Today, we bring you part 1 of our three-part interview with Sonia Gensler, author of the brilliant new book The Revenant. Thanks muchly to Sonia for answering all our questions — both serious and silly. And now, on with the interview!
I love all the different elements at play in THE REVENANT (the ghost story, the romance, historical fiction, “girl runs away from home,” etc.) Which element came first?
The historical aspect definitely came first. I’d always wanted to write a 19th century boarding school story, and when I first learned about the Cherokee Female Seminary, I knew I’d found the perfect setting. The boarding school setting already provides so many opportunities for drama, but the fact that this school accepted such a wide variety of girls – wealthy and poor, urban and rural, full-blood and mixed-blood – offered irresistible potential for conflict.
What sort of research went into writing THE REVENANT?
Settle in – this could take a while . . .
I started with a very comprehensive study of the school’s history entitled Cultivating the Rosebuds: The Education of Women at the Cherokee Female Seminary, 1851-1909. Then I looked at primary resources at the Northeastern State University Archives and the Oklahoma Historical Society, which included photographs, school catalogs, oral histories, architectural drawings, etc. I toured Seminary Hall and the 19th century houses that still stand in Tahlequah, and I rounded out my research by visiting the Cherokee Heritage Center, which offers an overview of Cherokee history and culture through museum and living history exhibits.
I also studied up on ghost lore. (So. Much. Fun.) The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits was a handy general reference – that, added to the various Internet articles specifically focused on seminary ghost activity, gave me loads of inspiration. I even went on the “Haunted Seminary Hall” tour at Halloween . (I tried to photograph some ghostly orbs – or anything remotely spooky – but had no luck.)
I love research! The possibilities are endless during this stage; plot and character ideas just pop out all over the place. But research can also become a glorious way to procrastinate, especially for those who feel like they can’t start writing until they’ve answered every question. I’ve learned that you just need to write through those questioning moments – make a note and check that fact later! Otherwise you’ll end up obsessively researching women’s headwear or kerosene lantern technology when you really should be writing that challenging action scene . . .
How much did your own experiences and where you live influence different elements of THE REVENANT?
If I didn’t live in Oklahoma, this story never would have happened for me. And I wouldn’t have known about the Cherokee Female Seminary if not for two good friends who live in the town in which it still stands. I am so thankful for what these friends and this great state offered me.
I’m certain that my own struggles early in my teaching career informed Willie’s difficulties in the classroom. To a certain extent, we all feel like imposters when we first start teaching.
Willie does a lot of growing up over the course of THE REVENANT, and the decision she makes at the end is an example of how far she’s come. What do you hope teen readers take away from her experiences and the decision she ultimately makes?
Like Willie, I was an avoider for a long time. Rather than dealing with conflict or difficult responsibilities, I would run away – literally or figuratively – which often put me in a harder position than I started in. As a teacher, I regularly found myself shaking my head at students who worked so hard to avoid doing their work, usually by cheating or plagiarizing. Didn’t they know that it would take less work to actually perform the task originally asked of them?
This is a long way of saying that I think one lesson teen readers might take away from the book is to face challenges head-on and follow through on your responsibilities.
I do have to give Willie credit, however, for avoiding her family issues in a very creative and brassy way! She’s much braver than I could ever be.
Tune in tomorrow for part 2!
I love reading about your research. I’m a research junkie myself!