From late May through Labor Day, our smallish Dutch Colonial suddenly gains another full room because the weather’s warm enough to sit/write/eat/live on the screened porch. My absolute favorite thing to do on the porch in summer is read a good book (preferably accompanied by a couple of homemade cookies and a mug of tea).
This year my first porch book was Sarah DeFord Williams’ Palace Beautiful, published just last month. Palace Beautiful is both an old-fashioned kids-find-a-journal-in-the-attic mystery and an extremely well-done historical novel about the 1918 flu epidemic, appropriate for middle grades right on up to older adults who lost parents or older siblings to the illness.
As it happens, a couple of years ago I read a nonfiction book on the same topic (The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry), which noted that there is little literary evidence of the epidemic that began in 1918. There’s plenty about WWI and the Roaring 20’s, but the epidemic itself sank without a trace, perhaps because it was too painful to remember for either publishers or the reading public. Hardly a family in America escaped losing a family member to “the deadliest plague in history in history.” Sarah’s book is a splendid contribution to the literary record.
From what I remember of the other book, everything about the flu in Palace Beautiful is spot on, and if I hadn’t read Barry first, Sarah’s research would have been 100% invisible to me because she does such a good job of integrating the facts of the epidemic with several other plot lines. It’s told from the perspective of 13-year-old Sadie Evelyn Brooks, who finds a journal in the attic of the big old home her family has just moved to in Salt Lake City. The journal had been written 60 years earlier by a girl Sadie’s age who may or may not have survived the epidemic.
The copy I read is a library edition, but I’m going to buy one to keep on my Shelf of Inspiration with other MG and YA books whose authors’ journeys to publication I have followed online over the past few years.
Sarah graciously agreed to talk about the process of researching this topic and her journey to publication.
1. How did you become interested in the 1918 flu epidemic?
One day about four years ago, my husband mentioned the 1918 flu epidemic. I was shocked because I’d never heard of it and I didn’t know how I could miss something like that. Then he told me his great-grandma died of it. I had his aunt take me to her grave (at the same cemetery in the book). Something in me just had to know what happened and how, for the most part, it was forgotten.
2. Where did you begin your research, and then where did you go from there?
Palace Beautiful came to be from bits and pieces of this and that. The story really came a little at a time from all different directions, like waking up from a dream. The “origin” stories came from a short story I wrote for my writers group. For research, I went to the library and looked up, on microfilm, every single Deseret News from the flu epidemic here in Salt Lake City. It was about a year and a half ‘s worth of papers.
It was interesting because after a while, they had a little box in the corner of the paper with death counts, new quarantines and new cases for the previous day. In the beginning, it was near the first pages, and as the flu wore on, it was near the back of the paper. It gave me a graphable, almost mathematical representation of just how the flu took its course here in our city. The hardest part to research was when I had to learn exactly how people died of the flu and how it wiped out whole families in the course of an afternoon. It was ghastly! I started getting an image in my head of the flu as a wisp of black smoke fingers that crept silently into the secret cracks of people’s houses, snuffed out life, and retreated like it was never there. It was fascinating and very creepy.
3. Did anything you discover change the course of the story for you?
I discovered that the people of Salt Lake City loved and cared for each other as individuals, families and communities. People would care for other people even if it put their own lives in danger. One reason the flu lasted for so long here, I believe, was the sense of community. People would go out and help each other, then accidentally spread the flu and the cycle went on and on. I thought it showed the strength of character of our city. I imagine there were many non-fictional versions of Mrs. Phelps [a character in the book] who went where the help was needed, no matter the cost. I gained a new love for my city and the people in it.
4. What note-taking process do you use? File cards? Notebooks? Laptop?
I am a very organized person in my regular life, but in my writing life, I am much less so. I often write things on scraps of paper and stuff them in a notebook or file to be used later. For Palace Beautiful, I had a three- or four-layered paper tray. I would stuff papers pertaining to one part of the story on one level and another part on another level. I guess you could say it was an organized mess. I always write on a laptop when I’m doing my actual writing. I have VERY bad handwriting and I also can’t spell AT ALL, so writing on Word on the computer is a necessity for me.
5. What information did you find in unexpected locations?
I think the strangest thing was that there wasn’t that much information about the 1918 flu at the time. Since then, it has come more out, but really, considering the scope of the epidemic–it literally affected the majority of humanity–there was surprisingly little to find. I even went to church archives and looked up old journals of the day. There would be a mention here and there, but I really had to dig for each bit of information I received.
6. It was so refreshing to read a YA novel not set on the East Coast! How was the epidemic different in Salt Lake City than elsewhere in the country?
Like I said before, there was, and still is a very strong sense of community here, and that is why we got hit so much harder than a lot of places. I set the book here because I was here. I could research easier. I could drive around the neighborhood where it took place. I could go to the cemetery. I could just smell the air and be a part of the place. Sense of place is very important to me and I have to set a book where my feet have been so I can make it more grounded and real.
7. You not only had to research the world of 1918, you had to research the mid-1980s because that’s when the main character lives (for reasons I quickly figured out as an author, but can’t go into because it would be a spoiler!) What was that like?
It was a bit hard because I am not from Utah. I lived here for a few years in my early twenties, then we moved back here six years ago. I didn’t know what it was like in the 80s here because I didn’t live here then. Fortunately, I set it in a neighborhood that hasn’t really changed in 100 plus years. I did have to learn some about the differences between then and now, but there were surprisingly few. Yes, the main reason I set it in the 80s is the spoiler you allude to. 🙂
One nice side effect is that Sadie would be about my age. She would be about a year older than me, and I do know what it was like to be a kid in the 80s. It was kind of fun to think back and remember. I didn’t really want the book to be about the 80s and all that, so I tried to only do the bare minimum so it wouldn’t distract from the real story. People go through hard times, and kids are strong and get though it no matter the decade. I wanted that to come out more than I wanted the actual decade to come out.
8. What was the timeline from: starting the novel to querying, from querying to getting an agent, from being agented to getting an offer, from getting the offer to actually getting the contract, from the contract to publication?
It took a long time. I started writing novels in the summer of 2004. I had always been writing, but that is when I suddenly could write novels–and it was sudden–and so exciting to me!
In February 2006, when I had two books (that will not be published) under my belt, and I was two months away from starting Palace Beautiful, I started querying agents with the second book I wrote. I queried and queried and queried. About a year and a half later, agent Erin Murphy contacted me on Verla Kay’s Blueboards and asked to see what I was writing. I sent it to her. She was the first agent to read Palace Beautiful. She and I worked on it for a year, then I officially signed with her.
After I signed, I figured it would take a long time to sell the book, so I went back to school. Well, three weeks into school, we put the book out there and suddenly all the big houses jumped on it. I was shocked! It went to auction during French Class. It came out a year and a half later. Basically, it took two and a half years to get an agent (and 64 rejections), and four years (almost to the day) from when I started Palace Beautiful to when it reached the shelves.
Thanks so much for letting me visit today. It is such a pleasure! Good luck to you on your own journey! Sarah DeFord Williams
Thank you, Sarah, for being such a great interviewee! For more about Sarah and her writing, visit her website at http://sarahdefordwilliams.com/#.
© 2010 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go