Remember about a month ago or so when I reviewed A White Room by Stephanie Carroll? In case you don’t, you can find the review here. The short and skinny is that the book delves into the personal world of a woman going hysterical in a dark, old mansion in a tiny, secluded town but finds her salvation in nursing those that are unable to access care (sound familiar?). I adored the book and am so privileged to have had the chance to interview the author as part of her Halloween tour. Before we jump into the interview, here is a bit of information about the author and a few announcements she has about her tour!
About the Author
As a reporter and community editor, Stephanie Carroll earned first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and from the Nevada Press Association. Stephanie holds degrees in history and social science. She graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno.
Her dark and magical writing is inspired by the classic authors Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), and Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights).
Stephanie blogs and writes fiction in California, where her husband is stationed with the U.S. Navy. A White Room is her debut novel.
And now for the announcements:
10-Day Happy Halloween Sale!!!
A White Room eBook Edition is Now Available for $0.99 cents for a Limited Time!
Also available for $0.99 cents for
Marked Down from $3.99!
October 21st through October 31st!
Wait There’s More!
Win one of two $25 Amazon gift cards or an autographed copy of A White Room.
Find out what it’s really like to be a published author, experience the author process, and learn how it’s really done!
1. Your book is about a woman going stir-crazy and then finding herself again. What prompted you to tackle this particular issue?
After I graduated from college with a degree in history, my husband was stationed with the military in a small town in Nevada. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and I was afraid in a small town I wouldn’t have the opportunity to discover it. I wanted to write fiction, but for a long time I believed I couldn’t make a living with it and only considered it a hobby. I had decided to support my husband’s career and support our move, but I think that deep down I felt forced by the circumstances.
After we moved, I started to feel really alone in the new town and kind of depressed. Everything began to feel overwhelming and like an unwanted obligation. I felt as if my life had no meaning and that I would never find meaning. A big part of me wished I just didn’t care, didn’t care about responsibility, careers, or finding success in life. That spilled over to wishing I didn’t care about any kind of responsibility like cleaning, paying bills, going grocery shopping, etc. Even the things I used to love to do felt overbearing and obligatory.
I started to fantasize about letting go of everything and not caring about any of it anymore. I felt like if I could do that, I would be free even if only for a brief moment. I couldn’t do that, though. If I stopped caring about the things I was obligated to do, my life would fall apart, and everyone who relied on me would suffer. I felt trapped in every way, like I was imprisoned by the obligations of life. Finally, I poured out all these emotions into a free write:
“Sometimes while sitting there staring out the window, I imagined a place in my mind, a white room. A simple space coated in white paint. The white represented responsibility, obligation. It didn’t require what responsibility and obligation required, but it had the same effect. It maintained the person in the room; it kept the person alive and well, along with everything and everyone that person cared for, but nothing the person held dear existed in the room. The person was alone. The person experienced no joy from bearing the weight of responsibility, earned no prize.
I imagined a particular person in the room—a woman, also clothed in white. This woman constantly faced a dilemma. She longed for freedom. She longed to be the bird.
Her open palms grazed the rutted expanse of the wall. She knew that something lay beyond—beyond the white. She could burst out into the world of grass, sky, and lavender, but she knew that if she broke through the barricade, everything she protected would crumble, suffocate, and wither behind her. Her own freedom would last only moments because she, too, couldn’t survive without the white. Earth and water would smother her, and radiant light would slice through her like a blade.
I imagined her pressing with both hands, weighing freedom against existence and all that depended on her, but in the end she lightened her stance and stepped away. She always chose to stay, to fulfill her obligation.
I thought of the woman in the white room—she chose to sacrifice her freedom for the people who relied on her to survive, but how long could she possibly survive without freedom? How long could she last before choosing the alternative?”
—Quoted from A White Room with the permission of the author.
After I wrote that, I thought that was it, but the image of the woman trapped in a white room haunted me. I couldn’t get it out of my head.
I never had time to pursue fiction during college, so when I graduated, I was so excited to try to write a novel. I had started to write science fiction, but when I couldn’t get this idea out of my head, I put the sci-fi aside and set out to pursue a different type of story and it became A White Room.
Sometimes, people ask me if I’m still trapped in my white room and the answer is no. Just as Emeline finds freedom through her passion, I found my freedom through my writing. By pursuing this story, I realized that writing fiction was what I wanted to do with my life. By writing how Emeline found her purpose and freedom in life, I found my own.
2. According to your website one of your inspirations is Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Paper). How did you apply that to your book?
