Thursday, June 6, 2024

Q&A with John Copenhaver




John Copenhaver is the author of the new novel Hall of Mirrors, a sequel to his novel The Savage Kind. He teaches fiction writing and literature at Virginia Commonwealth University, and he lives in Richmond, Virginia.


Q: Hall of Mirrors is the second in a trilogy--did you know from the start that you'd be returning to these characters?


A: While writing The Savage Kind, the first book in the series, I realized I had more to say about my central characters, Philippa Watson and Judy Peabody (now Judy Nightingale).


I envisioned three books with distinct plots but woven together with Philippa’s and Judy’s growth from teenagers to young women to, finally, mature women in the third book.


I also wanted to trace the evolution of their historical milieu, a la Mad Men. How did the world change for queer women during the 1950s? For men as well? I introduce a significant new character in Hall of Mirrors, Lionel Kane, who is Black and gay.


Before The Savage Kind was published, I completed detailed outlines of Hall of Mirrors and the final novel. I wanted to make sure the books fit together like puzzle pieces.

Q: What inspired the plot of Hall of Mirrors?


A: The mid-century mystery authors Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Wheeler partnered to write under the pseudonym Patrick Quentin, as well as Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge. I’ve always been curious about writing partners.


I’ve also always been interested in writers who create fake or misleading public identities and how enraged people get when they discover it is an invention.


In this case, though, I wanted to explore the issue from the standpoint of necessity. My writing team, Roger Raymond and Lionel Kane, an interracial couple, must hide behind a white heterosexual persona to publish and sell books. The novel takes place in the 1950s, a time of extreme racism and homophobia in our country.


When this facade is invaded by Judy’s and Philippa’s well-intentioned meddling, the consequences are dire. What does it mean to be yourself openly? We forget how high the stakes were not that long ago.


Q: The Library Journal review of the book said, “The second in the Nightingale trilogy, following The Savage Kind, is a mystery, but the historical elements add complexity as the author explores issues of passing as straight or White, concealing an identity at a time of physical and emotional violence toward LGBTQIA+ and Black people.” What do you think of that description?


A: They gave me a starred review, so what’s not to love? Seriously, it’s an insightful summary because, while my book is definitely a mystery, there’s a lot more going on.


I like to use a mystery plot as a kind of skeleton, a vehicle to drive the narrative, but my aim is to offer readers morally and culturally complex characters. Come for the plot, stay for the characters. After all, the true mystery is the mystery of character. 


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the novel?


A: Being out, being yourself, is a risk. It’s risky now, but nothing like in the 1950s when the federal government and popular sentiment were overtly aligned against marginalized communities. It’s a risk worth taking, but there’s a cost.


Also, for many who are visibly diverse, hiding in the closet was never an option; they had no choice but to pay the price. These were horrible times, and we need to remember them; after all, history can repeat itself. We need to guard against slipping into the past.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m writing a contemporary ghost story about the troubling power of nostalgia. In my novel, yearning for the past brings about destructive supernatural forces in a small town in Virginia. I’m also gearing up to write the third book in my Nightingale trilogy, set in 1963.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Find me at my website,, or on social media. I love interacting with readers!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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