Gothic Ghost Tales Meets Historical Fiction
“I stepped inside the railroad car, and three dozen pairs of eyes peered my way. Gauze masks concealed the passengers’ mouths and noses. The train smelled of my own mask’s cotton, boiling onions, and a whiff of something clammy and sour I took to be fear.”
So begins Cat Winters’s debut novel In the Shadow of Blackbirds, a chilling story of a girl and a ghost boy set against a backdrop of WWI and the Spanish influenza. The dark, and often supernatural elements of this and her subsequent novels are woven into moments in history, creating a unique reading experience for readers of YA and adult novels alike.
I meet with Cat in one of the library study rooms in Portland State University’s library. She arrives, a petite woman with soft blunt-cut bangs and a sweet smile. She is a busy woman, with two novels, The Uninvited and The Steep and Thorny Way, coming out in August of this year and spring of 2016, respectively. In the works as well is a contribution to an anthology, Slasher Girls and Monster Boys, coming in August of this year as well.
Where do you draw the inspiration for your novels?
They’re historical, there’s usually some sort of paranormal or supernatural element. I like to find history that is little known, kind of buried, that you don’t hear about. My first novel, In the Shadow of the Blackbirds, I drew upon the history of seances, spirit photography, as well as how WWI affected the United States, and the Spanish influenza, which I had never heard about when I was growing up and in school. I came across an article one day and thought, why have I never heard about this? My grandparents were really young when that broke out, but I never even heard about it through relatives, who I would have thought had been affected by that. Plots usually start forming from that history.
Where there any real-life encounters or feelings related to the supernatural that inspired your work?
Oh yeah, I’ve been obsessed with ghosts since I was a little kid. I’ve gone on a lot of ghost tours throughout the country, including a great one in New Orleans. It was a ghost and vampire tour on a stormy night in summer. Yeah, that one was really creepy. I did get chills and saw strange mists, and “did I see something or was it my imagination?” And I was convinced my room was haunted when I was a kid, but I was also a very imaginative kid, so I don’t know how much of it was me reading ghost stories at a really young age and giving myself nightmares, and interpreting every little sound as a ghost.
What drew you to Portland?
I moved up here in 2006 after living in Southern California my whole life. My husband is a teacher, and I was a struggling writer, and had been a struggling writer for a very long time. We were just not [able to] afford the Southern California lifestyle, even though we were natives. It just got so crowded. We lived in San Diego for a long time, and the library hours were cut to make way for a big brand-new baseball stadium, even though there already was a baseball stadium. It just wasn’t our way at looking at life. Our kids were really little, and we didn’t necessarily want to raise them in this very crowded environment. We thought, well, with our jobs we could go anywhere we wanted. We came to Portland and visited twice, and it really felt like our kind of vibe, something that we had been missing as Southern Californians all our life. Everything is so brand new and shiny down there, and it was nice to have some history up here. I really explored San Diego’s gothic history in my first novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, but now I write a lot of Portland-based books. My second novel, The Cure for Dreaming, involved the suffragist movement in Oregon specifically. It was set in 1900, which was the year that the second referendum that would have allowed Oregon women to vote got shot down. My third YA novel is coming out next March, and that’s based on Oregon’s really dark history in the 20s, which involved the KKK taking over the state, and also the eugenics movement which was aiming to sterilize hundreds of people in the prisons and mental institutions. So, I dove into this dark, ugly side of history, but those stories are fascinating to me because you don’t really hear about them. It’s not really to dig up old wounds or tarnish a region, but just to celebrate the survivors, and as a warning not to repeat the past.
Why did you decide to write The Uninvited and Yesternight as adult books?
I was approached by an adult editor to write adult books, which was exciting for me because I had actually tried for about 15 years to get adult fiction published before I even wrote for teens, and my work was always turned down. It was too quirky, too dark, I mixed a lot of genres together, my endings weren’t always happy, they were sometimes more bittersweet. I felt like the publishers were treating my target audience, which was adult women, like glass, like these delicate creatures. I could not disturb them with my stories.
I had my agent for four years by the time I sold In the Shadow of Blackbirds. I researched the 1918 history that appears in that novel earlier for another book idea, and I brought it up after we were having some trouble selling the adult fiction. She [my agent] had just started signing a bunch of YA authors, YA was getting really big. That was back in 2010. So In the Shadow of Blackbirds ended up being my first book that sold, a book for teens. And then, an editor at Harper Collins picked up In the Shadow of Blackbirds in Portland. She was at the Powell’s at the airport, and there was a used copy sitting there. She picked it up, she was obsessed with the Spanish influenza, and when she got back to New York she called my agent and asked, ‘would this author ever be interested in writing adult fiction?’ My agent contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in writing a book set in the same time period for adults. So now I’ve got different publishers for the teen and the adult fiction.
Do you find that you prefer one over the other?
It’s hard to say. I really like the teens. Since I’ve already had books come out and I’ve interacted with the teens, I really love that feedback. I feel like I’m making a difference. Teen librarians are wonderful, they really help the book find success, and they really get excited about my novels. I’ve heard that adult fiction librarians don’t play as large of a role, so that’s kind of weird for me to think. The adult novel doesn’t come out until August, so it will be interesting to see how that goes.
Can you tell me how you first became interested in writing? How old were you, and what sort of writing did you start out doing?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. My second grade teacher really encouraged my writing, she made me feel like I was special, and like there was something unique about my stories. I was really into poetry when I was a kid. I started writing my first novel when I was 9 years old, it involved the Smurfs. Then at the age of 11, I did start going into the dark historical, so there was a quick transition. I wrote a full novel in high school, and that was inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. It was a gothic novel from the 30s.
