By Wendy Tyson
THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS is New York City author Catherine Lowell’s debut novel. The mystery follows Samantha Whipple, the Brontës’ sole living descendant, as she searches for the family’s long-rumored secret estate. The only tools at her disposal? Clues her eccentric father left behind and the Brontës’ own novels.
THE BIG THRILL recently had a chance to catch up with Catherine.
Congratulations on the publication of THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS. What can you tell us about the book that’s not on the back cover?
It’s easy to think that a book on the Brontës would involve characters who love books and idolize the Brontës. But The Madwoman Upstairs is about an English major who dislikes most literature—a descendant of the Brontës who doesn’t like the Brontës. How does a reluctant relative go about decoding an old family legacy? Samantha’s journey in the novel is a quest not only to understand her family’s misunderstood past, but to understand literature itself—how to evaluate it, why it matters, and what secrets might be lurking in its pages.
Can you tell us a little more about Samantha Whipple, the main character in THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS? What are some of the elements of Samantha’s past that have made her the woman she is today? How is Samantha like you? Not like you?
What I love about Samantha is that she’s not afraid to speak her mind, even to her superiors, and even when she has the most at stake. (I wish I could do that more often!) She is both confident and strangely vulnerable, owing to a particularly tragic incident in her past. At the center of her life is her relationship with her late father—a person whose respect she was desperate to gain but whose opinions she recognizes were unorthodox and potentially wrong.
THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS has been called a literary mystery and a cozy mystery. In its review, Kirkus calls the book, “An entertaining and ultimately sweet story.” What makes a book cozy? Literary?
I would define a “cozy” book as one that makes you want to sit in a chair and finish it in one sitting, so you have to pick a cozy chair with some pillows. Cozy books reel you in with unpredictable plots and characters you like and want to know better. I think of “literary” fiction as any novel that imparts truth. The writing is marked by the distinctiveness of its phrases, and the resonance of its message. Literary books can certainly be cozy, just as cozy books can be literary!
Are there any themes you find yourself drawn to again and again when you write?
I’ve always found myself drawn to humor—particularly what happens when humor is used to mask a hidden pain or insecurity. Sometimes we learn the most about ourselves and others by observing what can’t be said directly.
The mystery behind THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS centers on the Brontë family and their novels. Are you passionate about the Brontës’ work? What special research did you do when writing this novel?
I love the Brontës, but I thought it would be much more fun—and interesting—to explore the perspective of a character who passionately dislikes them, especially when that person happens to be related to the family. I did quite a bit of research when I was beginning to write, which was one of the highlights of this process—the research reminded me of how many lessons we can still learn from the Brontës.
THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS is your debut novel. Please share with us a little about your journey to publication. Any advice for aspiring authors?
My biggest piece of advice is to write about what you love, not what you think you should write about. You can tell when someone is not being authentic to his or her own voice, and authentic writing is always the best writing! Write a book that you would really like to read.
What’s your writing process like?
When I’m starting a scene, I write very quickly and jot down the first things that come to mind, so I can get the general tone and structure down. I leave “Xs” mid-sentence when I can’t think of what to say right away. The real work comes in revising what I’ve written later on.
Where is your favorite place to write?
I have a rotating series of cute little cafés—they’re incredibly kind to let me stay so long.
What’s next for you?
Book #2. Stay tuned!