NerdsHeartYA — Author Interview

What do you think of an author who feels her life was defined by this:

I was born in York, Pennsylvania in 1963. I missed being born on Jane Austen’s birthday by one day. One day! I feel that has defined my life in many ways.

I don’t know about you, but it made me fall in love with Melissa Wyatt – just a little bit!  Honestly, reading her whole biography makes me grin.  She has such a sense of humor.

Melissa is the author of the NerdsHeartYA nominated book Funny How Things Change (my review) and Raising the Griffin – the story of 16-year-old Alex Varenhoff, who suddenly finds out he’s a prince and must return home to rule the country when he knows nothing about ruling anything!  I was not the judge for Funny How Things Change, but lucky for me, I got to interview Melissa instead! 

Capricious Reader – Congratulations on your NerdsHeartYA nomination!  How did you get the idea to write Funny How Things Change?

Melissa Wyatt – Thank you! It was truly an honor to have a book nominated among such great company. I got the idea for Funny How Things Change on the loooooooong drive back to Pennsylvania from West Virginia. My husband’s family is from Welch, WV and we travel there every other year for a family reunion. At first, I didn’t like it very much. It’s so alien to the suburban life I know in south central Pennsylvania. The town of Welch was a prosperous county seat during the coal boom but with the closing of the coal mines, it is now slowly dying. Even so, a couple of thousand people hang on, and I always wondered why. Why did my father-in-law want to move back so badly?

Questions–especially the questions that won’t go away–are a great way to start a book because they get you thinking about motivations, why people do the things they do. So I started thinking about a teenager who was pulled in both directions, wanting to go and longing to stay.

CR – Remy is one of the most well-developed characters I’ve read in awhile.  How did you go about creating Remy?

MY -I fell in love. Simple answer. For me, developing my main character is like those first months when you are suddenly, desperately, head-over-heels in love with someone. You want to know everything about them. Everything they do fascinates you. You could just sit and watch them sleep, you adore them so. It’s unconditional love at first, so they can get away with anything in the first draft. But after awhile, you have to temper it and correct them when they get annoying. And not be afraid to let bad things happen to them or allow them to get hurt. With Remy, I wanted to write a really good guy but had to be careful not to let him be too unbelievably good.

CR – How about Dana?

MY – Dana was tough! Even though her character really sparked the start of the novel, the outsider coming in to stir things up. But I admit I really struggled with her in the first draft and throughout revision. I think because she initially existed as a plot device, the thing that would shake Remy up and make him think about what she was doing. There was one scene in particular, after she kisses Remy, and I knew it wasn’t working. Something was horribly wrong. It was Dana. I wasn’t allowing her to behave like a normal 19-year-old girl would behave after kissing a very hot guy. She was acting like his therapist. It allowed him to say all the things I wanted him to say but it wasn’t natural. I had to back track and rethink the scene from her point of view. How would she feel? How would she react? No teenaged girl would have been as sympathetic and analytical as I originally wrote her. I had to be her for awhile. Fall in love with her, too.

CR – Who is your favorite character in this story? Would you be surprised if I said mine was Remy’s Dad?

MY – Oh! I am absolutely delighted! He’s my favorite, too. I have a thing about dads in my books. Not sure what a therapist could do with that!

CR – Did you grow up in West Virginia?  Reading this made me think you have just as much love for those mountains as Remy.

MY – Nope. I grew up right here in south central Pennsylvania, where I still live. (Though it’s beginning to get boring.) And I have to truthfully say that I’m not in love with the mountains. I still find it claustrophobic, visiting there. So I am absolutely not of the “write what you know” school. I don’t even fully embrace “write what you love.” I think you need to understand why your characters love the things they do. To do that, you have to find the core commonality, and with Remy, that was the impact of the things we identify with most strongly.

CR – Did you always think you would be a writer?  What do you love about it? Is there anything you hate about it?

MY – I’ve wanted to be a writer since eighth grade. Took me awhile. The best thing about it is the act of creation, bringing characters to life through words. It’s an amazing high when things are rolling along. The worst part is getting stuck and not being able to figure out why. Horrible feeling!

CR – What are some of your favorite YA books?

MY – My favorites from when I was a teenager (and yes, there were YA books way back then) were by a British writer named K. M. Peyton: the Flambards books, The Team, Pennington’s Heir, The Right Hand Man. More recently, I’ve loved The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson, Impossible by Nancy Werlin, Repossessed by A. M. Jenkins and Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia books. I am also among the throngs of fans impatiently waiting for Mockingjay. (I’m a Gale girl myself.)

