Will you tell us a bit about Shadows in Summerland and what inspired you to write a book featuring real life people?
Shadows in Summerland is a supernatural historical novel about spirit photography and spiritualism in 19th century Boston. It’s told in 5 different first-person voices (including a kind of spirit chorus that periodically speaks to the reader) and takes as its basis the life & times of William H. Mumler, the father of spirit photography, and his “clairvoyant” wife, Hannah Mumler. I’ve always loved historical fiction for its richness of physical detail & versatility of voice and had always wanted to write my own. That said, I’ve also always loved the weird and supernatural fiction of Shirley Jackson, Poe, Lovecraft, M.R. James, Hilary Mantel, and many others, and the novel represents my (hopefully successful) attempt to create a hybrid between these two forms.
Will you tell us more about Mumler and Hannah?
Given what we know from the historical record, Mumler’s life is more or less straightforward, while little is known about Hannah. Mumler himself was, essentially, this quintessential 19th-century American confidence man who found his niche taking photos of the Civil War-bereaved, then double-exposing the camera plates to create the impression of their dead loved ones hovering in the shot with them. Or anyway that’s what most people thought. He was put on trial for fraud & larceny in Tammany-era New York City (not Boston, as in the novel) but later acquitted—and under somewhat mysterious circumstances, which is what drew me to his story as a compelling narrative, initially. He also wrote this incredibly self-serving polemical tract called The Personal Experiences of William H. Mumler in Spirit Photography, which speaks volumes about him as a person, a criminal, and a man of his time.
Much less is known about Hannah, his wife. Part and parcel with the fact that Mumler was acquitted during his trial, Hannah also drew me into the subject matter for this very reason. Mumler called her the “perfect battery”—she supposedly manifested the spirits that showed up, in turn, in the pictures themselves—and yet, in spite of such terms of endearment, she seemed very devoted to him right up until the end, when he died in poverty and obscurity in the 1870’s. The premise that the book examines from different angles is whether or not Hannah really was privy to ghosts after all. Either way, there are certainly ghosts in the book.
What’s one of the most interesting things you discovered in your research? What appeals to you the most about Gothic storytelling?
As for the appeal of the Gothic, what’s not to like? Tricky, web-work plots, messed-up unlikeable characters, atmospheric chiaroscuro, murder, sexual perversity, the threat and the lure of the supernatural, grave robbing. Tell me somebody who doesn’t like those! In all seriousness, though, the Gothic tale is probably one of the oldest and most enduring and thus most malleable forms of literature. It’s highly adaptable. And because of that, it’s a great way to subvert a reader’s expectations because you can be, like, remember all this stuff? Remember how these stories work? But then you can be, like: shazam! There’s more to it.
What is your writing process like?
I generally write very slowly and carefully, and I would say my first drafts are quite serviceable. I edit as I go, too, erasing huge chunks of text and back peddling as needed, spit-polishing the language, refining the characters. It’s something I need to exorcise before I can move on—this high-gloss yet also highly flawed manifestation of whatever I intended the story to be. And yet I’m never tied inordinately—or at all—to my first drafts of stories & novels, which, in addition to being fairly labored, tend to be very long & baggy. Nothing feels better to me than digging around in a narrative’s guts and excising and/or transforming large portions according to what my trusted friends, colleagues and, most importantly, wife have to say (I still workshop my work constantly!), or where I have an instinct for where I’ve gone wrong. My best writing happens, always, in revision.
You have a background in teaching, but did you know you wanted to write from a young age?
Yes, always. Teaching, though I enjoy it and draw inspiration from it as a writer teaching writing and interacting with the outside world, is my bread & butter—a paycheck I earn doing something that I happen to be good at. And, sometimes, quite passionate about. Writing fiction (& non-fiction) is my life’s blood, not to be cheesy, or put too fine a point on it.
What’s one of the first things that you can remember writing?
