Catherine House is the book Elisabeth Thomas always wanted to read; so she wrote it

Elisabeth Thomas always loved Gothic Literature. She wanted to be transported away from her reality. The Yale-graduate, now working as an archivist for The Museum of Modern Art, knew she would always try her hand at a modern Gothic book.

Catherine House, inspired by her interest in the culture of elite American universities and colleges, is about a prestigious and secretive school where students don’t have contact with the outside world. Readers follow Ines as she discovers why the school is so isolated, the complicated history of Catherine House, and the secrets it holds.

I spoke with with Thomas about her interest in Gothic Literature, how her time at Yale shaped her, and what it’s like plotting a book set in a house that is also a character.

There are slight thematic spoilers alluded to in our conversation. Nothing overt, but I wanted to be up front. Even if you read this interview before the book, the experience and essence of Catherine House will remain intact. 

How would you describe Catherine House about?

I would say it’s a Gothic literary novel about a cult-like college. There is a young woman who finds out the school is up to some mysterious experiments that might be more dangerous than they think. It’s a play on a lot of old Gothic tropes, but with a modern twist.

I can tell when debut authors pull a small fact from their life and run with it to create their first book. Where did Catherine House come from in your life?

I went to Yale, which is obviously an institution that has a reputation that goes with it. I was very interested in these elite instructions and the secrets they have. As well as how they attract people and get people’s loyalties. Those are what interested me.

Oddly enough, my father went to Yale and his father went to Yale as well. It’s this odd thing that you’d call me a double legacy and that I’d love Yale. In my family, Yale was like the enemy. The institution had treated my dad and grandfather so poorly, they tried to get me not to go, but teenagers do whatever they want and I did end up going there.

I always found it interesting that it has this elite reputation to the world but the opposite in my family. I still ended up going there and I had a great time, but there were a lot of sides to the enjoyment I had there.

You go to Yale and then you end up as an archivist at MoMA. How did writing come into your world?

I love my day job to death. It’s stable, wonderful, and uses a different side of my mind. I can do that from 9-5 and then I could go home and work on my creative writing. When I was young I thought I wanted to go into publishing because I loved creative writing. I thought I’d become an editor or something like that but I realized that would be too hard for me to do that and work on my own writing.

When I was in college and I was thinking about what I wanted my life to look like, I realized I didn’t want creative writing to be my day job as well. That’s how I ended up work in the art history world. It’s related to the creative world, but it’s different than my writing.

Did Catherine House come out of your time in college?

I started writing it a few years after I went to college. The story takes place when she is in college, but I feel there is a real sense of nostalgia to it. I wrote it when I was going through the growing pains of being in my mid-twenties and I was really thinking about wanting to go back to college. It’s a time you idealize times of your life and you start to think, “Oh if only I could go back to this time.”

The first draft was written from the point of view of older Ines looking back at her time at Catherine House. We decided it took some of the tension out of the plotline to know that she was fine and leaves, which was a spoiler. That was edited out, but when I look at it now, there is still a feeling of nostalgia to it.

As dark and twisted as it is, there is a level of coziness to it that makes me feel apart of the story. Part of that are these Gothic themes and tropes. Was that something that always interested you in literature?

Oh yeah! When I was growing up, I was so interested in Gothic books. I loved The Secret Garden. I loved Jane Eyre. I loved all of those books that had a dramatic setting so far from my real life. For me, it was so much fun to play with so many of those tropes.

When I first set out to write Catherine House, which wasn’t the first book I wrote, I said that I wanted to go back to the basics and write about what I liked when I was a little girl. It’s everything I wanted in a book. It has a dramatic, Gothic house; mysterious secrets; a little hint of the paranormal. Writing what you want to read is easier than writing what you don’t.

What was off about those early novels that didn’t quite make it?

When you’re a younger writer, or any creative professional really, you learn how to do it while you’re doing. If I wrote those novels now, they may turn out okay. I had to learn how to write a novel by writing a novel. I learned over the course of those novels. It was kind of painful, but you learn. Sloppy sentences. Sloppy characterizations. 