CR – What are you working on next?  Will there ever be another book about Remy?

MY – I think Remy will find what he needs now to be happy and happy people don’t make for very interesting books. So instead, I’m working on a big, fat, fluffy, historical novel about a castle, three sisters, a curse and a ghost who might not be a ghost. (No dad in this one. Hmm.)

Thank you for asking such thoughtful questions. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed answering them!

Thank you for your wonderful answers Melissa!  And I can’t wait for the new book; it sounds right up my alley!  Please check out Funny How Things Change, it’s a wonderful book.  And stay tuned, my NerdsHeartYA reviews and pick to go on to the next round will be up tomorrow.

Audiobook Week – Barbara Rosenblat

Barbara Rosenblat.

Take heed.

It is Barbara Rosenblat.


Please, never make the mistake of calling her Barbara Rosenblatt.  She will call you out on it and she will mortify you and you will be sorely tempted to never email to her again.   Literally, your face will burn with shame.  However, once propery mortified, she is a delight.  And once you start finding out more about her life, you can’t help but be fascinated, amazed, and come to adore her even more.

Barbara is a highly respected veteran of not only audiobooks but of stage, screen, radio as well.  She has worked in England at the West End Theater, television, film and on BBC Radio.  She appeared in Guiding Light and Law and Order SVU in the States.  She created the role of Mrs. Medlock in the Tony Award winning Broadway production of The Secret Garden and co-starred with Liev Shriver in Talk Radio.  And she has voiced many documentaries and commercials.  And many game fans have been exposed to her voice since she voiced DJ Reni Wassulmaier in the Grand Theft Audio series.   She has done too many audiobooks to name and Billboard Magazine has said that she “is spoken of with the same reverence and affection that the music industry reserves for Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.”   Barbara IS the voice of Amelia Peabody in Elizabeth Peters’ mystery series, to the series fans and to the author herself.  For me, she is the voice of Bridget Jones.  She has won 8* coveted Audies from Audio Publishers Association and 40 Golden Earphone Awards.   It is a great honor and privileged to welcome her to my blog today.

Capricious Reader – Your audio books are some of my favorites on the market.  How do you go about preparing for a new novel to read?  What is the recording process like?

Barbara Rosenblat – Preparation, at this point, involves reading the novel slowly, marking words or phrases I cannot pronounce, and allowing the ‘whole audio canvas’ to develop in my head.

Then I am ready to get into the studio. Depending on who I am working for, recording sessions can be a few hours a day over a couple of weeks or 8 hours a day over a predetermined block of time to make deadline. Despite careful preparation, new things can occur to me as I work adding a freshness to each session and a sense of immediacy to the process.

CR – How many books have you recorded?

BR – Up to this point, I have recorded over 400 titles…mysteries, classics, best sellers,romances, sci-fi, young adult, children’s, biography/memoir, self-help… you get the picture. It’s nice not to be hemmed in by a single genre.

CR – Do you have any favorites?

BR – Favourites?? That’s a toughie as I see all my projects independently of eachother with their own special pleasures. I just recorded 10 short stories by Eudora Welty for Audible. I was new to her writing and new to Audible (although they have been carrying my titles for years) and the voyage of discovery for this project was wonderful. The work simply never gets old.

CR – What are you working on now?

BR – Currently, I am in the midst of recording Kathy Reich’s new ‘Tempe Brennan’ mystery, ‘Spider Bones’. It takes place in Hawaii so alot of research was done to get all the native place names correct. That should be out in the fall from Recorded Books.

Thank you Barbara for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer a few of my questions.  And thank you for all you do for us audiobook lovers.  I know I can’t wait for the Eudora Welty collection, one of my favorite authors!

And thank you Jen for creating this wonderful week to celebrate audiobooks.  I hope it becomes a yearly tradition.

*6/27 – Ms. Rosenblat just informed that, as of last month, she now has 8 Audies.  Congratulations Barbara!

Author Interview – Audrey Niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger
Audrey Niffenegger

I am pleased to welcome Audrey Niffenegger, best selling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife and the just released Her Fearful Symmetry to my blog today.  I was lucky enough to be able to ask her a few questions about her work.

ME:  I’ve read in past interviews that you wrote The Time Traveler’s Wife the ending first and then added new scenes as they came to you. Was writing Her Fearful Symmetry a similar experience for you?

