Friday, April 5, 2013

Feature Friday: Cat Winters

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 now available from Amulet Books/ABRAMS. She currently lives outside of Portland, Oregon. Visit her online at http://www.catwinters.com, http://twitter.com/catwinters, and http://facebook.com/catwintersbooks.

Interview:
A.L.:
What piece of advice would you give to a budding author?

Cat:
Make sure you show your writing to someone who can give you honest, constructive feedback before you send it to agents and publishers. Whether you join a critique group, take workshop-style writing classes, or pair up with other authors, this step is crucial to making sure your story and characters work. Don’t rush your writing out the door.

A.L.:
What's your favorite book and why?

Cat:
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I first read the novel at the age of nine and immediately fell in love with the unforgettable characters, the vivid Depression-era setting, and Scout’s amusing and honest voice. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read the book, but every time I do, I marvel at Lee’s ability to create a powerful piece of literature that’s both laugh-out-loud hilarious and utterly heartbreaking.

A.L.:
Where did you get the idea for In the Shadow of Blackbirds?

Cat:
The earliest seeds for this story were planted way back when I was twelve. I watched an episode of the TV show Ripley's Believe It or Not! and learned that during the World War I period, two girls in Cottingley, England, claimed to photograph fairies in the countryside. Adults who were devastated by the war wholeheartedly believed the photos were genuine. That struck me as a sad yet fascinating nugget of history.

It took nearly three decades, a couple manuscript attempts, and a conversation with my agent, Barbara Poelle, before the plot of In the Shadow of Blackbirds fell into place, but that show about those phony fairy photos and the widespread grief during the WWI time period is where everything first began. (picture)

A.L.:
Did you hit any snags while writing In the Shadow of Blackbirds?  What were they and how did you fix them?

Cat:
Oh, definitely. At first the mystery at the center of the book wasn’t working well. My very first reader guessed the ending far too easily, so I went back and tinkered with that aspect quite a bit. The following readers, including my agent, had other problems: the ghost was too nice in his ghostly form, there was too much flashback, an entire family of secondary characters was getting in the way. I’m not afraid of tearing my books apart and revising them like mad, so I took that feedback and worked my hardest to get the manuscript to where it needed to be before going out on submission.

A.L.:
Which one of the characters in In the Shadow of Blackbirds is your favorite and why?

Cat:
My protagonist, Mary Shelley Black (named after the author of Frankenstein but not related to her), is near and dear to my heart. She tried showing up in other manuscripts before I started writing In the Shadow of Blackbirds, and I knew her strength of spirit would be perfect for the tough time period I chose to write about. She’s not perfect—her temper is sometimes too short and she doesn’t always censor herself before she speaks—but she fights for the people she loves and truly wants to make the world a better place.

A.L.:
Can you tell us a little bit about your journey as an author?

Cat:
My journey was a looooong one. I first discovered my love of writing during my early years of elementary school. After graduating from college, I worked for a publishing company in San Diego, and at night I wrote the first manuscript I would ever submit to an agent, a historical novel for adults. The good news: I did sign with an agent in 1998. The bad news: publishers didn’t think there would be a market for the novel, so it never sold.

I kept writing, switched agents, and still publishers passed on my work, unable to figure out how to market my genre-crossing stories. In 2009, I began writing In the Shadow of Blackbirds, my first attempt at YA fiction, which proved to be my lucky charm. The book sold to Amulet Books/ABRAMS in October 2011—seventeen years after I started seriously writing for publication. 

Looking back, I’m amazed I persevered for so long, but the encouragement of friends, family, and some wonderful people in the publishing industry kept me going.

A.L.:
What are you working on now?  Sequel?  Something new?

Cat:
In the Shadow of Blackbirds is a standalone novel, and I don’t have any plans for a sequel at this time. However, I’m working on a new Gothic historical YA novel. Hopefully, I’ll get to share details about that project in the not-too-distant future.

A.L.:
In the Shadow of Blackbirds is a historic fiction novel, how did you go about preparing yourself to write something set in 1918?

Cat:
I dove into nonfiction books that covered everything from the 1918 Spanish influenza to near-death experiences, studied archival WWI letters, watched old newsreels and documentaries about the war and the flu, visited historic sites that appear in the novel, pored over historical photographs (ten of those photos appear in the novel), read poetry and literature from the time period, and even hunted down some hard-to-find silent films. I’ve shared several references and 1918 photos and movies at http://www.blackbirdsnovel.com.

A.L.:
Do YOU believe in the paranormal?  Have you ever had any experiences?

Cat:
I’ve been mesmerized by the idea of ghosts ever since I was a kid, and I’ve heard about so many real-life accounts of paranormal experiences and visited enough haunted historic sites to believe that ghosts might actually exist. I’ve never seen one with my own eyes, but I once had some fun ghostly images appear in my developed photographs during a trip to Maine. (Picture)

A.L.:
How did you want your non-believer character to react to her love coming back from the dead?  Do you feel like you executed it well?

Cat:
My Mary Shelley character loves science and logic, so for her to believe in something, she must have concrete proof. After she experiences her own brush with death, her first love, Stephen, a boy killed in war, gives her the proof she needs when he returns to her as a spirit. I hope I believably portrayed her move from skeptic to believer. My editor, Maggie Lehrman, and I really worked on that transition, because it’s such an essential part of the novel. Every character in the book is looking for something to believe in while the world crumbles around them. 

The Giveaway:
Cat will be giving away a signed copy of IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS and some swag.

In The Shadow of Blackbirds:  In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to s√©ances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?

Featuring haunting archival early-twentieth-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time.





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