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Five questions for Julie Berry

Photo: Bruce Lucier

Photo: Bruce Lucier

Julie Berry’s 2013 book All the Truth That’s In Me (Viking, 14 years and up) is a dark, claustrophobic — and beautiful — novel set seemingly out of time and narrated (in her own head) by a young woman whose tongue was cut out by a captor she escaped. The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place (Roaring Brook, 11–14 years) could not be more different in tone or content. A Victorian-set, girls’-school, murder-mystery farce with seven distinct young-lady main characters (with names such as Dour Elinor, Stout Alice, and Smooth Kitty), the book is light as air (well, except for all that murder).

1. This book is so different from All the Truth That’s In Me. Where did it come from?

JB: In some sense, from a lifelong love of Agatha Christie mysteries and a deep infatuation with farcical plays and films such as The Importance of Being Earnest and Arsenic and Old Lace. The real catalyst, though, was an audio lecture by Professor John Sutherland, who contrasted the regiments of soldiers in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with the large number of unmarried young ladies in the novel. He called them a “regiment of maidens.” It was a light-bulb moment for me. I knew I needed to write about a regiment of innocent maidens who were, perhaps, not so innocent. The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place was the almost immediate result.

2. How did you keep all the voices straight? Did the girls “talk” to you as you were writing?

JB: It is a handful of voices to keep track of, to be sure, but they were very distinct in my mind. I grew up in a family of seven children so, to borrow from the title of Holly Goldberg Sloan’s beautiful book, I was well accustomed to “counting by sevens.” My five sisters and one brother and I are very different people, with lots of practice living, teasing, eating, working, squabbling, and angling for the last molasses cookie, all in one space. It felt natural to me to let my seven pupils talk to one another, and to me. Their conversations took more playful, naughty, and intriguing directions than I could have planned for them if I were in charge.

berry_scandalous sisterhood of prickwillow place3. Which came first: the characters’ names or their descriptors? (My favorite is “Disgraceful Mary Jane.”)

JB: Me too! She is always stealing the scene. She was tons of fun to write.

Both the girls’ names and their monikers appeared hand in hand from the very first page of writing. That same day when I had my “regiment of maidens” light-bulb moment, I sat down and wrote the first scene. When Disgraceful Mary Jane first appeared, she was just that: Disgraceful Mary Jane. It was not a device I had ever used before, but it felt right, so I ran with it. As I explored it more, it felt Victorian to me, and fitting for my little farce, since farces are all about exaggerating, and thus challenging, stereotypes.

4. Did you do a lot of research about the time period?

JB: Oh, for a Tardis! What I could do with a time machine.

I did a great deal of research into the Victorian era, and this was one of the chief pleasures of the project. Fortunately, the Victorian era is extremely well documented. We have access to volumes upon volumes of books, journals, magazines, fiction, art, photographs, and moving pictures of this vibrant window of history. The project offered me a delicious cocktail of inquiries: fashion, cosmetics, manners, teacakes, candies, and girls’ schools, alongside poison, murder, police procedure, burial, and grave-robbing. Fun stuff.

Part of my research included a visit to Ely, Cambridgeshire, the setting of the novel. Incidentally, Prickwillow Road is a real place. I did not make it up. I spent a week in the UK, both in Ely, touring the small city and its rambling country roads, and in visits to several marvelous London museums to learn more about travel, banking, schooling, dress, food, crime, and home life during the late nineteenth century. It was great fun, and I can’t wait to go back and do it again.

5. Is a strawberry social a real thing?

JB: Indeed it is. In Jane Austen’s Emma, most of the characters gather on a sunny day to enjoy an outdoor strawberry-picking party and picnic. Closer to home, in my childhood haunts in upstate New York, a church strawberry social is a regular fixture of small-town life. Mounds of biscuits, great tubs of berries, troughs of whipped cream, and plenty of neighborly gossip — I highly recommend them.

From the October 2014 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and a BA from Oberlin College.

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