Is Manhattan ready for Evie O'Neill and her strange gift?
It’s no secret that Printz Award winner Libba Bray can tell a scary story. Her latest novel, The Diviners—the first of a planned quartet—is like a silent film meets a slasher flick. Set in 1926 Manhattan, The Diviners features a cast of dynamic characters with unique supernatural abilities who come together to stare down a great evil. But it’s Evie O’Neill, Bray’s modern and plucky heroine, who steals the show.
A Q&A with the chatty and outspoken author reveals, among other things, what inspired her to write such a mash-up of history and horror, her take on the darker side of American culture and how she encountered Evie’s namesake.
The Diviners is an ambitious project mixing history, mysticism and good old-fashioned Prohibition law-breaking. What inspired you to set the novel in the 1920s?
I had long been interested in delving into the 1920s. It’s a fascinating period in American life: women had just gotten the vote, Prohibition was creating a criminal underground, radio was exciting and new, there were flappers and Ziegfeld Follies, corruption and anarchism, labor struggles and wealth inequality—it was a wild party leading up to an eventual devastating financial collapse. At the same time, there was also this backlash reaction to all of these modern changes through the temperance movement and anti-immigration law and rising evangelicalism as certain segments of the American population who feared the change fought to hold on to their “Americanism” and “traditional American values.” That sort of conflict makes for an inherently interesting story.
New York City was one of the most happening cities in the world at that time—a symbol of American progress and modernity. I couldn’t resist the glamour and grit of it, my adopted hometown. Even NYC’s mayor, Jimmy Walker, was a real character, a corrupt charmer as likely to be found in a speakeasy with a beautiful girl on his arm as at City Hall. NYC in the 1920s promised to be a wild ride and I was not disappointed.
What kind of research did you do for this book? Did you visit any former speakeasies or haunted mansions?
I spend all of my time in haunted speakeasies, actually. Talk about “spirits.” Ba-dum-dum. (Thank you folks, I’ll be here all week. Tip your waitress. Try the fish.)
I did a lot of research and yet, I always feel that it’s never enough. When I knew that I wanted to write this series four years ago, I began reading up on the 1920s to get some sense of overview, books like Ann Douglas’ Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s; Playing The Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars, by Shane White, Stephen Garton, Dr. Stephen Robertson, and Graham White; When Harlem Was In Vogue, by David L. Lewis; and Sacco And Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind, by Bruce Watson, among many others. I also read literature from the period: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cane by Jean Toomer, Home Toward Harlem by Claude McKay, poems by Langston Hughes, essays by Alain Locke and columns by journalist H.L. Mencken and Lipstick (Lois Long), who wrote a gossip column for The New Yorker.
Fortunately for me, New York City has some absolutely amazing libraries and historical resources, and my terrific assistant, Tricia, and I made trips to the Brooklyn Public Library, the New York Public Library, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, as well as the New York Historical Society, the Paley Center for Media, a Follies/Musical Revues exhibit at Lincoln Center, and the MTA Museum and archives. Historian Tony Robins led us on a walking tour of Harlem and the Lower East Side, while Joyce Gold took us to Chinatown. I also pestered my librarian pal, Karyn Silverman, who used to teach a unit on the 1920s at Elizabeth Irwin High School. Reading newspapers and advertisements is always a revelation as it gives clues to everything from syntax and language to the values and aspirations of a society. And hey, when you need a starting point, Wikipedia can help you realize what you don’t yet know so that you can make a list. I could spend all day clicking on links and thinking, “Oh, I really should research that, too . . .” This is probably why I can’t remember anything anymore. And why my house looks the way it does.
But my untrained, ninety-eight-pound-weakling research skills could only carry me so far. There was so much I needed to know that it became clear I needed the services of a ninja librarian. Enter the amazing Lisa Gold. She’s a goddess. I could email her at any time of day or night and plead my case: “I need primary sources on chorus girls or pictures of the Bowery in 1926,” and she’d make it happen. Like I say, when the going gets tough, the tough get a librarian. Librarians: I am sorry—I’m going to be bugging you a lot over the next few years. I promise to provide you with chocolate.
