An Interview Between Two Obsessive Ghost Aficianados

We have been collaborating for years on an illustrated paranormal novel for young adults. Set during the Civil War, Jenny (the protagonist) must unravel the secrets behind her fiancé's death--and discover how to put his spirit to rest. The story took shape through extensive historical research for both the plot and the illustrations. Each character, illustration and setting was based on actual photographs and places (except for one!). It's finally seeing publication in May 2010. In this interview, we ask each other some searching questions, now that the end is in sight.

1. Lisa Brown to Adele Griffin:

LB: Hey, so how would you describe this thing that we've been sweating over all this time?

AG: Picture the Dead is an American Civil War paranormal thriller ghost story, with extensive illustrations in the form of a working scrapbook. This book has everything you want. It can even cut through a tin can.

2. AG to LB: Let me jump in and start with specifics. Did you have any reservations about drawing dead people?

LB: Not for a second. I was always the kind of person who reveled in the slightly morbid. My illustrations were based on portraits in nineteenth century photos that I found in the Online Prints and Photographs Reading Room of the Library of Congress. Not that those were creepy, exactly, but there's something about looking into the face of someone who has been deceased for so many years that feels a little like one is reaching across the centuries and touching the past. Or speaking to the dead...

Photography in the nineteenth century was a new technology, so there were times when a person might pass away without there ever having been a photographic record of their existence. Sometimes the only opportunity to take a photo of someone was after their death. So people would pose their loved ones post-mortem and photograph them. It does look a bit icky, at least to our modern eyes, but it was done out of a sense of love and a desire to remember.

3. AG to LB: Clara is a particularly distasteful character. Describe the process of creating her portrait.

LB: Clara Pritchett was unique among our characters. She's this self-centered, vain glutton of a woman, and our heroine's aunt and guardian. For all the other character illustrations, I was able to find one or two models from actual nineteenth century photographs that seemed to fit the person who existed in my head. I created the images by taking the old photo in question, tracing it either on paper or directly onto the computer, and reducing it to, hopefully, its essentials. The resulting piece of art was flatly digital yet still retained the stiff and somber mood and limited palette of those old daguerreotypes and albumen prints that I modeled them on.

In Clara's case, I had trouble finding a model who was horrible enough. I was particularly keen to represent your incredible description of a "chin that wobbled like aspic." Nobody during the Civil War era seemed to have such a chin, (maybe there wasn't enough food around during wartime?). In the end, I had to invent Clara from whole cloth, sketching her out by hand.

4. LB to AG: We always knew that wanted to write into a specific time period and be true to it. And while we were diligent, anachronistic mistakes were made. What was your favorite?

AG: That would have to be Leverett Pond. We'd chosen Brookline for its proximity to Mumler's Boston, and all the way into the first design pass, Leverett Pond was this lovely and scenic bit of background setting, where our characters went sledding in the winter and boating in the summer. Until you got in touch with the High Street Hill Association about doing a bit of cross-promotion.

LB: Yes, and they very gently informed me that until it was drained and reconfigured twenty years after our story takes place, Leverett Pond had been a swamp. How did they put it? "... A malarial swamp, filled with sewage and bordered by shanties." Lovely.

AG: Thank goodness Brookline has a convergent pond. We just moved all the activity over to clear, clean, deep Jamaica Pond, and nobody was the wiser.

LB: Unless they read this.

5. AG to LB: Some books arrive pre-packaged inside the perfect title, but others try on lots of different ideas before landing on the right match. Describe your journey to our title.

LB: Well, for years our working title was The Recognized. In the early years of photography, there were these photographers who claimed that they could capture the spirits of the dead in photographs. Bereaved folk would sit for their portraits, and through a double exposure or some similarly simple process the photographer would create a second, semi-transparent image of a second figure, usually floating in the background. "Recognition" was the term that spirit photographers used when their sitters believed that they had recognized the ghostly figure as someone who had passed away. "I suppose that looks like it could be Great-Aunt Sally," or "Hey, that might be Grampa," or something to that effect.

6. LB to AG: Do you remember some of the other top contenders?

AG: I remember one title "The Murder of William Pritchett." That wasn't bad, it was very 1800s. I didn't love "Where Have You Been?" which sounds like a kid missing curfew. "Unfinished Business" evokes a bad '80s thriller. "Find Me When I'm Gone..." When you came up with "Picture the Dead," we all sighed with joy and relief.

7. AG to LB: What about the Civil War kept drawing you back? Was there one image or fact that pulled you to that era?

LB: I started with the faces of the young boy soldiers. They seemed so modern, in a way, like they could be photos of high schoolers in a contemporary yearbook. Because that's what they were, really. High school-aged kids, compelled to go off to war under these unspeakably harsh conditions.

It also amazed me how much evidence still seemed to be floating around from the Civil War era. It was so far away--a distance of two centuries, unimaginable technological advances, huge shifts in the culture--yet we still have all these photos, letters, journal entries, telegrams, menus, calling cards, bullets, sketches, sheet music, for god's sake. And these things don't really seem that antiquated at all, considering how long ago it all was. Teenagers were teenagers. There was slang and flirtation and fear. The same as today.

8. AG to LB: Does the book in your hand fit the book in your head? Any surprises along the way?

LB: Well, I couldn't really anticipate how beautiful it would be. My illustrations, for so long were just images on a computer screen. But now they've come together to form this object, something that I can hold in my hand. It's a thrill.

AG: I am seconding that. It was more like a project than a novel. For years, it was all these bits and pieces. And then it was whole. I ran around the block when my Advance Reading Copy came in the mail. So exciting, with an exclamation mark since you never use them!

LB: No, don't do it.

AG: I already did!