This week on Write In the Shadows we are talking about the writing spaces we create for ourselves. As the blogosphere is an indefinable, wide-open space, it's interesting to see who's new (and not-so-new) out there, so please join me in welcoming, to our WITS space here, a new author on the scene, Cat Winters. You may already know and love Cat Winters – she’s the YA-genre alter ego of Catherine Karp at the Suburban Vampire blog. Ms. Karp decided to re-work one of her novels into a Young Adult ghost tale and thus, Cat Winters was born, and is now our very special guest today.
WITS: So, Cat Winters – you and writing, how did it all begin?
CW: It started before I even knew how to write. I can remember jotting down stories by sounding out the letters, and I really wish I kept those original written attempts at storytelling. Two of my teachers in elementary school made me feel like my writing was special, but at the time I thought I wanted to be an actress when I grew up. Writing was just something I did; as Steinbeck once said, "I nearly always write, just as I nearly always breathe." It wasn't until after I graduated from college that I fully understood that writing was my true calling in life.
WITS: It is interesting how writing hits many of us later in life, when we’ve got our “sensible” careers and degrees underway. I understand that you are working upon your debut novel, Blackbirds, which you plan to submit to your agent in late 2010. Blackbirds is a Young Adult novel which centers on two adolescents, one of whom is a ghost. Can you tell us a bit more about the plot and the conflicts therein? Is there a romance?
CW: Blackbirds is the story of a sixteen-year-old girl who's having trouble facing life in 1918 America. Everyone around her lives in fear of the deadly Spanish influenza pandemic, young men disappear overseas to a world war, and anyone who speaks the enemy's language or protests the war risks jail and violence.
A near-death experience straddles my heroine between the world of the living and the realm of the dead, and she's able to communicate with the frustrated spirit of an eighteen-year-old friend of the family who's been told he was killed in battle. However, he doesn't remember dying, and he's haunted by "ugly things" in the afterlife. My protagonist indeed feels a romantic attachment to him, plus she's drawn to a German teen who's trying to survive as a foreigner in the middle of America's atmosphere of "superpatriotism." Blackbirds becomes my heroine's quest to help both the dead and the living--including herself--understand the horrors around them and figure out where they belong.
WITS: I love juxtapositions between the ‘real world’ horrors and those of the supernatural realm, and the plot sounds like it’s got a lot of atmosphere. In addition, the title, Blackbirds, is so intriguing. It reminds me of that nursery rhyme with the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie (as well as the Agatha Christie murder mystery based upon said rhyme, A Pocketful of Rye). What does the title mean and why did you choose it?
CW: I was searching for titles in WWI poetry and came across the phrase "dark-clothed children at play" and really liked the image. During WWI, not only were people dressed in black because they were in mourning, but a German dye ban kept Americans in drab colors. Add a white, beak-like flu mask to the equation, and I realized people resembled blackbirds. My character says, "We all looked like bad luck."
WITS: “Dark-clothed children at play” – that is a vivid and haunting picture. Did you find that writing for a YA audience involves different rules or a different thought process than writing for adults?
CW: I feel writing for YA is so much more freeing than penning tales for an adult audience. My first agent tried to help me break into historical fiction for adults, but at the time only romance was selling. I learned the rigid rules writers needed to follow to get published in the women's market. My edgier stories didn't go over well. With teen fiction, I've been told by my current agent and an editor that there's no limit to the darkness and edginess of a story. The book industry doesn't handle teens like glass, which was the impression I got about the treatment of women readers.
WITS: Yes, I did discover that when I wrote my own vampire tale – the current supernatural realm focuses more on romances than on edgier themes, though a few break through. Speaking of ‘break-throughs’, I’ve noticed that the Harry Potter series really put YA on the shelves for adult readers as well, meaning that I saw many grown-ups reading the tale of the boy wizard unabashedly in public, discussing it at the water cooler and at book clubs (I myself was a huge fan!!). I think that this helped pave the way for the Twilight craze, which also has a large number of adult readers. In your research regarding YA novels, did you find any reasons for the sudden appeal of YA for adults? What is it specifically about Blackbirds that you think will appeal to adults?