Not long after I decided to pursue the woman in a white room, I realized I wanted it to be historical because the woman I imagined was wearing a historical dress. I didn’t recognize it but knew it wasn’t modern. I used a fashion history timeline I had from college to identify it as the “S” curve silhouette from the late 19th and turn of the centuries. Then I remembered Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her 1890 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I reread my copy and realized it was telling a story much like the one I wanted to tell, so I decided to use it as my primary inspiration.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is about a woman diagnosed with hysteria and confined to her bed as a form of treatment. Her doctor husband won’t allow her to do anything but rest because it was believed stimulation would worsen her condition. The story is written as if it were a journal she is sneaking as her writing was discouraged too. She keeps talking about how the only thing she can do all day is stare at this horrendous wallpaper in her room. She becomes obsessed with it, and starts seeing it move, starts seeing a woman trapped behind it.
She goes mad, and in the last scene, she is “creeping” around the room peeling the yellow paper from the walls and laughing as everyone who had acted as her jail-keepers watches in horror. She has freed the woman behind the paper and in doing so becomes her, a wild thing freed from her bounds. Her husband faints. I interpreted this as her finding freedom through madness as she no longer cares what her husband says or what society expects.
The first thing in A White Room that people recognize as reminiscent of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the situation of a husband taking his wife to an isolated and disturbing country home and forcing her to rest as a form of treatment for hysteria. I re-envisioned the element of something inanimate coming to life with the house and furniture. I chose those elements instead of the wallpaper because I didn’t want to rewrite “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I wanted A White Room to stand on its own. Further, the house represents the white room in my metaphor. I wanted that white room and that white house to be the element that drove my character insane rather than the yellow wallpaper.
I incorporated the furniture after I discovered Victorian Art Nouveau. This style of furniture and decor had a lot of scrolling and winding designs that reminded me of the descriptions of the wallpaper in Gilman’s story. Plus, the designers incorporated either a life form or a suggestion of movement into every piece, so the objects practically look as though they are coming to life already. The combination of house and furniture was perfect as it embodies domesticity, which is the role and situation Emeline has been forced into.
There are a variety of other more subtle elements that I took from the story, as well. The narrative is told from a limited and unreliable first-person perspective, so certain characters, like the husband, were strangers to the reader, and certain events may have occurred differently than how we are told. I used this point of view in A White Room and made Emeline’s husband a stranger to the reader, at least until the very end.
The language I used in the novel is also highly inspired by “The Yellow Wallpaper.” When I reread the short story and realized I wanted to use it as my inspiration, I studied the language, assuming late 19th century vernacular would be very different from our own, but I was surprised at how modern it read. People could read this story today and think it is a contemporary piece of short fiction. It is so easy to read that I chose that route as opposed to a more flowery Victorian verbiage.
There is also a very distinctive mood created in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It’s a sense of isolation, despair, unease, and mystery characteristic of a haunted house story, but with an uncertainty of whether or not the things the main character sees are ghosts or her own hallucinations. This was one of the most complicated things to recreate. It was difficult to incite an uncertainty in the reader without causing confusion. The fact that it is not clear whether or not the house is haunted or if Emeline is seeing things is a reflection of that uncertainty in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” However, Gilman later explained that her story wasn’t meant to be a ghost story, and I can say the same thing about A White Room.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” ends with the wallpaper having driven the heroine insane, but in her madness she has discovered a sense of freedom. I still wanted my character to find freedom through insanity, but I didn’t want that to be the entire story. Instead, I made it so that Emeline is only able to pursue her passion after she goes insane because only then has she stopped caring what her husband says, what her family wants, and what society expects.
Where I really strayed from “The Yellow Wallpaper” is in the second half of the novel. My first inclination was to have Emeline leave her husband whose treatment felt so unkind, but I wanted to do something unexpected with John because when you really look at his character in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it’s not so clear as to whether he is in fact a monster or if he is simply ignorant and insistent because of his concern for his wife. I decided I could use the unreliable narrator to go in a direction with John that was unexpected.
Taking the story into the underground world of unlicensed nursing and the professionalization of medicine was the biggest split from “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I went in that direction because I wanted Emeline to have the desire to seek out a profession. I wanted her to have a dream to go after once she was free to do as she pleased. I was attracted to the nursing profession because of the history of how doctors and authorities went after midwives and unlicensed nurses in a way comparable to the witch trials.