AN: I started writing HFS thinking that I was beginning at the beginning, but it later became the middle, the scene in which the twins arrive in London. I am apparently incapable of writing anything long from beginning to end, I have to jump around. It’s more exciting that way, that’s for sure.

ME:  I also read that you read Wilkie Collins (whom I adore!), Henry James and other 19th century writers while preparing for Her Fearful Symmetry. How did they influence your work?

AN: I borrowed certain motifs from The Woman in White, including the doubling, mistaken parentage, etc. Henry James is endlessly interesting to me; I used his plot line in which the young American girl(s) come to the old country and experience extreme culture shock (Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller). And the ambiguity at the core of The Turn of the Screw (are the children haunted or is the governess insane?) gave me courage to include a few ambiguous wingdings of my own in HFS.

ME: One of my favorite characters was Martin. Did you do any special research to get into the mind of this excessively OCD character? Did you try to live as he did to see what it would feel like?

AN: I once had a friend who had fairly severe OCD. He was not like Martin as a personality, but he did give me some insight into how the condition can affect one’s life. I also read books written by doctors who treat OCD and other similar disorders. I have not tried to mimic OCD, it’s not something to trifle with.

ME: I find it fascinating that you are a guide at Highgate Cemetery. What is that like? Have you had any ‘interesting’ experiences there?

AN: It is a great privilege to guide at Highgate Cemetery; the Guides are very knowledgeable and they were an immense help to me, both in researching the book and in putting together my own tour. Every Guide has his or her own tour, all based on the same body of facts, but you will see different things depending on who’s giving the tour. It’s wonderful to see the Cemetery in all weathers and seasons, and I’ve had many interesting conversations with the visitors, who come from all over the world.

If by “interesting” you mean “supernatural”, I haven’t experienced anything like that at all. Of course, I don’t believe in ghosts, so if there are any they probably wouldn’t bother themselves with me.

ME: What do you hope readers will take away from your books?

AN: A variety of things, most obviously a sense that time is passing and the urgency of living intensely now.

ME: There is one thing I’m dying to know. I just saw The Time Traveler’s Wife. What did you think of the movie adaptation? (I was upset they changed the ending!)

AN: I haven’t seen it, myself, so I don’t have an opinion about it, sorry.

Thank you Ms. Niffenegger for answering my questions.  And thank you to Michael from Regal Literary for setting it up for me.

Author Interview – Colleen Gleason

This interview ran in the February 2009 issue of Estella’s Revenge

HF: So, what is Victoria up to now that she’s back in London, in “When Twilight Burns?”

CG: Victoria is heading back home to London because she’s been notified that the heir to the Rockley estate has been found, and, well, she needs to get her stuff out of the Rockley house. She also wants to return to London to forestall any chance that her mother and her two cronies will make another trip to Italy. 🙂

HF: Okay, what gives? Just want is it about vampires that has everyone reading? You, Stephanie Meyer, the Casts, and more; it seems like vampires are everywhere!

CG: There are vampires everywhere! I think it really started with Ann Rice and Chelsea Quin Yarbro–at least, as far as contemporary authors go. (Obviously, there was DRACULA and THE VAMPYRE and other books/stories previously.) And then Laurell K Hamilton, and others like JR Ward, came along. Most of them portray the vampire as the protagonist, whereas in my books, of course, the undead are the villains.

I think some of the fascination with vampires is that immortality aspect, and the superhuman powers…along with the eroticism of having one’s flesh penetrated (with fangs). The fact that a human can be changed or turned, and given those powers–and those limitations–makes for interesting reading. And for compelling conflict when they interact with mortals. Fascinating, really. I just don’t have the urge to write a sympathetic vampire.

HF: One of the things I love best about you, besides your writing, of course, is how open you are with your readers through your website and your blog. Do you find that their opinions affect your writing?

CG: Thanks so much! What a lovely thing to say. (And now I’m blushing.) I really enjoy blogging, and I think part of the reason is that since I don’t go to an office and I work alone, my blog has become that social outlet that I used to have with co-workers. A lot of my blog entries tend to be things like water-cooler conversations, or the kinds of things I’d complain/chat/expound about if I went into an office or other job every day, or if I met friends for lunch or at the bar. That’s the kind of conversations I try to keep on my blog.

And now that I’ve been blogging for awhile, and I know who my audience is, that makes it even more fun–because I sort of know who I’m talking to. I know how certain people will respond. It’s my social outlet, and usually, it doesn’t take me more than fifteen minutes per day to write the blog. I admit, I’m not as good about coming back and keeping the conversation going–nor am I as good about visiting and commenting on other blogs as I used to…but I’m trying to get better at that.