CW: Most of the theories I've read point to society's need for fantasy right now. The dark wizards and vampires could very well be metaphors for the evil that exists in the real world, and even adults feel more comfortable facing their fears in a fantasy context instead of reading novels about modern terrorists. Deep down, grown-ups would all love to have special powers to keep themselves and their families safe from the bad guys. Plus young adult book covers are so alluring these days! I admit, part of why I picked up Twilight was because of that intriguing apple design on the front. The books look like works of art, so it's no longer embarrassing to walk around with a YA novel in your hands.
The adults who've sampled the early drafts of Blackbirds are responding the strongest to my central character (yes, I'm purposely being secretive about her name for the time being). She's scientific minded and highly intelligent, but she's also confident, honest, and unafraid to face her own fears in order to understand them. To me, she's the perfect voice for a roller coaster ride through a troubled era and horrifying situations. She possesses the strength of spirit I wish I could always summon when faced with adversity.
WITS: She sounds amazing (and a mystery too, just like Mrs. DeWinter!!) and reminds me of Meg from one of my favorite childhood books, A Wrinkle In Time. Two of my other favorites are Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, and The Ghost Next Door, and I find myself returning to these even now that I’m an adult (almost!). What are some of your favorites?
CW: The three you mentioned are ones I adored, too (I still have my copies!). I also loved Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess and A Secret Garden, which helped inspire my love of stories set in the past. My absolute favorite novel was To Kill a Mockingbird. I read it about four times between the ages of nine and fourteen. I finally picked it up again after all these years and have been rediscovering why I fell in love with it at such a young age. Scout cracks me up. She's so real and honest, which is why it's often best to be guided through dark subject matter by a child narrator. They can detect humor, peculiarities, and hypocrisy in ways adults don't always see.
WITS: Inside the Writer’s Studio – I always like it when James Lipton asks questions based upon the Proust Questionnaire in his show, Inside the Actor’s Studio, so here goes:
a. Favorite music to listen to while you write
I'm the type of writer who can't write while listening to music. I can work in coffee houses with people chatting around me, but for some reason music alone distracts me. However, I often listen to my classical station before writing to find the depth of emotions needed for my scenes.
b. Favorite fictional hero or heroine
Atticus Finch. It goes back to my love for To Kill a Mockingbird. I drive around with a bumper sticker on my car that says, "What would Atticus do?"
c. Favorite real-life ghost
Kate Morgan, the ghost who supposedly haunts the Hotel del Coronado across the bay from San Diego. My husband and I stayed in the hotel for our fifth anniversary, and I hurriedly looked up the legend in our hotel room to make sure we weren't staying in one of the haunted areas. I love ghost stories, but not if they're occurring in the room where I'm sleeping.
d. Favorite work of art
A wolf sculpture my daughter made in a ceramics class when she was nine. It took her eleven weeks to create it.
e. Least favorite color
f. Least favorite food
Cheese, except for mozzarella.
g. What do you want to be when you grow up?
I think deep down I've always wanted to be a filmmaker. One of my majors in college was drama, and I mistakenly studied the acting side of it. I discovered I wanted to be the one who creates the stories instead of the one acting out someone else's imaginary scenarios. Perhaps after my kids are grown, I'll become a film school granny.
WITS: Thank you so much for being with us today, Cat! I really enjoyed our talk together, and I’m sure our readers did as well.
CW: Thanks so much for having me, Nicole. I enjoyed being here!
WITS: For anyone interested in knowing more about Cat Winters and her novel Blackbirds, please visit her blog right here, her Twitter account, and her Facebook page. She also blogs regularly over at The Fictional Worlds of Catherine Karp, and at the much-loved Suburban Vampire site.
CW: Thanks so much, Nicole!!! That was fun.