Jodie Lynn Zdrok entered the publishing scene back in February with her debut novel Spectacle, a tale of murder, intrigue and Victorian-era Paris. Within she tells the story of Nathalie, a young woman determined to fulfil her lifelong dream of becoming a journalist, writing for the local paper’s obituaries. When she accidentally uncovers the presence of a serial killer within the midst of Parisian society, Nat must use all her smarts to outwit the killer before they come after her. Our contributor, Tasha Leigh, had the privilege of asking Zdrok some burning questions about her gritty debut, her love of history, and her must-read authors.
First off, I want to congratulate you on officially entering your debut year. I’m sure it has been an exciting lead up. So, your debut novel is called Spectacle and is set in Victorian Era Paris. Was the title choice your own or part of the editorial process?
I came up with the title Spectacle during the first draft. It’s a three-part nod: the morbid curiosity of death as a spectacle, whether it’s at the morgue, in the newspaper, or at the guillotine; the murderer enjoying the spectacle of his murder victims; and Nathalie’s “sight.”
Why set it in this specific era?
I studied this era of cultural and intellectual European history in graduate school, so I had a foundation in it from an academic perspective. But beyond that, I’ve always loved Victorian-era tales of the supernatural, both those written at the time and modern works set in that time. The mood captivates my imagination like few other eras.
How long did it take you to write the novel itself before heading to the querying process to get it published?
I wrote it off and on between 2012 and spring 2015. I started it when I was on submission with another novel (more on that below).
Many writers talk about their failures or the number of completed works they have which have never been published. Was Spectacle your first attempt to become a published author?
Spectacle is my third attempt—and three different genres at that. The first was an adult contemporary with some dark elements, for which I didn’t get an agent, and the second was a humorous middle grade, for which I did. The MG didn’t sell, and when I presented my former agent with Spectacle, she couldn’t get behind it and said I’d need to look for representation elsewhere if I wanted to move forward with it. We parted ways amicably. I queried five agents the day we parted, ended up with several offers, and signed with Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown…one of the five agents I queried on Day One.
A lot of people seem to think the entire process between getting your novel into the hands of various publishers and when it hits shelves is a fast one when in fact for the majority of authors this process takes years. How long between when you first queried and the novels debut in February did it take?
It was about six weeks from query to representation. It doesn’t seem long in retrospect but it was a very angst-ridden summer in 2015! (I had quite the celebratory dinner after that.) I did some revisions for my agent, then we went on submission. Melissa Frain made the offer on behalf of Tor Teen in November 2016. (Another celebratory dinner ensued.) So between June 2015 and February 2019 is 3 years and 8 months. There is 100% going to be a celebratory dinner (several of them, in fact).
Spectacle has a very ‘Jack the Ripper’ vibe with its dark setting in the gritty underground of Paris and the villain’s chosen style of murder. Your narrative plays out as one which could have been pulled from any Penny Dreadful of the era. What research did you undertake to make it historically accurate?
Jack the Ripper was one of the influences on this story. In fact, I set Spectacle the year before the Ripper murders so that the characters of the novel would be as shocked as the rest of the world by the style of killing. My studies in history gave me baseline knowledge of the era, and to fill in the blanks, I referenced some cultural history materials, studied maps, and used the internet to find obscure details like what fabrics people wore or to see if something that exists now in Paris existed then.
I need to mention the cover for Spectacle. It conveys a certain dark and sinister vibe. What was your first reaction to seeing it out in the wild?
I loved it! We were discussing a different direction on the cover for while (a close-up of Nathalie in the morgue), but the decision was made to go a more atmospheric route evocative of Nathalie’s Paris. It’s grimly gorgeous and I’m thrilled with it.
Your protagonist, Nathalie Baudin, works for a local newspaper writing the local morgue column. Due to the historical setting, she only ever goes in to the office dressed as a boy, writing under a different name. What made you choose this career path for her when all morgue viewings during this era were public and she could have taken the same actions while performing a different role?
I took some creative liberties with choice. I wanted Nathalie to have a multifaceted connection to both the morgue and the newspaper: curiosity, duty, access to the people who run those things, a means of acquiring information and doing research the general public wouldn’t be privy to, and a sense of self. There are also times during the novel where Nathalie doesn’t want to go to the morgue but has to because of her professional obligation, and this is one of several elements that helped the character grow.
Can I just ask about your two villains? There was a point around 75% of the way through where a critical event occurs and I felt like the tale was done, only to discover another person had a role to play as well. Was there always going to be a second driving force?
Yes, from very early on in my first draft, I had the various roles in mind and knew it was going to be a much more complicated case than readers (and the characters in the novel) originally thought.
The majority of your characters are female, with most taking on a strong but flawed personality. Did you find it difficult to maintain the femininity of characters such as Nathalie and Zoe Klampert while they took on roles that were traditionally masculine within the era?
I didn’t, because the essence of their relationships with others is rooted their femininity, something Zoe in particular relishes. Nathalie also expresses her femininity through fashion. She has to dress a certain way for her job but takes pride in wearing dresses, which have their own backstory.
To which of your characters do you most relate?
Nathalie’s cat, Stanley. Kidding! (Although he was created as an homage to a beloved white cat I had, whose name was the Polish equivalent of Stanley.) I relate to all three young female characters in some way. Nathalie most of all, followed by many aspects of her best friend, Simone. I identify with certain elements of her schoolmate friend, Agnès, too.
Do you have any other works in the pipeline at the moment?
Yes! More gruesome murder, magic, and morgue-gawking is on the way: I submitted the draft of the Spectacle sequel to my editor last month.
As it is your debut year, where can people expect to see you in the near future?
My upcoming events include Park Road Books on July 27, Main Street Books on July 28, and Porter Square Books on June 14.
Last of all, do you have any advice for those reading this Q&A about writing and getting published?
In terms of writing: study the craft. Re-read books you love and try to think about what makes them so good. What makes the story work so well, and how can you apply that to your own writing? As for getting published: do your research. There are many, many resources out there about what to do and what not to do when querying an agent. Embrace those resources, and learn from the experiences of published authors. Everyone was a beginner once.
Fiction or nonfiction? Fiction
Plotter or pantser? (do you plot out your entire story to the smallest detail or just have a vague idea + major occurrences and let the characters guide you?) Plotting with the what must happen and sometimes pantsing as to the how.
Favourite bookish trope? Things aren’t what they seem
Least favourite bookish trope? Instalove
Coffee or tea? Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon
Pizza or pasta? This is the toughest question in the interview. Pizza.
Beach holiday or hiking in the bush? Beach holiday (shoutout to Turks & Caicos)
Convention crowds or smaller signings? Smaller signings
Sunny or rainy? Sunshine!
If you could pick a single holiday destination for the rest of your life, where would it be? Europe, because if I say a whole continent, I have options!
Music, books or Netflix – you can only pick 2? Second toughest question! Music and books.
If you could recommend five authors to the general public that are must reads, who would they be? Mixture of YA and non-YA, no order: E. Lockhart, Frances Hardinge, Kate Atkinson, Caleb Roehrig, Melissa Albert