What was the first part of Catherin House that became fully realized for you?

It was an idea of being trapped in a house. I wanted that Gothic feeling. The first parts of the idea were wanting to tell a retelling of “Bluebeard,” the fairy tale, and I wanted the feeling of being trapped in a house the same way. I was thinking of Jane Erye and Rebecca. I immediately thought about playing with the idea of a Gothic house and coupling it with nostalgia and all of the thoughts that I had about the American upper education system.

The house itself is this character that looms large throughout the book. What was it like crafting the house as a setting, but also giving it this personality?

It was really interesting. In the first couple of drafts, I had this idea that the house was this manor home with a lot of section that kept going on. It didn’t make sense as a structure; it just doesn’t quite make sense. I like that idea of it being a surreal structure. There was a turning point where the house had to be realistic in some way. Then I realized the house wasn’t going to be in great condition because there is no way a structure that big that is cut off from the world would be renovated every ten years. It had to be dilapidated. I did a hole draft where there was a post-it note on my computer reminding me the house was falling apart. I went through and edited any passaged that said it was in good condition.

There’s a draft you mentioned where Ines is looking back on the plot. When did Ines become the driving voice of the novel?

I would say pretty early on. I know this is a crafty answer, but I always write in third person. It’s how I like to write. When I was writing this book, I knew it had to be written in first person because that’s what gives it that nostalgic feeling. Pretty early on I decided to write in first person and Ines came quickly. I think she came so quickly because she is different than myself so any situation she was in I would have her do the opposite of what I would do. She was fun to write.

I like that: what would you not do.

I always obey the rules. If someone told me not to go down a dark hallway, I would absolutely no go down that dark hallway. It was fun to write someone who wasn’t necessarily rebellious but was someone who doesn’t think about the rules or consequences.

Books like this are intricately plotted. There are secrets being revealed and questions we’re forced to ask ourselves. After you discovered the house and the character, what did structuring Catherine House look like?

I always knew the basic structure of it and that she is going to realize there are secrets afoot. Because I had that idea of structuring it like “Bluebeard” where she discovers the secret then the question becomes whether she is going to get out of it. 

I had that basic structure in mind, but the details about when she found out certain details… I think I blocked out those memories of writing and editing. Those are the type of details that it helps to have an editor or a reader to let you know when something is obvious or not too obvious. Because when you know what is going to happen as the writer it’s hard to know when something is up to the right level of surprise.

You know there are times in our real lives when you look back and things were so obvious. So there were times when writing I thought something was obvious, but it almost didn’t matter. It didn’t really matter even if a reader figures out something before the main character because sometimes that happens in real life. Sometimes your friends are smarter than you and figure out what’s about to happen to you.

I got over that it had to be perfectly paced and that readers had to get everything at the exact same moment. Some people will read it and say things are super obvious but others will have no idea.

I like hearing that every reader can figure things out at different times out loud. Reading something is a different experience to every person.

I like to think I’m somewhat clever, but so many times I’m watching a movie and all of my friends see the twists and I never do. I tend to not looking for twists. I tend to let things happen. Different people read and experience things in a different way. You can’t get too caught up in people having the exact experience you want them to.

This book covered a lot of things that you read and wanted to discover. Where do you take your writing from here?

I am writing a second book and it’s really different than Catherine House in a lot of ways. Both in terms of the plot and the book it feels so claustrophobic and a one off. People ask if there is a sequel, but it feels so dreamy and separate. This book almost feels like a dream. I wrote it to feel like a dream that happened to someone else. Now that it is out of my system I can write a new book. 

I think I’ll always have speculative fiction elements in my writing. I always enjoy playing with something that has a balance of realistic fiction with a touch of the sublime or fantasy. Every book I write will have a bit of that. The next book does not take place in a school!

Please subscribe to Debutiful’s podcast, which releases once a month with an in-depth interview with one debut author.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Elisabeth Thomas at her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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