Monday, January 28, 2008

Interview with Dianne Salerni

Today I am bringing you a special interview, Dianne Salerni, author of High Spirits. This is what her website has to say: Dianne K. Salerni lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania with her husband Bob and two daughters, Gabrielle (10) and Gina (7). She graduated from St. Mark's High School in Wilmington, Delaware and received her Bachelor's Degree in Elementary Education from the University of Delaware. She subsequently earned a Master's in Language Arts Education at the University of Pennsylvania before taking a job teaching in the Avon Grove School District. She has now been teaching fourth and fifth grade at Avon Grove for 18 years. You may visit her official site here.

What inspired you to write High Spirits? (Or how did this novel come to be…)

I did not start out to write a story about the Fox sisters. I was originally planning to write a humorous story about talent-less spirit mediums, but during my research I encountered the Fox sisters and was astonished that two adolescent girls could make such an impact on American society. By the time I learned of Maggie’s involvement with “the greatest Arctic explorer you never heard of,” I realized that I had the makings of a novel already at hand. And as far as I could tell, no one had ever fictionalized it before. It seemed a perfect story for the teen historical fiction reader.

Since this is historical fiction, and furthermore since it’s based on true events, how much research was involved? What was your favorite part of the research experience? Did you learn anything that you weren’t able to work into the plot, but would like to share with readers now?

I read a number of biographies of the Fox sisters and other spiritualists of the nineteenth century, and I did as much research as I could online. I also read Arctic Explorations, written by Dr. Kane himself, and used this book to mimic his speech patterns and wry sense of humor. One fun thing I did was visit Dr. Kane at his eternal resting place in a Philadelphia cemetery. My husband and I had to break a few rules to get close to the crypt, which is perched precariously on a steep hillside overlooking the Schuykill River and a major highway, but I believe the explorer would have approved of our little adventure!

They were many things I was unable to work into the plot, most of them revolving around Kate. Although I had originally planned to write about both sisters equally, it soon became apparent to me that I was telling Maggie’s story. Several interesting episodes in Kate’s career as a medium had to be cut from the plot for time’s sake. In one instance, I made up for this by inserting a fictional medium named Cora Scott to perform a ghostly manifestation which was actually a trick developed by Kate when she was in her twenties.

How long did it take to write and see it through to the finished product?

I spent over two years writing and revising High Spirits—although this includes an eight month hiatus when the pressures of my day job and frustration over one character’s entrance into the plot caused me to lay aside the manuscript altogether.

What was your first impression of the cover art for High Spirits?

I would have preferred cover art that had a more historical feel to it. In particular, I wanted it to depict a young woman dressed in nineteenth century costume, seated at a séance table. However, when I first saw the cover art that was chosen, I was resigned to not getting my way and relieved at their choice. The publisher had been considering an image of a young woman in a very modern pixie haircut blowing out a candle, and I pleaded, “No, no, no!” Over time, I have come to appreciate the cover for its slightly spooky quality.

[For the record, in case anyone is curious what I think, I didn't come to appreciate the cover until after I read it. It had to grow on me, but now that it works for me.]

Your novel is told through two perspectives. Maggie’s voice is the strongest. Yet obviously Kate’s voice, Kate’s perspective, was important for you to convey as well. Why did you feel it important to tell both stories, to share both viewpoints? Was it easy to balance the two? I suppose this last bit might be a bit unfair, but did you come to favor one more than the other?

Kate was an important counter-balance in the story. Readers have variously described her as “melodramatic,” “not grounded in reality,” and “keenly insightful.” Kate believed in her own powers even while admitting she committed fraudulent tricks. While Maggie doubted herself, Kate never did. I found this a useful point of view at several points in the story. In addition, Kate’s chapters allowed me to provide a third-person description of her sister, which supplemented Maggie’s own first-person narrative. It was very useful to show each sister through the other one’s eyes. It is not hard for me to admit that I favored the well-meaning and often conflicted Maggie over the more dominant and deceptive Kate.

Since this story was based on facts, did you ever struggle with telling the story? Were there any scenes or plot twists that frustrated you?

A lot of the detailed information about the Fox sisters comes from a book written by their older sister Leah which was clearly self-serving and presented the girls as genuine mediums. Thus, the explanation behind their manifestations and the true motivation for their actions was sometimes difficult to figure out. I had to fill in a lot of gaps. For instance, although the incident in Troy, New York is a true one, the Fox sisters never explained how they were able to escape from the Bouton house. So I had to invent an escape plan for them. I think my version of events fits the facts and the time period—and possibly explains why Leah never revealed the details of their escape in her book. It might even be the true story!

