Friday, February 1, 2013

Interview with Katherine Howe and review of The House of Velvet and Glass


Monday starts the month long discussion of The House of Velvet and Glass on the B& General Fiction forum with Katherine Howe visiting to chat, answer questions etc...
So to set you up for it please enjoy an interview she gave me.

Interview with Katherine Howe
The House of Velvet and Glass

Debbie - Katherine, welcome to the General Fiction forum.
Katherine - Thank you, Debbie. I’m so excited to be back on the boards at Barnes and Noble. Thanks for inviting me, and for taking the time to read and discuss The House of Velvet and Glass.

You are not new to the forums at B&N, tell us how your experience with FirstLook was.
Well, to begin with, it was terrifying. First Look, as you know, was a special program that allowed B&N readers to get advance copies of novels and discuss them before they’ve even been officially published. I was a first time novelist, so First Look was the first time that anyone would be reading my work other than my agent, publisher, friends, and husband.  I was worried about letting this weird story that had been living in my head for the past several years emerge into the harsh light of the real world.
In the end, my terror was unfounded, because I found the First Look community to be incredibly warm, welcoming, inquisitive, and engaged with what I was trying to do with The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. I loved being able to observe quietly while people read and responded to the book, and to then jump into the discussion during the author participation period. First Look really gave me the feeling that I was part of a community of fiction lovers, and I felt an enormous debt of gratitude to everyone who participated. That gratitude has since evolved into a sense of responsibility.

Tell us what inspired you to write The House of Velvet and Glass.
I’m particularly interested in time periods in which life for regular people is in rapid transition. I was attracted to the 1910s for a long time, in part because we have this specific, Gatsby-esque mental image of the 1920s, and we have a very particular conception of Victorian life, but I think we forget that those eras occurred right next to each other, and the same people lived through both. Sibyl Allston, the protagonist of The House of Velvet and Glass, has been brought up to live a cloistered bourgeois life in Victorian Boston, but when her family is shaken to the core by the sinking of Titanic, Sibyl finds herself standing at the cusp of the twentieth century, with all the changes that will entail. The story really concerns Sibyl’s struggle to figure out who she is going to be in this new era, when the rules of society, gender roles, family, and belief are all being completely rewritten in ways she never imagined.

When you were researching for the novel did anything really shock or surprise you?
Two things really shocked me while researching The House of Velvet and Glass. The first was how mainstream the Spiritualist movement was in the 1910s. I knew it was still practiced, but I didn’t realize that séances were advertised in the newspaper right alongside main line church services. Harry Houdini actually built a large part of his reputation by debunking famous mediums in the 1910s. When Sibyl Allston tries to reach her mother and sister through a medium, she is doing something completely normal for her time and place.  
The second surprise was how widespread opiate use was before the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914, which was part of the same Progressive reform movement as the law that resulted in Prohibition six years later. Before that, everyone used opiates, all the time, for everything. Opiates were in nerve tonic, opiates were in syrup for “feminine complaints.” Opiates were in teething medicine for babies! I was interested that a period of time so in thrall to technology –  automobiles, the telephone, the first movies, photography – would also have been in thrall to a substance that changes one’s perception of reality, and brings on vivid dreams.

It’s timely that the novel released on the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Was this planned?
The timing of the release wound up being a happy accident. The House of Velvet and Glass, like Downton Abbey (to my shock, by the way, when I first watched Downton Abbey! I felt like Julian Fellowes had been reading my email in secret) opens with the sinking of the Titanic, and concerns one family’s unique journey in the aftermath of the ultimate Progressive-era disaster. But I had started working on the novel back in 2007, and it was initially scheduled for publication in 2011. I didn’t even think about the fact that the Titanic centennial was coming up until my writing pace meant that the book would appear in 2012. And even then, it was a scramble to release it that week. If you come across any Advance Reader Copies of The House of Velvet and Glass, you will see that they say the book is scheduled for publication on May 1, 2012. It came out on April 12.

How was writing The House of Velvet and Glass different than, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane how was it the same?
In one sense, it was a little easier, since I already knew that I would be able to write a novel. When I started working on The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, I had no idea if I’d be able to do it or not. But with The House of Velvet and Glass, I knew what my method looked like, and had confidence that I could finish. In another sense, though, it was much more difficult. First, because I was traveling to support Physick Book so extensively that my time was hard to manage, but beyond that, the writing was difficult because I was holding myself to a higher standard. I felt responsible to the readers who had enjoyed Physick Book, and wanted very much to give them another story that they would enjoy.

Both your novels are Historical Fiction. What is it about this genre that speaks to you?
Maybe it’s because I’m trained as a historian, but I enjoy thinking my way into characters who live and operate under very different constraints from our own. I also enjoy learning how different periods of time fit together, and inform each other. Physick Book, for instance, is primarily about the Salem witch crisis of 1692, but spans all the way from the 1680s to the 1760s and into the 1990s, following women characters who have much in common, but are constrained differently by their time. The House of Velvet and Glass takes place in a time that looks very much like our own, with cars and subways and telephones and electric light, but which operated under a very different set of understandings and assumptions about how the world works. I’m interested in what it feels like to live in a different world from our own.

Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
I’m nearly done with a novel that I’m tentatively calling Conversion, about a teenage girl, Colleen Rowley, at a prep school in Danvers, Massachusetts who sees some of her popular classmates fall mysteriously ill. The school assures everyone that they’re on top of the cause, but Colleen starts to suspect that the school isn’t telling the truth, and goes looking for the answer in another incident of teenage girls falling mysteriously ill in Danvers 300 years in the past. It’s inspired by the real-life case of a “mystery illness” that befell some teenage girls in Le Roy, New York last spring. I’m keeping a public Pinterest board of brainstorms about the new book, called “What’s Happening to the Girls at St. Joan’s?” in case anyone wants to spy on me while I work.

Are you a reader?
Fiction or Non-Fiction?
Who is/are your favorite author(s)?
I like both fiction and non-fiction, though when I’m researching or drafting I tend to read things that aren’t very current. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Rudyard Kipling ghost stories, in part because I’m scheming up a ghost story of my own. My favorite author is Edith Wharton, her stories of Old New York. I find her observation of character and setting and her awareness of the subtle signals of class and social constraint to be masterful.
Katherine, thank you again for being a part of our little group. We all look forward to reading, discussing and chatting about the novel and all kinds of things.
It’s my pleasure! Thank you so much for having me, and I look forward to the discussion.
Also, I want to mention that I’m easily kept up with on Facebook, as Katherine Howe, on Twitter as @katherinebhowe, and on the web at
And I’ve finally learned how to have a newsletter, which will only announce new releases and nothing else, and will not share emails for any reason. Write to

Buy the hardback here, the paperback here and visit the author's website here.

 My review of The House of Velvet and Glass

The House of Velvet and Glass
Katherine Howe
Voice-Harper Collins
432 pages

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.
Ms. Howe thank you for another wonderful all expenses paid trip with your wonderful storytelling and imagination and I can’t wait for the next one.

1 comment:

  1. I was pleased to see that Howe has written another book. Her first, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, was quite a page turner (I finished it one night) and I'm glad to see that Howe has remained true to form in her second novel. The characters are well-drawn and intriguing, and the ending has a neat twist to it (I won't give it away here!). I also enjoyed the period detail. This book will suck you in and possibly become an forewarned!