Monday, December 12, 2011

Ghostly Developments! Interview with "Picture the Dead" Authors/Illustrator Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown!

"For if memory is the wave that buoys our grief, haunting is the undertow that drags us to its troubled source." - Heinrich Geist - Picture the Dead

As I mentioned in my interview with New York Times bestselling author Matthew Pearl a few weeks ago (here), I've been trying to read more fiction in the past year (and I have!). Still, though, as guy in his 40s (early? middle? late? None of your beeswax!), I haven't read "young adult" or "middle grade" fiction since I tore through the Lemony Snicket series a few years back (and loved it!).

And yet, two such books: Picture the Dead and The Woman in Black, kept popping up as recommended reading on amazon under some of my favorite novelists, such as Louis Bayard, Matthew Pearl, and others.

Perhaps I was caught by the "spiritual undertow" that the character, Heinrich Geist, described above, but I decided to give Picture the Dead a try...and I'm SO GLAD I did! The book combines two subjects that interest me immensely: the Civil War and 19th-century Spiritualism, and does it so well.

It is my great pleasure and privilege, then, to introduce Picture the Dead, the authors and illustrator (Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown), offer my own brief review of the book, and - especially - feature Adele and Lisa's thoughtful and delightful answers to my questions!

Readers and writers will be impressed and inspired by their research and creativity and their answers to how/why they became interested in the Civil War, their choice of the soldiers portrayed in the book, the inspiration for the illustrations, the role of the Spiritualist movement during the war, how to treat physical intimacy in a book for young people, why young adult novels appeal to "regular" adults, and how to avoid boring readers with all the research you did for the book (and still find a place for it)!

First, the publisher's description of Picture the Dead:

A ghost will find his way home. Jennie Lovell's life is the very picture of love and loss. First she is orphaned and forced to live at the mercy of her stingy, indifferent relatives. Then her fiancé falls on the battlefield, leaving her heartbroken and alone. Jennie struggles to pick up the pieces of her shattered life, but is haunted by a mysterious figure that refuses to let her bury the past. When Jennie forms an unlikely alliance with a spirit photographer, she begins to uncover secrets about the man she thought she loved. With her sanity on edge and her life in the balance, can Jennie expose the chilling truth before someone-or something-stops her? Against the brutal, vivid backdrop of the American Civil War, Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown have created a spellbinding mystery where the living cannot always be trusted and death is not always the end.

About Adele and Lisa:

Adele Griffin is the critically acclaimed author of numerous novels for young adults, including the Vampire Island and Witch Twins series. Her novels Sons of Liberty and Where I Want to Be were both National Book Award Finalists. (Adele has a terrific website here).

Lisa Brown is the illustrator and/or author of nine books, including Picture the Dead, How To Be, The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming, and Baby, Mix Me A Drink. She draws the Three Panel Book Review cartoon for the book section of the San Francisco Chronicle. She graduated with a BA from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut in 1993, and an MS in Communications Design from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York in 1998. She lives in San Francisco with her son and her husband, Daniel Handler (you might know him as Lemony Snicket!).
You can "meet" Lisa and Adele in this delightful documentary in which they discuss their inspirations for Picture the Dead:

And my review of Picture the Dead:

Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown treated the two subjects of the Civil War and Spiritualism with great respect and sympathy and I was so impressed by their commitment to keeping the history straight...the use of the 28th Massachusetts infantry was very interesting and was used well...the fact that some of the principals in the book die from disease or in prison is also keeping with the history of the Civil War (remember, not everyone died on the battlefield: only 1 out of 3) and deaths on a hospital bed or in prison required no less bravery or were any less grim.

The story itself is so well written that I could hardly put it down. The heroine, Jennie, is a strong and passionate young woman, kept in an unwelcome home...the most interesting character, Quinn, is full of surprises...apart from the aunt and uncle, the adults in the book interact with Jennie on nearly equal terms...the few scenes of physical intimacy are done quite well...the subject of Spiritualism is done realistically and with humor in the case of the spirit photographer but also with some just sympathy for what was a significant social movement in the 19th-century, all without slipping into the danger or absurdity of the occult.

The illustrations were well done! The theme of a "scrapbook" in the narrative and supported by the illustrations was interesting. I do give Lisa a LOT of credit for basing her work on archival material. The inclusion of patriotic stationery and envelopes was a very nice touch! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for readers young and old alike!

