Wouldn’t You Like to Know . . . Cat Winters
Even after a childhood spent camping her way across the U.S.A. with her parents and younger sister Carrie, Cat Winters remains a dedicated West Coast gal. From the time she was born until thirteen years after she graduated from the University of California with degrees in English and in Drama, Cat could be found in Southern California, but after she and her husband decided they needed a change, Cat traded in those sunny days and easy trips to Disneyland for Oregon with plenty of rain and a haunted pizzeria. How unexpected is that?! Writing while her two kids and her husband, a high school math teacher are in school, our current author uses her love of historical research to offer authentic, detailed backgrounds in her spooky, award-winning horror books. This could be a good argument for year-around school in Oregon, right? That would be great news for readers everywhere!
SH: When I was a teenager, people would describe me as a: (jock, band geek, popular, goth, other, none?)
CW: A quiet drama geek. Or maybe just quiet. I was painfully shy and awkward, especially from grades seven through tenth, but I loved breaking out of my shell in drama classes.
SH: The best/worst thing that happened to you in high school?
CW: The best thing was appearing in a school play my junior year. We did a production of Molière’s Tartuffe, and I got to play the overbearing family matriarch, Madame Pernelle. My favorite moment was pushing my way through a door toward the end of the play and hearing a man in the audience say, “Oh, no!” as if I were the last thing the other characters needed at that moment. I often felt like such a miniscule speck of a person, but those performances allowed me to be brash and loud and seen.
The worst thing that happened: Learning about the death of three classmates in a car accident my senior year. I didn’t know the girls well, but the experience was shocking and heartbreaking for all of us.
SH: Favorite childhood book? Favorite food? Favorite band or album? Favorite television show?
CW: Favorite childhood book: 13 Ghostly Tales, edited by Freya Littledale. Favorite food: Chocolate chip cookies. Favorite band: Blondie was probably my first favorite band. My dad played her albums (on cassette tapes) all the time when I was a kid, and I still love the songs to this day. Favorite television show: I loved a show called Voyagers!, which involved a man named Phineas Bogg and a boy my age who traveled through time to fix things in history that had spun off their usual course. I remember I first learned about Jack the Ripper through that show.
SH: Is there a story from your childhood that is told most often, either by you *or* about you?
CW: When I was about four, my parents took me to the house of friends for a nice dinner. I took one bite of the hostess’s homemade lasagna and hated it so much that I threw it up right there at the table. My mom was mortified, and to this day I do not like lasagna—or cheese for that matter. My husband found out about the story during the early years of our relationship and used it for a classical conditioning lesson when he was teaching high school psychology classes.
SH: Was there any class in high school you regret paying too little, or too much, attention? If you could add one class to high schools across the country, what would be the topic?
CW: I was a big, old nerd in high school, so I paid close attention to most of my classes. Math was my weakest and my least favorite subject, so I had to pay close attention in order to do well. If I could add one class to high schools, I would make it creative writing. I got the opportunity to take such a class my junior year, and it was beneficial for budding writers like me, as well as for kids who needed creative outlets but weren’t yet getting a chance to express themselves.
SH: Any epic family vacation stories? From the past or even a current vacation?
CW: My parents liked to take my sister and me camping across the United States, first in tents, then in a tent trailer. Our worst experience, besides the night we thought a tornado might be coming through our campground, was when we stopped at a site that claimed to have a pool, showers, and food, which sounded wonderful after a long drive across two states. The pool was nothing more than a dirty pond (just like a scene from the movie Vacation), the bathrooms were filthy, and the only food available was bright-red hot dogs you could buy from the campsite store. My dad loved the place, but my mom, sister, and I complained so much during the bright-red hot dog meal that we ended up hopping back into the car and heading down the highway to another campsite.
SH: Is there a book, besides your own, of course, that you think everyone should be reading?
