Friday, June 25, 2010

A Conversation With Deborah Noyes, Author of "Captivity"

Please join me in welcoming Deborah Noyes, author of "Captivity," to Lit and Life. "Captivity," published by Unbridled Books," weaves together the true story of the Fox sisters, who claimed to be able to speak to the dead in the late 19th century, and the story of the Gills, an Englishman and his reclusive daughter who have come to the United States amid whispers of a scandal.

1. How did you come upon the story of the Fox sisters and what made you want to write about them?

I first read about Maggie and Kate in an article in American History magazine and was immediately drawn to the real-life rags-to-riches story of two ordinary farm girls who gripped their community by claiming to be able to communicate with the dead. Their “gift” eventually made them famous, the nineteenth-century equivalent of celebrities. Maggie's affair with the polar explorer Elisha Kent Kane kept her at the edge of scandal and fanned that fame. Western New York at the time was progressive and reform-minded, and Maggie, Kate, and their older sister Leah turned this mood to their advantage, sowing the seeds of an international religious movement. Their story touches on science and spirit, class and gender, subversion and showmanship, family politics and bad romance. A lot here for a writer to love.

2. How much research did you do into the time period and the story of the sisters?
I had excellent nonfiction accounts to draw from, notably Barbara Weisberg's Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism and Nancy Rubin's The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox plus a wealth of primary sources, including Kane's love letters to Maggie and Leah’s memoir, which offered rich context and helped me reconstruct the Fox family timeline. For the London subplot, I read Victorian diaries and news accounts, etiquette and recipe books, penny dreadfuls and passages from the Newgate Calendar.

I also made pilgrimages to Rochester, where I had help with local history and landmarks from the good folks at Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County and The Landmark Society of Western New York. I did some detective work and spent an afternoon driving around Acadia in search [of] the Fox family homestead. The cottage itself was gone, with only a simple cornerstone memorial (“The Birthplace and Shrine of Modern Spiritualism,” erected by a group called the Ministry of Spiritual and Divine Science) — marking the site where, in 1848, Maggie and her younger sister Kate first demonstrated their spectral "rappings.” But the rural, canal-centric landscape of that part of New York still looks as it must have in Maggie’s day. It was easy to imagine the sisters out chasing crows from the brittle fields or braiding seedpods into one another’s hair.

Last but not least, I paid a visit to Lily Dale, a quaint Victorian hamlet in western New York commonly known as “the town that talks to the dead” because of the mediums who hang out a shingle each summer to greet tourists and “serve spirit” by delivering messages from Beyond. While I checked out spirit trumpets and spirit slates in the museum — and the resident historian regaled me with tales of Mae West, Susan B. Anthony, Harry Houdini, and other famous Lily Dale visitors — I was delighted to spot a glass case with a scale model of the Fox farmhouse inside. Apparently the actual cottage was relocated to Lily Dale in 1916, though it burned down 41 years later.

3. How did the character of Clara develop and what made you decide to incorporate fact and fiction in this book?
Maggie was always conflicted about her calling, and it was this conflict — not whether (or not) she and her sisters were frauds — that interested me. What drove her? Why did otherwise rational people buy what she had to sell? To what extent do we need to believe in the continuity of life, and why? To explore these questions, I needed a second protagonist, a counterpoint.
Maggie’s friendship with Clara, a reclusive scientific artist and a skeptic, is pretty unlikely -- given the barriers of age, class, and temperament -- but Clara’s tragic past leaves her open in a way she might not be otherwise. Her back story lifts a strand from my first novel, Angel and Apostle, where the menagerie in the Tower of London also made a fleeting appearance (in Captivity, Clara meets her to-be-lost love, a beast keeper, there). Animals and ideas about the wild always figure in my thought and metaphor, and I wanted to explore them in more depth here. On a basic level, Clara is held captive by grief, and that’s where Maggie comes in.
4. Death and ghosts seem to be a recurring theme for you. Have you always been interested in ghost stories? Any favorites?
My mom always had yellowing yard-sale copies of — to paraphrase Neil Gaiman — novels with ladies in long nightgowns holding candelabras and fleeing spooky castles on the cover. So from an early age I read writers like Daphne de Maurier and Mary Stewart, or for that matter Steven King and Anne Rice, along with my Little House books (which may explain the weird mix of genres and preoccupations I entertain today: "little haunted house on the prairie," anyone?).
Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, and the short stories of Edith Wharton and Isak Dinesen. One of my favorite contemporary novels is Margot Livesey's beautiful Eva Moves the Furniture. I also loved the movie The Others, with Nicole Kidman, and mean to read the book that inspired it.

5. You've written books for children, adults and done a book using your own photography. Do you prefer one type over the other?

Fiction is my first love, whether for adults or teens, but it's a thorny kind of love — writing a novel’s like sitting too long in a dark room or a thicket. So out I’ll come for light and air. Picture books and photography let me collaborate and indulge my visual side. With nonfiction I get to sink into research — history, folklore — which is meditative (medicative?!) for me.

6. When you're working on a book, are you able to read books by other authors or do you need to shut out all other authors?

When I'm working on an adult novel, I read young-adult — often fantasy or something paranormal. When it’s children's or YA, I crave adult literary or historical fiction. Balance is the thing, I guess, but I read more nonfiction than fiction while drafting.

7. Who are your favorite authors?

All the great Gothic and Romantic writers... and Flannery O'Connor, Alice Munro, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Annie Dillard, James Cain, David Almond, Margo Lanagan, Walt Whitman, Kelly Link, Raymond Carver, Mary Oliver, Li Po, Shirley Jackson, Susan Cooper, Pablo Neruda, Sonya Hartnett, Hans Christian Andersen, Rod Serling, Elizabeth Bishop, Graham Green, Angela Carter...

8. Your photographs are stunning. When did you take up photography?
I took a night class about fifteen years ago with a friend, and we've both gone on to incorporate photography into our work, though it still feels new to me. I have a lot to learn and am mostly self-taught, so it's a reckless education.

9. How do you make time for writing with a family and all of your other commitments?

Remember Jack Nicholson in The Shining? "All work and no play…”? I'm dull. Exceedingly. I've done an ace job of convincing myself that work is fun and have almost no social life, which is okay, for now.

10. Favorite guilty pleasure?

Salty snacks. Long car rides. Melancholy Americana. Big white hotel beds. Costume dramas.

Thanks, Deborah! To learn more about Deborah, check out her website; she really is a woman of many talents.


  1. Captivity sounds very interesting. The concept of speaking to the dead has always intrigued me.

    I like what the author said about making work fun. Now, if only I could convince myself of the same thing.

  2. Her book sounds truly fascinating. It's amazing how much work an author puts into research. And I don't find her dull at all!!

  3. What a fascinating subject! And Deborah's photographs are beautiful. I especially liked the "oddities."