Adele and Lisa were so kind, generous, and clever in their answers to my interview questions, so let's get to my favorite part!

Jim: Did you have an interest in the Civil War already, before you wrote the book? If so, Why? If not, what was the most important thing you learned?

Adele: My stepfather loves biographies of Lincoln. But he is not much of a Young Adult reader. And I'd always hoped to find a YA topic that interested him. But it wasn't until Lisa Brown-- with whom I'd collaborated on a Before-Its-Time graphic novel hybrid-- mentioned her own passion for Civil War history, that I started to get excited thinking about this "Civil War ghost book" -- which is my original file folder name. So for me the interest was twice personal, not academic. But I'd been writing contemporary young adult fiction a number of years, and it was great fun to participate in reading and research. My most intriguing research was learning about William H. Mumler -- who is a fascinating historical character. I got a chance to see his original "ghost" daguerreotypes when the Met featured his work as part of a show about Spiritualism, about six years ago.

Lisa: Adele’s right, I’m a bit of a history nerd. And the American Civil War has always fascinated me, both for its brutality and for its enormous scale. But what really gets me about it is the fact that it was pretty much the first war to be photographically documented. Though it occurred almost exactly 150 years ago, we can look deep into the eyes of its participants. It enables us to perform a sort of time travel.

[Note: Readers can learn more about William Mumler in one of my previous blog posts, here!]

Jim: I was so impressed that you had Toby die in the hospital rather than on the battlefield (as you know, 2 out of 3 soldiers died of disease rather than in battle)...was that deliberate on your part?

Adele: Yes-- though maybe Lisa has more clarity on that moment. I think that was her decision. And it fit with the character of Toby as a gentle soul-- someone who was never prepared, emotionally or physically, for the brutality of war.

Lisa: Quite deliberate. I am a doctor’s daughter, and talk of medicine and disease has always been a part of my day-to-day life. (Lots of inappropriate dinner table conversations, for instance.) I was definitely struck by the fact that the majority of Civil War soldiers died of disease, not in battle. It seemed such a tragic thing.

Jim: The choice of the 28th Massachusetts Infantry as the unit in which all the young men in the book were soldiers was interesting! Is there a particular reason why?

Adele: Historian Lisa Brown has the confirmation and more on that, I am sure. She showed me the list, yes, LB?

Lisa: Here’s my history nerd-dom surfacing once again. I tend to get a little, um, obsessive with my pursuit of historical accuracy. In a blog entry (here) on our Picture the Dead website, I go through all my reasons for choosing the 28th Massachusetts and the Irish Brigade. In a nutshell, I wanted to find a regiment in which the following conditions could be satisfied:

1) The regiment should be based in Massachusetts, wit
h recruitment out of Boston.
2) It had to have recruitment in the Boston area as late in the game as 1864.
3) Its soldiers had to have fought in battles that might cause them to be captured and become prisoners of war.
4) When these soldiers were captured, there had to be the possibility that they would be incarcerated at the prison camp in Andersonville.

The 28th Massachusetts fit the bill.

In that same entry, I write about my complete and total love for the National Park Service’s Civil War Soldier and Sailors System website (here), where I found loads of information about men who served in both the Union and Confederate armies of the Civil War. Through that database, I was able to see the names of servicemen who actually fought with the 28th, were captured on the battlefield, and served time in Andersonville prison. Along with their names, the archive listed their professions, their hometowns, their ages, dates of death, and the location of their graves. Fascinating stuff. At least to a history nerd like me.

[Note: That, ladies and gentleman, is how it is done! There is more on their amazing website below!]

Jim: The illustrations are terrific! As someone who collects them, I
loved the inclusion of patriotic covers and stationery (see some of mine here and here)! What were some of your other inspirations for the illustrations, especially the photographs?

Adele: They are the coolest. And this one is all Lisa's too. With my hurrah I remember when she sent those envelopes to me and I loved them so much.

Lisa: Aw, you guys. The photographs were, for the most part, based on actual 19th century portrait photography that I found in the archives of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, here. I was also able to find, not only in the Library of Congress, but also at the New York Public Library’s online digital image gallery and through other, mostly online, archival sources, a virtual grab bag of visual inspiration. These included: old newspapers, song sheets, dance cards, calling cards, menus, invitations, poetry, letters, diaries, and pages from ladies’ fashion magazines.

