I am so excited to kick off (is there a kickoff in the middle of a football game? Bad metaphor!) my part of our annual Morris Award interview series with Cat Winters, author of the spooky-cool In the Shadow of Blackbirds, a chilling and suprising ghost story set in World War I-slash-Influenza Pandemic era San Diego. Visit Cat at her website.
From YALSA: In the Shadow of Blackbirds written by Cat Winters, published by Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS.
At the height of the Spanish flu pandemic, WWI, and the Spiritualism movement, outspoken Mary Shelley Black is adrift in a fear-ravaged San Diego. While her childhood friend Stephen challenges her heart, his antagonistic spirit-photographer brother, Julius, represents everything her scientific mind abhors. When the unthinkable happens, how will Mary Shelley endure the unbearable losses, not to mention the evolution of her supernatural abilities?
Everybody, welcome Cat Winters!
--First, give us the vital stats on IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS. What was the inspiration for the novel? How long did it take to write? Was this truly your first book, or are there secret manuscripts lurking in desk drawers or dark closets?
Various moments in my life served as inspiration for this novel:
At the age of 12, I watched a TV show about two girls in England who fooled the world into believing they had photographed fairies during the heartbreaking years of WWI.
When I was 22, I taught ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT to a high school English class and became fascinated by WWI propaganda posters and the struggles of everyday soldiers who gave their bodies and their minds to the war.
Later in my 20s, I read the 1997 SMITHSONIAN magazine article “The Man Who Believed in Fairies” by Tom Huntington and discovered the strange, sad history of Spiritualism, which led me to further investigate the WWI time period and stumble upon the 1918 Spanish influenza.
I started writing IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS when I was 38 years old, after spending close to fifteen years unsuccessfully trying to sell adult fiction manuscripts. My agent had tried with all her might to sell my latest attempt at publication—a contemporary suburban satire involving a vampire—and a few publishers told her they were only interested in paranormal tales if they were historical. That’s when I said, “You know, for a long time I’ve wanted to write a book involving Spiritualism in 1918 America.” The characters and the central plot for IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS emerged as soon as we discussed the possibility of me making a switch to writing YA fiction. We sold the book to Amulet Books/Abrams one month after my 40th birthday—2 years after I started writing the novel, 17 years after I first started seriously writing for publication, and 28 years after I learned about that WWI fairy photograph hoax.
--Everyone loves to hear great stories about The Call! Would you share yours? How did you hear about your Morris Award nomination? Were you familiar with the award? How familiar were you with your fellow finalists’ work?
My publicist at Abrams sent me an email with the news just seconds before I needed to head out the door to pick up my son from his elementary school. My phone kept buzzing with congratulatory messages when I was out fetching him, and right as I sat down to write everyone back, my son announced that we had a backed-up toilet. Therefore, the very first thing I had to do after excitedly writing to my agent, my editor, and other Abrams staff was to grab a plunger! Definitely a humbling way to learn about a major award nomination.
I had certainly heard of the Morris Award and knew it was as prestigious as the Printz and the Newbery and entailed one of those gorgeous seals that draws me to book covers, but I admit, I’d never stopped to figure out which award went to which type of book. I’m unbelievably thrilled that IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS was selected for this debut YA honor because (1) turning to YA fiction saved me from an extremely long streak of disappointments as an author and (2) I belong to a 2013 kidlit debut author group called The Lucky 13s and already knew three of the four other finalists. I read (and adored!) Elizabeth Ross’s BELLE EPOQUE about six months before it was published, and now I’m working on reading the other finalists’ books.
-- Can you describe your path to publication and your writing process? Has anything changed for you since your first sale? What's coming next?
As I mentioned, my path to publication was a loooong one. I signed with my first literary agent way back in 1998, when I was trying to sell an adult historical fiction novel. We were told historical fiction was a dead genre, so I tried my hand at a contemporary novel, which my agent didn’t really like. We parted ways, and then I eventually signed with my current agent, Barbara Poelle, in 2007. I started working on IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS in the fall of 2009, and Barbara sent it out to publishers in 2011. That sale went relatively swiftly, which was a wonderful, jaw-dropping surprise for an author who’s received too many rejection letters to count (I seriously don’t remember how many “this just isn’t for us” messages I’ve received from publishers throughout the years).
