Adele Griffin & Lisa Brown: Picture the Dead Q&A

Posted May 20, 2010 by Sara 1 Comment

Yesterday, we brought you our review of Picture the Dead by Adele Griffin & Lisa Brown. Today, we’re excited to bring you our exclusive interview with Adele & Lisa! Special thanks to both of them for answering all our questions, and to Paul at Sourcebooks for setting up the interview.

There is so much supernatural YA lit available these days — What makes Picture the Dead stand out from the crowd?

The biggest difference is the book’s visual component. The text isn’t merely complemented by our heroine, Jennie’s, scrapbook, but the illustrated pages also become a viable way to solve the story’s central mystery.

The illustrations also give that thousand words’ worth of historical and personal detail—Jennie’s filled dance card, her music sheets, her letters and daguerrotypes—that a young woman of that time would have held onto as a keepsake and scrapbooked. So there’s also that particular, emotional heft.

What made you decide to write a YA book that takes place during the Civil War? 
Tell us about the process of writing and illustrating a book together. Did you work together at the same time, or did the illustrations come after the text (or vice versa)?

In New York City, an exhibit of photographs by the Spiritualist photographer William Mumler, among other artists, was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it was getting a lot of press. We’d already been thinking about an antique rather than modern, cyber-type ghost. The exhibit cottoned us onto the idea of photography as the medium, so to speak. And it was all happening at the same time—early photography, séances and Spiritualism, the Civil War. Tons of death. A rich background for a ghost story.

Because we live on different coasts with see-saw time zones (Adele in Brooklyn and Lisa in San Francisco), much of this book was created on a giant, years’ long game of cross-country email catch. Lisa is the globetrotter of the pair, constantly visiting New York, so whenever she came into town, we’d have a brainstorm and a pow-wow and dump out our files and pick our way around the story.

After a while, we had plenty of ingredients but no one straight recipe, so Adele took all the bits and pieces and set forth into a draft that was finished in early 2007.

Then Lisa, who was also working on the illustrations, edited the draft and by the end of that year, we both got it into a shape we liked, with a polished manuscript and extensive illustrations. Once we’d shaken hands on a deal with Sourcebooks, we had the great luck of being edited by Kelly Barrales-Saylor—who had lots of fresh insights and angles. We always knew there would be that third voice of the editor to guide this project into landing. It was a lovely bonus that Kelly’s voice was in such harmony with ours.

What sort of research went into writing & illustrating Picture the Dead?

At the risk of sounding a bit nerdy, this is one of those projects where the first arm of the research is a lifetime spent reading and loving historical fiction and gothic fiction and ghost stories, because in many ways, it’s a bibliophile’s love letter to those kinds of books. Adele and I sat around for hours talking not just about our favorite books, but these highly specific scenes—like the first time Kit visits the Widow Tupper in The Witch of Blackbird Pond, or when Jane Eyre is at Thornfield Hall, and she first hears the fingers brushing against the wall. We brought a lot of that “perfect moment” enthusiasm to the plot.

You’ve got a very, very cool website for Picture the Dead. How much input did you have on the website, and how do the various features tie in with the book?

The website was completely and utterly self-generated.

Lisa had been an early true believer in the power of this website, and in finding Jennifer Armbrust, our gifted web designer, there sprung a natural connection between the two—both highly visual people—that bloomed into the site’s uniquely compelling look. A lot of interface is built into the program, with all three of us acting as administrators so that every page can be constantly updated.

The features are extensive. It’s as if Jennie has arrived online with her own steamer trunk, tray after tray packed with all of the extra research that we edited from the book. We have her letters, we have tidbits and details of séances and mediums, we have tons of social history, as well as the history of Brookline, photography, and the American Civil War. We’re very hopeful that the site will charm our readers; a lot of love and work went into it.

At Novel Novice, one of our main goals is encouraging teens to read. What would you say to reluctant teen readers to convince them to pick up a book?

With online bloggers paving the way for so many readers, I’d say go visit some sites and read what everyone is buzzing about. It’s so vocal and spirited on the web these days, and you’re bound to find something that sounds good enough to try.

What question do you always wish someone would ask you during an interview? 
Then answer that question.

Question that I wished for: What is your favorite word? I love the word hugger-mugger. I am so happy it’s a word (AG).

I never know how to answer that question. So I’ll answer Adele’s most wished for: I just learned the newly-coined word: “borgeous.” To describe a book that’s so beautifully written that it’s incredibly boring. I won’t say what we were describing at the time. (LB)

Flash Questions!

If you could trade places with one person for a day, who would it be & why?

Who would I trade places with: My very tall husband, who shelves things way too high. To reach everything in my home, if only for a day—wow. (AG)

Edward Gorey, one of my absolute favorite illustrators of all time. Does it matter that he’s dead? (Maybe even better that way.) He lived in this goreously rickety house on Cape Cod that is now a museum, and ate at the same restaurant every day. (LB)

What was the last movie you saw?

Last movie I saw: Something Japanese, with lots of samurais and pain. I lost the date-night coin toss. (AG)

“We Sell the Dead,” about Victorian grave robbers and zombies. (LB)

Biggest TV addiction?

Biggest tv addiction: Mad Men. It needs to hurry up and return. (AG)

Law and Order. I love something with a beginning, middle and end. (LB)

Guilty Pleasure?

Guilty pleasure: When Lisa and I talk about our next book ideas although we are much too busy promoting Picture the Dead. (AG)

Rereading favorite books over and over and over. (LB)

Fruits or veggies?

Fruits or veggies: Starches, actually. (AG)

Definitely veggies. With lots of salt. (LB)

Favorite childhood toy?

Favorite childhood toy: A doll whose head lit up by 40 watts when I hugged her. I am very glad my real child doesn’t do that. (AG)

I had this stuffed bunny in a prim little dress who I named Mrs. Rabbit. Why Mrs.? Had she been married? Why so formal? I have no idea. (LB)

Once again, a very special thanks to Adele & Lisa. Be sure to check out the official Picture the Dead website for more fun stuff!


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