Last but not least, in the spooky mansions department, my inspiration for Knowles’ End was the old Wheelock House, which was once a part of the rarefied Audubon Park neighborhood around 157th Street. The house was demolished in 1941, but here’s a picture of it (taken by famed photographer Berenice Abbott in 1936, via www.bulgergallery.com):
I dare you to spend the night in a house like that. In fact, I double dog dare you.
Evie is an adventurous and funny heroine who truly embodies the Jazz Age. How did you find her unique voice? Did it involve channeling the spirits of long-dead flapper girls?
I’ve known an awful lot of adventurous, funny, might-want-to-keep-some-bail-money-on-you-just-in-case ladies in my time, so channeling their spirits isn’t too hard. I was a huge Dorothy Parker fan in my teens. I mean, how can you not love a woman who gave us “Brevity is the soul of lingerie,” and “You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks”? That sort of wit is irresistible, and I really wanted to pay homage to those wisecracking women I adore.
True story: I got the name Evangeline from a picture I found in my grandmother’s box of old photos. It was a picture from 1926-27 of my grandmother and a blonde flapper who looked at the camera like she could take it on in a fight. “Who is that?” I asked. My grandmother, a staunch Presbyterian prude through and through, pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow: “That,” she said with a hint of admiration mixed with approbation, “is Evangeline. She was hot to trot, as they say. Real trouble.” I knew then that I’d use her for something someday. (My tiny grandmother’s maiden name was also Fitzgerald, hence Uncle Will’s surname, in case you thought I was tipping to Mr. F. Scott. We’re no relation, as far as I know.) Here’s that pic for you (Evangeline’s in the middle; my Nana is on the left):
There’s an unsettling scene where Evie and Jericho stumble into a eugenics exhibit at a county fair. What made you decide the theory of eugenics (a pseudo-science most closely associated with the Nazis' desire to create a pure race) would be a good fit for the story?
In The Diviners, there’s a large, diverse cast of characters, some of whom have unusual abilities, and they are living at a time when there’s a lot of racist dogma being passed off as science and influencing legislation that stays on the books for decades. I don’t think you can write an American story without delving into race and immigration, certainly not one set in the 1920s.
The eugenics movement, which upheld the idea of an American identity based on “racial purity,” was big in the 1920s as America reacted to the waves of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe with a rather nasty nativist streak. This movement was not just limited to conservative WASPs but also encompassed many progressive, leftist thinkers, like writer H.G. Wells and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. The KKK was big in the 1920s, though more so in the early ‘20s. In 1916, eugenicist Madison Grant published The Passing Of The Great Race, which was chock-full of racist “scientific” theories about the Nordic “great” race being responsible for most of civilization. He advocated phasing out the racially “inferior stock” and the “weak and unfit” through ghettos and forced sterilization. Sound familiar? What you have to know is that this was put forward as science at the time. As fact. It’s important to remember this. And these racist eugenics theories led to legislation like the Immigration Act of 1924 and the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 and to the Fitter Families for Future Firesides.
When I found the photos of exhibits for Fitter Families for Future Firesides—and no, they don’t get points for alliteration—I was fascinated and horrified. Essentially, they went to state fairs and judged “human stock” according to these racist ideas, judging the “fitness” of families and awarding them (if they passed all the “whiteness” tests) with bronze medals declaring, “Yea, I have a goodly heritage.” There were boards at these exhibits—which purported to “educate” people about the “science” of eugenics—that talked about the need to get rid of those who were a “burden on society.” Chilling. Sometimes you want to make up a villain and then you do a little research and realize you don’t have to go far to do it.
I’ve said that we Americans seem to have a convenient, collective amnesia about some of the more disturbing aspects of our history. We’re a can-do people raised on a spirit of Manifest Destiny and Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories. It becomes almost a mantra. Even our Declaration of Independence guarantees us the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We do a lot of pursuing. And certainly, there is a wonderful optimistic and maverick quality to the American spirit. But when you say, “Yeah, but what about slavery? And the Chinese Exclusion Act? And the eugenics movement?” it’s as if everyone turns their heads, sips from their XL soda cups and says, “Why, I don’t know what you mean.”