CW: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I learn so much from that book every single time I read it—everything from the art of creating a vivid setting to the importance of voice. I always forget how hilarious the first half of the novel is. Scout cracks me up, and I love how she leads you into believing you’re reading an innocent tale of childhood and ghosts. As the novel moves farther into the scenes involving the trial, it becomes such a powerful portrait of the dark side of America, made all the more moving because it’s seen through the eyes of a brutally honest child. I often recommend Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief for the same reasons, except the setting in that case is Nazi-occupied Germany.
SH: You can spend the day with two characters from any book. Who would you pick and why?
CW: Tommy and Tuppence, a mystery-solving couple created by Agatha Christie in novels such as The Secret Adversary and N or M? I love their chemistry and their sleuthing skills, and even when I read the books as a kid, I adored the fact that they were a loving couple who teamed up together and balanced each other. I’d love to hang out with them in 1920s London for a day. Maybe I’d bring my husband along for a double date.
SH: When you sit down to write, what do you need around you? Do you prefer a certain time of day or is it more spontaneous? How do you approach the creative process?
CW: The main thing I need when I write is time. The bulk of my writing occurs when my kids, ages 10 and 15, are in school, which is about a six hour-stretch. I’m often balancing several books at once, so I feel I’m working a full-time job on a part-time schedule. I wouldn’t trade any of this for the world, however, so I do my best to make things work and squeeze in extra writing during evenings and weekends. Generally, when I work, I like to get the emails and business side of my day out of the way, then I often listen to an inspirational piece of music before diving straight into writing.
SH: What did you buy with your first paycheck as An Author? Was it a planned or an impulse purchase?
CW: I bought a black- and cream-colored historical-looking tea gown to wear to events. I had my eye on the gown for a while, and selling a WWI-set novel seemed a good reason to purchase it.
SH: When asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, what did you say? Were you telling the truth?
CW: I said I wanted to be an actress, which was the truth until I reached college and lost interest in acting and fully embraced my writing side. From an early age I loved lying in bed at night and inventing entire movie plots in my imagination. Naturally, I always envisioned myself as being the star of those movies. What I didn’t realize until I was older was that I was actually plotting out novels in my head. I’ve done that all my life.
SH: If you had an important secret or story to share, who would be the first person you’d turn to?
CW: Either my husband or my sister, depending on whom I could reach first. My sister and I have always been as close as twins, even though we’re three years apart.
SH: Is there one moment in your life you’d love to live again? To either change it or to enjoy?
CW: I’d like to go back to the publication week of In the Shadow of Blackbirds. I worked so hard and spent so many decades just getting to that point, but I spent the week rushing to keep up with interviews and guest posts, meet a deadline for my second book, and host events and out-of-town family. I vividly remember my wedding day and the births of both my children, thankfully, but I feel I didn’t enjoy the book’s release as much as I should have.
SH: If someone wrote a book about your life: Who would you want the author to be, what kind of book would it be, and what would you want as the title?
CW: Cat Tales, a middle-grade horror novel about a seemingly normal suburban mother obsessed with ghosts, by Neil Gaiman.
SH: A series of choices: Would you rather feel nauseous when you hear “college” or chew garlic gum? Cats or dogs? Spend or save? Salty or sweet? Movies, television, or music? Handwritten letters or email? Walk, bicycle, bus or car? Comedy, drama, or action? Rustic camping or five star hotel?
CW: Chew garlic gum. Dogs. Spend. Sweet. Movies. Email. Walk. Drama. Five-star hotel (see my camping story above).
SH: You are sitting down to dinner with five people, living or dead, who you find fascinating. Who is at the table and what are you eating?
CW: Roald Dahl, L. Frank Baum, Alfred Hitchcock, Harper Lee, and Alice Roosevelt, the latter of whom was Teddy Roosevelt’s scandalous and fiercely independent teen daughter when he was president in the early 1900s. We’re all eating pizza at Old Town Pizza here in Portland, Oregon, which is rumored to be inhabited by a ghost named Nina.
