Libba Bray's newest novel, The Diviners, is the bee's knees. It's already a fall favourite among Team Teen, so we know that you're going to love it, too.
Set in the roaring '20s, The Diviners follows a diverse cast of characters through a New York populated with jazz clubs, flappers, and secrets. People with psychic abilities, known as Diviners, are reappearing. Why are so many of them gathered in New York? What purpose do the Diviners have?
This first book in Bray's new series focuses on Evie "Evil" O'Neill, a Zelda Fitzgerald-like teen flapper, with a talent for getting into mischief. Evie can also see people's pasts and learn their secrets by touching their personal items. In fact, this unnerving skill is the reason Evie had to leave sleepy Ohio to come to New York. She's staying with her uncle Will, who happens to be the curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult--or as everyone else calls it: The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies. When a serial killer named Naughty John begins stalking the streets of New York, can Evie solve the crime?
We're pos-i-tute-ly thrilled to have Libba Bray on the blog to answer a few of our questions about The Diviners! Welcome, Libba.
Indigo Teen Blog (ITB): Part of what gives The Diviners such an authentic tone is its use of 1920’s language. The words the characters speak really help to identify them and the social group they belong to. Is there any difference in crafting the language of a historical period versus a contemporary one? What kind of research did you do into the era?
Libba Bray (LB): There’s pos-i-tute-ly a difference.
As part of my research, I looked into the slang of the day, which was really delicious. When you have access to phrases like, “flour lover” (a girl who might want to go easy on the face powder next time), “the elephant’s eyebrows” (something awesome), “dewdropper” (a real slacker of a guy), “ossified” (drunk) or “Bank’s closed” (Sorry, pal, you’re not getting a kiss out of me tonight), it makes your job a lot of fun. Who wouldn’t want to drop those into a conversation? I also find reading the fiction of the time period to be extremely helpful because it’s a bit of a time capsule. Reading newspapers and advertisements opens a window as well. As a former advertising copywriter, I look at ads because they give you a sense of what people valued, what their aspirations—and in many cases, their fears and prejudices—were.
In terms of broader 1920s research, about four years ago, I started reading up on the period. Some of the books I found useful include Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s by Ann Douglas. Playing The Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars by Shane White, Stephen Garton, Dr. Stephen Robertson, and Graham White. Only History: An Informal History of the 1920s by Frederick Lewis Allen. Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties, and Today’s Culture Wars by Barry Hankins. The Harlem Renaissance: A Brief History with Documents by Jeffrey B. Ferguson, and From The Folks Who Brought You The Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United States by Priscilla Murolo, A.B. Chitty, and Joe Sacco, among many, many others.
Then there were trips to the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries, the New York Historical Society, the Paley Center for Media where my terrific assistant, Tricia, and I could listen to old radio broadcasts, and the MTA Archives and Museum where we waded through countless pictures of 1920s New York City and where we sat in an actual 1920s subway car. (Today’s factoid: It had ceiling fans.) I employed the expertise of two historians who led walking tours through Harlem and the Lower East Side, and, I hit up my librarian friends like Elizabeth Irwin High School librarian, Karyn Silverman, who used to teach a unit on the 1920s. Finally, when it became clear that the breadth of what I needed/wanted to know was too vast for my puny, haphazard, untrained research skills, I hired an expert: librarian and self-proclaimed “research maven” Lisa Gold came to my rescue, helping me find what I needed, everything from primary sources on Ziegfeld Follies girls toimmigration statistics to the etymology of the word “honey” as a term of endearment to answer a fact checker’s query. Lisa is amazing. Visit her here: www.lisagold.com
Obviously, I couldn’t have done this without a village. As I say, when the going gets tough, the tough get a librarian. Truth.
ITB: Did you dress in costume to help you get in the mood to write? Listen to specific music?
LB: I only write in costume. This will be interesting when I finally write that llama pirate-anarchist-Dolly Parton musical the world has been clamoring for. (Truth: Mostly, I write garbed in comfy jeans and concert t-shirts. For sartorial splendor, look to other writers.) I do make a playlist for everything I write and The Diviners was no exception. The act of figuring out which songs will create just the right mood for the book is a part of the writing process for me. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself when I’ve missed my deadline once again because I’ve been messing around on iTunes. (You can find my playlists on my website—www.libbabray.com—if you’re so inclined. And if you’re really inclined, you might be a hill.)
ITB: How did you approach writing the characters from multiple points of view?
LB: With fear and trepidation. And lots of coffee.
Given the nature of the book, I didn’t see any other way to do it than to write from multiple POVs. It’s a big, sprawling series, and I really wanted that omniscient, old-fashioned storytelling feel. I’d done multiple POVs for Beauty Queens, but that was smaller scale compared to The Diviners and, I will not lie, I was absolutely terrified. Many a morning, I’d wake in a sweat, thinking, “What have I done? I can barely organize my sock drawer. In fact, I do not organize at all. What made me think I could tackle all of this?” And then I’d swill some antacid, put a bullet between my molars, and place my fingers on the keys.
