The Search for Transformation
What does mention of the year 1918 mean to you?
To Cat Winters, it means the Spanish Influenza, the devastation that was WW I, and the new social spaces that developed for women as a result.
These concerns, leavened with a healthy but skeptical interest in Spiritualism, color all her books to date, starting with In the Shadow of Blackbirds, a supernatural mystery for young adults that featured all of the above.
“I always wanted to write historical fiction. When I started my journey toward publication, I’d written one that I was shopping around. It was set in the 1890s and I was madly in love with it. I submitted it to agents, rewrote it, got rejected. Finally I signed with one agent who sent it out, but historical fiction was a tough sell at the time.”
Winters parted ways with her first agent and tried her hand at contemporary fiction, a suburban satire for adults about a woman married to a vampire. This book led her to Barbara Poelle, the agent she has now. “The plot was a commercial idea, but no one knew what to do with that book. It crossed several genres. It pitched like chicklit but I’d written it in this literary voice. A lot of editors gave me feedback, I rewrote following their notes, but none of them bought it and I ended up hating the book.”
But one of those editors said the only paranormal she was taking was historical paranormal. Winters pitched a book she has already started about WW I, the Spanish influenza, and spiritualism, a book for adolescents. That became In the Shadow of Blackbirds, the first of a series of similarly themed books for young adults (she’s just handed in the manuscript for her fourth, Odd and True).
After she’d written two of the young adult books, an editor from Harper Collins picked up In the Shadow of Blackbirds, read it on the plane, then contacted her agent and asked for an adult book. “That became The Uninvited – the book I was invited to write. And that’s how I started publishing adult fiction. It sounds like an overnight success story, but in reality, it took me two decades to break in.”
Winter’s adult books have their own flavor, different from young adult, which have more of a horror bent (Blackbirds was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award). “My YA books are more traditional horror, my adult books are more psychological horror.”
The Uninvited has now been followed by YESTERNIGHT. Both of her adult books have a few elements in common: “They really focus on people who don’t have the best past. They are trying to reconcile with their past and make new futures for themselves” at a time of great historical turbulence.
“The heroines of The Uninvited and YESTERNIGHT are young women who want to make their mark but aren’t sure how to do that initially. They evolve as the story progresses.”
In The Uninvited, Ivy leaves home after suffering a bout of the Spanish Influenza. Ivy is “clairaudient”—she can hear voices from the dead–and that’s how she realizes her beloved brother has died in action. With his death, there is nothing to keep her at home, so she enters a world of jazz, passion, and freedom, haunted by a murder committed by her father and younger brother. Her transformation is indicated by the metaphor of a butterfly.
The search for redemption and transformation applies to YESTERNIGHT as well.
The heroine of YESTERNIGHT is Alice Lind, a child-psychologist in her mid-twenties who steps of a train in rural Oregon on a dark and rainy night and is confronted with a gifted little girl who also seems to remember a recent past life. “Alice Lind is trying to transform herself into something other than the person she grew up as but wants to stay true to herself at the same time. That’s the difference between young adult and adult: young adults are going through the turbulent, life-changing moments that will make them who they are, whereas adults are trying to deal with what happened in their you and move past that.”
Winter’s readers often cross over from her young adult to her adult books. “The books give them a similar experience.”
After those decades of struggle, Winters is now a full- time writer. “My writing time is when my kids (17 and 11) are at school. I have to squeeze everything into the hours that they are gone. Though of course it spills out into the evening and weekends. Summer is a huge challenge; when the kids aren’t in school, I have to get creative. It’s a full time job on a part-time schedule.”
One of the challenges of writing both adult and YA is that she has to write two books at once. “I have contracts with more than one publisher, deadlines with more than one publisher, then an anthology story” (see her story “Emmeline,” a companion to Blackbirds, in the YA anthology Slasher Girls & Monster Boys). “It’s a juggle. Which do I prioritize? I’m trying to cut back on that, get to where I’m only committed to one book a year. Even doing one book a year is a challenge. But I do have to take on multiple contracts in order for it to work financially.”
Winters never imagined she’d reach the point where she would have those kinds of problems. She handles it by writing one book at a time, though she will have to revise the previous book while writing the rough draft of the next. “I’ll squeeze in the first draft in between deadlines for the copy edit of the previous book and promoting the book that came out before that.”
Cat Winters writes books for teens and adults. Her debut novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, was named a 2014 Morris Award Finalist, a School Library Journal Best Book of 2013, and a 2013 Bram Stoker Award Nominee. Her most recent novel, The Steep and Thorny Way, was named one of Booklist’s 2016 Top 10 Crime Fiction for Youth and is a 2016 Junior Library Guild Selection. Her other books include The Cure for Dreaming and The Uninvited, and she’s a contributor to the YA horror anthology Slasher Girls & Monster Boys. She lives in beautiful Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two kids.
To learn more about Cat, please visit her website.