Interview: Laura Whitcomb

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Earlier this week, I posted a review on Laura Whitcomb's A Certain Slant of Light proclaiming it to be one of the best ghost stories I've read.

For this week's installment of Thank Goodness for Books, Ms. Whitcomb is gracious enough to answer some of The Reader's Quill's questions on A Certain Slant of Light, the writing life and what surprises are in store of the future!

Hi Laura! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us! First off, over here at The Reader's Quill, we love all sorts of books and music. We're curious, what are your top three favorite books? And top three favorite musicians?

Some of my favorite books are The Princess Bride by William Goldman, The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart, and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. And while I write I listen to a lot of movie scores: The Mission, Sense and Sensibility, Chocolat, Ladies In Lavender, The Man Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down a Mountain, and many more. (I choose my favorite tracks and create soundtracks for my various projects.) In the car I listen to audio books and sometimes Flight of the Conchords (hilarious.)

Let's talk a little bit about A Certain Slant of Light. How did you come up with the idea?

I was cleaning my apartment, listening to an Anne Rice audio book, when I thought how fun it would be to do what Rice was doing, narrate a story with a character who is from the past and so speaks in an antiquated manner but who is commenting on contemporary life. But I decided you didn’t have to write a vampire story to do that—a ghost could do the same thing. Next I wondered what the weirdest thing would be for a ghost to experience. I decided it would be for someone to look her straight in the eyes after the ghost having been invisible for over a century. And that’s how the story started. I asked myself a question, like: Who can see her? Then I answered it: someone who is also a ghost but borrowing a body.

Helen and James are both ghosts that can't move on. Do you believe in ghosts?

Yes, I do believe sometimes human spirits get stuck, but I also believe none of them need to be. Heaven is for everyone.

Which is your favorite character in the book? Which was your favorite to write, if different?

I love the main characters, of course, but sometimes a character in the second string, who is in less scenes, touches me probably because I get to spend less time with him or her. Billy’s brother Mitch was one of those characters who haunted me. He wanted to be a perfect protector, but he was flawed. He had a lot of stored up anger, pain, and sadness, like some ghosts. Writing him was cool because he keeps so much to himself that when he does let a bit of information or emotion out, it’s significant.

Are any of the characters based on people in your own life?

Mr. Brown is partly based on a friend I was buddies with while I was getting my teaching credentials and Helen’s first host was a combination of Emily Dickinson and my grandmother who was a poet and storyteller.

Dan and Cathy are pretty intense individuals. Have you ever experienced this type of devotion to religion? If not, what inspired you to write it into the book?

Over the years I’ve certainly met people who were very devoted to their religions, mostly in positive ways. The household in which Jenny is oppressed by overly strict and religious parents is partly based on some folks I worked with in the 1980s, but no one specifically. It’s not Christianity that is destructive, by the way, but the way it is being used in that household. As a storyteller, I like the contrast between Billy’s home being fractured and unstructured and Jenny’s being constricting and rigid.

James and Helen's love transcends this life. Do you believe in soul mates?

I’m not sure how it all really works, but it feels like there are certain people I’ve known already the instant I meet them. I like to imagine that we all have our special ones, our “home room” in Heaven. One fan emailed me and asked why Helen’s husband didn’t come to meet her when she finally got to Heaven. I said it was probably because they weren’t actually in each other’s spiritual “home rooms” and that probably when Helen’s husband died he was greeted by some members of his family and perhaps some special friends, maybe even a girl he knew when he was young (before he met Helen) who was his real soul mate. But, like I said, I don’t really know how it works. I’ll have to wait and see, like the rest of us humans.

You draw a lot on poetic references in the book - the title refers to a poem by Emily Dickinson while Billy's full name is William Blake. Do you feel that poetry has influenced your writing? If so, who is your favorite poet?

Yes, poetry is very important to me. I hope it influences my writing. When I was creating the character of Helen, I thought to myself: If I was a ghost, who would I want to latch onto if I had to cling to a human to survive? And my answer was: Someone who reads wonderful literature. That’s why I made Helen’s hosts poets, playwrights, English professors, and novelists. It would be too hard for me to choose only one poet, but one of my many favorite poems is “Choose Something Like a Star” by Robert Frost.

Which aspect of the book can you relate to the most?

Wow, I don’t know how to answer that one. But one of the things that seems the most real about A Certain Slant of Light is that no matter how different people seem on the outside, inside they are much alike; they are complex beings with wounds and doubts and unexpressed love.

What is your typical writing day like?

I start writing mid-morning and usually finish before supper. (When I’m on a deadline, sometimes I write all day.) I walk my dog to the cemetery a mile and a half away. I visit the public library. I have other activities (singing in a madrigal choir, volunteering backstage for a local theater) but a writer’s life tends to involve lots of stay-at-home stuff that probably looks boring from the outside: writing, reading, doing research. If you filmed a writer working, it would be a snooze. But if you could film what was going on in her head, it would probably be a splendid adventure.

Do you have an interest in any other form of fantasy or the paranormal? Would you be interested in writing about it in the future?

I like all kinds of things supernatural. I’d love to write novels about the paranormal under-stories of pieces of history or literature. My next book comes out in February and is called The Fetch. It’s about a death escort who comes to earth and falls in love during the Russian Revolution.

(E.B. NOTE: A review based on The Fetch's advance readers copy will be available soon on The Reader's Quill.)

Are you working on a new project? If so, any hints you can give us?

I’m working on another ghost story now, but I’m shy about describing my books until they’re finished. I will say that it takes place in the nineteenth century and is a love story. For the rest, you must wait.

For more information on Laura Whitcomb, check out her website!

Next Thursday we will posting another very special interview with a New York Times Best Selling author, so make sure to check back! Also, remember to check out our new music site, The Musical Menagerie!