Q and A with Karen Brown, THE CLAIRVOYANTS
1. Tell us a little about your new novel.
On the family homestead by the sea where she grew up, Martha Mary saw ghosts. As a young woman, she hopes to distance herself from those spirits by escaping to an inland college town. There, she is absorbed by a budding romance, relieved by separation from an unstable sister, and disinterested in the flyers seeking information about a young woman who’s disappeared—until one Indian summer afternoon when the missing woman appears beneath Martha’s apartment window, wearing a down coat, her hair coated with ice.
2. This is such a skillful cross between a ghost story and a coming of age story, as I see it. What inspired you to begin The Clairvoyants?
The novel started with a short story I wrote after my mother called me from Connecticut one winter to tell me it was snowing. After my move to Florida, I’d become nostalgic for snow. I’d had one brief winter living outside of Ithaca, NY in an old farmhouse on Main Street, and the memory of that winter and Ithaca became the setting for my snow story. “Galatea” was about a young woman, away at school, who impulsively marries a man she meets at a park playground. Their brief, passionate marriage disintegrates during a long winter in which items of her furniture begin disappearing from the apartment, and then her husband, too, disappears.
When I began to write the novel, it became clear that the character was in many ways similar to another character in an older story, “Apparitions.” So, aspects of that story flowed over into the novel, too. It took many drafts to transform the pieces of these stories into the novel, but what remained from “Galatea” were the snow, the erotic tension, and the eeriness that was the husband’s unexplained disappearance, and from “Apparitions” a ghost sighting in a barn. The Spiritualists camp came late in the writing, but it fit in perfectly.
3. Del, the narrator's emotionally unstable older sister, is such a dangerous character - every time she appears, I feel myself getting anxious. Did she arrive in your imagination fully formed?
Del made her first appearance in the short story drinking hot chocolate laced with Kahlua and eating candy corn. She conveniently disappears when the love interest, William Bell, arrives on the scene, but in the novel I wanted to keep her around longer, and I wanted her to complicate things. I think it’s her inscrutability—is she on Martha’s side, or is she trying to disrupt Martha’s life?—that makes her seem dangerous. I like to imagine Del as Martha’s protector, but the story is Martha’s, and she is often confused about her sister. A lot of this comes from their past and the rivalry they had as children competing for their mother’s attention, and later, for the attention of boys. Much of the mistrust also stems from Del’s mental instability, and her carelessness with her own life.
4. What were some of the novels, films, or other art forms that have influenced both The Clairvoyants and your other books, The Longings of Wayward Girls, Little Sinners and Other Storiesand Pins & Needles.
Martha Mary and William are photographers with very different projects—Martha’s work is focused on empty landscapes and places, and William’s is patterned after Ted Spagna’s sleep studies. As I was working on The Clairvoyants, abandoned places became important, particularly the old state asylums photographed by Shaun O’Boyle. The disintegration of abandoned buildings involves a lot of bright, peeling paint, crumbling plaster, and broken window glass that caught in the right light is incredibly beautiful and set the tone for the book. Martha and Del had an aunt who lived out her days in such a hospital in Newtown, CT.
During the writing of the novel, I often listened to Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” performed by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The music has such a clear purity and so much hope in it—and it balanced the bleakness of the novel’s setting. I also listened to Elgar’s Cello Concerto performed by Jacqueline du Pré, which was more in line with the discordant, somber and chilling details of the book. Both “Appalachian Spring” and the Concerto made it into the novel.
And finally, I’d been reading Theosophical Lectures and Answers to Theosophical Questions by Annie Besant, published in 1907. Questions like “What is the form of the astral body after death?” and “Do astral entities partake of food?” and “Are parents to blame in any sense for the birth of monsters?” allowed me to imagine Martha seeking explanations for what she sees, and finding nothing she could truly believe in.
5. You write both novels and short stories so well - do you prefer one over the other?
I’ve gotten out of practice with short stories—the last one I tried to finish felt too long, and I seemed to have lost my ability to cut it down to size. That said, I’m still working on it, and the need to bypass so much of what I know about the characters, the place, and the conflict, and focus in so narrowly on one point in time, is a challenge. I can’t say, though, that I prefer one form over the other—just that I’m doing better with the novel at this time.
6. What are you working on now?
I have a novel draft that I’m almost happy with—I returned to it after a year away and I can see all the loose threads. It follows three women whose lives are linked by a man who disappeared thirty years before, and who was thought to be responsible for a string of murders across three Connecticut towns. The focus is on the women and their roles as mothers, wives, and daughters, and the way the past haunts their present lives. So it’s that, or the draft I’m starting about the employees, customers, and bands associated with a rock club in 1980s South Florida.