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Interview with Kitty Zeldis, Author of 'The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights'

Rachel Barenbaum's photo

By Rachel Barenbaum

This post was originally published on Dead Darlings, a blog about novel writing run by alumni of GrubStreet's Novel Incubator program.

The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights is a mesmerizing historical novel about three women in 1920s New York City and the secrets they hold. Hailed as a haunting meditation on the bonds between mothers and daughters Kitty Zeldis, the author, throws her readers into historic New York City and New Orleans with such attention to detail that she makes us feel like we are right there with her characters.

Lauren Willig, New York Times bestselling author of Band of Sisters wrote, “By turns heartbreaking and heartwarming, Kitty Zeldis’s The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights, set against the backdrop of the not-always-so-roaring Twenties, is an only-in-America story of reinvention, rising above tragedy, and finding family.”

And I could not agree more. We at Dead Darlings were thrilled when Kitty agreed to this interview so let’s get to the good stuff.

Rachel Barenbaum: Kitty, congratulations on the publication of your second novel, The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights. Tell us, What is your book about?

Kitty Zeldis: When Russian born Bea is forced to flee her homeland in the late 19th century, she settles in New Orleans and finds a job taking care of a baby in the home of a wealthy family. She meets a young man, falls in love and gets pregnant; the young man dies of yellow fever before he can marry her and she’s left entirely on her own–no family, no friends, and, because her employer has turned her out when her condition is discovered, no means of support. She finds her way to Storyville—the designated area in which prostitution is legal—and after giving her baby daughter away, becomes a prostitute and eventually a highly successful madam. But in 1917, the government ends this period of legalized prostitution and Bea is forced to examine the choices she made years ago—and their ramifications. She decides to leave New Orleans, heading to New York City in order to locate the daughter—now grown—whom she gave up. With her is Alice, an orphaned teen Bea has in essence adopted. The ways the lives of these three women intersect, at times driven apart but ultimately coming together, is the basis of the story.

I am a little obsessed with books about secrets and the ways in which secrets from the past always seem to find a way to bubble up and cause chaos. Why did you structure this book around secrets? And how do you think secrets in general propel historical fiction?

Secrets, both in fiction and in life, add a lot of tension, suspense and drama; that’s why I love them! I think they resonate so deeply in fiction because of the inherent shame they contain: we hide what we are afraid to share or reveal. Bea has a big secret she has been keeping for years, and when she gets to New York, she must now add another secret: who she was and what she did in New Orleans. She’s good at this; she’s been doing it for decades. What she doesn’t realize is the toll that keeping these secrets exacts—she is forced to conceal her true, authentic self from the people she loves most. In the end, she comes to see that the price is too high.

What part of the novel was the most fun to write? What did you enjoy the most?

I was not expecting to write the character of Catherine at all; she was supposed to remain off stage, and when I decided to bring her into the story, I had a lot of trouble because I felt I didn’t know her, who she was, what her conflict was. But when she started talking to me, I didn’t want her to stop! It was such a surprise—and a relief.

Your book is set in New York. It features one New Yorker and two women who recently arrived in the city from New Orleans. What kind of research did you have to do to make these women come alive on the page and to build their backstory?

I did a lot of reading about the period, and I also took a trip to New Orleans where I hired a guide to create a custom tour for me: there were places and neighborhoods I wanted to see, and I also wanted to see how the city was laid out. The extravagant and opulent mansions that housed the brothels on Basin Street were all gone though; I had to rely on photographs and descriptions written at the time.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I feel it’s kind of presumptuous to assume what a reader should or will take away from a novel. But I hope readers enjoy the story and feel some sense of kinship with or at least understanding with the women who populate it.

You have been a writer and around writers for many years. What surprised you about writing this book? What did you learn about publishing your first book that has informed this second book?

The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights is actually my ninth novel; Kitty Zeldis is a pen name and I’ve written seven other novels under a different name, so I’ve been around the block. What’s made this and the last novel, Not Our Kind, different is the role social media has played in promoting the book and finding readers. At first the fear was that the Internet would be the death knell for novels and novelists. Not so! Instead, there is a vibrant and passionate book-loving/book-discussing/book buying community out there! It’s wonderful to be able to connect with readers because without them, we writers are just talking to ourselves.

What advice do you have for new writers?

It sounds so obvious, but keep writing! And don’t think you need to have vast, unbroken stretches of time to work. Instead, set more manageable goals. When my kids were young, I gave myself the goal of writing two pages a day, five days a week. Sometimes I could write more, but if I reached my quota, I was satisfied. Also, find yourself a community of writers with whom you can share your work and this does not mean your spouse, mother or best friend. You need someone who is engaged in the same struggles as you are, someone who is in the trenches with you.

Kitty Zeldis is the pen name of an award-winning writer who is based in Brooklyn. Her last novel, Not Our Kind, was set in post-war period New York City and Connecticut.

Keep reading in this series