These racist sentiments are still alive and well today. We’re still having the same arguments about immigration. Whether you agree with President Obama’s policies or not, I’d argue that his presidency has been framed through the lens of our inherent racism, that these “Birther” arguments and the far right-wing hatred we’re hearing is, at its core, a reaction to his race first. We have such an uncomfortable relationship to our identity, a push-pull between our spoken belief in the melting pot, a country made up of all sorts of cultures, and this underlying xenophobia. Some people find change to be a threat to their perceptions of who they are and who they think they are. They fear losing their safety net of a crafted, curated identity, and they fear the thought that by incorporating the new, they will lose some part of themselves.
If we as a country want to evolve and become what we purport to believe in our creed, we are going to have to take an unflinching look at some of these disturbing aspects of our past, of ourselves, and we are going to have to have honest dialogue about race, trying to move beyond the reactionary, the defensive, and the fear-based.
But nobody asked me for my opinion so I wrote a book instead.
You’ve said you could always be counted on to tell a scary story. What scares you?
Besides religious fanatics and corporations running our country?
Well, I’m guessing you don’t mean things like small enclosed spaces, Madame Alexander dolls, hemorrhagic viruses, and circus clowns, so we’ll leave them off the list for now. I’m a huge horror fan; it’s my genre of choice. Give me Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Bram Stoker, Richard Matheson, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hammer Horror films, gothic tales set in old castles, psychological suspense, and ghost stories of all kinds. I’m not a fan of torture porn or gore for gore’s sake.
But if you really want to scare me, give me a story that involves satanic or demonic forces, like Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist. That’s probably a throwback to my having grown up in the church and overthinking much of what I learned in Sunday school: “Wait! So God can see me ALL THE TIME? How will I ever be able to pee again???” I always figured that you could outrun, outwit, or just plain hide from a maniac in a mask, and you could blow the head off a zombie. But the Big D? You are screwed, man. Game over. You’re gonna end up rocking a black cradle or falling out of a window in Georgetown. Just saying.
For a story that involves communicating with the dead, I have to ask: What do you hope your epitaph will say?
No longer on deadline.
Your first series, the Gemma Doyle trilogy, was also a work of historical fiction, set in the late 19th century. Have you always been interested in history?
I suppose that I have. I’ll have to send a thank-you note to my high school history teacher, Diana White, who was terrific. I always loved literature and movies that took me to a different time and place, books like Jane Eyre and Les Miserables, A Tale of Two Cities (I was really interested in the French Revolution in my teens), The Red Badge of Courage and the play A Man For All Seasons; movies like The Seven Samurai, The Lion in Winter, Roots, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and just about any costume drama you could find on PBS. Maybe we should blame PBS for my love of history while we’re at it. Whether I’m reading about the Civil War, Tudor England, feudal Japan, Francois Mackandal and the Maroons, etc., I’m exploring the human condition, searching for touchstones of universality, for evidence of human beings’ struggle to evolve.
History is story. It’s right there in the word. And I love story.
If you could meet any historical figure, who would it be?
Only one? Sheesh. Tough. There are so many historical figures I’d love to meet, but for today, I’ll say Oscar Wilde, because I’m going out to dinner tonight, and I’ll bet Mr. Wilde would make a most excellent dinner companion.
As evidenced by your Twitter feed, you are friends with so many amazing YA authors. What's it like to be part of a talented community of writing rock stars?
Well, every village needs an idiot. I guess that’s why I’m there.
I count myself very, very lucky to know so many talented, generous friends with whom I can share work, laughs, complaints, and snacks. It’s also good to have people who can hide you in their basements if you miss a deadline.
What are you reading now?
Besides research, I’m reading the books of folks I’m going to get to hang out with this fall: Adaptation by Malinda Lo, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Beta by Rachel Cohn, Every Day by David Levithan, Clockwork Prince by Cassie Clare, Black Heart by Holly Black, and Princess Academy 2: Armed, Pissed, and Ready to Bring It by Shannon Hale. I’m kidding; it’s really Princess Academy: Palace of Stone, but the thought of sweet, lovely Shannon Hale writing the former makes me giggle.
And now I shudder to think what revenge she’s plotting for me in Salt Lake City come October.