Room 220: From the New Orleans Review “Spirits, Hucksters, and Parlor Games," an interview with Adrian Van Young” by Christopher Louis Romaguera
Editor’s Note: The following interview originally appeared in the New Orleans Review and Room 220, a NolaVie content partner.
Adrian Van Young’s debut novel Shadows in Summerland (ChiZine Publications, 2016) begins with William Mumler, a spirit for photographer, in prison as he is awaiting trial. Mumler has been charged twice, once with fraud for not actually capturing spirits in his photography and once for murder. Each charge negates the other. The man Mumler is said to have murdered appears as a spirit in one of his photos.
The novel follows multiple characters of the Spiritualist movement in the 19th century, most of whom are based off real people. Hannah Meir, William Mumler’s partner in spirit photography, comes from a family-line of women who believe they can conjure and talk to spirits. Fanny Conant is a celebrity medium who uses her standing in society to fight for women’s suffrage and the feminist movement. William Guay is a religious zealot, who also starts the novel on trial with Mumler. In addition to these four primary characters, a spiritual chorus also chimes in from time to time between chapters, giving the reader an insight into the spectral world that many of the characters claim to see.
Written in the classical style of the 19th century novel, Van Young explores 19th century US history, mining his setting and characters for a beautiful story that is at once, tragic and funny, depressing and uplifting. I spent an early Wednesday afternoon with him and his 21-month-old son Sebastian at Palmer Park in New Orleans where we both live. It was an overcast day. Other than an older African-American gentleman doing boxing drills, the park was vacant. Rain came as I talked to Van Young about his book, and we followed Sebastian around the park and playground.
INTERVIEWER: How did you come upon the subject of William Mumler?
ADRIAN VAN YOUNG: In 2005 I was living in Brooklyn and I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And they had an exhibit called “Photography and the Occult” and I happened about a few of Mumler’s photographs. Along with the photographs was the story of his career, his rise in spirit photography, and his trial for fraud and larceny and then his acquittal. And it’s so interesting to me that this man that is clearly a fraud was acquitted for manufacturing ghosts. And I wondered if there was something more to that. And if something interesting, a revisionist’s historical mystery could be done, incorporating the element of the supernatural.
I: At your book launch you said you didn’t believe in spirits but you were “open to the possibility.” Why did this gravitate to you as a subject?
AVY: I just always have been interested in Gothic Literature. A lot of my fiction deals with the supernatural or at least the possibility of the supernatural. I’m very much kind of like a genre writer in that way. Or I consider myself to be. I’m also a literary writer, I think. I don’t really see any difference between the two.
I’ve always been kind of obsessed with the 19th century and the Civil War era. I think it’s a really interesting time in American history for a lot of things are kind of brought to the surface about the country that you still see operating today.
I: How was it like writing Hannah Mumler, the character who connected to the spirits the most?
AVY: [Hannah] was the one character I really had to commit to. I was kind of like, okay, if I want to make it even marginally convincing that this character can see ghosts, I have to go kind of full blown operatic gothic with the character. So that was essentially what I tried to do.
They’re all tragic characters I suppose. [But] she’s probably the most tragic, in a way.
I: There’s a phrase mi abuelo used to say, tonto util, referring to someone who blindly gets used. This came to mind when reading about Hannah, the character who at times seems to have the greatest connection with spirits.
You wrote Shadows in Summerland with five different narrators. What inspired you to take that route?
AVY: There’s a precedent for it, especially in late modernist literature. You see it a lot in Faulkner, in Virginia Woolf. It is somewhat of an old-fashioned way of writing a narrative. What drew me to it was that I really loved the prospect of writing in different voices, which was hard because when I first wrote the novel, they all sounded the same, although they still have shades of sounding like each other because I can’t avoid what my style is. I did have to really work on the different voices sounding different, their diction and the way they express themselves.
I: How did you capture 19th century diction?
AVY: When you read my other fiction, I think I kind of have a 19th century cadence already. So it actually came pretty natural to me. I read a couple of Henry James novels while I was writing. I was reading a lot of Sarah Waters, who I love. She writes in kind of 19th century diction but she is a modern writer. So I was kind of trying to nail that balance between having a 19th century sound but also have it appeal to a modern reader. In the initial draft the diction was a lot more elaborate and ridiculous and overblown. I read a lot of 19th century fiction, and I was reading 19th century accounts of Spiritualism and stuff. That diction seeped into what I was writing.
I: How did you come about the spiritual chorus?