SH: If you could have any superpower, what would you choose? Why?
CW: I would choose the ability to cast bullet-proof shields over people. I send everyone in my household off to three separate schools each morning, including my husband, who teaches high school math. Every time I see a school shooting announced online, I want to hug my kids and my husband close to my heart and protect them.
SH: What was the last thing that made you laugh out loud? What was the last thing that made you cry?
CW: I’m pretty sure I last laughed out loud at something one of my kids said. My daughter has developed a sharp, wry sense of humor that always catches me off guard and makes me laugh, and my son is so easily entertained that he cracks up in a way that’s infectious.
Some sad news about one of my cousins last made me cry.
SH: What is one (or more!) of your favorite features about yourself? It can be anything from an impeccable sense of style to your sense of humor to crazy long toes that can pick up a variety of objects.
CW: My organizational skills typically save the day for me. I would say that’s my favorite feature because it helps me balance kids, deadlines, and life in general. I suppose I’d also go with my imagination, now that it’s allowing me to write for a living.
SH: Do you have a favorite word–for either the sound or the spelling? (For example, scofflaw is both fun to say *and* to spell!)
CW: Silhouette. I love how the word sounds, and I use it often in all of my books . . . but I always have trouble spelling it. For some reason, I want to stick a g in there.
SH: And for a random challenge: pick up the book you’re reading right now, turn to page 46 and share the first two sentences of the second paragraph!
CW: I was terrified. I watched him swallow a couple times. (From Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith)
In the Shadow of Blackbirds
SH: The pictures you selected are fascinating! Where did you find them? Did they inspire any extra details or elements in the story?
CW: I’m glad you enjoyed the images! Originally, I was only going to place examples of early-twentieth-century spirit photography in the book. While writing In the Shadow of Blackbirds, I studied numerous examples of pre- and post-WWI era photos that had been doctored to appear as though spirits were posing with loved ones. The photos I described in the novel are based on actual archival images I’d seen in books and online. I thought it would be fun for readers if I included such photos throughout the novel, so I contacted museums that owned the rights to the images.
Unfortunately, licensing proved to be expensive, so I only selected three such photographs and also peppered the book with public-domain images involving the 1918 influenza pandemic and WWI. I found most of those images through the Library of Congress and the U.S. National Library of Medicine. They were all inserted after the book was written, so they didn’t really inspire any additional details—but I felt they helped to prove that the bizarre and haunting history I was describing actually happened.
SH: How were you able to come up with such a vivid description of Mary Shelly’s lightning strike experience, as well as those after effects!? Are there any end results you would consider worth a lightning strike?
CW: My mom told me stories of her mom’s near-death experience involving a heart attack in the 1960s. Those spine-tingling accounts inspired the creation of Mary Shelley’s lightning strike moment and everything she endured afterward. For research, I read The Big Book of Near-Death Experiences, by P. M. H. Atwater. For Mary Shelley, being able to communicate with Stephen after the strike certainly made the experience worthwhile, especially for Stephen’s sake. In general though, I don’t recommend getting struck! I once got a minor shock from holding an umbrella during a lightning strike, and that experience was scary enough.
SH: Have you ever been to a séance? Who would you want to contact, if possible?
CW: When I was about nine or so, my fellow Girl Scouts and I would try holding séances in our tents during camping trips. I’ve never attended a séance as an adult, and I’m nervous to do so because (1) I know so much about séance trickery and would hate to be fooled and (2) I would likely be terrified if anything truly paranormal were to occur. I love visiting haunted sites and taking ghost tours, but the idea of sitting in a closed, darkened room with spirits unsettles me.
SH: It would be frightening to be either Mary Shelly or Aunt Eva–but would you rather be the one channeling a friendly spirit OR the one hearing a channeled spirit?
CW: I would rather be the one channeling the spirit, as long as it’s a benevolent one. I do not particularly want to hear a channeled spirit. Whenever I hear supposed recordings of spirits on ghost hunter shows, I always lie in bed afterward and think about those eerie voices as I’m trying to fall to sleep.
