What inspired you to write a prequel to Wuthering Heights for young adults?
My mother wrote her master’s thesis about Heathcliff, so I grew up immersed in Brontë lore. Wuthering Heights has been important to me since childhood. After I finished The Hollow Kingdom, my editor suggested that I write a tie-in to one of the Brontë classics, but at the time, the idea didn’t appeal to me because I was busy playing with my goblins.
Then, in the summer of 2005, my family life took a horrible turn. Out of the blue, my older daughter began a precipitous slide into serious mental illness. I sat by her bedside after a drug overdose. I sat by her on the plane as we flew to a mental institution in London. And all the happy stories in my head fizzled and went flat.
But Wuthering Heights is made of stronger stuff. It was still standing in the background of my mind. I had stopped returning my friends’ calls, but I was glad to sit down with books about the Brontës and renew my acquaintance with them. I knew that they would have understood what I was going through because they had struggled with brother Branwell’s devastating decline into addiction and early death.
Then I proceeded to pour all my darkness, bitterness, and helplessness over my daughter’s condition into The House of Dead Maids.
Does it show?
The historical setting as well as Tabby’s voice are really authentic - what kind of research did you do to bring the place and time of the story to life?
The research took longer than the writing, and I don’t think I could have done it if I hadn’t been living in Europe. By that time, we were used to seeing old things and living with old traditions, and we had already taken several trips across the United Kingdom. We visited Yorkshire, of course, as soon as I knew I would be writing the book, and you can see my photographs from that research trip here: http://www.claredunkle.com/Design/maidsphotoindex.htm.
To prepare for writing the manuscript, I read books on all kinds of subjects: the weather in Yorkshire, the history of Yorkshire, English superstitions, paganism in the British Isles, Juliet Barker’s monolithic biography of the Brontës, and a number of different works of literary criticism of Wuthering Heights, to name a few that I remember. The research went on for months. But my werewolf book, By These Ten Bones, had also been as accurate to a time and place as I could possibly make it, so I had learned quite a bit already about what to look up and what to remember and how to flesh out a scene from the dusty bones of scholarly research.
It’s all a matter of picturing everything in its proper place in your head, whether it’s a scrap of 18th century cloth or a shelf of pewter dishes. It has to be in there before you sit down to write. Then it’ll look as it should when your character chooses to walk by it and give it a few seconds of attention.
Tabby’s narrative sounds very 18th century - how hard was it, as a modern day American, to write in this style?
It was a tussle! To prepare for it, I read nothing for weeks but Brontë novels, and I read Wuthering Heights over and over. I chose to focus on these books rather than include other Victorian literature because I had noticed how unique the Brontës sounded. Emily’s vocabulary and sentence structure in particular are direct and spare, not at all like the prose of some of the other authors of her day.
As I began to write, Tabby’s voice began to take over my brain, and by Chapter Three, she had definitely developed her own way of telling a story. This interested me and also frustrated me a little because her style isn’t as much like Nelly Dean’s (Emily Brontë’s narrator) as I would have liked. I think it’s closer to Jane Eyre’s. I tried to intervene, but Tabby wouldn’t be thwarted. She went right on telling things in her own way.
I’ve had characters turn on me before: my characters always have minds of their own, and I’ve had them flat-out refuse to do what I’d hoped they would. But up to this point, I had at least had control over my own narration. It was a little humiliating to have to take dictation from my own made-up creature!
Besides Wuthering Heights, of course, what are some of your own favorite books and authors?
The Prydain series will always be first on any list of mine. Those books changed my life. And The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope, and The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula K. Le Guin, will always mean a lot to me. But my favorite books lately have been by Shirley Jackson. They’ve assumed an importance that has surprised me.
My family loves, rereads, and generally treats Shirley Jackson’s book Life Among the Savages as a family pet, but I knew little else about her when I wrote The House of Dead Maids. Still, I knew that someone was bound to bring up “The Lottery” in connection with my book, and I thought I should be prepared, so I embarked on a tour of her works.
She’s stunning. Shirley Jackson is stunning! The little edge of “eerie” she puts on everything can make you so paranoid that you’ll end up afraid to walk down your own street in broad daylight (which, in fact, happened to Shirley Jackson herself). If I could have written We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I could die happy. “Louisa, Please Come Home” leaves me speechless every time. And there are scenes from The Sundial that have seeped into my bones. It’s as if they were part of me when I was born.
Can you tell us anything about your next book?
My younger daughter Elena and I cowrote a devastating memoir about her battle with anorexia. (Didn’t I say that these last few years have been rough?!) We’re working with an editor on it right now, but it isn’t sold yet. It needs revision. And I’m starting to play around with water folklore and superstition, trying to create something lovely and disturbing. We’ll see what happens with that.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I should probably mention that both of my daughters are now grown up, well, and happy, and that they’re busy living their lives. They stay in close touch with me, and I’m blessed to have children who bring so much love and laughter into my life. But the scars are still there. Some days I wonder if I will ever again be able to write as a book as carefree as The Hollow Kingdom.
Special Brontë-themed giveaway!
One Grand Prize winner will receive The House of Dead Maids, a gorgeous Brontë sisters pocket mirror, and the HarperTeen edition of Wuthering Heights! Two lucky runners-up will receive the two books. To enter, send an email to DeadMaidsBook@gmail.com with your name, email address, and shipping address (if you're under 13, submit a parent's name and email address). One entry per person and prizes will only be shipped to US or Canadian addresses. Entries must be received by midnight (PDT) on October 31. Winners will be selected in a random drawing on November 1 and notified via email.