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1. Do you believe that communication with the dead is possible?
2. Have you ever felt the presence of someone who was not physically present?
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The Long and the Short of It: Aurora is pleased to welcome Dianne Salerni, author of We Hear the Dead which has been optioned for film.
We Hear the Dead is a historical fiction novel that retells the true story of Maggie Fox, a young girl who, in 1848, accidentally invented “the séance” and founded spiritualism with a high-spirited prank. Maggie and her younger sister Kate caused an uproar in their small, upstate New York town when they revealed that they could communicate with the ghost of a murdered man they claimed was buried in the cellar. In actuality, it was only a joke designed to scare an unwelcome guest, but once the prank had snowballed into something bigger, neither Maggie nor Kate knew how to get out of it. When their older, divorced sister, Leah Fox Fish, realized people would pay money to communicate with dead relatives, she took custody of the two girls and set them up as spirit mediums in Rochester. Maggie and Kate became America’s first teenage celebrities – but fame came with a price. The girls were living a lie; they faced accusations of witchcraft, and when Maggie met the love of her life – the heroic and dashing explorer Elisha Kane -- her unconventional occupation stood in the way of their future happiness.
Dianne told me that she has no doubt that We Hear the Dead would still be sitting in the closet with the rest of her old writing if it hadn't been for her husband pushing her to get it to publication.
"He is my most ardent fan and supporter," she told me. "He was my first reader – and he was tough! He put up with me when I spent more time in the evenings with my 'dead friends' – ie: the Fox sisters and Elisha Kane – than with him, and he listens when I talk through plot problems, brainstorm future writing projects, or just bemoan about my insecurities. He has come to almost every author event I’ve had, stood behind me, and pushed me forward when I was too shy to speak. I absolutely could not do this without him!"
The book was originally self-published in 2007 under the title High Spirits. Dianne worked really hard to sell the book and sent out a lot of copies for review at her own expense. The more great reviews she received, the more Amazon featured her book in recommendations for readers. Two of those readers who checked it out were Kelly Barrales-Saylor, an editor at Sourcebooks, and Amy Green, producer and owner of One Eye Open Films. They checked out the book and, nearly simultaneously, made offers for the publishing rights and a film option on the book.
Most interviewers ask Dianne about Maggie and Kate Fox since they are the main focus of the book. However, Maggie's love interest, Elisha Kane, is also a fascinating individual. In his day, he was one of the most famous men in America.
"It’s an interesting testimony to American fickleness that he is now almost completely forgotten," Dianne commented.
He was also the character who gave Dianne the most trouble. On the surface, the bare facts of his life make him out to be a man of great heroics – and arrogance. She struggled when she reached the part of the novel where Kane was supposed to make his appearance, because she wasn't sure how she could make him an appealing romantic figure to her protagonist and to her readers.
"Clearly, the real Maggie had loved him desperately, but I just wasn’t seeing it. Elisha Kane caused me to lay the manuscript aside for over 6 months, while I tried to figure him out. In the end, he won me over with his own words. I read his book, Arctic Explorations, and I read his love letters to Maggie Fox. I discovered that this young man, the first born son of an aristocratic Philadelphia family, was ambitious, heroic, and – yes -- more than a bit arrogant. But he was also intelligent, good-humored, self-deprecating, and deeply, deeply in love with Maggie Fox. He fought it … struggled to overcome it … because in every respect she was totally unsuitable for his station. But he was unable to leave her. And once I understood this – I picked up the manuscript and didn’t stop feverishly writing until I reached the end."
When Dianne was a teenager, she read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, with two of her favorite authors being Roger Zelazny, and C.J. Cherryh.
"However, I also enjoyed trolling for treasures in my mother’s collection of gothic mysteries," Dianne said. "She had quite a stash in the basement from her own teenage years, and I became addicted to Mary Stewart and Mary Roberts Rinehart. I think those are the authors who most influence my writing today. As for my current reading, I still read science fiction, although not a lot of fantasy, and I’m still a real sucker for a good, gothic mystery."
Dianne was making up stories before she could write and continued writing all the way through elementary school and middle school, although sadly she threw out all the old notebooks in a fit of insecurity at some point. She still has a lot of stuff from high school forward and she admitted she's glad she has them.
