Cordelia Frances Biddle talks about The Conjurer
by Cordelia Frances Biddle
St. Martin's Minotaur ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312352462
Date: 03 May 2007 List Price $23.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
I've always been haunted by the past. Ghosts abound for me, whether in Philadelphia, which is my home, or elsewhere. The Conjurer grew out of my fascination with a period in American history of which I knew little. "The Great Depression" (caused by Andrew Jackson's dissolution of the Second Bank of the United States) was a time of national foment. There were race riots, workers' rights riots, and Bible riots; in every instance, cities were shut down and the militia called in to restore order. This was no charming Victorian mezzotint. Nor were the lives of women the quaint ideal often depicted while the lot of the poor was unspeakable: an entire family housed in a room ten feet by twelve - and then renting out sleeping space to those less fortunate, a communal privy serving five or six families. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the vogue of "spiritualism" should take the nation by storm. If answers to the country's woes couldn't be found in politics or organized religion, then perhaps "communicating with the dead" could produce the desired results.
Before I become a novelist, I worked as an actress in Manhattan; getting inside a character's skin is vital to me. I need to know how the food tasted, how the fabrics felt, the smell of the streets... And, yes, I bought a corset so I could experience how tightly laced life could be. The answer is VERY. No wonder "fainting couches" were popular. In the case of my female characters, the dichotomy between inner strengths and outer submissiveness was painful to write. But also important. Letters from women readers make it apparent that this tension continues to resonate.
I've been criticized for overpopulating my novel, but my studies of the mid 1840s reveal that cities were bursting; and I wanted to expose not only that sense of claustrophobia but also the resultant intersection of the lives of the most affluent and most impoverished. My heiress, Martha, may have no cognizance of the prisoner, Ruth, but their paths parallel one another's.
Historical research feeds and transports me. Touching the real newsprint of the period, examining the record books of the insane asylum, or reading personal diaries is transformative, and permits me to enter the mind set and linguistic style of the era. But ultimately the characters dictate their daily choices. As far as I'm concerned Martha Beale is very much alive and evolving as a person, as is Thomas Kelman.