influenced by the types of books and movies I loved as a teen. I was a huge fan of classic Gothic literature, especially the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the Brönte sisters, Daphne du Maurier, and of course, Mary Shelley. Not only is my protagonist named after Mary Shelley, but I included several other nods to Frankenstein throughout In the Shadow of Blackbirds.
I also LOVED Alfred Hitchcock movies. My parents were teenagers when Hitchcock was at the height of his career in the 1960s, and when I was a teen, they introduced me to several of his films: Psycho, Vertigo, The Birds, Spellbound, etc. I adored the way many of his movies would lead you by the hand down one road and then knock you completely sideways with a deliciously dark, unexpected twist, which is something I tried to emulate with In the Shadow of Blackbirds.
Mary Shelley is one of my favorite all-time female characters. She is so strong and resilient and a real fighter. By the time you finished writing the book, did her character turn out to be what you’d envisioned, or did she evolve over the course of writing to be something else altogether?
Wow! Thanks so much for your praise of Mary Shelley Black! She came to me as a strong, bright, logical, highly curious girl, which seemed to me the perfect narrator for a story about a time period that defies logic. A weaker, more gullible character would have been devoured by the events in the book after the first few chapters.
What I find the most interesting as I read comments from early readers is the debate about whether or not the hardships she endures cause her to lose her mind…and whether she’s even really seeing a ghost. Originally I planned to make her strong and full of vigor all the way through to the final pages, but the more I wrote, the more I realized it would be far more interesting to hear her voice becoming exhausted and beaten down. If that opens up a debate about her sanity, then I feel I’ve done my job at creating a character who is worth discussing.
As a debut author, what was your “road to publishing” story like?
I took the long, lonnnnng road to publishing. I’ve been through two agents, had two other novels make the round to publishers without any success, and written numerous other manuscripts, but it wasn’t until I switched to writing YA fiction that I sold a book. I originally tried breaking into the adult fiction market, but my novels never fit neatly into one genre. Marketing departments turned down my work, even when editors fell in love with it. Ironically, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, incorporates at least a half-dozen genres, yet Amulet Books took the plunge and made an offer. I’m incredibly thankful that my agent, Barbara Poelle, encouraged me to branch out and try writing a YA novel. I feel I’m finally free to make the most of my imagination.
OK, just for fun, can you tell us three things about you that cannot be found on your website?
(1) When I was in college at the University of California, Irvine, I was a deejay at the campus radio station and hosted rap, hip-hop, ska, alternative rock, and worldbeat shows, using the air name “The Catmeister.”
(2) I’m descended from the founder of the infamous city of Salem, Massachusetts.
(3) When I was about eight years old, I started writing poems in a little orange spiral notebook, which I still have to this day.
That was so much fun! Many thanks to Cat for taking the time to stop by and visit:) Don’t forget to add In the Shadow of Blackbirds to your Goodreads list, or pre-order it from Amazon (see links below)!
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 debut novel, IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS—a YA ghost tale set during the World War I era—is coming April 2, 2013, from Amulet Books/ABRAMS. She currently lives outside of Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two kids.
IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS, coming April 2013 http://www.catwinters.com
“[A] masterful debut novel…deliciously creepy…” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
And now for a super cool giveaway! Cat’s sister made this one-of-a-kind In the Shadow of Blackbirds charm bracelet, and Cat’s giving it away to one lucky winner (U.S. & Canada only)! Isn’t it gorgeous? Wouldn’t you love to win it? Simply fill out the form below to enter. You automatically get one entry, but you can do extra stuff for extra entries (and extra chances to win!).
This giveaway is now closed. A winner will be announced soon!