I am very flattered that people find my blog interesting, and it always makes my day when people join in the conversation, too.

Oh, and do the blog-readers’ opinions affect my writing? No. Because by the time they’re reading the books, I’m already one or two books ahead of them–and the decisions have already been made. (Thank goodness!)

HF: Do you find it hard to take their opinions in stride and stay true to what you want to do as the writer?

CG: Sometimes it can be a bit cringeworthy, when I hear a particular point of view and I think…oh, huh. Interesting.
Or…hmmmm…he/she missed the boat on that. Or….NEVER!!! I’d never do that.

LOL. But that’s okay–everyone has their opinions, and like I said, since the books are already written before the blog readers can even respond to them, it makes it easy for me to say–well, that’s the way it is.

Aside of that, I really do know how I want the story to be told, so even if everyone was up in arms about something in regards to the story, I wouldn’t change it. That’s called “protecting the story”, as one of my favorite authors, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, has said. And she’s right.

HF: Now, Max and Sebastian, the hot, hot leading men. Do your fans have strong opinions on which one Victoria should end up with? I know I do!

CG: Yes, my fans do weigh in on who Victoria should pick. Max has a slight majority over Sebastian, but the Sebastian fans are bloodthirsty. Well, some of the Max fans are too. And there are several people who want to know just why Victoria has to choose, anyway? LOL. Since these books are categorized as Romances, unfortunately, she has to eventually ride off into the sunset with only one of them.

But I have had people threaten to write fanfic with a Max/Sebastian/Victoria menage. Or, even, a Max/Sebastian scene. (Though I’ve yet to see one.)

HF: Do you feel that by keeping your blog and such a strong presence in the blogging world has helped your career?

CG: It’s impossible to quantify whether my blog presence has resulted in more book sales (although I know it has because people have told me so), but at the very least, it’s helped me remain sane. And it also helps me to know that, yeah, there are people who read the books, and who enjoy them, and who are waiting for the next installment….it takes away that worry that I’m writing in a vacuum. So, in those ways, definitely it has helped.

HF: Has there ever been a question you are surprised you haven’t been asked? What is it and, more importantly, what’s the answer?

CG: I can’t really think of one, except maybe for people to ask if I have a religious background and what is it–because of the Gardella Vampire Chronicles’ mythology. It is highly influenced by Catholicism. And, yes, I’m Catholic. You can see the that in the series if you’re looking for it–the bottom line being that the series portrays the ever-present battle between good and evil.

HF: Victoria went to some very dark places, literally and emotionally. How hard was it to write these scenes? Did you ever worry that you would lose control of your character?

CG: No. I loved writing those scenes. They energized me. I found my heart racing, and my breathing increasing. Seriously. The ends of the books–those last few chapters where everything piles up and the worst happens–are so amazing to write. My fingers don’t work fast enough, and I find myself out of breath, and tense everywhere at the end. 🙂

HF: What is your favorite scene from all of the books?

CG: Wow. That’s a hard one. I don’t know if I can name a favorite scene, but there are a few that I really loved….In THE BLEEDING DUSK, I really loved the scene where Sebastian, Victoria, and Max are all captured in the dungeon. And in RISES THE NIGHT, I really liked the scene where Max visits Victoria when she’s been captured and disarmed. In WHEN TWILIGHT BURNS, one of my favorite scenes is the chapter wherein a taut string snaps. And I love the epilogue for AS SHADOWS FADE.

HF: What has been the biggest challenge, other than getting published, with writing this series?

CG: I think it’s been wanting to make each book different from the last in the sense of its structure. Ie, is it a chase/adventure book (RISES THE NIGHT), a scavenger hunt (DUSK & SHADOWS FADE), a mystery (TWILIGHT BURNS), or what? I try to give each book a different feel as far as structure–but of course, each book is going to have many of the same elements: the Big Bad, the threat of the End of the World, fight scenes, etc. But the structure sort of needs to be a little different. And the underlying message.

In THE REST FALLS AWAY, the theme was making choices. In RISES THE NIGHT, the theme was sacrifice for the greater good. DUSK portrayed regrets, and how making the wrong decision can haunt you and affect your world. WHEN TWILIGHT BURNS is about how we each have the propensity for evil, and that it’s a constant inner battle. And AS SHADOWS FADE is about sacrifice, and also about acceptance of one’s place/choices in life, and balance.