SH: Stephen’s last letter was so thoughtful and carried a strong message for Mary Shelly. Have you ever written or received such a meaningful letter?
CW: I don’t think I’ve ever written a letter quite that meaningful, but, then again, I’ve never had the experience of reaching out to a loved one before heading off to war. Even though the letter appears at the end of the book, I wrote it fairly early on, probably shortly after I wrote the scene of their first kiss. The words poured out of me, because I felt Stephen’s urgency of reaching out to Mary Shelley and making sure she knew everything he wanted her to know. There was no need for him to be shy and hold back anything at that moment.
I do have some lovely handwritten letters from my grandfather from the end of his life, when he was in his 90s. I once asked him to share his memories of working in a grocery store in the early twentieth century, and he started by saying, “I don’t remember much about it,” but then he launched into all these wonderful sensory details about those moments.
The Cure for Dreaming
SH: How did you learn so much about hypnotism? If you were hypnotized what would you want the reason to be: just an amusing stage performance or maybe to change a habit?
CW: When I was in high school, a hypnotist performed for all of us students, which was probably my first encounter with hypnotism. In college, one of my drama professors was working on a study to see if hypnosis would make people better actors, and he hypnotized the entire class. I drew on those experiences, plus I researched turn-of-the-twentieth stage hypnotists and techniques through books such as The New Encyclopedia of Stage Hypnotism, by Ormond McGill. If I were to be hypnotized again, I’d want someone to cure me of my urge to drink soda when I’m hurrying to meet writing deadlines.
SH: Olivia’s dad isn’t just scary -he’s the stuff of nightmares. Did the darkness of his soul lead to his profession as a dentist or was it the other way around? (How horrible was it to read about dentistry in the 1900s?)
CW: All of those awful dentistry practices from the past—the use of leeches to relieve inflamed gums, the lack of Novocain, the barbaric tools—definitely made my teeth hurt when I was reading about them. However, such a profession struck me as being perfect for a man who eventually wants to remove his daughter’s rebellious thoughts from her head. I’ve always seen Dr. Mead’s darkness as emanating from fear. He already lost a wife who put her dreams above his needs, and now he’s terrified he’s about to lose his only child. I think dentistry is the only way for him to feel he has some control in the world. He hurts others to numb his own hurt.
SH: Is there a list of books you would suggest for purchase if readers were able to visit Frannie’s family bookstore?
CW: I would suggest readers purchase the books that Olivia mentions during her visits to the store. For example, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Baum was a suffragist, by the way), and the works of Oregon’s suffrage leader Abigail Scott Duniway. They’re all books written in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and they’re wonderful windows into the politics and gender issues of the time.
SH: You’re able to cover so many interesting topics without overwhelming the main story. Do you think readers are more surprised by the historical information about hypnotism, women’s (lack of) equality, dentistry, or cancer? Or do you get more questions/comments on a completely different topic?
CW: Thank you. I’m thrilled to hear that all the details don’t come across as overwhelming! I receive the most questions about the hypnotism. In fact, at events, the first thing people invariably ask me about the book is “Have you ever been hypnotized?” However, when people send me their reviews of the novel, I see they’re most surprised about the women’s suffrage details. It makes me so happy to hear people say they appreciate being reminded about the women (and men) from the past who endured personal struggles in order to bring equality to the polls.
SH: What do you think Henri, Olivia, Genevieve, Frannie, and Dr. Mead are doing five years after we last see them on the page?