But the biggest roadblock in the development of my plot was Elisha Kent Kane. Struggling with his character ultimately caused me to put the manuscript away for eight months! What in heaven’s name did Maggie see in the man?! Only after I had read Kane’s own book, written in his own words, did I come to appreciate his intelligence and his humor. And when I stumbled across a daguerreotype of Kane as a young naval officer in full uniform, looking energetic and dashing and totally unlike the haggard, bearded version in the more commonly known picture, I finally understood what had attracted Maggie Fox!

Have you always loved to read? Did you have a reading hero growing up? Someone who encouraged you to read, to lose yourself in a good book? What were some of your favorites growing up? And what are some of your favorites now?

I have always loved to read. I used to drive my parents and grandparents crazy pointing to the comics in the newspaper and asking, “What does this say? What does this say?” My mother was a big reader too, and her collection of books was a treasure trove to me. In elementary school, I was big on mysteries and ghost stories, especially series books like Trixie Belden, The Three Investigators, and the Green Knowe books. By middle school, I was delving into my mother’s collection of Mary Stewart and Mary Roberts Rinehart. Nobody could write a murder mystery with clues as convoluted as Rinehart! In high school, I moved on to science fiction—C.J. Cherryh, Roger Zelazny, and Douglas Adams. As an adult, I will read in all those genres, but in recent years I have developed a hunger for historical fiction. I enjoy Philippa Gregory, and I’m always on the lookout for a new author.

What do you love about writing? What do you find the easiest? What do you find the hardest?

I think characterization is a strength for me, and I love when a character begins to speak to me! Once High Spirits was well under way, the Fox sisters spoke to me constantly. Leah lectured me on her opinions; Kate dreamed of mystical truths, and Maggie was trying to find some ethical justification for her lies and deceits. The hardest part of writing for me is describing places. As a reader, I tend to skip over descriptions—even though I sometimes discover I have missed something important and have to go back to find it!

Have you always wanted to be a writer? Has this always been a dream of yours? Growing up, whose work did you admire most? Was there a particular author that made you say, “I want to grow up and do that!”?

I was a writer before I could read. My first book was titled The Dragon and the Girl. My father had to write down the words for me, and I drew the pictures and bound it together with Elmer’s Glue. I continued to write throughout my life. As a teacher, I frequently write for my class—stories about explorers, or limericks about students in the class. Being a published author was always a dream of mine, and I have to credit my husband for helping that dream become a reality. If it wasn’t for his encouragement, High Spirits would probably be stuffed in a drawer somewhere, unfinished. In terms of my development as a writer, I think I was most inspired by the science fiction and fantasy authors I read as a teenager. Nobody is more surprised than me that my first published work turned out to be historical fiction!

You’re a teacher. Obviously that keeps you busy. Very busy. (My sister’s a teacher, so I know how much work is involved.) How did you (how do you) find time to write? To do research?

High Spirits was mostly written on my summer vacations. It is very difficult for me to get much serious writing done during the school year, not only through lack of time, but also because teaching saps most of my creative energy. I also have two young daughters who deserve my attention and devotion—and who sometimes compete with me for computer time!

Research, if it involves reading, is no problem. I end every day by reading for pleasure, no matter how much correcting work is piled up, and I can do a lot of research for my books that way. I have not been able to do any research that involves traveling, however, except for the 1 hour’s drive to Kane’s gravesite. I am afraid that traveling for research will have to wait until I’m retired!

Are you writing anything at the moment? Is another book in the works? What would you like to write next?

There is another book in the works, although it is just in the planning stages now. It will be another historical novel set in the nineteenth century, this time about a group of psychic investigators. Some of the characters will be loosely based on the real founders of The Psychical Research Society and many of the spiritualists they investigate will be based on famous mediums such as Eusapia Palladino and Leonora Piper. The fictional main character, however, will be a young girl who comes to live with the founders of the society under mysterious circumstances and is not what she at first appears to be. I’m on the lookout for a catchy title. Any ideas?

If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?

Tricky question! My first thought was to solve some historical mysteries, but then I realized that 24 hours would not be enough time to, say, learn what happened to the Roanoke Colony or locate Amelia Earhart’s aircraft in its final minutes. I could probably observe how many shots were fired at J.F.K. (and from where) or find out if Lizzie Borden was guilty or innocent—but what a grim way to spend such a precious gift! Upon reflection, I think I would like to spend the 24 hours trying to gain an actual glimpse of some fascinating people from history. What did Anne Boleyn really look like? How about Cleopatra? And I would definitely want a glimpse of one of my all-time favorite personages from American history, George Washington.

1 comment:

Emma said...

This book sounds really interesting, thanks for the great interview Becky.