What sort of environment do you like to write in?
I’ve got two kids, so during the school year I write while they’re in school. I’ve a home office that I use. When I need a break from the silence of the house, or from feeling like I need to do laundry, I go out to the coffee houses. I like the whole stereotypical writer in a coffeehouse. I like Insomnia Coffeehouse in Hillsboro, and four to six friends and I meet up once a week near the Powell’s at Cedar Hills Crossing. It’s not a critique group, we just write. We sit and have our breakfast, chat about what’s bothering us. We empathize with each other, with what we’re going through with the writing, since our families aren’t writers. It’s nice to be amongst other writers who know where you’re coming from.
I notice that you have music that inspired your writing on your website. Do you listen to this while you’re writing?
I can’t listen to it when I write. A lot of people can, but I either like silence or the white noise of a coffee house background. I don’t mind conversations, unless it’s really interesting. I really start focusing on the music, and I like to listen to the lyrics. Instrumental, I still get distracted. I like to listen to it beforehand, and in the car.
How did you pick out the songs?
It’s just kind of listening to things and feeling, oh, this relates to what I’m writing, or you hear lyrics and think, oh my gosh that could describe my character. For The Cure for Dreaming, with the suffragists, there would be certain songs that I would listen to. I have a little exercise bike in my office, theoretically I’m getting on there and exercising all the time, it doesn’t always happen. But to get all pumped up, I get on the exercise bike and listen to Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts.” It builds into this crescendo, and it’s this very angry anti-man song. I’m writing about the suffragists, who went through some horrible things done by men. I get on the bike and listen to that and get all worked up, then I sit down and start writing. For The Steep and Thorny Way, I listened to a lot of Nirvana’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” because there is a scene where my character is sleeping out in the pines. It builds up to this screaming part, and that is how the character is feeling. I listened to a lot of historical music for my adult novel The Uninvited. It’s specifically about musicians, and a lot about the jazz of the 1910s, which kind of gets overlooked. A lot of songs we think of as being 1920s jazz are actually WWI era. On my website I have a link to all 17 songs I referred to in that book. I’m now linking the songs from Youtube on Pinterest.
How do you address the challenges specific to your genre, such as writing scary scenes, and how do you conquer writer’s block?
The scarier scenes I find the easiest to write, it’s usually the quiet scenes, or the transition scenes. Usually I just take a break from the book, take a walk around the block a few times and try to envision the scene in my head. Sometimes I need to take longer than a walk break, sometimes I need to take a day or more to figure out what the most interesting way would be to approach it. With writing historical fiction, the nice thing is sometimes I go to history to cure writer’s block or to solve plot problems, and the answer will be sitting right in front of me. My editor [for The Cure for Dreaming] wanted me to change the ending quite a bit. She wanted to have a big ending party scene. The book involves hypnosis, and this is the suffragist book too. She wanted a scene involving the anti-suffragists that appear a little bit in the beginning of the book, but she wanted them to come back, and I was thinking how am I going to do that? But I researched and I realized that it was women who were the loudest anti-suffragist voices, not men. So I had these women that appeared at the beginning but they didn’t show up too much, and I realized they are a huge force, they do need to come back. I had this big anti-suffrage presidential election night party that I ended up putting at the end.
What are the differences between gothic, supernatural, and paranormal books?
With gothic, at least going back to the classic gothic, it can feel like there’s something paranormal going on, but sometimes there’s rational explanations to it. There’s always a lot of psychological horror going on. I think that’s the big emphasis on the traditional gothic fiction. The thriller can get thrown in there too, if there’s a murderer involved, edge of your seat crimes. Paranormal you’re going to have a definite ghost, vampire, some sort of creature.
What are some of your favorite books, authors, genres? What are you reading right now?
I started off with the classic gothic novel, like Rebecca. I was into the Bronte sisters, and Poe. I loved Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. That really taught me how to write historical fiction for a modern audience. I liked Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, and Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys. She’s a YA author writing historical fiction as well. Right now, I’m reading The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. My absolute favorite YA novel is The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.
What are you favorite hobbies outside of writing?
I became a bigger hiker. I really enjoy walking through woods. It really inspired my third YA novel The Steep and Thorny Way. I do a lot of woods hikes, take a lot of pictures, and write notes. I’m a big film buff, all the indie films. I haven’t really taken advantage of all the film festivals [in this area].
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
I thought I was going to be an actress. In college I was actually a drama major first, I was really into theatre. I wrote all my life, and I envisioned long stories in my head, movies in my head, and I was always starring in them. Then, when I got to college, it really hit me how competitive acting was, and I felt my introverted personality taking over. I added English as a second major, and people were not surprised by that at all. I tried teaching high school for a year. It’s not like you can graduate and become an author immediately. So, my day job was going to be teaching, and I started to have a lot of dreams of looking at blank sheets of paper. Teaching English…I wasn’t very good at it, for one thing, it was just really overwhelming. I thought, I would never have time to write if I kept this job. At this point, I can’t imagine being too much else. I wish I had gone more into filmmaking. I really like being on the more creative end. Instead of appearing in other people’s work, I wanted to be the one making it.
Would you ever try any other types of writing?
I’d like to eventually do a graphic novel. I even know a graphic novel editor in the area, and my publisher does graphic novels. It might be historical based, I think it would be really cool to do a steampunk thing.