Spiritualism is real. That’s the driving conceit in Chicago author Mary Robinette Kowal’s latest historical fantasy novel, Ghost Talkers. The English army, mired in World War I, has formed the top-secret Spirit Corps, and a group of mediums now work on the front, taking final reports from the spirits of the recently deceased soldiers. When Ginger Stuyvesant, an American heiress and one of the best mediums in the Corp, finds out that there is a mole in the English army, she tries to get word to her fiancee, Captain Benjamin Harford, an intelligence officer. As it becomes clear that the Germans are directly targeting the Spirit Corps, Ginger finds her life—and the lives of her friends—in danger. Left to her own devices, she takes it upon herself to uncover the spy and protect the mediums at any cost.
Kowal’s re-imagining of this era in history is seamless. Ginger’s smart and savvy take-charge attitude cements her as a dynamic character you will not forget. I had the opportunity to sit down with Mary Robinette Kowal, fresh off her time at the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. In our conversation, I was lucky enough to get some secret intel of my own into the mind of Ginger and the spirit world.
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Christina Kloess: Ghost Talkers is actually a prequel novel, correct?
Mary Robinette Kowal: Yes, to a few short stories that take place in the 1920s after the war.
Christina Kloess: Where did the idea of mediums come from? Are you really interested in ghosts?
Mary Robinette Kowal: This is ironically the only thing I’ve written that came out of a dream. My memories of the dream are incredibly vague. It was just waking up with a sense of having been in The Thin Man movies except with ghosts and a medium who was solving murder mysteries by talking to dead people. I wrote a couple of short stories with Ginger and this (Ghost Talkers) was the backstory for the short stories. The more I researched the role of women in the First World War—the way spiritualism interacted with people’s grief—the more it seemed obvious that if spiritualism had worked as advertised, this is exactly the way things would have panned out.
Christina Kloess: Are you particularly interested in World War I or did that just fit with the spiritualism?
Mary Robinette Kowal: The spiritualism had started much earlier in the 1800s, but it went through this big surge right around WWI because so many people had unfinished business: loved ones went off to war and didn’t come back, particularly the Battle of the Somme, which was really the first one where the issues with the machine guns and outdated modes of battle became incredibly apparent. Soldiers would go over the top of the trench and they were the only person from their platoon who came back. It was just account after account of, “I don’t know why I lived.” With that, it just seems like a natural fit. Plus, again, the role of women in that war is almost completely overlooked.
Christina Kloess: How do you plot a spy novel? Did you know all of the twists and reveals from the start?
Mary Robinette Kowal: I borrowed a trick from Agatha Christie who said that she writes murder mysteries by seat of the pants. She didn’t outline. She just tried to make sure that everybody had motive and opportunity. She didn’t know who “did it” until the end. One of the other tricks you can do is have the viewpoint character have a mistaken belief that they present as fact, which I was able to do a lot with Ginger.
Christina Kloess: Ginger is always one step ahead of everything. For a book that is set in wartime, there were only a few instances where I felt like she was in real danger. Was that deliberate?
Mary Robinette Kowal: This is not the first time I’ve heard this. Every time someone says something along those lines, I look at it again, and I look at the times she’s threatened physically, and I wonder how much of it is we are used to seeing a woman as the damsel in distress. At no point do I put her there. If she were a male protagonist I wonder if people would have that same sense.
And maybe part of the reason Ginger ever seems to feel threatened is that she wants to die. She does not want to survive this. She doesn’t mind the danger as long as she can get Ben’s business resolved.
Christina Kloess: Did you have a character bio with Ginger’s life flushed out?
Mary Robinette Kowal: I don’t have a character bio with her specific life written out. I have a couple of things that I know about Ginger that didn’t make it into the book: Her mother died when she was very young. Her ghost stuck around doing unfinished business. Ginger was actually raised partly by her father and a nanny and by the ghost of her mother. She comes to mediumship very young and very solidly. Comes by it natural, as we say in the South.
I knew things like that. I know how she and Ben met. I know how he proposed to her. Some of those things are things that I sorted out while I was writing. One of the things I try to do is have a loose idea of the character’s backstory, but I don’t want to lock myself into anything that isn’t going to be necessary to the book, because I may need their history to be different later.
A lot of people think that point of view is just who the characters are and what they’re looking. But point of view is also influenced by where you’ve been in your past. Even just on a small scale, if you have a terrible commute, that’s going to affect everything that’s happening in the next scene of your life.
Christina Kloess: There’s a major reveal in the first part of the book. Did you feel restricted by that? Or did it open things up for you?
Mary Robinette Kowal: I actually don’t mind the people who guess who the traitor is. One of the things that is very interesting for me is the tension between what the reader knows is going to happen, and what the character knows is going to happen. It’s like when you’re watching the scary film and the characters are like, “I wonder what’s down this dark hole?” and you’re like “Don’t go down it.” We all know that something bad is going to happen. There is no mystery about that.
The question is, how is it going to manifest and what is it going to do to the character? That, for me, is much more interesting. In a lot of ways, what Ginger is dealing with is being in a situation where she’s constantly surrounded by death. I have a very good friend who just died from brain cancer. We’ve known. We have known for a couple of years that it was coming, and then as we got closer to it, it became more and more obvious that there was not going to be a coming back from this, which is, I think, what the wartime experience was.
Again, a lot of the first-person narratives that I read from WWI were people talking about how they had begun grieving their husbands and brothers the moment they put on the uniform. I think this is true in today with people who go into service and the people who stay home. There’s a part of them that has already braced themselves for the grief.
Christina Kloess: Are there any character you wish you could have spent more time with?
Mary Robinette Kowal: I am hopeful that I will get to write another book in this universe, and I want to spend more time with Colonel Patel.
Christina Kloess: Will there be a sequel to Ghost Talkers?
I very much hope so. My editor and I have talked about two other books but I have some other projects that we’re going to do first. I really hope I get to come back to this. There will almost certainly be more short stories because I like Ginger a lot. I don’t yet know if I’ll actually get to write the novels.
FICTION – FANTASY, HISTORICAL
Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal
Published August 16, 2016