The Compulsive Reader: Author Spotlight: The Secret Life of Suzanne Harper

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Author Spotlight: The Secret Life of Suzanne Harper

Why did you choose to write about ghosts and mediums in The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney?

I’ve always been fascinated with ghosts, ever since I was young. In the course of my journalism career, I’ve written several magazine articles about researchers who study the paranormal. As an editor, I’ve edited magazine sections on the topic. “The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney” began on an airplane ride. I was doodling in my journal and I found myself writing, “It was three minutes after midnight and the dead wouldn’t leave me alone.” I was intrigued by that line, so I just kept writing! Because of my interest in ghosts, I had read a non-fiction book called “Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead” a year or so earlier. As Sparrow’s voice became clearer to me, I started thinking about where her story would be set and I remembered Lily Dale.

Have you ever had a supernatural experience yourself?

The closest thing I’ve had (and it could have been just the result of an overactive imagination) was when I was a teen. My family visited Ohio every summer to see relatives. On one trips, we all went out to a lake. Across the road was a cemetery. One half had older graves from the Civil War; many of the people buried there were soldiers who had died in battle. On the other side of the cemetery, there were newer graves. I love history, so I, of course, went over to look at the Civil War headstones. After a few minutes, I started feeling woozy and light-headed and I heard what sounded a lot like cannon booming in the distance. I thought it might be thunder, but the sky was clear and cloudless. I was a little freaked out, so I walked over to the new side of the cemetery. As soon as I got there, I felt fine and I didn’t hear any booming. After awhile, I decided that I had just been imagining things, so I went back to look at the Civil War headstones again…and the exact same thing happened! I felt faint and heard cannon — so I left the cemetery in a hurry! Years later, I interviewed a parapsychologist who studies ghosts and he quite matter-of-factly said that I might have been psychically picking up on some sort of “vibration.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but since that’s the closest I’ve come to a ghostly encounter, I choose to believe it!

Have you ever visited Lily Dale?

Yes, I visited as I was working on the revision of my first draft. Lily Dale is only open to tourists during the summer and I sold the book in September, so I wrote the first draft based on reading the book I mentioned earlier and doing Internet research. I was actually glad in the end that I hadn’t visited before I wrote my first draft, since it gave me the freedom to make things up. However, I really wanted to see the town before I turned in my second draft, so I spent a few days there. I did have to rewrite a few scenes as a result. For one thing, the town was smaller than I had imagined, so the scene where Sparrow and Jack go to the museum had to be revised quite a bit. I was also able to add many details that helped bring the place to life. I also attended message services and had mediums “come to me” several times when I was there to pass on messages from spirits. The most interesting happened on a day when I had been putting off doing any work on the novel (I took my laptop with me). A particularly no-nonsense medium told me that the spirits were saying that I had put a book aside and needed to get back to work. Of course, I went back to my hotel and did just that! You don’t argue with a message from Beyond.

What sort of research did you do to write The Juliet Club?

I had a vague idea for the novel somewhere around 2000, when I first read about the real Juliet Club. Shortly after that, I went to Italy for business and managed to stay an extra two days to visit Verona. I met with members of the Juliet Club, who were extremely gracious. They answered all my questions and made copies of letters they had received from teens. Flash forward to 2006, when I got the contract to write the book. Again, I wrote the first draft without re-visiting Verona, although I did a great deal of research. I read many travel books about Italy and commentaries on Shakespeare’s plays, plus I re-read the plays themselves. Other research including taking Italian lessons. I also had a choreographer friend teach me how to do an Elizabethan dance and another friend, who is a stage director, teach me stage sword fighting! Then I finally returned to Verona for four days. I think I walked every inch of that town and it was so helpful to see the places I had read about on the Internet and had been using as inspiration for the book. For example, the gardens behind Francesca Marchese’s villa are loosely based on the Giardi Gardens. I was also caught in a torrential rainstorm, an experience I used for the scene where Kate runs away from Giacomo near the end of the book.

Did you ever experience a trip similar to Kate's?

No, I wish! If a real Shakespeare Seminar were ever offered, I would be the first person to apply. By the way, I did find a few programs for young people interested in Shakespeare, which I listed on my web site and blog:

Camp Shakespeare, part of the University of Texas Shakespeare at Winedale Program

The Folger Shakespeare Library High School Programs

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival summer seminar for high school juniors

The Utah Shakespearean Festival — various programs

Which characters, Kate or Sparrow, do you think that you can relate to the most?

Probably Kate. I’m not like Sparrow; if I had a fabulous, unique talent, I would NOT want to hide it! And, like Kate, I tend to intellectualize things a bit and to go overboard when it comes to my work (see the answer above about the research I did for the book!).

What's your writing process like?

Every morning, I go to Starbucks, have a coffee and write in my journal (a Moleskine notebook with unlined paper). This may just be superstition on my part, since I started doing this when I was working on my first novel. However, I find that writing by hand somehow activates my imagination in a way that writing on a computer doesn’t. I jot down ideas for characters and plot points. Even on days when I feel dull and uninspired, ideas will pop into my head if I do this. (And I’m sure the coffee helps.) Unless I have other appointments, I then take my laptop to the New York Public Library to write. I find that it helps me to get out of my apartment and write in the company of other people who are writing or doing research. They all seem very serious and focused, and the unspoken peer pressure helps!

Are there any other novels in the works?

Yes, I’m working on a historical fantasy tentatively titled “The Player King.”

What were some of your favorite books as a teen?

I loved “The Sherwood Ring” and “The Perilous Gard,” by Elizabeth Marie Pope.

If you had an autobiography or memoir, what would it be called?
Great question! Maybe something like “Adventures Inside My Head,” because I’ve lived as much in my imagination as in real life.

What's one thing that makes you laugh? cry? angry? excited?

Laugh: Just talking with friends, mostly! Plus…. Books: P.G. Wodehouse, “Life Among the Savages” and “Raising Demons” by Shirley Jackson, “My Family and Other Animals” by Gerald Durrell. TV: “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Daily Show” Oh, and Eddie Izzard’s stand-up comedy routines.

Cry: The nightly news, sappy commercials that shouldn’t make me cry but do, inspirational stories of people overcoming hardship.

Angry: Cruelty, from the large (unjust wars) to the small (schoolyard bullying or teasing)

Excited: Learning something new, creating something new.

Thanks, Suzanne!

Now here's your chance to win copies of Suzanne's books, The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney and The Juliet Club, and a pink Juliet Club tank top!

Send your name, address, and email to thecompulsivereader@gmail.com with AS CONTEST in the subject heading, and your name wil be thrown in the hat. 1 winner will receive a copy of each book and a tank, and three winners will each receive a tank top. I'll take entries until next Wednesday night, the 17th, at midnight!

Good luck, and thanks for reading!


Mari said...

What a great interview. Now I need to get my hands on a copy of "The Secret Life..." It sounds like a perfect October read. :)

Shooting Stars Mag said...

Awesome interview. I definitely entered. :)
I have yet to read either book, but they sound amazing.