WomensHistoryReads interview: Leanna Renee Hieber

Leanna Renee Hieber is a presence and a force. When I first met her two years ago at a Historical Novel Society conference, she was dressed much as she is in the author photo below — she stands out in a crowd, and even in that crowd, which is saying something. I’m so pleased to have her on the blog for a Q&Q&Q&A and I know you’ll appreciate her thoughtful answers below on Spiritualism, ghosts, Quakers, feeling “called” to a specific period in history, and more.

Leanna Renee Hieber

Leanna Renee Hieber

Greer: Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing. 

Leanna: The 19th century Spiritualist movement was directly entwined with women’s rights as it gave women a space to become public figures, speakers and ‘authorities’ in a way that had been denied them.  Of course, many Spiritualists were frauds taking advantage of a population still facing very high mortality rates and the aftermath of the civil war, but the movement inspired the psychically or empathically inclined to create space that made room for the modern grief counselor, and in a place like Lily Dale, New York, the Spiritualist capital of the world, a woman could live an entirely autonomous life. 

 My novels all deal with ghosts and the supernatural, so Spiritualism is woven right in, in a way that’s entirely realistic to 19th century moods, interests and obsessions. In paranormally augmented spaces, my women of a wide range of class, race, creed, orientation and identity are given opportunity and agency to be authorities, translators, guides, power figures, directors, teammates and directors that the common constraints of society disallowed.

I’m particularly inspired by Quaker leaders who were on the front lines of abolition, equality, co-equal education and the peace movement. In my Strangely Beautiful saga, the bulk of the action takes place at a fictionalized Quaker academy and in my latest novel with Tor Books, MISS VIOLET AND THE GREAT WAR, I discuss the Quaker viewpoint as being the driver of Contentious Objection in wartime and my women leaders in the school help protect that as yet unestablished right.  Quaker women were at the forefront of women’s education and often were the first to women graduate from myriad institutions, able to serve as leaders due to the support of their family structures and congregations. Quakers historically being entwined with Spiritualism is another way in which I can create spaces in my fiction for women to have had their say, taken on mantles of expertise and authority in diverse spaces, and for it to be entirely historically accurate. 

As a licensed New York City tour guide for over twelve years, there’s so much to soak up and to be inspired by.  The end of the 19th century saw women entering many new and different workforces, especially in New York, be they managers and designers in the decorative arts, or telephone operators or new Police Matrons in the police force, a wider range of options for a woman’s professional life was only growing. 

It is in this environment of women entering new fields that I present Eve Whitby, star of my new Gaslamp Fantasy series with Kensington Books, THE SPECTRAL CITY. Eve is a medium and Spiritualist who works with ghosts and fellow Sensitives on behalf of the NYPD in 1899 Manhattan. (Think the show “Medium” meets The Alienist). Eve and her colleagues don’t always have an easy time of it and encounter institutional bias but they keep their heads up, filled with purpose, driven to do good work while cultivating an excellent team of allies, talented friends and helpful ghosts. My characters are inspired by the women who lived boldly and who were there proudly, carving out places for the next generations, in the (literal) spirit of camaraderie and diligence.

Greer: I love how you combine the real-life historical context with fictional adventures! It’s one of the best things we can do with historical fiction. On that note, how would you describe what you write?

Leanna: The relatively new *technical* term for what I write is Gaslamp Fantasy, a term adjacent to Steampunk. In Steampunk, a steam-powered era setting is blended with the new technologies and ‘gadgetry’ associated with the Science Fiction genre, and problems are solved with tech. In Gaslamp Fantasy, the same ‘gaslit’ setting helps set the tone and scene, but in these tales, magic, the paranormal and other tropes seen in the Fantasy genre are in play and problems are solved more with mysticism than machines. Broadly speaking, I’m a Gothic, Victorian, Historical Fantasy author. Publishers tend to shy away from using the term Gothic but I think it’s the most fitting word of all to describe my work, as it’s defined the core of my interests, style and voice since my debut novel, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker (now reissued by Tor as Strangely Beautiful, containing volumes I and II) came out in 2009.   

I’m interested in reclaiming historic Gothic tropes in order to give my women and other marginalized identities agency rather than making them victims, symbols or plot devices. 

I also enjoy challenging the traditional idea of what a ‘ghost story’ means. Ghosts are a thrilling, dynamic aspect of my world-building, are vibrant characters, and they bring mysticism and an ethereal otherworldliness to my love of history.

My books have been described as intensely atmospheric and deeply character-driven. That’s the highest compliment I could think of, as setting and character are the engines of my process and inspiration.

Greer: Wonderful. What’s your next book about and when will we see it? 

A SANCTUARY OF SPIRITS will be here in early November from Kensington Books! It is the sequel in my Spectral City saga and it continues the adventures of Eve Whitby, a talented, bold, driven young medium who leads The Ghost Precinct, a group of female psychics and their favorite friendly ghosts, as they solve weird, uncanny crime and settle old ghostly scores in 1899 New York City. She teams up with a dashing detective, Jacob Horowitz, and their growing, endearing affection for one another has become one of the most delightful aspects of writing this series. 

Please follow me on social media for updates, tidbits, deal alerts and more! I’ve a mailing list at http://leannareneehieber.com, I’m most active on Twitter at http://twitter.com/leannarenee(I’m far less active on FB: http://facebook.com/lrhieber) and you can also get news and deal alerts by following my BookBub profile: https://www.bookbub.com/profile/leanna-renee-hieber I’ll be doing a cover reveal of A SANCTUARY OF SPIRITS later this spring! 

Cheers, blessings and Happy Haunting! 

And my question for you, Greer:

I feel deeply, spiritually called, in a past-life sense, to the late 19th century, in all its complications and complexities. What times “call” to you? And in what ways do eras call to you most evocatively? Music? Architecture? Fashion?

Greer: What a wonderful question! I often say I started writing historical fiction by accident, but now it truly feels like I’ve found where I belong. When I had the idea for The Magician’s Lie I only knew I wanted to set it in the golden age of stage magic… before even knowing when that was. But ever since, the ideas just keep piling up, and all of them seem to fall in the Victorian/Gilded Age zone, roughly between 1850 and 1905. As you said above, it’s a time when women were striking out and making a mark in new ways, and my protagonists are women with agency and fire. I can use history as a blueprint, as with the real-life Kate Warne in Girl in Disguise, or just a jumping-off point, which is how Nellie Bly fits into Woman 99. I love those kernels of inspiration. Those are what keep calling me back to that late 19th-century period, and I hope they just keep calling.

The Spectral City final cover.jpg