HF: Can you tell us a little of what to expect for Victoria in the last book?

CG: Victoria will face a different sort of evil demon than she’s ever faced before, and this will result in the necessity of the Venators allying themselves–or at least cooperating–with the vampires in order to vanquish this evil. She’ll go to Prague as well as the mountains of Lilith’s lair, and there are a few surprising things that will happen. (I may hear from readers about this one. Yikes.) But, in the end, most of the loose threads will be wrapped up and Victoria will have a happy ever after–at least, as much as Illa Gardella can have.

HF: And what can we expect for Colleen Gleason?

CG: I’m currently working on a brand-new series due to be released in 2010 under a pen name (as yet to be decided!). There are no vampires in it, and it’s not set in a historical time period, which is why I’ll be writing under a different name. There will be paranormal elements to this series, and I’ve planned six books (am currently contracted for three). While there will be very strong female leads in the books, the series actually focuses on a group of five men (and the women they will love) who are thrown together when the world undergoes massive destruction…and they come out on the other side, so to speak, changed and bonded. Each book will focus on the story of one of them, although the books will overlap and integrate throughout the series.

It’s very unique, and I’m really excited about it. More info when I have a name and titles and release dates, etc.

Thank you so much for having me here on Estella’s Revenge! I always appreciate your time–and the great questions you have for me!

And thank you Colleen for your fascinating answers!

Lane Smith – Author/Illustrator Interview

HF: Congratulations on your new (and timely!) children’s book, Madam President! Can you tell us a little of what it is about?

LS: Thanks. It’s about a girl who imagines she’s president of the United States. A few books back I did a “presidential” book for the boys: John, Paul, George & Ben, so in the democratic tradition of Equal Time I made one for the girls.

HF: I just have to say, once upon a time, that I was Katy. I might even still be one. She is such a fantastic character; do you know some Katy’s? Is she based on anyone you know?

LS: Probably there’s a bit of myself in there. And there’s a neighbor girl down the road named Katie who influenced my Katy as well.

HF: I just love your gorgeous illustrations. Is there any one medium you prefer to work in or do you dabble in a little bit of everything?

LS: I like a little bit of everything. Mixed media is the best description. Sometimes I paint in oils and I collage bits of paper into the work. Sometimes I do charcoal or pencil drawings. In the case of Madam President I drew the pictures in pen and ink and painted them digitally in Photoshop. Some of the textures were created with oil paints and scanned in later.

HF: You collaborate with a lot of authors; Jon Scieszka, Bob Shea, Eve Merriman and many others. Do you find it easier to work with other authors or to write and illustrate your own material? Is your process different?

LS: I like both. I love to conceive an idea then write and illustrate it myself but I also love interpreting the work of others. My biggest compliment is when an author says, “When I wrote this I never imagined you’d illustrate it this way.” (At least I think that’s a compliment!)

HF: Just what is your process anyway? Once you conceive an idea, how do you go about creating a book?

LS: Lots of sketches. Lots of rewrites.

HF: Which part do you find more difficult? The writing or the illustrating? Do they both come naturally to you?

LS: Definitely the writing. I’m a visual person so I’m always thinking in terms of mood, color, shadow and shapes. When I write I tend to overwrite so I rely on friends and editors to cut my stuff down.

HF: What is your work space like?

LS: I work in an old turn-of-the-century one-room schoolhouse.

HF: What are your influences? Any particular books? Illustrators? Authors?

LS: It’s a mix of high brow and low brow influences: Edward hopper, Charles Schulz, Alexander Calder, Edward Gorey, Buster Keaton, Tex Avery, Jean Dubuffet, Alice and Martin Provensen, Paul Klee, Munro Leaf…. I don’t know where to stop.

HF: What do you think of graphic novels? Is it something you have ever considered trying?

LS: I love graphic novels. I was a huge comic book collector in junior high and high school. I used to go to the San Diego Comic Con in the 1970s before it became the behemoth that it is today. But I have to admit, I’m not great at sequential panel art. I’ve tried it, Flying Jake, Baloney (Henry P.), but with limited success.

HF: What are your favorite books for children?