"Even if some of the writing is fairly immature," she told me. "It’s good to see how far I’ve come!"
She advises any young writers who are reading this to never throw your old writing away!
"Seriously," she said, "the best advice I can give is to keep writing. Like anything, you get better with practice. Read and learn from the books that you love. Write and don’t be afraid to revise and change your work. Good ideas sometimes spring from mediocre ones, and long shots sometimes pay off! I grew up reading and writing science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. I never imagined that my first published novel would end up being historical fiction!"
Currently, Dianne has recently completed the screenplay adaption of We Hear the Dead for Amy Green and is waiting to hear if she needs to make any further revisions on it. She's also working on a historical mystery with supernatural elements and a modern paranormal short story.
"When I have time left over – which isn’t as often as I’d like -- I’m doing preliminary research and brainstorming for another historical mystery involving a unique cemetery in Catawissa, Pennsylvania," she shared with me.
Dianne writes mostly historical or paranormal fiction, so very little is based on her actual experiences as a child—although she is greatly influenced by her mother's gothic mysteries. She did, however, admit to basing characters on people she knew growing up.
"People’s basic characters are the same, no matter when they lived," she explained. "In fact I like to draw connections between the lives of teenagers in the past and the present. For example, when teenage spirit mediums Maggie and Kate Fox were elevated to celebrity status in the 1850’s, they faced some of the same temptations and stresses of modern teenage stars – Maggie’s romance was threatened by her fame as a spirit medium, and Kate developed a taste for alcohol."
I asked Dianne what she's currently reading herself.
"I recently finished Jekel Loves Hyde, which I really enjoyed, and I’ll soon be starting Bleeding Violet. In between, I’m reading Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities. It was a birthday gift from my sister-in-law, who once saw me reading Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons and thought I might enjoy this one, too. I would really like to find a slow-acting, deadly poison in a common Pennsylvania weed. It’s for a story. I swear."
When Dianne is writing her historical mysteries, she first searches for some true historical elements to serve as the nuggets of truth within the story: the mysterious death of a 19th century psychic investigator, a girl apparently possessed by the spirit of young suicide victim, a haunted mansion, an Indian massacre, a grave enclosed in a cage. Then she weaves the "based on truth" elements into a fictional story.
"At this point, there will be some form of outlining," she explained, "including choosing names for the characters. Once I have a general sense of where I’m going, I’ll try to draft a first chapter, just to get a feel for it. I may end up changing it repeatedly, but I’ll keep coming at it from different angles until the story takes off on its own."
Dianne told me that she enjoys the research when she finds what she's looking for. She's a full-time elementary school teacher and mom, so she doesn't have the opportunity to do a lot of traveling. By necessity most of her research is done in books and the internet.
"Luckily you can find almost anything online," she said. "Recently, I needed to figure out how people would have treated arsenic poisoning around the turn of the century. After extensive digging around, I turned up a 1904 cookbook on Google Books which had a guide in the back titled: “What to Do Before the Doctor Arrives.” Apparently, arsenic was so commonly used in household products like rat poison and wallpaper glue that an emergency home remedy was included in cookbooks! In case you were wondering, the recommended treatment of the time was: 1) salt water purge 2) egg whites to coat the stomach and 3) rust to bind with the arsenic. Yes, rust."
Finally I asked, "If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be and why?"
"I’d be at the Sandals Resort in the Bahamas, lying out by the pool with a book. Of course, I’d have reservations with my husband for snorkeling later in the afternoon, but there’s no hurry in the Bahamas, and if we were late, they would wait for us. In the evening, we would have dinner at one of the restaurants, and then saunter over to the lounge for some snooker. Snooker is a complicated British version of billiards played on a giant table 5 feet by 10 feet. (I know this because, being 5 feet tall, I once lay down on the floor beside the table to prove it.) On the way back to our hotel in the evening, I’d probably stop some other couples to take romantic pictures of me and my husband, and my husband would take a few extraneous pictures of bizarre Bahamian electrical junction boxes because he’s an engineer and he can’t help himself."