In lieu of the standard “Frequently Asked Questions” page, I’ve put together a selection of questions from blog interviews. Click the link to find the original interview in its entirety.
Q: The Revenant is a fascinating story! What led you to write about these people, in this place, in this moment in history?
(Catherine Knutsson, Apocalypsies)
A: I already had a longstanding fascination with 19th century boarding schools for girls. I love how empowering they could be during a time when ladies were expected to be exclusively domestic and maternal.
It wasn’t until friends who live in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, pointed out Seminary Hall and told me it used to be a Cherokee School that I knew I had to set a story there. I’d always thought of 19th century Indian schools as oppressive institutions where agents of the church or government forced students to assimilate. This school, on the contrary, was funded and operated by the Cherokee Tribe. To me, that was very exciting, and I had to know more.
Q: Can you explain what a revenant is? Why were you drawn to write about one?
(Catherine Knutsson, Apocalypsies)
A: The technical definition of “revenant” (or one of them, anyway) is “one who has returned, especially from the dead.” The word derives from the French “revenir,” which means “to return.” Vampires, zombies and their ilk have sometimes been termed revenants, but for me it’s always seemed a beautifully old-fashioned word for ghost. And the word has a double meaning in my story—there’s more than one “being” who must return in the novel. Perhaps that’s why I was so drawn to the word.
I like to write about ghosts because I’m enamored with the idea of emotions and desires so intense that they continue after death. Though I don’t wish to be haunted myself (eek!), I’m very intrigued by the notion of ghostly residues that interact with the living.
Q: I found your depiction of the Cherokee students and their families fascinating and enlightening, because it’s a chapter of their history—and a segment of the population—you don’t often read about. What sort of research did you do to ensure that the Cherokee characters were portrayed correctly?
(Sarah Johnson, Reading the Past)
A: For my research I visited the Oklahoma Historical Society and the Northeastern State University Archives. I also had the benefit of reading Devon Mihesuah’s Cultivating the Rosebuds: The Education of Women at the Cherokee Female Seminary, 1851-1909 as well a collection of oral histories entitled Cherokee Female Seminary Years, edited by Maggie Culver Fry. These books, along with the photographs, school catalogs, architectural plans, etc. obtained through the archives, gave me a pretty clear background on the history of the town, seminaries, and people. Once I had a draft, I arranged for an introduction to Dr. Richard Allen, former English teacher and current policy analyst for the Cherokee Nation. He kindly agreed to read the manuscript for me and offered valuable insights on historical context and characterization.
Q: How did being a teacher yourself influence The Revenant? Any real-life teaching stories make their way into the book?
(Sara Gundell, Novel Novice)
A: I think every teacher has had that gut-twisting moment when the students seem to have checked out, when no one is raising a hand to answer a question and the awkward silence is building. (These moments can be painful for students, too.)
Suddenly, like a beacon in the gloom, a hand shoots up in the air. A miracle! A brave soul is finally stepping up to offer their perspective on the question! There is hope!
But no . . . that student just wants to know if last week’s exams/essays/quizzes are graded yet. Or they need to use the restroom. It’s a very disheartening moment for a new teacher, and I just had to make Willie suffer that pain and disappointment.
Q: What first drew you to the gothic genre?
(Leila Austin, YA Highway)
A: It probably started back in college when I took a Gothic literature course. I loved the themes and iconography of Gothic—crumbling castles, dark forests, brooding heroes (& villains) with dark secrets, maidens in distress, etc. It was all wonderfully over-the-top. These days I prefer my Gothic to be a tad subtler and much more character-driven.
Q: Do you believe in ghosts?
(Leila Austin, YA Highway)
A: I mostly love their story potential. Spirits and ghosts fascinate me, and I think they always will. I’m definitely open to the possibility of their existence, but I don’t really have enough personal experience to say that I believe without a doubt. Even if someone proved they didn’t exist, I’d still love stories about them.
Q: Tell us about your journey to publication.
(Christy Dorrity, Dearest Dreams)
A: It took me a few years to finish my first novel. When I was teaching high school English I never seemed to have the time or energy to get a lot of writing done. But after I pitched my unfinished novel to a few agents at a writing conference (eeek!), I knew it was time to wrap that story up. Fortunately I had an excellent student teacher at the time—a young man who was ready to handle my classes on his own after a short time—so while he taught I went to the library and typed my brains out. That novel generated a little interest, but ultimately it was my second novel that got me an agent. When that novel didn’t sell, I panicked and wrote another novel. The Revenant was a November 2008 NaNoWriMo novel that sold in May 2009
Q: Who are some of your writing influences?
A: First I’d have to mention Anne Lamott, whose Bird by Bird taught me it was okay to write a “crappy” first draft. (She actually used a stronger word, but you get the gist!)
As far as my style and subject matter, I would say that my YA influences include Libba Bray, Meg Rosoff, Jennifer Donnelly, Linda Newbery, and L.M. Montgomery. Adult fiction influences include Charlotte Bronte, A.S. Byatt, Sarah Waters, and . . . gosh who am I forgetting?
- Why Ghosts? (Novel Novice)
- My Top Ten Literary Couples (Books in the Spotlight)
And if you like to hear an interview with me, check out this podcast with Cathie Sue of Children and Young Adult Book Review!