where the writers are
Interview with Embracing the Child
Embracing the Child interviews Lisa Brown and Adele Griffin about researching their book, Picture the Dead.

ETC: Your book has some dark themes—Andersonville, specifically, and the Civil War, in general, showcase particularly brutal moments in American History. Was there anything that either of you thought was too grim for this book?Lisa Brown

BROWN: I think that there is very little that would be too grim for me. I’ve always been fascinated by the gory and grotesque. But we had to be careful when presenting some of this to the general public, who might not share in Adele and my morbid obsessions. The battlefield casualties, the soldiers’ deathbed letters home, the suffering of the wounded and the on-the-field surgeries—we could have made this story very different, tonally. But it is primarily a ghost story, not a war story. Ghost stories tend to be more about a frisson of fear and less about blood and guts. And of course, there is the romance.

ETC: A gothic, illustrated ghost story is an unusual idea. Did you go into this story with one idea, and change any plans midstream?Adele Griffin

GRIFFIN: We did. We killed off a character we loved, who wasn’t doing anything for the narrative. And while we knew there would be a strong visual component, the idea of framing the illustrations as a scrapbook was not on the table immediately. It just became intuitive, as we went along, that Jennie would be the one choosing and pasting and creating this book-within-the-book. And then Lisa began to create pieces of art, along with the portrait illustrations, that were more intimate to a young girl’s keepsakes, such as Jennie’s dance card and the dinner menu from the Harvard ball.

ETC: You toured this book in full Victorian costume. Why?

BROWN: I think that Adele has always wanted to sport a moustache. But beyond that, we really wanted people to jump on board with our passion for the story. If you’re in a corset (me) and moustache (Adele), people understand that you’re saying: “We are completely submerged in this story. Dive into the spirit of it, be part of it with us.” At ALA, our publisher had created an old-timey photo parlor so people could have their pictures taken with us. For our bookstore appearances and school visits, I show a powerpoint presentation of how the book came to be complete with antique photographs and old letters. Sometimes Adele sings a Civil War song. It’s a sight to behold.

I often bring my growing collection of hair art—this was a popular craft, back in Victorian times. Women would braid picture frames or brooches or even necklaces from human hair. It was a way of remembering your lost loved ones. It’s a bit creepy, but people love to see it. You can see some of the pieces for yourself on our website, www.picturethedead.com. There’s tons of additional information there, including letter transcripts, old photographs and magazines, blog posts about 19th century history: it’s all the things we researched but didn’t quite make it into the novel.

ETC: You hear any good ghost stories while promoting this book?

GRIFFIN: So many! And we give away a T-shirt to anyone who’ll tell us a good yarn. The best we heard was when we were up in Boston, about a ghost of an eight-year-old boy who’d lived in our storyteller’s home, who had died of some illness over a hundred years ago, and who had loved sweets. Every morning the door to the den—which used to be the pantry where the cakes and cookies were kept, was wide open—even when the family closed it, the night before. It was only when the family set a heavy chair against the door that it would stay closed all night.

So one night they set up a camera and filmed the door (without the chair). According to our storyteller, the video shows the door bursting open at about 3 AM, but nobody behind it. Nobody visible, that is. That story really gave us a fright! I am amazed that family continues to live in that house.

ETC: What started you on this ghost journey?

BROWN: Adele and my collaboration began when we were set up on a “blind date” by our shared literary agent. We fell in literary love based on our shared affinity for the creepy side of things: the Brönte sisters, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and The Turn of the Screw. We began to work together on a modern-day retooling of the Salem witch trials, set in a New England high school, which we called The Book of Humiliations. It now sits somewhat quietly in a drawer, waiting for a revisit. We were trying all sorts of experimental formats, which may not have been the best idea for a first project.

Undaunted, we turned to a more classic (in our minds, at least) illustrated novel. Around that time, there was an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City of spirit photographs from the mid 19th and early 20th centuries. We began to wonder: what if a photographer took a “ghost photo” that was obviously fraudulent, but something happened in the final print that was truly supernatural? And we went from there…

ETC: What would you most like to talk about and no one has ever asked?

BROWN: I’ve always wanted to talk about what makes, in my mind, the perfect, most chilling ghost story. They are hard to find, at least in fiction. The “real” ghost stories that people tell are usually far more frightening. Because what is often the scariest aspect of a ghost story is that it doesn’t really have a beginning, middle or end. It is far more open-ended, which makes it a difficult thing to write well. The best ones are unresolved. In Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the reader is left with no resolution: just a queasy feeling of ambiguity. Once things are too resolved or explained, even if the explanation takes a supernatural form, some of the mystery and fear just dissipates. It’s a fine line that ghost stories must walk to be successful.

GRIFFIN: One question that hasn't been asked yet on our blog tour is if there's anything that personally appealed about living in the Victorian era. There is so much that would have been hard-- but when you read the old Godey's Ladies' Books about what women in that time could do-- sew their own clothes, bead their own purses, lacemaking, preparing remedies and tinctures, they could churn butter, prune a tree, fix a fence, stitch a penwiper, darn a sock, cast a hoop-skirt. There was so much information presupposed in the Godeys' recipes and dressmaking patterns-- I can hardly imagine having that kind of information in my own mind.