LS: Many favorite books:

The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss & Crockett Johnson
The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone & Michael Smollin
The Treehorn Trilogy by Florence Parry Heide & Edward Gorey
Robert Francis Weatherbee by Munro Leaf
The “…Can Be Fun” series by Munro Leaf
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
The “This is…” series by M. Sasek
Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? By Dr. Seuss
McElligot’s Pool by Dr. Seuss
Happy Birthday to You! By Dr. Seuss
Tales for the Perfect Child by Florence Parry Heide & Victoria Chess
Fables You Shouldn’t Pay Any Attention To by Florence Parry Heide, Sylvia Worth Van Clief & Victoria Chess
Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book by Shel Silverstein
The Happy Day by Ruth Krauss & Marc Simont
Wizard of Oz by Baum
Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Arm in Arm by Remy Charlip
How Little Lori Visited Times Square by Vogel and Sendak
Thirteen by Remy Charlip & Jerry Joyner
Donald and the… by Peter Neumeyer & Edward Gorey
Donald Has a Difficulty by Peter Neumeyer & Edward Gorey

I’m know I’m leaving out William Steig and Barbara Cooney and Dahl and Raymond Briggs and the Provensens, Kipling, Lewis Carroll, Eleanor Cameron and so many greats not to mention all my contemporary peers but I could be typing all day.

HF: Do you have any favorite books for adults?

LS: Again, many:

Marcovaldo and The Baron in the Trees by Calvino
To Kill a Mockingbird by Lee
Anything by Flannery O’Connor
Anything by Poe
Most of Capote
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders
David Sedaris…
I read a lot of biographies and nonfiction as well.

HF: What is up next on your horizon?

LS: The Big Elephant in the Room (spring ’09) is about a misunderstanding between friends.

Princess Hyacinth (The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated) is about a princess with a curious affliction – unless she is weighted down by a heavy crown and heavy stones and weights, she floats up into the sky. It was written by Florence Parry Heide who you may guess from my above ‘list of Favorite Books’ is one of my heroes. (Fall ’09.)

Thanks so much to Lane Smith! Visit his website here.

More on Sin in the Second City

In honor of my giveaway, I’m going to rereun the interview I did with Ms. Abbott back for the July 2007 issue of Estella’s Revenge.

A chance mention of her friend Karen Abbott on Joshilyn Jackson’s blog led me to seek her, and her new book, out. Much to my delight, she readily agreed to be interviewed! She is just as fascinating as her book.  She is the delightful author of Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul, due out July 10th. I’ll let her tell you all about it.

HF: Please tell us a little bit about what your book, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul, is about?

KA: Sin in the Second City is about two cunning sisters, Minna and Ada Everleigh, who ran the world’s most famous brothel at the turn of the last century. The Everleighs were ingenious businesswomen and fantastic liars, which of course aren’t mutually exclusive, and attracted the elites of the world to their opulent double mansion in Chicago’s Near South Side. Everleigh “butterflies” named Brick Top, Doll, and Suzy Poon Tang devoured raw meat to the delight of Prince Henry of Prussia and recited poetry for Theodore Dreiser. While lesser madams pocketed most of a harlot’s earnings and kept a “whipper” on staff to mete out discipline, the Everleighs made sure their girls dined on gourmet food, were examined by an honest physician, and even tutored in the literature of Balzac. But the sisters’ success also brought them considerable trouble. Rival madams hatched numerous schemes to ruin the sisters-including attempts to frame them for murder-and reformers used the Everleigh Club to launch a national culture war. Ministers and politicians whipped the entire country into a frenzy with lurid tales of “white slavery”-the allegedly rampant practice of kidnapping young girls and forcing them into brothels. It was a furor that shaped America’s sexual culture and had repercussions all the way to the White House, even leading to the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The battle against the Everleighs wasn’t only about sex, but also about urbanization, immigration, religious fundamentalism, and the changing roles of women. Before my editor came up with Sin in the Second City, I was calling the book “Whores at War,” which is actually pretty fitting.

HF: Some of the most fascinating nonfiction reads, in my opinion, are about the people you never learn about in regular history books. How did you find out about the Everleigh sisters and their story and what led you to want to research and write about it?

KA: It’s actually a very personal story. My great-grandmother and her sister immigrated to the United States from Slovenia in 1905. One weekend, the sister took a trip to Chicago and was never heard from again. I was always intrigued and haunted by this bit of family lore, and when I began researching Chicago, and learned all about the “disappearing girls” around the turn of the century, those tales really captured my imagination. Chicago was a fascinating city at the time but also very dangerous. There were entire guidebooks that warned visitors about which streets and establishments to avoid. They had these vivid, melodramatic titles: “Chicago and Its Cesspools of Infamy,” “The White Slave Hell: With Christ at Midnight in the Slums of Chicago,” etc. It was easy, especially during my research trips to the city, to imagine my relative falling victim to some nefarious force. Of course I also imagine that she might have become a “sporting girl,” so to speak. And I would hope that she was Everleigh Club material!

