Black Lawrence Press
November 25, 2015

NaNoWriMo Feature: Adrian Van Young

Welcome to National Novel Writing Month, 2015! We’re celebrating all month long with a gangbuster sale on some of our favorite novels, a consultation program for those of you with in-progress manuscripts, and this–a daily feature profiling a Black Lawrence Press author who has done the unthinkable: completed a novel.

Today’s featured writer is Adrian Van Young, author of the novel Shadows in Summerland.

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Excerpt

I sit here before you unjustly accused. I sit here at your mercy, reader.

We three sit before you, a congress of rogues, and all our fates are intertwined.

There is I, William Mumler, the spirit photographer. There is Hannah, my wife, who can reckon the dead. There is William Guay, our Poughkeepsian friend, who has up to this juncture protected our interests. And these are just the tattered souls who sit here left and right of me in the Year of Our Spirit 1863, bearing credible witness, in Suffolk Court’s dock.

Publically we are accused of fraud and larceny most foul.

Privately we are accused of a murder that cannot be publically proven on account of the fact that the man it concerns cannot be verified as dead.

Put forward uniquely such charges might crush us. Taken together they cancel each other.

For now we sit here in our cells—mute, incoordinate, fearing the worst. In different branches of the cross that make the Suffolk County Jail, Hannah, Guay and I sit, waiting. The jail is a piece of well-meant legislature, the new human way to prohibit and punish; four long wings of Quincy granite branching from an octagon with enormous arched windows admitting Charles Street where people, in their freedom, go. Not so William Mumler, confined behind bars, impotent and indisposed, his head inclined into a storm of rapists, pickpockets, cardsharps and abusers in a ten by four space where the sunlight itself, shining raggedly into the arms of the cross, has not the slightest character, the slightest touch of heaven in it. While forever the knocking of implements, scratching, the grunting of a hundred apes, those sad and headstrong bouts of sound that men fallen into the sere will enact.

And though I am not one of them, I am neither, however, completely not guilty.

But I didn’t bamboozle American mourners, and I didn’t murder the man that they say.

It is these crimes and these alone for which I am brought here to answer today.

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Craft Notes

First, here’s a little dust-jacket summation of what the book’s about:

“Boston, 1859.

A nation on the brink of war.

Confidence men prowl the streets for fresh marks. Mediums swindle the newly bereaved. Into this world of illusion and intrigue comes William Mumler, spirit photographer. Mumler hopes to make his fortune by capturing spirits for Boston’s elite. The key to his venture: a shy girl named Hannah who sees and manifests the dead and washes up on Boston’s harbor along with her strange, intense mother, Claudette.

As Mumler and Hannah’s fame grows throughout Boston, everybody wants a piece: Bill Christian, a brothel tough; Algernon Child, a drunken rival; Fanny A. Conant, a sly suffragette; and William Guay, a religious fanatic. These rogues, among a host of others, including the great spirit rapper Kate Fox, form powerful bonds with the spirit photographers, one of which will end in murder.

Mumler’s first and last mistake: the dead cannot be made to heel.

Roughly based on the life of William H. Mumler, spirit photographer and his clairvoyant wife, Hannah Mumler, Shadows in Summerland immerses the reader in a shifting world of light and shade where nothing is quite what it seems at first glance. It is as much an homage to the Golden Age ghost stories of Edith Wharton and Henry James as it is a companion to the revisionist historical epics of Peter Carey and Sarah Waters, with a little steam-punk all its own.”

And, since the novel is told from multiple first-person POV’s (5, to be exact) the above opening passage means to unite those POV’s in the space-time of the novel as it will be more than 100 pages until they all meet up again. The speaker is William Mumler, criminal jeweler, confidence man and spirit photographer, who along with his “clairvoyant” wife and partner, Hannah Mumler, is one of the main speakers throughout.

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Q&A

1) What is the hardest part of writing a novel? What are your techniques for dealing with this aspect of the process?

Writing the second draft was the hardest part for me, because I added so much to what was already an over-long novel. My strategy for dealing with this inadvertent tumescence was just what you’d guess: cutting over half of it in the 3rd draft, which I fondly now refer to as my “hack n’ slash” period.

 2) What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

To read widely—even far, far outside your typical sector of interest or comfort zone, because everything you read you are absorbing and incorporating into your ever-evolving voice and/or style, and the dynamism of that voice and/or style is important.

3) How long did it take you to complete your novel? Please talk a little bit about your journey from first word to final draft?

It took me a year-and-a-half to research, and then six years to write and revise. I’m technically still revising it, too, as final edits aren’t in yet. The main thing that changed from the first to the more or less final manifestation of the novel is length; the book is pretty much halved, as I mentioned. This entailed cutting many, many superfluous sub-plots, then smoothing over the gaps, as well as just a lot of bloviating, neo-Victorian language. I had to fall out of love with my own ventriloquism to get the damn thing off the ground.

4)   What is your favorite writing time beverage?

Well, I live in New Orleans so naturally a Mint Julep. But never more than 2!

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Suggested Reading

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002)

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)

Stoner by John Williams (1965)

Troubles by J.G. Farrell (1970)

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Adrian Van YoungAdrian Van Young is the author of the story collection The Man Who Noticed Everything (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), winner of the 2011 St. Lawrence Book Award, and the novel Shadows in Summerland, forthcoming in April 2016 from ChiZine Publications. His fiction and non-fiction have been published or are forthcoming in Lumina, The American Reader, Black Warrior Review, The Collagist, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, The Line-Up, VICE, Slate and The Believer, as well as Gigantic Worlds and States of Terror II, among other publications and anthologies. He is a regular contributor to Electricliterature.com. He lives in New Orleans with his wife Darcy and his son Sebastian.