When Willie arrives in Indian Territory, she knows only one thing: no one can find out who she really is. To escape a home she doesn't belong in anymore, she assumes the name of a former classmate and accepts a teaching job at the Cherokee Female Seminary.
Nothing prepares her for what she finds there. Her pupils are the daughters of the Cherokee elite—educated and more wealthy than she, and the school is cloaked in mystery. A student drowned in the river last year, and the girls whisper that she was killed by a jealous lover. Willie's room is the very room the dead girl slept in. The students say her spirit haunts it.
Willie doesn't believe in ghosts, but when strange things start happening at the school, she isn't sure anymore. She's also not sure what to make of a boy from the nearby boys' school who has taken an interest in her—his past is cloaked in secrets. Soon, even she has to admit that the revenant may be trying to tell her something. . .
And now a few questions with Sonia Gensler!
What first drew you to the gothic genre?
It probably started back in college when I took a Gothic literature course. I loved the themes and iconography of Gothic -- crumbling castles, dark forests, brooding heroes (& villains) with dark secrets, maidens in distress, etc. It was all wonderfully over-the-top. These days I prefer my Gothic to be a tad subtler and much more character-driven.
Do you believe in ghosts?
I mostly love their story potential. Spirits and ghosts fascinate me, and I think they always will. I’m definitely open to the possibility of their existence, but I don’t really have enough personal experience to say that I believe without a doubt. Even if someone proved they didn’t exist, I’d still love stories about them.
Have you ever wanted to take on another identity, as Willie does?
I've fantasized about it, but I'm not brazen enough to see it through like Willie. She really makes a mess of things, but I have to admire her for undertaking such a daring scheme.
How much did you draw on your own experiences as a high school teacher in writing about Willie?
I drew on early experiences -- particularly the awkward ones! No matter how much training and experience you gain in your certification program, the first year of teaching is full of panic moments. "What do I do?" "How am I supposed to grade this?" "How do I bend these kids to my will?" Heh.
Writing a convincing story set in Cherokee territory in the 1890s clearly took a LOT of research! Tell us about your research process.
There were many stops along my research road, so to speak. First I read Devon Mihesuah’s Cultivating the Rosebuds: The Education of Women at the Cherokee Female Seminary, 1851-1909. Then I visited the Oklahoma Historical Society and the Northeastern State University Archives. At the historical society, I found a collection of oral histories entitled Cherokee Female Seminary Years, edited by Maggie Culver Fry. The two books, along with the photographs, school catalogs, architectural plans, and other data obtained from the archives, gave me a pretty clear background on the history of the town and seminaries. Once I had a draft, I arranged to meet with Dr. Richard Allen, former English teacher and current policy analyst for the Cherokee Nation. He kindly agreed to read the manuscript and offered valuable insights on historical context and characterization.
What was the most surprising thing you learnt while researching THE REVENANT?
The most surprising thing might have been the diversity in the student population. From the start, the school accepted students with as little as 1/128 Cherokee blood. (I am 1/64, so I could have qualified by blood quantum.) Once the school began to accept rural and indigent children in the 1880s, the student body became quite socioeconomically diverse. For story purposes, all this translated into conflict and a potential for growth among the characters.
Did you do a lot of planning in writing THE REVENANT, or did you discover the story along the way?
I did a lot of planning and outlining. This was before I had Scrivener, so I mapped out scenes on note cards and arranged them on the floor. (I’ve never been one to have a tidy office.) Once I started drafting, however, I often diverged from the outline. The main thing for me is to have a plan for where I’m going, even if I don’t rigidly stick to it.
What was your favourite scene to write in THE REVENANT?
Hmmm . . . not sure I can pick just one. I loved writing the romantic scenes. (Yes, I have a crush on my own leading man.) I also had a great time writing the first séance scene. Actually, all of the Willie and Olivia scenes were a pleasure to write.
What were your biggest challenges in writing THE REVENANT?
Drafting is always the hardest part for me in any project. The blank page can be terrifying.
Story-wise, the biggest challenge was balancing character development and plot pacing. Research-wise, there was the constant concern of accurately and sensitively portraying the Cherokee community in that place and time.
Is there anything about the publishing process you wish you could have known beforehand?
This is a tough one. In some ways, I'm glad I didn't know much. I'd like to return to that innocence. :)
However, it might have been helpful had someone reminded me that the waiting, wondering, and nail-biting never really end. There's never going to be a moment when you sit back with a contented sigh and think, "I've made it. I'm totally set." I'm just a beginner in this game, but I'm starting to grasp that it's about the ongoing process rather than a specific end result.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Never stop reading. Never stop learning about the craft. Have fun with it. Write what you would love to read. Don't compare your writing journey to that of others. (I confess to struggling quite a bit with the last one.)
Five real fast:
If you could only live off one food, what would it be? Bread. I'm addicted to it. Carbs will be my downfall.
Cats or dogs? Cats! I admire their powerful sense of self-worth. And their sweet, fuzzy faces.
Your house is on fire and you can only rescue one thing. What do you save? My cat, of course. :)
Best book you've read recently? CHIME, by Frannie Billingsley. Man, she's talented!
If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would you go? Right now I'd probably go to Iceland because it's So. Freaking. Hot. in Oklahoma. I long for sweater and boot weather!