Spiritualism, Trance Speaking, and the “Legacy of the American Confidence Man”: An Interview With Adrian Van Young


We’ve been admirers of Adrian Van Young‘s fiction since we first encountered his debut collection, The Man Who Noticed Everything. This year has seen the release of his first novel, Shadows in Summerland, which was inspired by the real-life history of 19th-century spirit photographer William Mumler. (We ran an excerpt from it last year.) Told via multiple narrators, the novel follows the convergence of the lives of Mumler, trance speaker Fanny Conant, and a young woman named Hannah in Boston on the eve of the Civil War. I spoke with Van Young about this novel, his interest in spiritualism, and his forthcoming projects.

You had a piece about spiritualism in The Believer a few years agowhat first drew you to that as a subject? When you went in to research it, did you already also have this novel in mind?

I definitely did. The reason that I pitched that piece to The Believer was because I happened to be doing all this research on 19th-century spiritualism anyway. I was on the verge of going on a research trip to this town called Lily Dale–the town that talks to the dead–in the northwestern quadrant of New York State, which the article is actually about. I had pitched it to Heidi Julavits, I believe, who was my editor on that piece. They said yes, and it was published. It was a convenient side project; it was also almost a secret motivator for me to continue work on the novel, which I had just begun to conceive of.

You tell the novel using multiple first-person narrators. How did you conceive that as the structure for it?

I have to admit, I read a novel a couple of years ago that I was so taken with, in particular by its use of voice in the first person, and by its use of a very fragmented, diverse, and very vignette-like first person technique, that I sort of cribbed from it a little bit. That book was Canaan’s Tongue by John Wray. I read that book and was so impressed with it, and the effects that he created with that kaleidoscopic panorama of voices. It was a similar story, in a way, to the one I was telling, and I wondered if it would be well-served by that same technique.

That said, there were times when I was writing the book when I became very self-conscious of how influenced I was by that novel while I was writing this one. I made a lot of conscious decisions to stray away from any possible similarities. Which I think I did in the end. It was something that initially gave me the idea. I was also, very much, thinking of As I Lay Dying when I wrote the novel. And, to a lesser extent, Beloved by Toni Morrison, which while it was not written in different first-person POVs, it takes on a lot of different bizarre POVs and shifts through time in an interesting way. Those were the influences.

The reason that I conceived of the novel that way was because… One of the first things I thought of in the novel was the spirit chorus, and I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if that was one chorus in a larger chorus of voices that you could hear from? Each of those voices standing in for some mainstay, historically, from the 19th century spiritualist movement. That was the idea behind it.

Was there one specific thing that drew you to the spiritualist movement as a setting?

In 2005, there was an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “Photography and the Occult.” It was a spirit photography exhibit, and it was around Halloween. I saw William Mumler’s photographs in the exhibit, and I read the story of his trial for fraud and larceny, and his acquittal. The acquittal was the thing that really stuck in my mind. I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to write a revisionist historical novel about him that lifted up the prospect that he was, in fact, somehow involved with the paranormal. In way, to write the weird or supernatural historical novel that I ended up writing.

In terms of this novel’s relationship to actual events, how much leeway did you give yourself in terms of deviating from history?

I gave myself a lot of leeway. The only life trajectory which is even minutely hewed to throughout the novel is Mumler’s. And even that trajectory has many deviations. The lives of arguably the more principal characters, Hannah Mumler and Fanny Conant, the trance speaker, and certainly of William Guey, the religious zealot–those were all people about whom there’s very little in the historical record. Probably out of all three of them, there’s the most about Fanny Conant. About Hannah Mumler, there’s next to nothing. That was another thing that intrigued me: that negative historical space that I could fill in with whatever I wanted. Then it became my task to surmise their various relationships. Hannah Mumler and Fanny Conant had no romantic relationship; I have no idea to what extent Mumler and Hannah’s marriage was like. For all I know, it was a very warm, supportive marriage–though something leads me to doubt that. He called her “the perfect battery,” which is a direct quote from his ultra-self-serving testimonial about his career in spirit photography.

So the answer is yes. I felt free to divert quite a bit from the historical record. But those things that I did try to be fairly ironclad on were the historical details surrounding spiritualism and spirit photography. Which I’m sure I screwed up a little bit, but by and large I think that stuff was pretty ironclad.