It’s hard to pinpoint my writing process. Typically, an idea pops into my head, I mull it over for a while, conduct research, and then I sit down to write. First chapters usually come easily for me, and then the rest of the first draft is a longer process filled with ups and downs. Revisions are my favorite stage—that’s when I feel like I’m putting meat on the book’s bones. I have two kids, so I do the bulk of my writing when they’re at school or at nighttime.
Aside from the elation and relief of at long last becoming a published novelist, life didn’t change tremendously until the starred reviews for IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS started arriving and people began noticing the book. At that point, Amulet Books picked up my second historical YA novel, THE CURE FOR DREAMING, a 1900-set tale involving hypnotism and the women’s rights movement (coming Fall 2014).
Also in the works is the paperback edition of IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS (Amulet Books/Fall 2014), a short story in the YA horror anthology SLASHER GIRLS & MONSTER BOYS (Dial/Fall 2015), and THE UNINVITED, an adult historical/paranormal novel (William Morrow, date TBA).
--You also write fiction for adults. Can you talk about the differences (if there are any!) in writing for the two different audiences? How do you decide what’s YA and what’s adult?
When I decided to write IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS for a teen audience, I was a little nervous about how far and dark I could go. During all those years of trying to get published in the adult fiction market, publishers were always telling me my work was a little too dark or too quirky or just too hard to market because it encompassed multiple genres. To my surprise and delight, everyone pushed me to go further and darker when I switched to YA, and I let all my inhibitions fly out the window.
Recently, an editor at William Morrow asked my agent if I’d be interested in writing an adult manuscript set in 1918. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I’d be allowed the same freedoms I’ve been given with YA fiction. I submitted an opening chapter involving a brutal murder and a genre-bending synopsis to see if I could get away with another Cat Winters-style historical novel, and the editor made an offer on the book less than two weeks later.
So, I don’t think at this point there’s a tremendous difference in writing YA versus adult fiction, aside from the age of the protagonists. I don’t sugarcoat anything for either audience.
--Tell us a little about your experience being a first-time novelist. Has it been what you expected? Any wisdom or insights or surprises to share about the joys or challenges of life during and after the first book?
What surprised me the most was the fact that a book’s success doesn’t have to be measured within the first month of publication. I had heard that after three months, if a book isn’t selling spectacularly, it’s pulled off the shelves and forgotten. My book has never been a NEW YORK TIMES bestseller or anything along those lines, but there was a slow build that just seems to be getting stronger and stronger all the time. First of all, not all trade reviews arrive right when the book is published—some show up months afterward and help keep the momentum going. Foreign rights sales don’t always happen right away either, which I didn’t realize. Just in the past few weeks, eight months after the English-language release date, I sold rights to the Czech Republic and Hungary, my first non-English rights sales.
If you’re a first-time novelist with a new book deal, my advice would be don’t panic and remember to enjoy the ride. Everyone will tell you to spend as much time as possible on social media and to blow your entire advance on marketing, but I suggest putting your greatest amount of time and energy into writing the best books possible. Yes, you will need to participate in promotions for the book, but the writing and editing stages are where the bulk of your energies should lie.
Also, it’s perfectly normal to experience a postpartum depression-type of stage in the weeks following a book’s publication. We build up publication dates in our head and expect the world to change when they arrive. There will be celebrations and unbelievable joy, but there will also be a sensation of “Was that it???” Use that time to regroup and write your next project. Pour your angst and all those other confusing emotions into your manuscripts instead of comparing your experiences to those of other authors.
--And finally: How much do you love librarians?
Librarians are priceless jewels to me. Like most authors, libraries and bookstores have always been some of my favorite places in the world, but my love for librarians has grown even stronger since IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS came along. Librarians helped me with research for the book, and they’ve shown an unbelievable amount of love for the novel ever since I signed advance reading copies at last year’s ALA Midwinter Meeting in Seattle. I didn’t realize how powerful librarians were in the world of YA literature, but their support has most definitely changed my entire life. I’m grateful for every single one of them.
All the best,Cat