CW: Ooh, that’s a good question. Readers started asking me for a sequel as soon as this book came out, but the problem with a sequel is that not much happened in the way of suffrage milestones until ten or so years after the 1900 setting of The Cure for Dreaming. If I were to ever write a sequel, I’d be tempted to skip ahead to 1911, when voters finally approved a referendum that gave Oregon women the right to vote. Between 1900 and 1911, I envision all of my characters continuing on their journeys toward fulfilling their dreams and fighting to make changes in the world (except for possibly Dr. Mead, who may not be doing well at all). Olivia would likely have her college degree by then, and Henri would probably have moved more toward hypnotherapy instead of stage hypnotism. I won’t say too much more to avoid any spoilers for anyone who hasn’t yet read the book. But I don’t think it would be entirely unreasonable to think that two certain characters found each other again, when the more hesitant one felt ready for that sort of relationship.
SH: If you could pick any historical time to visit (and/or live in) which time period would you choose? Why?
CW: I would love to visit 1920s New York to experience the culture, music, and fashion. Women’s liberation was moving along nicely at that point (even though it was far from perfect), and so much creativity—so much talent—exploded from the time period.
SH: Your books don’t have a traditional-style happy ending but they seem to promise a bright future. Was this a preplanned choice or has it just happened? Do you get much feedback about your endings?
CW: I’m incredibly lucky that both my agent and my editor have been supportive of my untraditional endings. My books don’t end with everything wrapped up in a tidy bow, and (slight spoiler) you won’t necessarily find any couples riding off into the sunset.
However, I feel each book ends with a strong sense of hope. Because I write novels about teens, I believe my books shouldn’t have closed endings. My protagonists are sixteen- or seventeen-year-old kids who still have their entire lives ahead of them. I think of my endings as the finish of a huge and life-altering chapter in my main characters’ lives, but also the opening to the next stage of possibilities for them. Some readers love my endings and feel they’re absolutely perfect for the books; others aren’t satisfied and want something more final. I’ve received heartfelt pleas for sequels for both novels . . . but those readers usually have strong ideas about what should happen in the sequels. Which is exactly the point of an open ending.
SH: Any hints for the topic of your next book? Have you considered using your interest in visual imagery to craft a graphic novel?
CW: I actually have two books and a short story coming out over the next year. On August 11, 2015, HarperCollins will be releasing my adult fiction debut, The Uninvited, a ghost story set during the same time period as In the Shadow of Blackbirds. That one deals quite a bit with the anti-German violence and paranoia of 1918 America.
On August 18, 2015, I’ll have a short story published in the YA horror anthology Slasher Girls & Monster Boys, coming from Dial/Penguin. I can’t yet reveal what my story is about, but I will say this: it involves a minor character from one of my published novels.
My next YA novel will be The Steep and Thorny Way, which Amulet Books will publish in Spring 2016. It’s a Hamlet-inspired tale about a biracial girl in 1920s Oregon. She’s dealing with the death of her father in a region shaped by Prohibition and the rise of the KKK.
I would indeed be interested in collaborating with an artist on a graphic novel one day.
SH: Do you have a phrase or motto that inspires you?
CW: “It is never too late to be what you might have been,” by George Eliot. The quote greatly inspired me during my nearly two decades as a struggling writer. A magnet with the quote still hangs on my refrigerator.
SH: Is there a question you wish someone would finally think to ask?
CW: Surprisingly, people don’t ever ask me if I had any teachers who encouraged my writing. My answer: Yes! Two of my elementary school teachers helped to put me on the path to a writing career: Betsy Martin and Kathy Deily, formerly of Crown Valley Elementary School in Laguna Niguel, California. Thank you, Mrs. Martin and Ms. Deily!
Books by Cat Winters
In Shadow of Blackbirds. Harry N. Abrams, 2013. 387p. $16.95. 978-1-419-70530-4. VOYA June 2013. 4Q 5P J S
The Cure for Dreaming. Harry N. Abrams, 2014. 352p. $17.95. 978-1-419-71216-6. VOYA December 2014. 5Q 4P S
On the Internet
Author website: http://www.catwinters.com/
In the Shadow of Blackbirds website: http://www.blackbirdsnovel.com/
Corsets, Cutlasses, and Candlesticks blog: https://corsetsandcutlasses.wordpress.com/