One of the elements of the novel that stood out the most to me was the extent to which Boston society was taken with the occult, even with some fairly well-established methods of debunking it. Do you think that’s something specific to that time and place, or something that transcends them? Is there anything you’d see as a modern-day equivalent to that?

I think that, at the time, what people were seeking from spiritualism was entirely valid. I found myself remarkably non-judgmental of the people who sought out mediums and trance speakers in the 19th century. If I had lost a child or lost a parent or somebody close to me, who’s to say what I would or wouldn’t do to try to maintain contact with them. To me, over a hundred years later, what those people were seeking that the mediums and trance speakers provided–there was something very universal and timeless and innately timeless about that. It’s what drew me into the project from an emotional standpoint. It is very understandable to me, in spire of all of the debunking that was going on and all of the debunking methods that were available to people.

One parallel that I saw was that when I was in the middle of the novel, there was the financial collapse. And I researched some of the Ponzi schemes that were used during the financial collapse, in particular Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and used some of that in the novel. That’s probably the nearest equivalent; it still goes on today. I know that we have supposedly reformed our ways on Wall Street, but I think that there’s a lot of reform that has yet to happen.

The political rhetoric that’s floating around right now in the 2016 campaign–I can’t help but connect a lot of it with my characters. In particular, Donald Trump and William Mumler are kind of two of a kind. They both fulfill this legacy of the American confidence man, which is a vicious cycle that seems to never end.

There are some questions as to Mumler’s reliability as a narrator that periodically come up. What was your experience of writing from the perspective of a character like that–both in terms of that and in terms of his talents?

When I first conceived of Mumler, I wrote him as a much more unreliable narrator. I almost wrote him in this Humbert Humbert vein, and then after the first draft I thought, “This is too much like Humbert Humbert.” And also, what does he have to hide, in a way? I was interested in creating a reliable unreliable narrator, if that makes sense. If you actually look at his testimony over the course of the novel, he actually doesn’t lie about that much. But the things that he does lie about are so significant, and some of them are so reprehensible in their implications, that he becomes unreliable perhaps earlier–but objectively, he’s actually quite reliable. That was something that I was interested in looking at: what happens when you think you’re hearing a lie from somebody who’s telling the truth, but it’s actually a lie of another sort? I wanted him to be doubly, or perhaps that’s triply, unreliable. That was something that I went into the book consciously thinking about.

The other thing was that I was thinking that each unreliable narrator has their own brand of unreliability. Humbert Humbert is trying to draw you into his twisted bias regarding his relationship with Lolita, to use the most famous example. Spider, from Spider by Patrick McGrath, is insane and he can’t remember large chunks of his life. I was trying to think of what unique thing makes Mumler unreliable. What I came up with was the fact that he gives the illusion of having nothing to hide, so he diverts your attention from what he is in fact hiding.

His relationship to his father is one of the few places where I found him very sympathetic. Elsewhere in the novel…less so.

I found it so interesting, in terms of people who have read the novel so far, how sympathetic they find him. I had meant for him to be an entertaining or amusing character, but not necessarily sympathetic. I’m gratified to find that people see humanity in him, in spite of some of the things that he’s done.

For all that the novel is mostly historical, you also introduce some supernatural elements, largely around Hannah. How did you keep that balance, where there are paranormal elements without them overwhelming the rest of the book, but keeping them pretty clearly paranormal?

When I began to write the book, I had always intended there to be paranormal events in the book, and I had always intended for the reader to wonder whether or not they were actually paranormal, which is a tension that arises later in the book. In the end, after drafting it the second time, I started to realize that the supernatural, in many ways, has no particular bearing on the events of the novel. And that went from being a problem in my mind to something that I strove for–to make the supernatural this patina that hangs over the narrative, but to have the novel largely be about the relationship and the intrigue among these six individuals. It went from something I was concerned about to being something that I strove to do. I don’t want to go too far into this, but the way that the afterlife is portrayed in the novel, it would in fact be to contradict the character of that afterlife to have the ghosts become too involved in the narrative.

Without getting too spoilery, there’s a brief reference to other members of Hannah’s family having abilities similar to hers. Is that something that you can see yourself returning to, either in short stories or another novel?