I wanted to create an interesting juxtaposition. The witch trials were a movement of mass hysteria and in response to a belief that women were naturally flawed with a weakness for evil. This is comparable to why hysteria exploded in the late 19th century. It also dealt with the belief that women were flawed, only instead of evil, it was the belief that they were vulnerable to emotional and mental instability.
Also going with a medical theme allowed me to stick with Gilman’s portrayal of the professional doctor as the enemy, but I took it in a different direction playing on other historical trends in addition to that which impacted hysteria. Further, instead of making her husband a doctor, I turned him into a lawyer for the doctors.
3. You write very eloquently about small-town nursing when it wasn’t always acceptable. Where did you get your material for that?
I read a lot of notes and journals from historical nurses. Most of the ailments and illnesses Emeline deals with in the book are inspired by historical accounts of small town nursing, particularly the scene with the patient having bed sores. That entire character and subplot was based off of a 19th century journal entry.
The nursing aspect of the novel was very difficult for me as I know so little on the topic of medicine outside of the research I did for this book. Further, I have a tremendous fear of medical procedures, so much so, that certain scenes in the book actually made me nauseous every time I reworked or edited them.
Still, I tried very hard to stay realistic and true to the times. The fact that some nurses went without corsets; the descriptions of historical tools nurses carried; and the methods and risks of certain underground procedures were all based on historical nursing.
I also did a lot of research on the topic of the professionalization of medicine and eradication of midwives and illegal abortionists at this time period. I used the book Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America by Marvin Olasky for much of that history.
4. The book provides a lot of details about the old home the couple moves into. Have you ever lived in a house like that?
I have had an obsession with historical houses for my entire life. I think it came from living in an interesting white house in St. Louis, Missouri as a child and from my love of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. I was always more interested in the Gothic mansion Mary moved to than the garden.
I originally attempted to make up a house to fit what I wanted, but I didn’t know enough about Victorian architecture to even attempt it, so I went on a hunt for the right one. I kept finding little cute cottages and Queen Anne’s, probably because I was searching for a white house to represent the white room metaphor. I didn’t think I would find anything frightening enough despite being white until I stumbled onto The Doyle-Mounce House in Hannibal, Missouri.
The Doyle-Mounce house gets its name from the original builder and the second builder who altered it. The original website I found it on called it a Gothic Revival, but after having researched Victorian architecture, I can tell it also incorporates aspects of the Second Empire and Greek Revival styles, and the educational site Dave’s Victorian House site says it is a Second Empire house with aspects of the Italianate style. Either way, it is a very odd mixture of design and structure, which made it perfect for the disturbing house in this story. The inside of the house in the novel is all my creation though. I couldn’t find a layout or any photos of the interior of the Doyle-Mounce House.
The Doyle-Mounce house is located in Hannibal, Missouri, which is Mark Twain’s hometown. It is small and isolated, so I based my fictional town off of it, but I re-named it Labellum, which means white orchid, because none of what occurs in my story actually occurred in Hannibal.
5. Navy wives often experience being alone during deployments. As a Navy wife, do you incorporate those experiences into your novels on some level?
In addition to the experience that inspired my white room free write, I incorporate much of what I have experienced as a Navy Wife into my novels in order to fuel the story and emotions of the characters. As a Navy Wife, I have endured moments when I feel more alone than I have ever felt, moments when I’m sure I will give up and go insane, moments of pure devastation, and moments of pure elation. All of these emotions go into my writing to fuel the characters and their experiences.
Even though the story is historical and has nothing to do with the military, I have had many military wives and military girlfriends tell me how much they relate to Emeline’s experience. They have to be ready and willing to pick up and move, often times to strange and isolated locations. Their lives are very dependent on their husband’s careers, and it often feels like you’ve gone back in time to when women were simply wives and mothers. Many military wives struggle to pursue their dreams because of the frequent common moves and their husbands work requirements. Not to mention, the emotional and mental stress of deployments is enough to drive any woman to near insanity if not all the way.
However, when it comes to feeling insane, that is something I think is a common feeling for all women at some point. In fact the idea that “women are crazy” is something that is embedded in our culture. My theory is that it is left over from Victorian attitudes regarding women and hysteria.
With this theory in mind, I have tried to incorporate in my blogs, website, and novels the idea to embrace what others call crazy because it’s really just normal. There is nothing wrong with the fact that women are emotional creatures, but oftentimes society tells us that it is wrong. The message I try to get across is to embrace it. If we embrace ourselves for who we are, accept our emotions and behaviors as natural, and not care what society says is crazy, then we—like the heroines in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and A White Room—can finally be free.