Love came first. And then Henry and Flora, although they had different names because their first appearances were in contemporary times, and when I moved the story back to 1937, I wanted their names to feel of the age.
I had to get to know each character individually, though. They existed first as individuals. And then I had to figure out how they would fit together, which took quite awhile and then suddenly felt inevitable in the way the click of a door unlocking after you’ve struggled with the key is satisfying, relieving (and maybe thrilling if you’ve been standing outside in the rain).
Death was the last of my characters to find me, but she does answer the question: Who is Love’s antagonist? The obvious answer would be Hate, but as we know from real life, that isn’t actually the case. Love and Death have so much more power than something as petty, transient, and unnecessary as Hate. And even though this is fiction, I wanted the book to ring with the human truth that death is our true heartbreak, and that grief is the price of love (and a price worth paying, but oh!). Hate’s a sideshow, and one for a book I most likely wouldn’t write.
As a reader, my favorite villains are the ones with some texture. You know how sometimes people are just Evil because they want to Rule the World? I don’t understand that motivation myself. I have no desire for global domination. It’s hard enough for me to keep my desk under control.
Death, if she wanted to, could rule the world. She could kill everyone in it at any moment. And she must kill. This is how she was made by whatever mysterious force in the universe that summoned her from the stars.
Her hunger to feed on humans is like an incurable addiction. As she feeds, she experiences memories of the lives of the humans she’s consuming, and—although she wouldn’t admit it—she falls in love with them and keeps their stories inside her forever.
As much as she sees of humanity, loving and despising them for their foolishness, she doesn’t see herself clearly at all. And this is where I really came to love this character. It’s so hard to see ourselves with any clarity. We are often all too critical of how we are made, without appreciating the things that make us lovable and uniquely beautiful. We all have things about ourselves that we would change if we could, but we can’t—and maybe even shouldn’t. Death is as clear an example of that as I could make. Even with her grotesque purpose and her flaws, there is something worth loving in her. We read to discover what this is complex characters, just as when we are living well, we discover this about ourselves.
There is SO much historical context in this book. Where did you even begin your research? Did you learn anything surprising during the process?
I did not set out to write a historical book originally. I have the greatest respect for authors who do this well. Think Elizabeth Wein. Judy Blundell. Robin LaFevers. (And so many more!) As much that can go wrong with a story set in contemporary times, even more can go wrong with a historical novel. When you don’t know what you don’t know, you can’t know that you need to research it. So it’s a scary prospect.
I guess I’d say I began my research without even knowing. I was just following things that fascinated me. Many moons ago, when I was in college, I was lucky enough to read some fantastic books that made me think about this time in history (more or less), as well as characters who might have been like mine. One I loved was called Passing, by Nella Larsen. One of the characters, who is black, passes as white and marries a white man. And in this book, “passing” wasn’t just about concealing your race. There are other ways to pass. That notion influenced me deeply—the way the world sometimes demands for us to appear as someone we aren’t. There might be good reasons to do so, but the cost is extraordinary.
This is more about the emotional impact of that than specific details of the historical period, of course. But to me, the emotional truths are just as important, if not more so. So one thing I was thinking about with this book is the world’s expectations of us, and how sometimes those are at odds with the truth of our hearts. We will all die someday (spoiler alert!). But maybe we should not fail to live before then.
In terms of other research, I read books by jazz musicians, chief among them Milt Hinton’s Playing the Changes, which spans far more than the era and is full of photos and really showed me what music meant to the performers of that era. Seattle also had a thriving jazz scene, which I read about in a number of places. The epicenter of it is just a couple of miles from my house, so I drove the stretch and thought about what it must have been like back in that day. I also benefited from the rich trove of photographs of Seattle taken in 1937, the year the book is set. I saw houses, cars, people walking the streets in their hats and gloves.
One scene involves the crash of the Hindenburg. I encountered an audio recording of this when I was in a sixth-grade science class, so my emotional reaction was already there. But I did study the video online so I could describe what it looked like for a zeppelin to catch fire.
I visited places that I wrote about: Venice and San Francisco, for example (I didn’t make it to New Jersey, though). There was a lot of picky little research, too. I can’t remember if this detail survived revision, but I did have Flora putting on a real shade of 1937 lipstick. I made sure the cable car fare was correct. And every moon phase in the book is accurate, and so are the days of the week. The types of tennis balls, the color of the box that holds the tire-patch kit. These things emerged as details in the writing, and I researched the accuracy of them afterward. I could have made this stuff up, but I enjoy that sort of thing and think for any reader who discovers the accuracy, it gives a little thrill of pleasure.
The most surprising thing I learned, though, was that a character like Flora was entirely possible. We all know about Amelia Earhart, but before Amelia, there was Bessie Coleman, the first black female pilot, and the first black pilot to hold an international aviator’s license. Her story is remarkable, and more people should know it.
Thanks, Martha! Tune in for part 2 of our Q&A on Wednesday and part 3 on Friday.