Interview With an Author: Amiee Gibbs

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Amiee Gibbs and her debut novel, The Carnivale of Curiosities
Author Amiee Gibbs and her debut novel, The Carnivale of Curiosities. Photo of author: Emily Bates

Amiee Gibbs grew up in rural Maryland, where she still lives on an allegedly haunted road, but has dreams of running away to Ireland. She has worked for Penguin Random House for 13 years as a Sales Manager for Independent bookstores across New England, New York, and the West Coast. Prior to that she was an Assistant Sales Manager at Waldenbooks and Borders. She holds an MLA degree with a focus on world literature and creative writing and is currently teaching herself Gaeilge. Her debut novel is The Carnivale of Curiosities and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Carnivale of Curiosities?

The book came about originally as a NaNoWriMo challenge in 2012. I had been working on a mystery for much of 2010/2011 but I was at a point that I was doing rewriting of the same scenes without making any progress. So, a friend from my writing group suggested doing the NaNoWriMo challenge as a fresh start. Set aside the current project and write something completely new but with a caveat: we would not abide by the 50,000 words. Write only what you can.

I thought this was great and I had several ideas I wanted to explore-Victorian period, sideshows are eternal grounds for stories and my endless fascination with Faustian bargains. All fantastic elements but I didn’t have a story. Eleven, twelve days in, I still had nothing, until I was sitting at work, and I received a phone call from an ex-boyfriend, who I hadn’t spoken to in almost a year, calling to tell me that he was engaged. Why the need for a call, I’ve no idea but looking back I am grateful it happened because shortly after hanging up, a bit dazed by what had transpired, a name popped into my head-Aurelius Ashe. After which came Luce and Charlotte and Harlequin and a story hard started, so by the end of November 2012, I had five pages of what would become The Carnivale of Curiosities.

Are Luce, Ashe, Pretorius, Charlotte, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

When creating the children of the troupe I turned actual historical performers. Georgie was inspired by both Stephan Bibrowski (Lionel the Lion-Faced man) and Fedor Jeftichew (JoJo the Dog-Faced Boy). For Danny and Davie, I drew on Chang and Eng, the famed conjoined twins. Lavinia Warren (Mrs. Tom Thumb) stood in part as a model for Angelique. As for the other characters, it was more ideas and names to reflect character traits. Harlequin and Columbine, I looked to the classic Italian Commedia d’ell Arte and the English Harlequinade. Ashe is rooted in the classic Mephistopheles. For Pretorius, I looked at the Greek God Hephaestus. Luce was partially inspired by the sculpture, Le genie du mal by Belgian artist Guillaume Geefs.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Not a great deal changed over the course of revision. There was a part where Charlotte had essentially an arranged marriage to a member of the aristocracy brought about by Odilon Rose in a power grab, but that idea was cut in favor of making Charlotte an obsession/possession of Odilon instead, which led to the building of Catherine Rose and her machinations as a driving force behind her son. Initially, there had been a bit more romance between Luce and Charlotte but it felt a little too soon, especially in the wake of Silvia Marquette’s murder and where Luce was emotionally with her. But the door is open for that to build should there be a sequel. Also, Luce once had wings or at least burgeoning wings from when he was a child, and his gifts were starting to reveal themselves. But I changed this from physical wings to those of fire. I’m still a little on the fence about whether I should have kept them or not.

How familiar were you with late 19th century London prior to writing The Carnivale of Curiosities? Did you have to do a bit of research? If so, how long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write your novel? What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

19th century London is a period that I have long held an interest, so I was familiar in a general overview sort of way. But in writing Carnivale, I did delve deeper into certain areas. It took about ten years to write the novel, so the research coincided with the process. I was constantly finding something new that I could incorporate or file for future use.

I read up on the slums, especially Southwark and the surrounding areas. The practice of slumming, where the more well-to-do and sporting types would gather parties together to travel into the slums to gawk at those living there, which was almost a sideshow entertainment. That is one reason I set the theater there, because I liked the idea of subverting “slumming” so that the poor looked on the rich entering the theater, like they were part of the show. And the idea of the theater was drawn in part by The Globe Theater but also the panopticon style prison first proposed by English philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham because I liked the idea of always being watched but not knowing who was watching whom.

I investigated the environment of the Thames River, the rampant pollution, and the dangerous profession of mud-larking and toshing. I studied the fashion, the modes of transport, the hierarchy of the classes, and a woman’s place and rights during this time. I looked at the various entertainments, pub life, sideshows, and theater in general. I dual majored in English and Theater Arts in college, so I put my "theater kid" hat on when going into the technical side of staging.

It is hard to pick one thing that was surprising or more interesting than another because the subject overall was fascinating, but I would say the extreme disparity between the classes and how a couple of shillings separated a night in the gutter or a night in a bed. We tend to look back at the Victorian era with a romantic eye, but it was a harsh and hardscrabble life for a lot of people.

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

Preparing yourself to be out in the world. Writing the novel is an isolated project. You are on your own, creating your world. Once you get into the process of publishing, starting with getting an agent, what was once an isolated project becomes a collaboration because your agent is going to help you polish up the manuscript for sale, which is a good thing! When your book sells, then you get another collaborator, your editor, which is then followed by marketing and publicity. Then, the next step is putting yourself out there via social media. And if you are like me, an introvert, this step is the hardest. Creating an author website, building a bigger presence online via the various platforms (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Threads, Spotify, etc.), plus building your presence on Good Reads and Amazon. It can be overwhelming if it is something that you are not accustomed to.

But at the end of the day, it is a good thing and part of this big adventure that you are on. The biggest thing to remember is to have fun and enjoy the moment, and don’t ever lose that sense of wonder that someone wants to publish your words and stories and that there is an audience waiting for you. You are only going to be a debut once. This is your time. Make it the best you possibly can!