AVY: When I was writing the novel I was teaching private school in Boston and we were reading Sophocles. I was struck by [the chorus]. I love that effect. I love how in Greek tragedies the chorus speaks directly to the reader informing them about the fates of the characters. So much of the novel is predicated on miscommunication between living and non-living beings. The living beings think that the afterlife is one way. And though we only get small glimpses of it, all the spirits are just kind of wandering around, in confusion and they have no idea what’s going on. They have no particular motivation. They’re just like this is horrible, kind of wandering in limbo. I wanted to bring out that kind of irony, between how people think the afterlife is going to be and how it actually is for the spirits.
I: How did the Spiritualist movement work with women’s suffrage?
AVY: Not all spiritualists were women’s rights advocates, but a lot were. And actually there was a weird tension between mediums. The Fox sisters in the book were mediums doing parlor tricks to essentially gain people’s trust to get their money. There were trance speakers like Fanny Conant, one of the main characters. They were very much involved in women’s causes. All spiritualists to some degree had left leaning politics but a lot of them were really bound up in these far liberal causes like women’s rights and abolition, and also weird fringe things like health cures and dress reform. Some of them were polyamorous.
I: Some of the more jarring history is when you have people talking about the economic value of the war. A character at one point says he is? angry that the war had finished too soon.
AVY: I wanted to address the Civil War but I also wanted the characters to be sheltered from it. They’re in Boston, which wasn’t really effected by the Civil War though they talked about it a lot in the city. Like in any war, there are a lot of Civil War profiteers. People who made a lot of money off the war, sitting in their offices.
I: When writing historical fiction, a lot can be steeped in fact, but not all of it can be factual. How do you draw that line?
AVY: If I had to pick the stuff about the book that was really ironclad, I think a lot of it would be the stuff about the Civil War and the stuff about Spiritualism.
I took the elements that seemed salient, that would add to the plot. And since the novel has a supernatural element I think it actually left me a liberty, to, in a way, to kind of invent history. It is a revisionist’s historical novel.
I: Did you have a favorite fact from your research that you didn’t end up using?
AVY: There was actually this character, a Civil War chaplain involved in the circle I depicted in the book. I did all this research on Civil War chaplains and what that was like. And I wanted to talk about his experience in the Civil War, but I ended up using none of it. I started to write the character and was like I actually don’t need this character. So I just dropped him. And I discarded 250 pages of notes on what it was like to be a Civil War chaplain.
I: Did Bill Christian get cut a lot?
AVY: Some of his storyline got cut. I actually considered having him as one of the voices, but I decided that I didn’t want to do that as a white writer. I didn’t want to do a black 19th century dialect. It felt weird, and I feel like a lot of white writers who have done it have really messed it up.
I: Did New Orleans have any effect in the revising process?
AVY: When I was kind of fine-tuning the atmosphere–I call it soundtracking, amping up certain elements here and dimming them down there–being in New Orleans really helped because New Orleans is such an old city and it has such a weird and complex relationship with death and the afterlife and spirits. That stuff was on my mind as I was revising.
I: What was your favorite part about writing the book?
AVY: I will say that I really fell in love with the characters. And they now seem so real to me I’m almost sometimes surprised that they, I know that they were actually alive, but that they weren’t alive as I wrote them. Getting to know the characters and getting to know what they would do in certain situations and what they wouldn’t do, how they treat each other and they’re flawed, the things that are good about them. They seem like these old friends now. Now it’s time to let them have a life of their own.
The Man Who Noticed Everything, Adrian Van Young‘s first book of fiction, won Black Lawrence Press’ 2011 St. Lawrence Book Award and was published in 2013. His fiction and non- fiction have been published or are forthcoming in Lumina, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, The American Reader, Black Warrior Review, The Collagist, VICE, The Believer and Slate, as well as States of Terror Volume II and Gigantic Worlds: A Flash Science Fiction Anthology, among many other publications. He is a regular contributor to the literature website, Electricliterature.com, and the author of The Murder Chronicles: A New Orleans Murder Mystery, a interactive, serialized mystery novella on Open Road Media’s crime website, The Lineup. Shadows in Summerland is his first novel.
Christopher Louis Romaguera is a Cuban-American writer living in New Orleans. He has been published in The Middle Gray Magazine, The Daily Beast, Curbed, NOLA Defender and elsewhere. He is currently working on a chapbook of poems about being the first member of his family to return to Cuba. Follow Romaguera’s work here.