Jessica Spotswood is the author of the historical fantasy trilogy The Cahill Witch Chronicles and the contemporary YA novel Wild Swans. She is also the editor of the historical anthology A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers, and Other Badass Girls and the forthcoming The Radical Element (Candlewick, 2018). She lives in Washington, DC with her playwright husband and a very old cat named Monkey. Jessica also works for the DC Public Library as a children's library associate.
1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I think I got hooked on history when I was in fifth grade and read Gone with the Wind. While I realize now that it's very problematic, at the time I was totally enchanted by Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler. My grandmother was also very into genealogy at that time and compiled a family history that fascinated me. The summer I was twelve, my grandfather swam in the Senior Olympics in Baton Rouge and my grandmother took me along to tour historical houses and plantations along the River Road and in New Orleans. When I got home, I started writing the first of three sprawling GWTW knockoffs that I worked on throughout high school. They were all about headstrong girls who fought with their sisters and kissed boys and rode horses during the Civil War. (I fought with my sisters and rode horses and wanted to kiss boys?)
2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
I grew up in a small town just outside Gettysburg, PA, site of perhaps the most definitive battle of the Civil War. As a child, my family took hikes and had picnics on the battlefield. As a teen, my friends and I hung out at Devil's Den and tried to take pictures of ghosts in Triangle Field. History felt tactile and ever-present to me. My father is an enormous history buff with a study full of books about generals and presidents and statesmen. I was fascinated with history, but I didn't see myself reflected in any of the history books or westerns on his shelves. Maybe that's why I fell in love so hard with Gone with the Wind; it was historical, but the heroine was a girl!
3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
My first published books, the Cahill Witch Chronicles, took place in an alternate version of 1890s New England where magic had been outlawed by the patriarchal priests of the Brotherhood. While it was alternate history, I did a lot of research into the fashion, home decor, technology, and etiquette of the 1890s and then shifted things a bit. And then in 2014 I had the idea to put together an anthology of historical fiction and fantasy about American girls throughout history, which became A Tyranny of Petticoats.
4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
I think it's important to know where we've come from in order to celebrate the accomplishments and triumphs -- and to realize the mistakes and injustices of the past so that we can hopefully prevent them from recurring. Plus, there are lots of awfully good stories.
5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I'm pretty fascinated by the latter part of the Victorian era. I think there's something about the contrast of the old-fashioned romance of the Victorian upper class - carriages and gas lights and corsets - with the beginning of modern social movements, particularly the suffragettes!
6. You recently edited A Tyranny of Petticoats. Please tell us about it.
The contributions of women - especially women of color and queer women - have too often been erased from history. Tyranny is fifteen short stories about girls throughout American history, from an escaped slave girl posing as a sailor boy on board a pirate ship off the coast of the British North America in 1710 to a black girl who's protesting Vietnam with her girlfriend and gets caught up in the riots of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
The official blurb is: Crisscross America - on dogsleds and ships, stagecoaches and trains - from pirate ships off the coast of the Carolinas to the peace, love, and protests of 1960s Chicago. Join fifteen of today's most talented writers of young adult literature on a thrill ride through history with American girls charting their own course. They are monsters and mediums, bodyguards and barkeeps, screenwriters and schoolteachers, heiresses and hobos. They're making their own way in often-hostile lands, using every weapon in their arsenals, facing down murderers and marriage proposals. And they all have a story to tell.
7. What are the hallmarks of successful young adult historical fiction?
I think successful YA historical fiction gives a sort of wonderful texture to history by strongly anchoring it in the specific details (fashion, food, music, home decor, etiquette, politics) of an era while also showing how its themes are relevant today. A great example for me is Kekla Magoon's beautiful story "The Pulse of the Panthers," set in 1968 California, in which the Black Panthers' visit to a young black girl's farm prompts her to learn the truth about her grandfather's death. It combines the personal with the political and feels very firmly set in the 1960s but also (unfortunately) still very resonant.