In July 2014, The Whole Megillah interviewed debut novelist Anne Blankman, author of the YA historical drama, Prisoner of Night and Fog, the story of Gretchen Müller and her search for the truth of about her father’s death and Uncle Dolf Hitler. The sequel, Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke, was published in 2015 by the Balzer + Bray imprint of HarperCollins. Here now is a follow-up conversation with Anne Blankman:
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Congratulations on your success with both Prisoner of Night and Fog and Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke. Did you know when you were writing the first book that you’d have a sequel?
Anne Blankman (AB): I hoped there would be a sequel, but I wasn’t sure. When I was drafting Prisoner (originally titled Night’s Edge), I decided to play it safe and write a story that could stand on its own but with an open ending that left room for a possible second novel. After all, I reasoned that if no publisher wanted the first book they certainly wouldn’t be interested in a sequel. Fortunately, my wonderful editor, Kristin Rens, and the rest of the folks at Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins did want a second book, and I had the chance to wrap up Gretchen’s story the way I intended.
TWM: Please describe your research process.
AB: If I don’t know very much about a particular topic, first I’ll consult a work of juvenile nonfiction. This probably sounds strange, but children’s nonfiction books tend to be clear, concise, and hit the major points that you need to know. For example, I knew little about Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis when I was researching Prisoner, so I read Kathleen Krull’s excellent biography of Freud. (I also consulted with a psychology professor who teaches courses on abnormal psychology. Asking experts for help is a crucial part of my research process).
I also like to start with what I call “broad” books—books that present a sweeping view of a particular time period, event, or culture. Once I feel that I’ve amassed a good foundation of knowledge, I narrow my focus, reading biographies, memoirs, social histories, psychological profiles, and so forth. Old maps, newsreels, and recordings of speeches are also helpful. Diaries contain a treasure trove of details: what meals your characters might eat, how much things cost, and what commonplace smells your protagonist might encounter. Subject experts are wonderful sources of information. I often email professors out of the blue, explaining who I am and asking if they’d be willing to offer me some advice. The professors I’ve contacted have always been gracious and generous with their tips and time.
When I’m researching, I take detailed notes, making sure to include what source I used to find the information (I’ll even include the page number in case my publisher’s copy editing department needs to verify a certain detail). I love learning about history and I could continue researching forever, so I usually have to force myself to start writing when I know I’m ready.
TWM: Did you travel to Germany or England at all for your novels?
AB: I was lucky enough to study in York, England while I was in college, and I did lots of traveling then. When I drafted Prisoner, I had a new baby, so I wasn’t able to stray too far from home. 🙂 While I researched Traitor Angels, however, my UK publisher sent me to speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Scotland, and my husband and I decided to turn the engagement into a family vacation. We spent a couple of weeks traveling all over England and Scotland, which gave me the chance to visit several locations that appear in Traitor Angels.
Traveling to conduct research can be confusing, though. For example, one of the Berlin neighborhoods where Gretchen and Daniel hide out in Conspiracy was a poor, primarily Communist area in 1933. Today it’s a hip, upwardly mobile neighborhood with trendy restaurants and lots of museums!
TWM: Both books take interesting twists and turns. Do you consider plotting one of your strengths? Please describe how you devise your plots.
AB: Thank you! Before I begin drafting, I always write detailed outlines. They keep me on track and help me make sure that the mystery makes sense and one clue leads to the next.
TWM: What was the most challenging scene to write in Conspiracy?
AB: Any of the romantic scenes between Gretchen and Daniel! Whew! Those are hard. I want to write about kissing in fresh, interesting ways.
TWM: What was the most gratifying scene to write?
AB: The last one, hands down. By that point, I’d spent a few years with Gretchen living in my head, and it felt incredibly satisfying to bring her to the point I’d wanted her to reach.
TWM: Many agents say they won’t handle historical fiction. Please tell us how you and Adams Literary came together.
AB: Well, I was extremely lucky. Tracey Adams was my dream agent, and I found out that she was attending the annual Mid-Atlantic SCBWI Conference. (For readers who are unfamiliar with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, it’s a national organization that I cannot recommend highly enough.) Anyway, I met Tracey for a fifteen-minute critique of the first ten pages of my manuscript. Ours was the last session of the day, and I was so nervous that my hands were shaking! It was my first conference and my first critique, and I had no idea what to expect.
Tracey loved my writing sample, and we hit it off immediately. In fact, we ended up chatting for forty-five minutes! She requested an exclusive full submission and a week later I signed with her.
TWM: How long did it take to write Conspiracy? Do you have a critique group?
AB: I was drafting Conspiracy while finishing up revisions on Prisoner and researching my next novel, so it’s hard for me to pinpoint an exact length of time. It probably took me at least six months to conduct my preliminary research and another year to draft and polish Conspiracy. Some of my friends can churn out a manuscript in six weeks, which I cannot fathom!
Yes, I have a few critique partners. We read one another’s manuscripts early in the drafting process, and I’m always grateful for their fresh eyes.
TWM: What advice do you have for aspiring novelists and especially historical novelists?
AB: Write what you love. Don’t write for trends; don’t write to get published; and write the story that only you can tell.
If you want to write historical fiction, be sure that the time period you’ve chosen is one that fascinates you. You don’t have to love the era, but you’d better find it interesting because you’ll be learning a lot about it.
TWM: What’s next for you?
AB: My third novel, Traitor Angels, comes out on May 3rd, 2016 from Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. Traitor Angels is a YA romantic historical adventure set in 1660s England about a girl who uncovers an explosive secret hidden in John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost”—a secret that could rip apart the very fabric of society. If you’d like to learn more about the book, here’s a link to my website:http://www.anneblankman.com/traitor-angels.