Kris Waldherr is an award-winning author, illustrator, and designer. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, and her fiction has been awarded with fellowships by the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts and a reading grant by Poets & Writers. Kris Waldherr works and lives in Brooklyn in a Victorian-era house with her husband, the anthropologist-curator Thomas Ross Miller, and their daughter. Her latest novel is The Lost History of Dreams and she recently agreed to be interviewed about it by Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Lost History of Dreams?
My first inspiration for The Lost History of Dreams was a dream I had several years ago of a man and a woman dressed in Victorian clothing arguing over an inheritance in a candle-lit room. This dream eventually became a pivotal scene in The Lost History of Dreams when Robert, my post-mortem photographer protagonist, first encounters his grief-stricken cousin Isabelle. In addition, I became obsessed with Victorian mourning rituals after the unexpected death of my mother-in-law; they seemed a wonderful way to let the world know you’d suffered a loss so they’d tread lightly. Eventually, Robert and Isabelle’s story collided with my interest in Victorian mourning rituals—and here we are.
Are Robert, Isabelle, Hugh, Ada or any of the other characters inspired by or based on specific individuals?
I was fortunate that Robert and Isabelle emerged fully formed from my dream; however, their characters evolved as I wrote (more on that below!). Hugh was very, very loosely modeled on Lord Byron; his character definitely reflects the influence of the Romantics rather than the Victorians. As for Ada, her character was shaped by several Gothic tropes, primarily the one of the orphaned heiresses at risk. That written I couldn’t resist giving Ada the same first name as Ada Lovecraft, Lord Byron’s brilliant mathematician daughter—the name was a wink at the reader if you will.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
Believe it or not, it took me many thousands of words before I realized Robert was a post-mortem photographer. He was originally a lapsed divinity student eager to get back into his dying father’s favor. Eventually, I deleted the subplot with Robert’s father—it was one plotline too many in an already tricky structure. Isabelle’s character was initially less sympathetic as well as far more tragic; she evolved over time just as Robert did.
As far as cut scenes, I had written an epilogue with Robert and Isabelle set several years after Lost History‘s ending, but decided the epilogue pulled energy from what I hope is a powerful final image. Maybe one day I’ll post it on my site.
Ada’s Folly sounds exquisite. What gave you the idea for it? Is there an actual building that inspired it?
Strangely enough, the initial inspiration for Ada’s Folly was a newspaper article about a Paris apartment that hadn’t been opened in seventy years. For some reason, this led to my imagining a glass chapel in the woods that had been locked since its creation years earlier; I wondered what might be found inside. From there, I read about Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill and other architectural follies.
In terms of the architectural design for Ada’s Folly, I was inspired by a photograph of an abandoned chapel in a French forest taken by Romain Veillon; the photograph served as my computer desktop while I wrote Lost History. I also read a lot about neo-Gothic stained glass of the nineteenth century and the history of French stained glass after the Revolution, which is a fascinating story unto itself.
Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever had a paranormal experience?
