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Q & A with Kendall Kulper

Set in 1928 Chicago, Kendall Kulper’s new novel, Murder for the Modern Girl, features Ruby Newhouse, an 18-year-old flapper who reads minds to identify killers and abusers who would otherwise escape justice and then surreptitiously poisons them. When someone tries to assassinate her state’s attorney father, Ruby begins using her gift to investigate Chicago’s power players, enlisting the help of shape-shifting morgue employee Guy Rosewood in exchange for keeping his abilities a secret. Little does Ruby know, Guy has figured out there’s a serial poisoner in Chicago, and is hot on her trail. Kulper spoke with PW about her inspirations, her hobby-turned-side hustle, and how her Harvard education prepared her to write historical fantasy YA.

Was it always your intent to write historical fantasy for young adults, or did you initially have another path in mind?

Yeah, absolutely not my original plan. The course that I took at Harvard, a program called History & Literature, is very broad—history is anything that’s ever happened, and literature is anything that anybody has ever created. Like, a jacket or a car could be literature. It was really just looking at history through the lens of how people create things, whether it’s books or stamps or quilts for their children; how people process historical events in their lifetime; and how those creations then go on to inform things that happen in the future or our own interpretations of how history took place.

I had always thought that I was going to be a reporter. History & Literature was sort of like the de facto journalism major, so that was how I ended up in that program. Then I graduated and went into journalism and felt like the reality was not quite what I wanted to do—it wasn’t making me happy in the way that I had hoped it would. I’d always written, but when I got to college, I started to write things that I thought would be more prestigious—so, kind of depressing adult short stories—and it just sucked the fun out of writing for me. When I was working this job and was not very happy, I started thinking, “Well, when was the last time that writing made me happy?” And it was fan fiction that I’d written in high school—Newsies fan fiction, so basically historical YA.

I started writing a YA novel and I absolutely loved it. I was living in New York, my fiancé was living in Chicago, and we were looking for an excuse to be in the same city so we could get married, so I was like, “You know what? I’m going to quit my job and move to Chicago. I have some savings; I’ll try to do this YA thing.” It wasn’t until I was writing my third attempt at a manuscript—a historical, which was the first book I got published [Salt & Storm]—that I was like, “Oh, I guess my degree is actually very helpful!”

What inspired you to set this book in 1928 Chicago?

I read this incredible book called The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum. It’s nonfiction, but it reads like a great fiction narrative, and is basically about the birth of forensic science, looking at the medical examiner’s office in New York City during Prohibition. Who doesn’t love the 1920s? And this was such an interesting way of looking at that time period, when forensic scientists were racing to develop means to detect when criminal poisonings had taken place. It stuck in my head, and I thought, “How can I write my 1920s book and incorporate very cool science-y elements?” So, that’s how I got to the 1920s, and I stuck in Chicago because I like to write about places that I know well. It has such a great gangster-y history, and it’s a little different from New York City.

What kind of research did that entail?

Chicago has a very interesting political structure, and this book ended up being a lot more about Chicago politics than I had originally thought. The main character’s father is the Cook County State’s Attorney, so, figuring out how the Cook County State’s Attorney gets voted in, how the mayoral system works, and all about Chicago’s aldermen, which is a very weird quirk that Chicago has. They’re all so laughably corrupt! It’s incredible, the stories that come up. And of course, if you’re a historical author, you fixate on these tiny little details that don’t matter to anyone else on the planet. I remember I found the Chicago city budget and found the original address of the morgue and what a janitor in 1928 would be making in the Cook County hospital system. I always feel more confident as a writer when I have all that knowledge. I try to get as much research as I can out of the way before I start writing, then let it all sink in, and then just write with the knowledge that the average person would have.

What led you to add fantastical elements to a historical YA crime novel?

I think bringing in fantasy is a great way to talk about difficult subjects at an angle. The character of Guy is a shapeshifter, and he has a very antagonistic relationship to his ability. He sees it as this thing that just comes out of him, that he doesn’t know how to control, and he thinks it prevents him from being able to form relationships with other people. I feel like that is often just what it feels like to be human, especially if you’re a teenager—that there’s this aspect of you that you are afraid of, and don’t know how to control, and you’re just looking to beat it down, but that doesn’t work. The journey that he is on is to realize that this thing that he thought alienated him from other people is actually the way that he is able to connect with other people.

I think bringing in fantasy is a great way to talk about difficult subjects at an angle.

I also think throwing in those fantasy elements adds a new way of thinking about the world and ethical responsibility. After reading this nonfiction book about the 1920s and murderers, I was reading a comic book where one of the characters was a mind reader. He was talking about how he automatically judges a person based on what he can hear in their head. I thought how interesting that would be, if you are a person who is morally upright, and you have a strong sense of justice—how difficult it would be to hear terrible things, and know that, for whatever reason, [the people thinking them] will never face justice. Especially in the ’20s, in a place like Chicago. That’s what led me to create the character of Ruby: she’s just going about her day and hears something terrible, and she feels like, “Well, if I don’t do something about it, then it’s on me.”

Ruby pretends to be a flighty flapper, but is secretly a shrewd vigilante who murders bad men that society won’t miss. Was it challenging to write a character that some would say straddles the line between hero and villain?

