Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Q&A with Faith Shearin




Faith Shearin is the author of the new young adult novel Lost River, 1918.  Her other books include the poetry collection Orpheus, Turning.


Q: What inspired you to write Lost River, 1918, and how did you create the Van Beest family?


A: The idea for Lost River, 1918 came to me during a blizzard when I was living in a cabin on top of North Mountain in West Virginia. It was a howling storm during which the snow drifted, and wind gusts formed ghostly apparitions, and I found myself daydreaming about a forest where the dead could return to the living.


It was several years later, in 2019 — a few months after my husband died suddenly of a heart attack — that I found the notes and a rough opening chapter of Lost River sitting on the desktop of my computer and I re-entered the world I had begun fashioning during that snowstorm. Disappearing into the caves and river and forest of Darkesville seemed to offer me a way to survive my grief.


The Van Beest family appeared to me in fragments. I found their last name on a gloomy Dutch painting that captured my imagination and the Van Beest parents occurred to me first: a midwife and mortician who were very much in love and whose professions regularly ushered them into the liminal spaces between life and death.


In a museum in Washington, D.C., I happened upon a series of portraits of young Victorian women posing with pet squirrels and, after this — in my mind — Speck began flicking his tail and he, in turn, led me to the shoulders of Anne and Frannie.


Q: I’m so sorry for the loss of your husband…


So, for the novel, did you need to do any research to write it, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: Much of what I knew about 1918 before I wrote the novel came from books about the Spanish Flu. I was also lucky enough to know my great grandparents — Irene and Henry — who were born at the turn of the 20th century. (They both lived to be nearly 100 years old and she liked to say Let’s get dressed up and go somewhere and he would reply We are dressed up and we are somewhere.)


From them I heard stories of early telephones and sanatoriums and Model Ts; they showed me tintypes of distant relations wearing tea-length dresses with large pockets. The thing that surprised me most when I read factual accounts of 1918 was that horses still pulled fire wagons in many rural areas.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I am new to novel writing — I spent the past 25 years as a poet and occasional short story writer — so I began with a formal plot outline. Many of my friends who are novelists warned me that the characters in novels — once you breathed life into them — have minds of their own and, of course, they were right. I abandoned my outline halfway through and just woke each morning to witness and transcribe the story.

Writing the ending of Lost River, 1918 was one of the most emotional and transformative events of my life. I felt, for a moment, as if the veil between the dead and the living fell away and all my family ghosts leaned close, offering love.


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


A: I hope readers are able to escape their own troubles and disappear into the drama of the Van Beest family; I hope they are able to enjoy a landscape where magic is possible and death is less ominous or final.


I used to ask my creative writing students to list their fears and obsessions and use these as the starter seeds for stories and poems. Death and disease were early childhood obsessions for me and I longed for books like Tuck Everlasting or Frankenstein, which contemplated mortality. I suppose I have written the story I wanted to read when I was 14.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a new book of poems in which it is always night and I have begun dreaming about a new YA novel whose narrator seems to be a noble but feeble roof rat.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I can be reached at and I am looking forward to visiting book groups, classrooms, and bookshops, and connecting with readers online.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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