Q&A with Katherine Howe
The House of Velvet and Glass
The House of Velvet and Glass
Debbie - Katherine is not a stranger to the B&N boards as her debut novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane was a FirstLook feature in 2009 and went on to debut at #2 on the NY Times Bestseller list so instead of saying welcome I say welcome back Katherine it’s nice to have you and thank you for answering some questions about your brand new release The House of Velvet and Glass.
Katherine - Thanks, Deb! I was delighted that you would ask me back. Participating in First Look was a terrific experience for me, particularly as a first time novelist. I was so delighted and touched that everyone on the B&N boards would take the time to read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, and give me such great feedback, so I'm doubly excited to have the chance to do it again for The House of Velvet and Glass.
Tell us a little about the new novel
The House of Velvet and Glass follows one Boston Brahmin family as they reel in the aftermath of the Titanic sinking. The year is 1915, and the eldest daughter, Sibyl Allston, is doing her best to keep the family together after her mother Helen and sister Eulah went down with the ship. Like a lot of women of that era, Sibyl has taken to visiting a spirit medium to try to connect with her mother and sister, only with mixed results. Then with no warning her brother Harlan appears back home, having been kicked out of Harvard under mysterious circumstances that have something to do with a beautiful young woman of obscure antecedent. As Sibyl joins forces with Benton Derby, a young Harvard psychology professor with whom she shares a complicated past, to solve the mystery surrounding Harlan's trouble, she will also uncover a shocking truth about her family's past, and in turn, about herself.
Can you tell us what led you to a career in writing
I'm trained as an academic, and started working on The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane while I was studying for my PhD qualifying exams (if you happen to have read Physick Book, that's the exam Connie takes in Chapter 1). As it happens, fiction is a wonderful way of investigating the past, and I love engaging in rich conversations with readers who are also interested in investigating aspects of history. Both Physick Book and The House of Velvet and Glass are set in time periods – the 1690s and 1910s respectively – in which the world is undergoing very drastic change, and I am interested in what it feels like to live through periods of upheaval. I take the details of my historical periods very seriously, because I feel that one of the real pleasures of historical fiction is having the chance to feel as though you can see into a corner of a vanished world.
Do you write full time
I am fortunate to be able to write full time, yes, although I also occasionally teach. This semester I've been leading an undergraduate seminar on historical fiction at Cornell. We just finished talking about Gone with the Wind, which is really a lot longer than I remember it being.
Do you belong to a writers group
I do not. However, I am fortunate to have a network of friends and colleagues to whom I can show work. Some are great for looking at pages at the very early stage, when they are unreadable dreck, and saying “Keep going! Don't quit!” Others are great for reading larger chunks when it's coming along but needs shaping to make sense, and still others are wonderful at reading the whole thing and helping me figure out which fifty pages really should be set on fire. Every writer needs a community who will both encourage and also help refine her work.
What genre does this new novel fall into, is there a bit of the paranormal that was in the debut novel, and how do you feel about being put on a certain genre shelf
I would say that The House of Velvet and Glass is historical fiction, although like Physick Book it does contain the suggestion of an imaginative twist. I am interested by time periods in which the perception of reality differs pretty drastically from our own, which is one reason I enjoy telling stories that are accurate to their stated time period, but a bit beyond the pale for today. Mainly, regardless of how they may be categorized, I hope the books find their way to readers who will enjoy them.
Tell us a little about how you felt when your debut novel sold and then went on to become a phenomenal bestseller that has now been translated into more than twenty languages.
I was stunned. First, I wasn't at all sure that Physick Book would find a publisher. That it did find one, in fact found several as Physick Book has been widely translated, is a source of continual amazement to me. I never imagined that I could love my work so much. I love dreaming up ideas for new stories, and I love wading deep into research as I put the stories together. I love the process of writing. And forging connections with a fascinating community of readers has been one of the most wonderful parts of this experience for me.
What do you like to do when your not working
I hang out with my friends and family, poke around in the woods with my dog, read books, garden, and sail. I fall behind on the New Yorker, eavesdrop on people's conversations in cafes, play cards, get distracted, spend too much time researching esoteric things that don't belong in the next novel, and make kale smoothies. Sometimes I watch too much Law and Order.
Do you have any B&N events or signings planned, I’m sure your fans would love to meet you in person.
I will be at the Barnes and Noble at Boston University in Kenmore Square, Boston on Monday evening May 7, and I hope that any Boston area readers will join me there. That and other events will appear on my Facebook page, as well as on katherinehowe.com. And B&N readers outside of Boston can always track me down on Twitter at @katherinebhowe.
Side note about the BU B&N event: I am still – technically – a PhD student at BU. To my advisor's continual dismay.
Katherine thank you so much for your time in letting us see the real Katherine Howe just a little better and good luck with the new release.
Thank you so much, Deb, and thanks everyone for being here on the B&N boards. I hope that you all enjoy The House of Velvet and Glass.
My Review of
The House of Velvet and Glass
The House of Velvet and Glass
What’s left of the Allston family of Boston’s Back Bay is still reeling from the loss of Matriarch Helen and youngest child Eulah who had the misfortune of being on the Titanic. Each remaining member is dealing with the loss and going about life in their own way. Sybil, the oldest has taken over running the house and furthering her spinster lifestyle, but it’s in the séance parlor of Miss Dee where she finds the most solace and closest to her lost family as she deals with the guilt she can’t seem to shed and knows that speaking of it to her stoic father Captain Lan Allston does no good. In the midst of all this it seems her younger brother Harlan has gotten himself kicked out of school, returned home only to get into deeper trouble. The troubles with Harlan also brings back an old family friend of the Allston’s, Benton Derby who was once much more to Sybil than just a friend and who is now in the position as a professor to help Harlan back in the classroom and out of trouble, but the complications continue as Harlan’s paramour Dovie arrives on the scene. Sybil joins forces with Ben to help her wayward brother but also turns to her faith in the occult for succor which has she and Ben butting heads. And as they seek answers journeying through the mystical psychic world they find only more questions and deeper puzzles, and some of those puzzles are leading back to a deep dark family secret.
Katherine Howe burst on the literary scene with her debut novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and now brings us another blockbuster in The House of Velvet and Glass. She took me on board the Titanic, through the streets of Shanghai and the elegant and eclectic Boston of early 20th century America and as she did so I could see in my mind’s eye the scenes, the people and the happenings around them. As she spun her tale of misfortune and of catastrophe she showed me also the lengths that we will go to find comfort, she showed me the strength it takes to go on in the light of loss and she once again went into the preternatural world and did it with aplomb. She introduced me to some amazing characters that will stay with me for a long time with Sybil, Ben and the Captain leading the cast but not foreshadowing her co-stars, Harlan and Dovie and finally her cameo appearances by Helen and Eulah and we can’t forget Baiji. Her narrative is all reminiscent of the era she’s portraying and done beautifully and vividly expressive with such attention to detail that her research is obvious not only in the industrial miracles of the times but also the costume and attitudes brought out in her characters. And finally this is a love story, of familial love and romantic love, it’s a story of the right thing to do in the face of opposition and the love of oneself.
If you’re a fan of historical literature, family drama, or just a great story this is a novel you should read. If you like just a little woo-woo with your big dose of reality you’ll also find what you’re looking for between the pages of this novel.