Kate Summerscale longlist author interview
Kate Summerscale, author of The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story shares what the supernatural can tell us about people in the 20th century.
What does it feel like to be longlisted?
Wonderful! It’s lovely for my book to be picked out and placed in such fine company, and it was great to receive the news in the nervy moment just before publication.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
There are memoirs I love, like Hilary Mantel’s Giving up the Ghost and Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood, and biographical stories, like Alexander Masters’ A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip and Tony Parker’s Life after Life: Interviews with Twelve Murderers. For my favourite, I’ll choose Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which is both a life of Sylvia Plath and a brilliant essay on biography.
How did you conduct your research?
I started with Nandor Fodor’s book On the Trail of the Poltergeist, about his investigation of a ghost in Croydon in 1938. I used public records and newspapers to discover the name of the woman at the heart of the case, and eventually found a thick dossier of Fodor’s notes about her in a psychical research archive in Cambridge. I learnt even more when I travelled to Manhattan and to Devon to meet the descendants of the ghost hunter and the haunted woman.
How do you think The Haunting of Alma Fielding will impact readers’ perceptions of the existence of paranormal activity in the 20th century?
The book explores what the supernatural — real or imagined — can tell us about people’s fears and fantasies and secret selves. In the course of my research I learnt that the 1930s was alive with hauntings — they could express private horrors, or the grief of the last war, or dread of the next. Stories about ghosts can tell us things that are not recorded in the more conventional histories.
What are you working on next?
I’m researching a history of phobias and manias.