Author Bridgette R. Alexander reflects on the mystery genre, her first book in a new series, Southern Gothic, and the influential impact of librarians and libraries. I received a complimentary copy of Southern Gothic: A Celine Caldwell Mystery in preparation for this interview.
How would you describe your novel Southern Gothic: A Celine Caldwell Mystery?
It’s intriguing. It’s passionate. It’s a contemporary urban Nancy Drew meets The Da Vinci Code. Southern Gothic introduces the reader to Celine Caldwell and the world of fine arts. Celine attends a private school on the Upper East Side, but more importantly has an internship in the Archives Department of the mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art, where her life suddenly changes with an explosive uncovering of an art theft; and in which her mother, the powerful curator of modern art at the Met, is accused of stealing paintings from her upcoming exhibition.
How did the idea of the character Celine Caldwell develop? What inspired you during your writing process for Southern Gothic?
I wanted to bring children and young adults into the high-end world of fine art. I had studied art history as well as worked as a professor of art history. I’ve been in the art world for over fifteen years in various capacities. Throughout my years in the visual arts, I’ve always dreamed of sharing a lot of what I’d experienced with younger people. The art world has been very, very good to me; and I’ve always wanted other people to experience the same as I, or actually even better than I have, experience. So I created a character, a girl born in the world of art whose life would be deeper and richer for the reader to explore the inner workings of an encyclopedic art museum, a world-class auction house, and give them the experience of spending time in the homes of private art collectors; all the while seeing these worlds through the eyes of Celine, a young, fresh, impressionable person.
Some reviewers have compared Celine Caldwell to a modern Nancy Drew. How would you describe her to the librarians interested in sharing your book with young readers?
She’s curious. She’s intrepid. She’s a never-back-down type of girl, yet at the same time, she is very vulnerable. She has a high emotional I.Q., and at the same time, she’s very much like the modern day teen.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art plays a central role in Southern Gothic. What is your background with this famous institution?
While still an undergraduate in college, I took about a year off to get a job and save money to return to school. I didn’t want to incur a lot of debt. I moved to New York City and took a job working for a non-profit organization called Emmaus House of Harlem. I worked for the founder and director, the late David Kirk. At Emmaus House I taught a G.E.D prep course and a lifestyle class for residents. These were formerly addicted individuals who through Emmaus House would be returning to their homes and families with employment training, education and life skills. I’d been working there for about a month and the first Saturday the residents were allowed to have their children visit them for the weekend. The children would spend the afternoon into early evening reconnecting with the parent(s).
I was struck after that first Saturday with wanting to provide resources for those children, so they would have a different future than their present lives. I came up with an idea to create what I would later call an arts-integrated curriculum for those children. I connected the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s education department told them I was interested in connecting them with the Met program by getting a lot of materials and access to the Museum for me and for the children. That was my first public art education course.
What has been the most surprising feedback you have received from a reader about your book?
People in general love Celine Caldwell, but what I’ve been the most surprised by is the reaction about how much they have been excited to learn about art and its history. I say surprised, even though I am an art historian, because I never want to be heavy-handed or didactic as a scholar. I want people to be enthralled and engaged by the world Celine lives in and a major part of that is fine arts – the paintings on the walls and the experiences she has. I want people to be excited and inspired…that seems to be happening!
Has your book been marketed to a target audience? Would you consider this book to be a young adult novel that appeals to older children as well?
Certainly. Southern Gothic and the Celine Caldwell Mystery Series are targeted to people between the ages of 12 and 18 years old. Although, we’re finding a good number of readers that are much older than teens, from 21 on up. Southern Gothic has a great deal of elements in it that can be highly appealing to young adults – they can absolutely connect to the protagonist, Celine Caldwell a girl trying the best that she can to navigate herself in the world that her parents placed her in once they got divorced. She also has such a loyal and strong group of friends, and I think that is an element of the story resonates with a lot of readers. Additionally, there are several other aspects to Celine’s life that I believe readers connect with; such as her forging her independence and gaining her own voice in her work as an intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That job offers Celine the opportunity to move about the world within the museum as well as meeting the people that she will encounter in her quest to discover the truth to solve the mystery in the story.
Why is the mystery genre relevant to children and teens? What connected you to this genre as a writer and what does its future look like to you?