Is there a power/ability that one of the characters has that you would like to have (knowing the possible downside to having that ability)?

I think Harlequin’s abilities are cool-shapeshifting and disappearing, but I think I would want to be Aurelius. The master! The great illusionist and cross-road king.

The Carnivale of Curiosities would make a marvelous film or series. If you were able to cast the production of The Carnivale of Curiosities, who would your dream cast be?

This is a tough one because I don’t watch a lot of films or TV series. I tend to gravitate to true crime documentaries and weird history programs, but I would have to lean towards someone like Mads Mikkelsen for Aurelius Ashe-he has the presence and certain gravitas to pull that role off. For Timothy Harlequin, maybe someone like Timothee Chalamet—he has sort of mischievous look about him that would fit the character, plus he might look interesting with horns. Dita, I’m thinking of Helena Bonham Carter—she is so good at pulling off period characters or Rachel Weisz. For Florence, I keep going back to Jessica Chastain or someone like her (love her in Crimson Peak!) As for the others, I’ve no idea. Perhaps someone unknown.

Contemporary audiences and readers love stories set in the late 19th century, and culturally, we tend to romanticize this period. But you illustrate in your book how difficult life could be at that time if you were anything but rich, white, and male or if you were someone not considered “normal” (whatever that actually means!). Do you have an idea/opinion on what is it about this period that draws writers to set their stories there and readers and viewers to seek out those stories?

I think the appeal of the Victorian era is that it offers such a rich territory to draw from. From the Industrial Revolution and all the technological changes, advances in medicine and education, wider voter rights spread along with social reform and justice/criminology. There exists a romanticism and a yearning for the glitz and gilding of bygone years, which is a simplification and willing ignorance to ignore the dark underbelly of the time.

Despite so many advances, the extreme disparity of the classes remained and were magnified by many of those changes. While those who were comfortably situated within the mid/upper class and aristocracy benefited from these advances, those in the lower strata often worked in dangerous conditions. Women did not have many rights, and if a woman wanted a life beyond dutiful wife and mother or expressed herself in any way deemed inappropriate, she risked losing what little freedoms she might have. If you had any mental illness, that opened a door to the horrors of the asylums, and it took very little to be locked away. With the growth of empire came the crimes of colonization and rampant racism. Imagine being Irish when Parliament could have done much more to help during the famine. And then comes Jack the Ripper—considered to be the first Industrial/Post-Industrial age serial killer.

All of this offers the writer an opportunity to speak on and critique the era via their characters and exploits. Or the writer can set their characters in the more glamorous light offered during the time. Also, despite all our modern thinking, to a degree, we remain entrenched in a Victorian mindset in some areas. Women still receive a side eye when they choose a childless lifestyle, or a life lived by their own dictates. If you are part of the LGBTQA+ community, the struggle remains to be accepted, socially and legally, and the trial and imprisonment of author Oscar Wilde in 1895 resonates today. So, for the same reasons that draws the writer to this period, so too does the reader.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I am currently reading The Treasury of Folklore, Seas & Rivers; Sirens, Selkies and Ghost Ships by DeeDee Chainey and Willow Winsham.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

This is a tough one because there are so many. So, for today, I’m going to say William Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, Seamus Heaney, Neil Gaiman and Anne Rice. (And a special shout out to Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker.)

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I cannot remember the name, but it was an illustrated book on words and wordplay, and it had all these wonderful 1970s psychedelic drawings. I could spend hours with that book because some of the pictures were made up of the words. I still have it but it’s in a box somewhere. Also, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Every time I was at my grandmother’s house, I went to her bookcase and pulled out the thumb worn mass market edition and curl up in a chair, completely immersed in the stories. She finally gave it to me, and is remains on my bookcase.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

I was lucky in that I never felt I had to hide any books from my parents. My mother and grandmother were avid readers so if I had a book in my hand, it really didn’t matter what it was.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. It was for school, and I don’t think that I was in the right mindset for it at the time. I admire the meaning behind the work, but I couldn’t get into it. Maybe I should give it another go.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

There are probably a lot but Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil by John Berendt drew me in. Plus, the story was fantastic!

Is there a book that changed your life?

I don’t know about life-changing but Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, I feel gave me permission in my own writing to explore language and lush prose. I appreciate those who can do the less is more style of writing, but I love to luxuriate in description. I want a full sensory experience of not only sight and sound but smell and touch.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Tea Obreht’s The Tigers Wife. It is an incredible story of love, family, myth and the real price of war. Plus, the Deathless Man is an unforgettable character.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. The twist in the book was so cleverly laced into the narrative that when I reached that reveal, my mind was blown. Similarly, The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl, again, the reveal was in plain sight, but it wasn’t until the end that it was revealed. I love books like that!

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

Currently, I suppose I’d have to say, the recent tracks from the upcoming Hozier release, Unreal Unearth. I came to his music late (end of 2020), but his lyricism is beautiful and evocative. I’m looking forward to seeing the songs performed live at MSG. It will be my first concert since 2010!

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I would enjoy rambling about Ireland, visiting some off the beaten path places and historical sites, old graveyards, and then settling down either outside or in a cozy pub somewhere between the green and sea to listening to some music and having some good conversation about everything and nothing.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

I haven’t been asked a lot of questions yet, lol. So, I don’t know that I’ve encountered one yet.

What are you working on now?

Currently, I’m in the process of plotting out a sequel to The Carnivale of Curiosities as well as another story that I’ve been thinking about since 2013, another fiction work with a supernatural bend partly inspired by the true story of Bridget Cleary and the myths of the Selkie.

Book cover of The carnivale of curiosities
The Carnivale of Curiosities
Gibbs, Amiee