I took comfort from rereading one of my favorite books, Stephen King’s Salem's Lot. He is terrific at shifting from one POV to another in a way that is seamless and doesn’t make you feel lost. By the time you finish that book, you’ve been in the heads of almost everyone in town. So, when trying something that feels scary to you as a writer, I say look to those who do it well, like King, as your mentors. But when writing outside of my culture, I approach that with humility and respect and as much research as I can gather.
ITB: There seems to be a rise in interest in the turn of the last century and the first few decades. Why do you think that is?
LB: I think because so much of what was happening then resonates with what we’re facing now. Obviously, in the current economic climate, we can’t help but look back to the 1920’s and 1930’s, with the stock market crash and the Great Depression.
Certainly, the 1920s were a rich historical period, something that felt entirely new and exciting—glamorous flappers, jazz, Prohibition, the emergence of radio, the Harlem Renaissance, gangsters and bootleggers, wild parties and political scandals like the Teapot Dome affair. And the fact that we know this wild party is all leading up to a very big crash informs the period with a certain suspense that makes for great, thoughtful reading.
ITB: You speak to many different political and social conflicts during the period. How do you think that contemporary readers will relate to what happened then to what is happening now?
LB: That really was my inspiration for writing The Diviners. I wanted to write about post-9/11 America and to explore the things that were troubling me as an American, like the Patriot Act, the almost casual way we were ceding our civil liberties in exchange for “Homeland Security,” the elevation of corporate greed above human interest, the justification of torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the rise in xenophobia and far right-wing hate. I came across that famous quote, oft attributed to Sinclair Lewis: “When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in a flag and waving a cross.” And I thought, “Hmmmm…”
I began to wonder, question, “Well, what does it mean to be ‘American’? Who are we?” As I began to research the 1920’s, I saw interesting and, at times, disturbing parallels between where we were then and where we are now: Labor unions were under attack. A wave of post-WWI terrorism in the U.S. had bred fear and a suspicion of “foreigners.” There was a nasty streak of nativism that found its way into everything from the eugenics movement to the KKK to the Immigration Law of 1924. Evangelicalism was on the rise, with popular evangelists such as Aimee Semple McPherson and Billy Sunday preaching about the loss of “traditional American values” even as capitalism became the new god, with advertising executive Bruce Barton’s book, The Man Nobody Knows, presenting Jesus as “The Founder of Modern Business.” The famous Scopes Trial about the teaching of evolution in the public schools had taken place in 1925. Modern advertising began to shape the ideals and aspirations of Americans through campaigns that capitalized on their fears and desires, advocating keeping up with the Joneses and lionizing a youth culture. And of course, there is the run-up to financial collapse and the Great Depression.
Today, nearly one hundred years later, we’re still facing many of the same issues: We’re arguing over the teaching of evolution in schools. The flames of anti-immigration fervor arebeing fanned by certain segments of the population. We’ve suffered an economic collapse. Fears of terrorism have created a whole “Homeland Security” state and fostered a sense of xenophobia. Racism is alive and well. Labor unions are under attack. The religious right influences politics, trying to enact “prohibitions” that harken to a murky, mythic past of “traditional American values.” Corporations reign supreme and there’s a huge wealth gap. Everybody wants to be a millionaire, and our various media vie for our product dollars by shaping our desires, fears, and aspirations into needs which can then be exploited.
This is why it’s good to read history.
ITB: Naughty John is immensely creepy! Can you discuss your inspiration for him? And do you imagine what those markings he has looked like? Is there a place we can see them?
LB: Why, thank you. I’m often complimented on my creepy. Oh, wait…
Barry Lyga was writing I Hunt Killers while I was working on The Diviners, and we sometimes compared our serial killer notes. (That statement pretty much just killed any chance at future dinner invitations for us, I’m sure.) I borrowed a bit from H.H. Holmes, for sure, what with the house of horrors, as well as drawing inspiration from “Sweeney Todd”, carnival barkers, Victorian photographs, and my overactive, anxiety-ridden psyche.
I also took inspiration from religious zealots like David Koresh and Jim Jones. Having grown up in the church (my father was a Presbyterian minister), I’m always fascinated by questions of religion and spirituality, by that fuzzy line between idealism and the danger zone of religious fanaticism.
ITB: If we wear headache bands and bake cupcakes, will you come over for tea?
LB: You had me at cupcakes.
 Bullet might be a slight exaggeration. “Bullet” may, in fact, refer to chocolate chips, straws, ice, and jelly beans. Please do not put bullets between your teeth. They’re a choking hazard and it makes your dentist unhappy.
Thanks again to Libba Bray for answering our questions and to our friends at Hachette Book Group Canda for facilitating this Q & A. The Diviners releases this week, so make sure to get your copy.