the girl who would speak for the dead. by paul elwork.
I recently had the pleasure of being introduced to author Paul Elwork whose debut novel The Girl Who Would Speak For the Dead (Amy Einhorn Books/Penguin Group) was released in March. The title and cover are good and gothic and more than enough to pull you in – but it’s the story that keeps you there. I’ll post a review as soon as I have time to do it justice. In the meanwhile, Paul has very kindly agreed to do a little Q&A for the blog. But first, a little about The Girl Who…
In 1925, at her family’s suburban Philadelphia estate, 13-year-old Emily Stewart tricks her gullible schoolmates into thinking that she can speak to the dead. But her game begins to seem like cruel deceptions when adults who have suffered the loss of loved ones start consulting her as a spirit medium. The Girl Who Would Speak For the Dead interweaves Emily’s experiences with those of several generations of family and friends devastated by tragic loss, and paints an unforgettable portrait of individuals traumatized by death and unhinged by grief.
Q. It seems like the paranormal is the publishing world’s Holy Grail at the moment. Were you at all conscious of this when you first began writing The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead?
When I started the book, years ago, there were certainly successful novels about the paranormal, but they weren’t the publishing rage they are at the moment—so definitely not in that sense. The other thing is that while my novel is built on a paranormal notion—communicating with the dead—nothing supernatural takes place in its pages. The Stewart twins in the book are pretending to contact the dead, as the Fox sisters did in the 19th century. I tried to fill the book with personal and historical ghosts for my characters, but no actual ones are rattling around in there.
Q. One reviewer described The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead as a “compelling tale of people coping with loss, and vulnerable to suggestion.” What are some of the other themes explored by the novel?
I think the novel has as much to do with people’s complicity as believers as it does with vulnerability to suggestion. Every one of us, even flinty skeptics like myself, navigate the world mostly through belief, since we can verify so little for certain. In the same way, I think people often choose what they believe, consciously and subconsciously (midconsciously?). The believers in my novel aren’t simply dupes; they bring complex psychological and emotional histories to their encounter with the twins’ spirit-knocking game.
Q. I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the Cottingley Fairies, where two young cousins in the North of England perpetrated a hoax that even fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Where did the idea for The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead come from?
I find the Cottingley story fascinating, too. Conan Doyle was also a big believer in Spiritualism, the belief system predicated on communicating with the dead, started by the Fox sisters of upstate New York in 1847. These girls pretended to contact the dead through phantom noises called “spirit rapping”; the sounds were actually made by cracking joints in their toes and ankles. Their performances spread beyond their hometown of Hydesville and ultimately lead them to tour abroad. Years later, one of the sisters—destitute and alcoholic in the decades following the sisters’ international success—got up on a stage in New York and made a confession, complete with a demonstration of how the trick was done. The true believers in the audience rejected the confession—they thought she had been coerced and/or bribed.
I took this basic story arc and premise, recast all of the players, kept things on a smaller, neighborhood stage, placed my story in the 1920s to follow World War I, and fictionalized everything.
Q. The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead was first released as a shorter work under the title The Tea House. How did the current version come about?
I contacted suspense writer M. J. Rose about using her AuthorBuzz service to help promote The Tea House (released by a small press, Casperian Books, in 2007). Much to my shock and delight, M. J. took an interest in my writing—long before I ever made any payment to AuthorBuzz—and she introduced me to my agent, Dan Lazar. Dan sold the novel to Amy Einhorn, who wanted me to flesh out more of the family backstory than I had in the original version, and here we are.
Q. In a starred review, publisher’s weekly said “Elwork’s first novel poignantly depicts the desperate need of people to believe in life after death…” I’m a huge fan of southern gothic literature and I think this “desperate need” is at the heart of that tradition. You also manage to leverage the details of 1920s Philadelphia in much the same way southern gothic writers leverage the details of the south. Are there any other parallels?
I’m also a fan of Southern gothic writers, and that tradition certainly influenced me in writing this novel. Southern gothic tones are actually featured in The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead as part of the family’s history, coming out of antebellum Virginia and shadowed by slavery. Being set on the outskirts of Philadelphia, my novel is actually more closely related to that Southern gothic tradition than to any historical writing in urban places like downtown Philadelphia. My novel’s action takes place in an insular setting—on a lonely, storied estate, along dry roads in the summer, and in the woods at dusk.
Q. What scares Paul Elwork? What inspires him?
I fear for my sons’ emotional and physical safety at times. Sometimes I still give myself the creeps in dark rooms, and have to shake it off and remind myself I’m a grown man. I don’t mind seeming goofy or silly (I’m frequently both), or even a little dumb in an absentminded way (again, guilty), but I’m terrified of appearing downright stupid.
So many things inspire me. Again, my sons. Music is a huge inspiration; I often arrange soundtracks in my head as I listen. I don’t have a deep scholarly knowledge of art history, but I love paintings. And storytelling inspires me, of course. I love the sense of “being brushed by the wing of a great feeling” while reading, as Willa Cather put it.
Q. If The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead had a soundtrack, what would be on it?
Cool—soundtracking. Love it. I guess I can’t find a place in here for Rage Against the Machine, which I’ve found myself listening to a lot just lately. I would want music that suits the period, but not so much Jazz Age/F. Scott Fitzgerald soundtracking—more like a haunting and subtle classical score with some traditional hymns thrown in, like “When They Ring the Golden Bells,” one I quote at the beginning of my novel.
Q. What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel about the making of a fictional Nazi propaganda film in the early 1930s. My idea is that it precedes the historical rise of such films in the mid-thirties. Once again I’m after a tight focus on a relatively few players; a series of events that could have fallen through the cracks of history. Or that could have been buried there.
Q. How would you describe your writing style?
Often sparse, sometimes lush, elegant but not prissy. I try to capture a lot in a few lines.
Q. Can you describe your writing process? What do you enjoy most about it? What do you struggle with the most?
I tend to edit and revise as I write rather than simply write through to the end of a first draft. I both enjoy and struggle with this approach, in that it allows me a deeper perspective on each new scene and slows me down. What I enjoy the most is the exhilaration of getting lost in the writing, of feeling unhooked from time as we usually understand it, and of watching characters do and say things I’d never planned for before I started typing.
Q. Do you have any advice for other writers or debut novelists?
For writers in general: Only things that sound like clichés but are all valid. Be true to yourself. Don’t lose sight of the fact that the work itself is the most important thing. Settle in for the long haul.
For debut novelists: Here’s some advice I’m still accepting myself. Don’t obsess over reviews. Don’t fret over sales. You can’t control either, in the end. You’ve put your work out there—and yes, you need to promote it and make yourself a presence wherever possible—but as far as actual outcomes beyond your control, now is the time to get as Zen as you can in a hurry.
Paul Elwork lives in Philadelphia and is the father of two sons. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including Philadelphia Stories, Short Story America, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Word Riot. His novel The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead (Amy Einhorn Books/Penguin Group) is available online and in bookstores everywhere. For more information and links to short fiction and other content, please visit www.paulelwork.com or follow Paul on twitter at @paulelwork.