My house is actually haunted—or so we believe. We live in a Victorian-style house in the historic Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn; a number of neighbors have had similar paranormal experiences. There are certain corners in our house where my family has seen weird shadows and subtle apparitions; the activity has lessened the longer we’ve lived here (or maybe we’ve just grown used to it). However, when we first moved in, the ghosts were very active. For example, we were locked out of our house from the inside. This wouldn’t be so unusual for a new tenant—I mean, who hasn’t accidentally locked themselves out of a new home at one time or another?—except the lock was one that didn’t have a key. I panicked someone had broken in, but nothing else was disturbed. We also had unusual offerings that appeared to arrive from nowhere, such as an umbrella waiting next to our front door one rainy morning. Both my husband and myself have seen the shadow of a man with a camera in our library at various times. My daughter claims to have seen a little girl named Sarah in one corner of our living room.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
My ever-towering pile includes Greer Macallister’s Woman 99 and an ARC of Nathan Makaryk’s Nottingham—both authors are friends—as well as Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five and Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists. On the writing end, Cheryl Klein’s The Magic Words and Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem, which I’d bought for my daughter and ended up reading myself. Finally, I’ve an iPad for reading e-books and a lucky talisman hardcover of The Lost History of Dreams.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I know it’s a cliché, but I wanted to be a writer like Jo when I grew up. I also loved that the Marches were essentially a single parent household with only a mother, like my family. I became obsessed with taking out as many versions of Little Women from the library to compare illustrations. My favorite was the Louis Jambor Illustrated Junior Library edition. Eventually, I acquired a copy. It’s the one I read to my daughter, who, alas, wasn’t as obsessed with the adventures of Team Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy as I had been—she was Team Hermione instead.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
I was fortunate that my mother allowed me to take out whatever I wanted from the library—I was one of those kids who lived at the library after school and during summer months. Every so often the librarian would raise an eyebrow at my mom’s unwillingness to limit my reading material, which sometimes verged into the R-rated. I was especially fond of Stephen King novels and racy historical epics like Forever Amber.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
That’s nearly impossible—I feel like I’m inspired by everything that crossed my path. If I had to limit myself, the five authors who most influenced The Lost History of Dreams were Charlotte and Emily Bronte (of course!), Diane Setterfield, A.S. Byatt, and Sarah Waters.
What is a book you've faked reading?
I wouldn’t say I’ve faked it, but I’m ashamed I’ve yet to finish Middlemarch. It’s still in one of my “currently reading” piles. One day!
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
The gorgeous cover of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent was all the convincing I needed to buy the hardcover. Just stunning! I was delighted that the novel itself surpassed the cover—definitely one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. I also loved the cover for Perry’s Melmoth.
Is there a book that changed your life?
Sarah Water’s Fingersmith. After I read it, I decided I wanted to devote myself in earnest to writing historical fiction. Though I was already working on a novel at that point, Fingersmith gave me a new sense of what was possible for the genre. Besides being a breathtaking read on multiple levels, Fingersmith is a lot of fun. The ending made me cry in the best possible way. Waters is an author who will wring your heart and chill your bones.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Besides that most people haven’t read it—or, if they have, they don’t recall the specifics—Frankenstein is a brilliant examination of what happens when hubris overrules humanity. I also think Frankenstein is the ultimate polemic against bad parenting. I’ve reread it every few years since I first encountered it as a twelve-year-old and always find new depths-—it’s astonishing it was written by a teenager in a matter of weeks. I always tell people, “Frankenstein isn’t what you expect.” The structure is also brilliant. Like Lost History, it has stories within stories, all which comment upon each other.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
I’d love to read Jane Eyre anew for the first time. I can’t imagine how I would experience it as an adult. I wonder if I would anticipate the madwoman in the attic?
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
I’m assuming I could go anywhere in time as well as geographically. I know this sounds strange, but I would love to meet the Pre-Raphaelite painter-poets Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal in nineteenth-century Venice. I can’t help but wonder what that would have been like. To be honest, I don’t know if it would be a perfect day, but I’d be fascinated to spend time with them—and Venice is my favorite city!
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
A question about the history of stained glass after the French Revolution. When I was researching Lost History, I was surprised to learn there was a boom in stained glass production during that period because so many church windows had been destroyed during the Revolution. At one point all of Notre-Dame’s existing stained glass was replaced with clear glass, and the cathedral used for food storage. Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame helped revive interest in the cathedral and its eventual restoration—a fact that feels especially poignant after the heartbreaking fire that ravaged Notre-Dame earlier this year. I was so relieved the stained glass was spared!
What are you working on now?
I’ll be on a book tour in Southern California for The Lost History of Dreams in June—my events are listed here. In terms of writing, I’m working on several books. I’m revising a middle-grade novel set in contemporary Brooklyn; I spilled out a speedy first draft during National Novel Writing Month after finishing Lost History. I also have two historical novels underway, one set in the art world of 1888 London and the second in the late 18th century amid revolution. To switch things up, I’m also writing picture books—I like to keep busy!