I think that, perhaps–for now, anyway–I may be somewhat done with the 19th century and 19th century occult stuff. I just recently wrote another short story collection, and there are a couple of stories in there that hew vaguely along those lines, though much of it takes place in the modern day. And I just started a new novel, which is set completely in the modern day, and has, as far as I know now, no supernatural element at all. It’s something that I may return to one day. I’ve always been screwing around with the idea of writing a supernaturally-inflected novel about the Polish writer Bruno Schulz. And if I ever did that, I would probably bring in a supernatural element. But for now, I think I’m done.

It’s funny that you say that–right now, my phone is set on top of a stack of books, and two books separate it from The Street of Crocodiles.

I love that book.

Your first collection came out a few years ago. Was there any overlap between writing those stories and writing this novel, or were those largely done before starting work on this?

The first drafts of those stories were all written before I began work on the spirtualism book. I had been researching the spiritualism book before writing the last two stories in that collection. I think that I did go back and revise many of them, some of them wholesale–I rewrote them from the ground up as I was writing Shadows in Summerland. I remember that I took a five-month break in writing to revise that collection before it was published.

Was there anything about Shadows in Summerland that surprised you as you were writing it, or that went differently from how you’d expected?

Two characters I had a lot of trouble marshaling to hand were Guay, the religious fanatic, and Bill Christian, who’s the brothel enforcer who becomes Mumler’s right-hand man. You can think of Guay as his left-hand man and Bill Christian as his right-hand man, perhaps. They’re two characters who surprised me in some ways. Guay was originally a much larger part of the narrative, and he had a lot more POV sections that were entirely longer, until a reader encountered that first draft; their advice was that a little of him goes a long way, so he should be pared back a lot. I think that was great advice. He can be somewhat overwhelming as a voice. Bill Christian, who’s one of the only black characters in the novel, was also interesting. When I began the novel, I knew that I wanted to have a black character, and I wanted to have him in that role. But as I was writing the novel, because I’m very interested in race and American history in regards to race, at a certain point I realized that he was becoming the very thing that I didn’t want him to become–he was a former slave, and this kind of Jack Fetchit to Mumler for much of the first draft. And I was made uncomfortable by the way that I depicted him–I thought, “I didn’t intend that at all; how did this wash up?” I don’t want to spoil anything, but I ended up attempting to use that initial conception of him to provoke a twist that happens later in the book. I allowed my own short-sightedness to work for me, in some ways, concerning that character.

So those were two characters who surprised me in terms of how they turned out. Fanny and Hannah, who I consider to be the main characters–Fanny was my favorite character. I love her so much. In a way, I’m in love with Fanny Conant in spite of her many pitfalls. She was somebody who I had conceived of from the moment of mapping out the book, and her character stayed more or less the same throughout the entire process, which was interesting to me, though it didn’t provoke any particular surprises.

You recently worked on a piece that was serialized online. How did you challenge yourself while writing that?

The online serial was a noir murder mystery about present-day New Orleans, and it revolved around another creepy historical photographer, E.J. Bellocq, who was a photographer in New Orleans at the turn of the century. That was an interesting process: I was writing on a deadline every week, although I tried to stay away by one or two segments. I had to scale back a lot of the poetic fervor which I’m inclined to exercise when I write short fiction. I also had to abide by my readers’ suggestions regarding the plot. Though sneakily, I tried to make the plot so labyrinthine and complex–that’s probably giving myself too much credit–or too detail-oriented for them to suggest much. So I ended up writing it the way I wanted to write it, in spite of the open-source nature of the project.

It did force me to compress my thoughts, and it also forced me to be much more plot-oriented, which is something that has been kind of unsung in my writing career so far, that I’ve been trying to get more in touch with.

Have you found that that’s had any effect on the way that you’ve written since then?

Yes, absolutely. Right now I’m writing another murder mystery noir right now, which is set in the black metal scene in present-day New Orleans. I’m about fifty pages into it, and I am very much in tune with the plot and the relationships of the characters bouncing off of each other. Their entropy is the center of the book, rather than language, which I was much more interested in when I was writing Shadows in Summerland, and certainly when I was writing my first collection.

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