By Jennifer M. Brown
A lonely child, a manipulative villain, and resourceful orphans take center stage in Newbery-Award winner Laura Amy Schlitz’s spellbinding new novel, Splendors and Glooms (Candlewick Press, August 2012, Gr 4 Up). Clara Wintermute lives in a home shrouded in mourning. For her 12th birthday, the girl begs her parents to host a puppet show with “The Phenomenal Professor Grisini,” whose marionettes seem to float on air.
The fates of Clara, Grisini, his two child assistants—Parsefall and Lizzie Rose—and a witch named Cassandra entwine in terrifying ways after Clara disappears. Schlitz talks about her novel and considers the sources of the chillingly claustrophobic, Dickensian world she created.
This story is a real departure for you—how did you come to write it?
Whenever I finish a book, I’m sure I’ll never write another [for lack of ideas]. So, I thought, “I should write from my obsessions. What do I love?” The answer was Charles Dickens, and marionettes. Once those two interests converged in my mind, an image of a marionette in a white dress appeared to me. I thought of Clara’s captivity/confinement and imagined the two other children. I decided I would set the story in the time of Dickens.
Did you set out to write a Gothic tale? Are you a big fan of the genre?
My teen years were the heyday of Gothic novels and Victoria Holt. I also enjoy [the Victorian novelist], Wilkie Collins—he’s great fun. I think that streak of the supernatural that runs through Dickens—and the way he describes things—made its way into the book.…I was trying to apprentice myself to Dickens, but ended up writing like Laura Schlitz.
Tell me about your character Cassandra, her Phoenix-stone, and its curse.
For a long time, I’d been interested in writing a story set in Venice about a convent girl who has a precious jewel. Only a few of her dearest friends would know where it was. [I wondered,] how would its theft affect her relationships with these people?
When I started to write that story into this one, the point-of-view changed. I’d always thought of the story as told by the owner of the jewel, but suddenly the perspective shifted to that of the thief. In fact, the girl who has her treasure stolen is okay, but the thief is not.
The powerful red fire opal has been in Cassandra’s possession for a long time, but she must get rid of it or she’ll be burned alive….Opals are so beautiful, but bad luck, and Cassandra’s heart is burning. The opal is the externalization of her love and desire and frustration.
There were so many different ways I tried to put this plot together. I’m so relieved every time someone tells me it read fast, because it wrote slow.
The feeling of claustrophobia is pervasive in Splendors and Glooms; Grisini’s flat and the Wintermute home feel oppressive, as does the mausoleum where Dr. Wintermute waits for word from Clara’s alleged kidnapper.
I was able to visualize the Wintermute home from the beginning; it would be opulent, but filled with death masks and portraits of Clara’s deceased siblings. That’s part of the girl’s captivity. Clara’s external circumstance becomes a metaphor for her internal circumstance.
The roots of this story go back very, very far. My grandmother used to tell me a terrifying story about a little girl who…had been buried alive—a little girl my age. The story haunted me. I also have a vivid memory of a nightmare I had when I was four-years-old; there was a witch outside my window, crying in the boxwood bushes. Why I remember that dream I don’t know. But the horror of my grandmother’s tale and the witch’s grief have both stayed with me and worked their way into this story.
Eds. note: Cliffhanger chapter endings make this a great read-aloud choice.
Jennifer M. Brown is the children’s editor for Shelf Awareness, a daily enewsletter for the publishing trade. Her website Twenty by Jenny recommends titles to help parents build their child’s library one book at a time.
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