I think children and teens connect to the mystery genre because there are a lot of unanswered questions that by the time you reach 10, 11, 12 or 13, you begin to seek out answers to. For me, it seems like a perfect fit. For me, mysteries represented the very nature of life itself. There is the beginning where you are met with some ease and then suddenly, a bit of an upheaval comes along and sort of unhinge everything. With that comes a discovery, a renewal…it’s utterly remarkable. I’ve always loved the thrill of mysteries and knowing that with everything in life, you have to go beyond the surface.
For children and teens, mysteries are a great genre. In your early years of life, you accept what’s been presented to you; as you get older, you start to question – or, at the very least, you realize that there is a much larger world outside your home and neighborhood and you’re beginning to be exposed to bits and pieces of that larger world. Mysteries are at once exciting and scary, just as life is for young people discovering the bigger world for the first time.
What should the role of children’s librarians be in encouraging children and youth to explore various genres and subjects?
That’s a great question. The librarians I was fortunate to have growing up as an early and teenage reader, engaged me by drawing on various interests I had in subjects and showing me how to explore those subjects through the books they’d find for me. I think it’s vitally important for a librarian to be the guide, to introduce new, exciting, scary, different subjects; and many types of books to children and young adults. The role of librarians can be a lot more fluid than an actual teacher. The librarian has the space and hopefully, the inclination to be the conduit between a child and the world.
How has your experience in libraries influenced your life as a reader and author?
Where the classroom introduced me to the world, the library became a guide helping me to navigate the world. The main Chicago Public Library back in the late seventies and early eighties was on Michigan Avenue occupying the same building as the Encyclopedia Britannica. I spent a great deal of time reading almost every book I could read. I attended, Whitney Young Magnet High School (during the same years as our first lady Michelle Obama). I had an amazing Economic and Society teacher, Mr. Minkoff.
In this class, he taught us about the development of and the histories of the stock market and US industries, such as the railroads and banking; and we learned about early wealthy American families such as the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, etc. He talked about these subjects in such an exciting way that it captured me wholeheartedly. I would ask him a thousand and one questions about these people and, at one point, he suggested I go to the library — not the school’s library, but the main public library in Chicago. So I did. Sharing with the librarian there what I was looking for, she asked me why was I interested in those people and in that time period. I told her. And she led me to the library stacks and particularly to the areas where books on these subjects were and pointed to about five or six different titles and said, “here the world is yours.”
From that day on and for about another three to four years, I read everything about American industrial might. Later, I added in almost every biography of the Kennedys and all the individuals of the American political movements. I read so much and received so much guidance from the Chicago Public librarians at the main branch, that by the time I arrived at college, what I had read served as a strong foundation for my studying art history, philosophy and also some political science. In Chicago, we also have the cultural center that’s a part of the Chicago Public Library system. The Cultural Center houses everything in the arts: music (both popular and classical), visual arts, dance, opera; you name it – and biographies of artists and historiographies of genres. I devoured it all.
A librarian there gave me access to listening to old recordings of Leo Bernstein, Barbra Streisand, even Annie Lennox long before she became a member of the Eurhythmics. Another time in Mr. Minkoff’s class, we had to watch a CBS broadcast mini-series starring Henry Fonda, called “Gideon’s Trumpet” by the author Anthony Lewis. We had to write a paper about the television movie, which was based on the US Supreme Court case that ruled criminal defendants had a right to an attorney even if they could not afford it. Well, back to the library I returned to find out everything I could about this landmark case, and this time in the law section of the library.
The library has been and still is an integral part of my intellectual life!
What inspired you to write a series? What additional projects are you working on at this time?
My desire is to explore with readers the full spectrum that is the arts – visual art and culture, opera, the ballet and symphonies. Currently, I am preparing to release the second book in the series, Sons of Liberty; the third book in the series, Pasha will follow. Then I have a lot of ideas for the next nine books to follow that. Also, starting next month in June, I will be on a multi-city book tour that begins in Beverly Hills, California and then moves up the coast to Northern California. And in August I will be launching the Celine Caldwell Arts Council, which is a national initiative that I’m very excited about.
Thank you for sharing details of your new book and the role libraries and librarians have played in your life!