HF: How long did it take you to research your book? Where did you have to go and who did you talk to? I imagine the Everleigh sister’s many name changes and the fact that they moved around a lot made it hard to track them. Did you hit any roadblocks and if so, how did you get around them?

KA: I worked on Sin for three years, writing and researching included. My background is in journalism so I’m used to talking to live people, listening to them, figuring out what they’re saying in their silences. This was an entirely different kind of research to me; it was like learning a foreign language. But I really loved digging through the musty old archives in Chicago’s libraries. Dead people don’t always say what you want them to, but if you learn how to read what’s there-and read into what’s not-you can really bring them back to life, or at least try to. It’s part of what I love about nonfiction, about piecing together a million little facts to create a larger truth, and hopefully an entertaining story. If I had written a novel and included a character like Vic Shaw, my editor would have rightfully told me to tone her down or cut some of her antics. I mean, I could not have made her up. Same thing with Everleigh Club clients like the Gold Coin Kid-who knew people were so kinky back then?

I did get to talk to a few people who had a direct connection to the sisters, including their great niece. It took months and months of sending out letters to addresses and having many of them returned. But finally, her son called me, and said a relative had forwarded my letter. The Everleighs’ great niece was 80 years old when I spoke with her, and still feisty. It was 10 in the morning, and she was eating caviar-she made a point of mentioning that to me, which I thought was very Everleigh-like. She also was very adamant about calling the sisters “ladies”-she was proud of them, and proud to be related to them.

HF: Many would feel that the fact that they ran a brothel to be immoral and sordid in the extreme, but they took such good care of their girls; feeding them gourmet food, dressing them in couture gowns, providing them with the best medical care, to name a few of the things they did for their girls. How did you come to feel about the Everleighs? Did you find your feelings got in the way of the story? Was it hard to balance that out?

KA: In a way, theirs is a classic story of the American dream. They had a very difficult past but were determined to be successful, and they were incredibly inventive in their approach. They rewrote their own histories and presented themselves as these two aristocratic debutantes, women of social standing and grace. These personas were just as vital to their business as their décor and the beauty of their girls. And their unique bond was one of my favorite things about the sisters. I don’t think they could have become who they became if it weren’t for each other. These are two women who never lived apart from each other, who watched several family members die, who vowed to die for each other. They shared both their painful truths and their pretty lies. And I think it was their pasts that made them so protective of their girls, which I really admired. They helped these girls when everyone else was merely paying lip service to the idea. So I came to not only admire the sisters, but to love them. I’m not a very sentimental person-I don’t really cry at movies or books or at Major Life Events-but when I typed the last sentence of my book I bawled like a baby. I felt like I was living with the sisters every day for a very long time, learning everything about them there is to know, and now I miss them horribly. I hope that my affection for them is apparent in the story-I want the reader to love them as much as I do. That said, I didn’t want to dismiss the reformers; I wanted to present their ideas and actions in a way that shows just how threatening they were to the sisters’ livelihood. I wanted that tension and conflict to be evident throughout.

HF: What writers have influenced your work the most? What is it about those particular writers that you admire?

KA: I think Pete Dexter is one of the most brilliant writers alive today. I am such a rabid Dexter fan I named one of my parrots after him, sad to say… His sentences are so powerful without being gratuitously show-offy. His dialogue and sense of place are flawless: who else could get South Georgia and South Philly equally right? He’s dark and violent but also very funny (often in the very same sentence). He understands that humor is a natural byproduct of human conflict. Paris Trout is one of my favorite books, though I have to say I like his journalism more than his novels. He wrote a piece about LeeRoy Yarbrough, a famous but troubled 1960s NASCAR driver, that haunted me for weeks. I also love Gary Smith, Susan Orlean, Erik Larson, Tad Friend. They’re superb journalists but also really talented stylists.

HF: Do you read a lot? Do you read most contemporary books, classics, or a mix?

KA: I read for pleasure as often as I can. When I’m researching, I have to focus on books germane to my subject matter. For Sin in the Second City, I read dozens of books about the Progressive Era and Chicago and the “moral panic” over white slavery, some of them fairly dry and academic. But if my eyes glazed over I could also reach for Upstairs at the Everleigh Club and learn some more about Suzy Poon Tang. Never a dull moment with Suzy Poon Tang!