The book makes clear that she understands that murder is wrong—it’s not a good thing that people should be aspiring to. She is somebody who has a strong understanding of the law, and a strong respect for the law, and at the same time, sees how flawed the system truly is. Certainly, my book is not comparable to the incredible work that activists are doing nowadays, but I am really inspired by people who are willing to partake in civil disobedience, and willing to say, “Yes, this is the law, but it’s wrong, or yes, this is the justice system, but it’s flawed.” People who are willing to work around the system, which again, I’m not encouraging people to go out and murder, that’s not what I’m saying—but in this one fantasy instance where Ruby can read minds, she feels an obligation to do something and is willing to take on whatever guilt and consequences come with breaking the law.

You dedicated this book to your daughters, urging, “Stick together, you’re stronger as a group.” That also seems to be the book’s central thesis, as Murder for the Modern Girl features several intrepid female characters who have each other’s backs. Did the dedication inspire the book, or vice versa?

I wrote this book at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, when a lot of people—especially a lot of women and non-binary people—were being very affected by what was going on in the news. I took so much solace in feeling like there were other people that felt the same way as me, and in working with these people and supporting them and letting them support me. I’ve always told my daughters, “You guys are on the same team. If something affects one of you, it affects everybody in this family. We all work together, we all stick together.”

There were some earlier drafts of the book where Ruby meets another woman who is a bit catty towards her—I eliminated all of that. I didn’t want any instances where a woman was belittling another woman. I understand that’s not a reflection of reality, but I wanted this to be a book where women may not be exactly [allied] 100% of the time, but they’re not cutting each other down. I wanted it to celebrate female friendship and women working together. Not even just women, because there are strong male characters who are also supporting Ruby and helping facilitate the change that she’s trying to enact, and I feel like that’s really important too. But certainly as a mother and having two young daughters and so many strong female friendships, I wanted the book to embody that. Ruby is one of the heroes of this book, but I wanted a lot of the other characters—especially the secondary characters—to also have moments. I didn’t want Ruby to feel like a savior, I wanted her to feel like one piece of this big puzzle.

In addition to being an author, you’re also a talented embroidery artist. How and when did you acquire that skill, and do you feel that one form of artistic expression helps feed or foster the other?

When I was pregnant with my second daughter, I wanted to make something special for her—you know, second kid, you’re basically just inheriting everything. I went on Instagram, and someone had made this beautiful floral embroidered monogram. I didn’t know anything about embroidery, but my attitude towards life is, “I could probably figure out how to do that.” So I went to the craft store and I got a bunch of materials, which, now that I’ve been doing it for so long, I realize were not the correct things, but it worked out in the end. I made this thing for my daughter, and put it up on Instagram, and somebody saw it and wanted one for their kid, so I made one for them. Then I saw somebody had embroidered a portrait of an animal and it looked incredible. My friend was having a baby, and I thought, “Oh, I’ll make one for her!” Then somebody at the baby shower wanted one for their dog, and I put those on Instagram, and somebody else emailed, wanting one for their pet. Now I do mostly pet portraits. I try hard to capture the spirit of every animal. I have a dog, and I know that you spend so much time memorizing every tiny little detail of their little sweet faces, and so I try to recreate that as best I can.

It’s been such a rewarding hobby, and it’s so different from writing. When I write, it takes so much time—you know, the idea for this book came into my head in 2015, and now it’s 2022, and I’m finally getting to show it to people. But with embroidery, a piece takes maybe a week or two, and then I put it on Instagram, and I get all this great feedback right away. It feeds the needy creative artist inside of me. I have tried before to take on a commission and work on a book at the same time, but I get so into whatever I’m working on, I find it really hard to jump back and forth. I have to close my commissions anytime I’m focused on a book, which I am right now. If I can’t sink all my energy into something, it’s very hard for me to feel fulfilled at the end of the day, so I find that I enjoy it more when I can just focus on one or the other. Someday—I’m putting this out there in the world—I’d love to embroider a children’s book. That’s my ultimate goal with this art form.

You say you’re focused on a book right now. What are you writing?

It hasn’t been announced yet, but there is going to be another book set in the same world as Murder for the Modern Girl. Not a sequel, but sort of a companion novel, called A Starlet’s Secret to Dying in Style. It’s set in 1934 Hollywood, and it’s about one of Ruby’s younger sisters, Henrietta, trying to be an actress, and she starts to see the ghosts of dead actresses everywhere. It’s very similar in the style of Murder for the Modern Girl, with dual narrators. There’s a stuntman who’s invulnerable to pain and can’t be injured and [he and Henrietta] end up meeting and are forced into a sham Hollywood romance for publicity. Henrietta is very similar to Ruby, in that they’re both women who are very intelligent and fun and know what they want, but Henrietta is out to live her life to the fullest, no matter the consequences—and there are a lot of consequences. It has been the most fun to write, but it does have a dark topic—how Hollywood treats actors and actresses. That was the biggest challenge with this book: how do I write something that feels hopeful when we all know nothing was solved in 1934, that these problems just got so much worse? We’re much more aware of these things now, but it’s been a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of journey.

Murder for the Modern Girl by Kendall Kulper. Holiday House, $19.99 May 31 ISBN 978-0-8234-4972-9