Morris Award finalist Cat Winters loves a good ghost story. Her knockout young adult debut, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, tackled World War I, the Spanish flu, séances, and the weight of souls. In her The Cure for Dreaming, 1900 Oregon was the backdrop for a tale of young woman freeing her suppressed independence during the rise of hypnotism.
This year, Winters brought her exceptional blend of supernatural, romantic, historical fiction to adults with The Uninvited, a 1918-set ghost story overflowing with gin and jazz, which the San Francisco Book Review called, “eerily haunting, beautifully tragic.” It centers on Ivy Rowan, a survivor of the influenza epidemic of 1918, who has the unwanted ability to see “the uninvited”: ghosts whose presence signals death’s approach. For your Halloween delectation, we asked Winters to tell us why she’s drawn to the turn of the century, and what her favorite ghost stories are.
While researching The Uninvited, what was some of the more shocking information you uncovered about the time period?
What shocked me the most was discovering the mistreatment of and violence against German Americans and other immigrants during the WWI period. I set The Uninvited specifically in Illinois because of a real-life lynching of a German-born coalminer named Robert Prager in April 1918. He was killed by a mob of approximately three to four hundred men for purportedly making “disloyal utterances against the United States.” Eleven men went to trial for his murder on June 1918. All eleven were declared “not guilty” and freed. Prager’s murder wasn’t the only 1918 act of violence committed against an immigrant in the name of patriotism, unfortunately. I don’t think we hear enough about the paranoia that gripped the nation during this war, but I think we could learn a lot from it.
Having previously written about the Spanish flu and WWI for your debut YA novel, the critically acclaimed In the Shadow of Blackbirds, was it enjoyable to revisit that era? Are there any aspects of life in that time that you wish were still in play today?
Revisiting the Spanish flu itself was a little dark and intense, but I was approached by HarperCollins specifically to write an adult novel set during the pandemic after my editor, Lucia Macro, found a copy of In the Shadow of Blackbirds in an airport bookstore. I didn’t get to incorporate all of my WWI-era research into In the Shadow of Blackbirds, namely the prejudice against German Americans, so I felt I had another 1918 book in me, and I did enjoy returning to the era. The time period is rife with conflict, which makes it a fantastic setting for a novel. I wouldn’t want too many aspects of the era to still be in play, but I will say I love the clothing and the music of 1918.
Since you’ve written for both teen and adult markets, what was the most challenging or unexpected part of switching “voices” for your adult story?
I made it slightly easy on myself by making the protagonist of The Uninvited a 25-year-old woman who’s just now leaving her parents’ home and truly experiencing life for the first time. In some ways it’s still a coming-of-age novel, like my YA fiction, although Ivy has gone through a few more experiences that give her a little more maturity. It’s interesting because I struggled for 15 years to find a publisher for my adult fiction before switching to YA Back when I first started writing In the Shadow of Blackbirds I worried I wouldn’t be able to pull off a teen voice, but I quickly and comfortably slipped into a younger point of view. I’m actually having a harder time with the voice of the adult novel I’m currently writing. In that book, my protagonist is in her late twenties, and she’s been out on her own for a while. It’s been challenging to infuse her voice with experience after writing about characters still figuring out how to become adults.
Jazz music plays a central role in The Uninvited. Were you a fan of jazz prior to writing about it, or was it a new experience for you? Do you have a favorite artist or song?
I grew up near Disneyland and fell in love with Dixieland jazz (or “hot jazz”) when I heard musicians playing it live all the time in New Orleans Square. I’ve also been to the real New Orleans and was blown away when I heard the music played right there in the city where it all started. Many people associate the birth of jazz with the 1920s—the “Jazz Age”—but the musical style emerged much earlier. I can’t remember exactly how I decided to flood The Uninvited with WWI-era jazz, but the music quickly became an integral part of the novel. I listened to dozens of original recordings from the teens—artists such as the Original Dixieland Jass Band and Jelly Roll Morton—which I thoroughly enjoyed. I particularly love the song “Tiger Rag.”
Although the story is very sad in some ways, the characters experience joy, and purpose, and transcendence. When you write, are you conscious of balancing their emotions (and the actions that cause them), or does this naturally occur for you as part of the narrative?
Yes, I’m definitely aware of balancing characters’ emotions. I tend to write about horrifying moments in history, and I know I would depress readers if I didn’t include a great deal of hope and transcendence. It also comes about naturally as the book evolves. All of my novels, thus far, have involved characters who face the darkest moments of their lives and struggle to persevere and come out on the other side in one piece. I feel that humor, joy, love, and an urgent need to rise above the chaos are all integral aspects of survival stories. Otherwise, the characters, and the readers, would simply give up.
What are some of your favorite ghost stories?
The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters; A Certain Slant of Light, by Laura Whitcomb; The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill; A Curious Tale of the In-Between, by Lauren DeStefano; The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving; and Affinity, also by Sarah Waters. The very first ghost novel I ever read was The Ghost Next Door, by Wylly Folk St. John. My mom ordered it for me through my school’s Scholastic book program.
The Uninvited is a love story as well as a mystery. Did you originally write the book with a certain reveal in mind, or did that evolve later, as you got to know your characters?
The reveal came about early. When the original, basic idea for the book first showed up in my head, I knew the character of Daniel Schendel had some secrets he wasn’t telling. Within a week of coming up with the plot, I knew what those secrets were, and it made writing the book all the easier.
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming YA book The Steep and Thorny Way, and also what’s next for you in adult fiction?
Yes, definitely. The Steep and Thorny Way is a reimagining of Hamlet set in 1920s Oregon. My Hamlet is a biracial 16-year-old girl named Hanalee Denney who’s dealing with the death of her father in a region shaped by Prohibition and the rise of the KKK. The novel involves murder, intolerance, the struggles of biracial and gay teens in the 1920s, love, forgiveness, Shakespeare, and a ghost. It’s out March 8, 2016, from Amulet Books/Abrams, and I can’t wait to share it with the world.
I’m currently finishing up the first draft of my next adult novel, Yesternight, which HarperCollins acquired this year. That one is also set in the 1920s, but it involves a school psychologist who’s investigating the case of a seven-year-old girl who claims she lived a past life as a brilliant young Victorian woman. I’m waiting to hear the estimated release date of that one.
The Uninvited is on sale now.