HF: Do you ever re-read your favorite books? If so, which have you re-read most often? Why does that work appeal to you so much?

KA: I do re-read. In high school the emphasis seemed to be on memorizing and regurgitating facts rather than critical reading and thinking, so lately I’ve been on a classics kick, re-reading all the books that got short shrift back then. As for more recent books, one of my favorites to re-read is Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy. It’s stunning on so many levels, and even surpasses the movie, which I thought was stellar. Also Don DeLillo’s Libra, James Dickey’s Deliverance, Patricia Highsmith’s This Sweet Sickness, Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. I think it’s his best-definitely better than The Road.

HF: Which writers writing today do you think will endure?

KA: Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Russell Shorto, George Saunders. I think Alice McDermott’s prose is relentlessly gorgeous. I know nothing about writing short stories but I love Matthew Klam’s work. And Sara Gruen and Joshilyn Jackson are favorites, and not just because they’re friends. Both of them are very smart storytellers-there are layers and nuances woven throughout fast-paced plots. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, and they both do it consistently and very well. I’m lucky to have them as readers. They told me when I was committing “information dumps” while drafting Sin, and I went back and interspersed what I needed to say in a way that didn’t interrupt the flow of the narrative. Every narrative nonfiction writer can learn from novelists.

HF: Do you have a favorite place to write? Do you have any writing rituals?

KA: My townhouse is pretty tiny-I don’t have an office so much as an alcove adjacent to my bedroom. It’s about the size of a decent walk-in closet. I have at least a half-dozen file boxes piled around me, holding all of my research, organized as best as a scattered right-brainer can manage. I am an incurable slob, so I really have to stay on top of that. When I was working on Sin, I listened to ragtime every morning just to get me in the mood, but when I actually sit down to try to fill the screen, I need perfect quiet. I live in the city, so it can get loud, and then I stuff in the earplugs. I also have to unplug my Internet connection or I’ll procrastinate and surf The Superficial. My parrots have these spiral perches that suspend from the ceiling, so they’re usually with me. Once in a while, when I’m leaning over to read something, Dexter will stretch down and peck my head just so I remember he’s there. They’re pretty smart; they know they go back in their cages if they don’t stay quiet while I’m drafting.

HF: Aside from writing, what are your favorite pastimes?

KA: I love antique furniture. There’s a place up the street from me called Paris on Ponce, and they have fabulous, gaudy, outrageous stuff. It’s like strolling through the Folies Bergére. I can’t afford most of it, but it’s fun to look. I’m also a complete jock. If I hadn’t busted up my knee years go I’m sure I’d be playing in some neighborhood softball league. My husband appreciates the fact that I watch football on Sundays in the fall (go Eagles!) I can still rollerblade about 50 miles a week-something about it helps me think through problems in my work, frees my mind to consider different approaches. And I’m lucky I don’t live up the street from a casino. My husband and I have developed a tag-team strategy for blackjack; we just got back from New Orleans and did pretty well. I think it’s in my blood-my parents and my 88-year-old grandmother hit Atlantic City at least twice a month. Plus the people watching is sublime. Where else can you see an octogenarian in a wheelchair, dragging his oxygen tank behind him, while chain-smoking menthols?

HF: What can we expect to see next from you? Are there any new books in the pipeline?

KA: I recently signed on to do a second book for Random House, which I’m just thrilled about. It’s about Gypsy Rose Lee and the Depression-era New York that made her a legend, with a cast of characters that includes H.L. Mencken, Condé Nast, Lucky Luciano, Abbott and Costello, Fanny Brice, and Fiorello La Guardia. It was a really dynamic time in New York’s history. Tammany Hall was about to fall, F.D.R. was jockeying to run for president, prohibition was in full-force, the literary scene was flourishing. I’m really fascinated by how cities are shaped, and I hope I can make New York as much a character in this book as Chicago is in Sin. I’m also drawn to women who make their own lives, who aren’t privileged enough to have their lives handed to them. In that respect, Gypsy Rose Lee is very much like the Everleigh sisters. I can’t wait to get to know her.

Many, many thanks to Karen Abbott for taking the time to answer my questions so throughly. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. And don’t forgot to go snap up a copy of Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul, a fascinating, engaging read in the style of Erik Larson. You can visit her website here.

And don’t forget, you can enter to win a autographed, hardback copy of this book here.