Friday, August 4, 2023

Q&A with Sara DiVello


Photo by Lisa Schaffer Photography


Sara DiVello is the author of the new true crime historical novel Broadway Butterfly. She is the founder and host of the Mystery and Thriller Mavens interview series. She lives in New York City and in Boston.


Q: You’ve noted that Broadway Butterfly was inspired by a visit to a historic castle near Philadelphia. At what point did you decide to write a novel based on the family who lived there?


A: Yes! I was fascinated by the ruins of Whitemarsh Hall, the once-great Stotesbury estate, and spent a few weeks learning everything I could about it—all of which was really cool, like the fact that it had 147 rooms, 28 bathrooms, 24 fireplaces, and a staff of 70 full-time gardeners to maintain the stunning grounds—but I also knew I didn’t want to write the history of a home, no matter how great it had been.


So I went back to my other project, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Whitemarsh Hall. I just had a feeling there was a story I was meant to tell. A few months later, it was still tugging at the edge of my awareness, so I dove back into my research and found a passing reference to how the estate had once been connected to a murder in 1923 and I knew immediately that this was my story.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: My research spanned nine years, and spanned the gamut. I interviewed police detectives and professors of forensics, gender studies, 1920s politics, and more.


I went to the New York City Public Library Milstein Microfilm Room and scrolled through rolls of microfilm, looking for articles about the case. I applied for research passes to the J.P. Morgan Library and Museum, the Columbia University Rare Books Collection, and the University of Pennsylvania Kislak Research Center, where the rare books are kept.


I got to see personal pictures of Julia Harpman, my lead crime reporter, which are kept at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential library, which was really special because I spent years trying to find a photo of her. I went through marriage, birth, and death records—both online and at the New York City Municipal Archives.

A lot of things surprised me. One was how hard it was to find records, and especially hard to find records about women. With online access, we take for granted how easy it is to find people now.


But back then, without social media, internet, or even social security numbers, as drivers licenses were just emerging and very few people had passports, it was actually really hard to find people…and much easier to get away with murder.


Q: What did you see as the right blend of fiction and history as you worked on the book?


A: For me, a Type-A, anxiety-riddled perfectionist, the right blend was as much fact as I could possibly find, and to only fill what I just simply could not find, even after nine years of obsessive attempts to run everything to ground. I even used direct pull quotes from newspapers as much as I could in dialogue.


But things like suspect interrogations at police headquarters, or private conversations between lawyers and clients, husbands and wives, editor and reporter, were just not going to be available.


So for those, I took all the research I had done, including learning the rhythms, patterns, and word choices of the characters and the time, and credibly try to fill in what likely could’ve happened.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says in part, “Her pulpy, over-the-top prose credibly evokes the era’s crime magazines, while her fidelity to the characters and the well-documented facts surrounding the unsolved murder give the story extra interest.” What do you think of that description?


A: My heart was in my throat the first time I read that review because Kirkus is such a legend in the writing and publishing community, and that sentence could’ve ended very differently.


But as it is, I’m completely thrilled and honored. I grew up watching old movies—Cary Grant was my first crush. I really wanted to capture to fun and fabulous effervescence of the Roaring Twenties.


Part of that is the incredible zest for life these real-life people had. Almost all of them did not enjoy the life expectancy that we have today, but wow did they pack a whole lot more living into the time they did have!


I felt like they had a lot of fun and I wanted readers to feel immersed in the era and have fun reading it, but fidelity to the characters—these incredible, real-life people—and the story itself, was my top priority. To have Kirkus acknowledge and honor that truly means the world to me.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I feel like there’s a lot of pressure to go faster-faster-faster in our world, and a lot of pressure to produce a book a year in our industry. Whether it’s fast food, fast fashion, or faster phones, everyone always wants more, faster.


And while I totally get that, I also want to acknowledge that humans are one of the few living things that don’t hibernate. As an urban gardener, I plant seedlings in spring, water, feed, and weed them for months, harvest fruit and veggies in summer, and put the plant beds to rest for the winter.


Rest is a sacred part of life, and an integral part of the creative process. In a world that glamorizes faster = better, I want to take some time to slow down. Even our computers have to power down and recharge sometimes.


So right now, I’m focusing on supporting the launch of this Butterfly, and then I plan to return to my chrysalis and take some time to rest, hibernate, and regenerate my creative energy.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I think this covers it all! Thank you so much for the opportunity!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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