An illustrated “book”—more of a chapbook or coloring book, probably—called Night Man about this cranky old man in a small town who turns into a werewolf and terrorizes teenage boys. Very Scooby-Doo. His name is Old Man Realyan, which cracks me up to this day because it sounds so much like one of those this-is-a-character-in-a-story names that you find in very bad fiction. Like Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code, or someone like that. It sounds so affected! Really, though, it makes a ton of sense that this, a werewolf story with bloody maulings & misty nights & the supernatural, was one of my first. I’ve always been a morbid soul.
What do you like to see in a good story? Is there anything that would make you put a book down unfinished?
I like to see language that makes me pause and exhale, characters that challenge my empathy but ultimately earn it, and a vision of humanity and the cosmos as a whole that deviates from typical narrative standards (i.e. good people fight battles but finally prevail). In short, I’m always more inclined to like stories that challenge me in some fundamental way, whether they’re more allied with literary fiction or genre fiction (though the difference is pretty much moot, at this point).
Bland language or overt sentimentality or self-seriousness will often make me put a book down immediately. I can’t stand those. On the other end of things, if a book’s conceit is too clever or over-the-top, or if the governing concept is too nebulous and/or opaque, that tends to piss me off, too. Really, I’m always happiest in some middle ground between experimentation and traditionalism, which I realize is a nebulous and/or opaque thing to say, but….
What authors have influenced you the most?
In no particular order: Edgar Allan Poe, Edith Wharton, Sarah Waters, Peter Carey, Hilary Mantel, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Brian Evenson, Frederick Busch, William Gay, Flannery O’Connor, Victor LaValle, Thomas Bernhard, Megan Abbott, Haruki Murakami, William Faulkner, Laird Barron, Christopher Bram, Shirley Jackson, Denis Johnson, Angela Carter, John Wray, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, on and on and on…
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
I would have to say either Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree. Those were books that both changed the way I look at language and storytelling—hell, life in general. So different in so many ways, and yet both such indelibly powerful experiences. A close third would be John Williams’ novel Stoner, which had me weeping when I finished.
What are you currently reading? Is there anything you’re looking forward to this year?
I’m currently flip-flopping between two great story collections of the contemporary weird: Livia Llewellyn’s Furnace and Matthew Cheney’s Blood. Like Beloved & Suttree, they’re both excellent, but both very different. The Cheney is making me baffled and teary, the Llewellyn is utterly freaking me out.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’ve just finished a new collection of stories (also akin to weird fiction, to use a blanket term) called Hello My Midnight Self, It’s Me, and I’m currently in the beginning stages of writing a noir murder mystery set amidst the black metal scene in present-day New Orleans (where I live) called Rough Beast. In between, I’m promoting Shadows in Summerland, spending time with my wife, taking care of my kid, enjoying a very rich life on this earth.
About Shadows in Summerland:
Boston, 1859. A nation on the brink of war.
Confidence men prowl the streets for fresh marks. Mediums swindle the newly bereaved. Into this world of illusion and intrigue comes William Mumler, a manipulating mastermind and criminal jeweler. Mumler hopes to make his fortune by photographing spirits for Boston’s elite. The key to his venture: a shy girl named Hannah who sees and manifests the dead and washes up on Boston’s harbor along with her strange, intense mother, Claudette.
As Mumler and Hannah’s fame grows throughout Boston, everybody wants a piece: Bill Christian, a brothel tough; Algernon Child, a drunken rival; Fanny A. Conant, a sly suffragette; and William Guay, a religious fanatic. These rogues among a host of others, including the great spirit rapper Kate Fox, form powerful bonds with the spirit photographers, one of which will end in murder. Mumler’s first and last mistake: the dead cannot be made to heel.
Roughly based on the real-life story of spirit photographer William H. Mumler and his clairvoyant wife, Hannah Mumler, Shadows in Summerland immerses the reader in a shifting world of light and shade where nothing is quite what it seems at first glance. A soaring and resplendently Gothic novel spanning three decades, it is as much an homage to the Golden Age ghost stories of Edith Wharton and Henry James as it is a companion to the revisionist historical epics of Peter Carey and Sarah Waters, with a little steampunk all its own.
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