Jim: I appreciated the seriousness you gave to Spiritualism in the narrative and in the Notes at the end of the book (especially mentioning how it was also associated with other social movements such as abolition, women's suffrage, etc.). Was it important to you to maintain the sense of Spiritualism without delving into the occult (two very different things)?

We hadn't thought much about that connection. We pr
obably adopted in Heinrich Geist, our ghost photographer, a bit of Mumler’s psychology—Mumler was more of a trickster who was under-prepared for the astonishing consequences of his work. The Spiritualist Nettie Maynard, who'd been the in-house White House Spiritualist advisor to Mary Todd Lincoln, was a bit more unhinged. And we never wanted anybody in Geist's world to be that far off-center. It was a scam for Geist. And Geist took his art as a photographer seriously. For him, coaxing the double negative was more about the aesthetic.

Lisa: We were working off the idea that it would be interesting to have an object created for the purposes of defrauding someone (a spirit photo) turn out to have real supernatural heft, purely by accident. As in: what if someone had been trying to fake a picture of a “ghost” but ended up taking a picture of a real ghost? I also found the history of the Spiritualist movement endlessly absorbing. Here was a philosophy that we look back on now (or, at least, most of us do) and see it as supernatural hocus-pocus, but, as you mentioned, the proponents of that movement also believed in precepts that we take for granted as truisms today: the immorality of slavery, the equality of women, and many ideas about labor reform. One last thing about Spiritualism: it flourished during the Civil War because it offered people a grain of hope in an era that was filled with an unspeakable amount of death. As you well know, more people died during the Civil War than the total amount of American deaths from the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, Spanish-American War, WWI, WWI and Korean War combined. That was a lot of loss for people to deal with. The Spiritualist movement helped people to deal with that loss.

[Note: There will be more about Nettie Maynard in a future post...I recently added a vintage copy of her classic Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist? to my personal library]

Jim: Jennie is a strong-willed young woman...and passionate...she reveals some rather intense emotions when she is kissed by or close to Quinn, for it important - as writers for young adults - not to underestimate their maturity but still maintain their innocence? That must be a thin line to walk!

Adele: We always talk about this. "Jennie the Chaste," we call her. We really didn't want a bodice ripper, for all the gothic stylization of the book. And it's been easier to get the book into younger readers' hands because we prudently, prudishly restrained the bodice.

Lisa: What she said.

Jim: Are you surprised when your books for young adults also appeal to "old" adults like myself?

Adele: Not at all. Though delighted. That's the new community. Ten years ago, Young Adult novels were shelved next to books about parenting and childhood development. And today online the juxtaposition is not nearly as awkward. At age 41, I'm happy to trade opinions on The Hunger Games via Goodreads or twitter with a 15 or a 50 year old. The virtual library holds everyone, and we are all talking to one another, and the results are a big wide net of readers picking up or downloading something new based on the conversation.

Lisa: I am an adult who still reads books for young people, so it doesn’t surprise me at all!

8) The website (here) associated with Picture the Dead is as delightful as the book, with lots to explore! Was that important to you?

Adele: The website is Lisa's baby. It's unbelievable—and I am handing the question to her.

Lisa: The problem with doing so much historical research is that it makes you want to put every little thing that you’ve learned into your book. You have to restrain yourself. If you put everything in there, the book gets tedious. Luckily, we have the web: a place to dump all those exciting tidbits that would bog the story down but that were too interesting (to us, at least) to shelve. The site came together with the help of our brilliant designer, Jennifer Armbrust of Motel Projects (here). She was able to translate the look and atmosphere of the book seamlessly from page to computer screen. Though I fear we’ve been neglectful of the blog, of late. We will be ramping up with more goodies on our Tumblr (here), when the paperback of the book comes out, in February 2012.

Jim: Finally - Jennie is a bit of a "pincher" and isn’t afraid to take something to put in her scrapbook (which is a central vehicle of the book)...if she visited her house today, what do you think she would take without you looking?!

Adele: She'd take my great-grandmother's tiny silver toothbrush holder, with my blessing. today's toothbrushes can't fit in it.

Lisa: Oh, this is my favorite question! She probably wouldn’t want my authentic lace-up corset, that’s a damn uncomfortable thing to wear. She’d most likely choose my Victorian necklace made of human hair. Though, come to think of it, that’s pretty itchy.


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