Radha Vatsal is the author of A Front Page Affair (2016) and Murder Between the Lines (May 2017), the first two novels in the Kitty Weeks mystery series set in World War I-era New York. Her fascination with the 1910s began when she studied women filmmakers and action-film heroines of silent cinema at Duke University, where she earned her PhD from the English Department. She was born in India and lives in New York City. She is also co-editor of the Women Film Pioneers Project.
Q & A
1. Tell us about the Kitty Weeks Mystery series. What should we know about Kitty and her world?
The series is centered around Kitty, a young reporter for the Ladies’ Page of the New York Sentinel. While you can pick up the books out of sequence, my aim for the series as a whole is that it tells a coming-of-age story: for Kitty as she matures into an adult during the 1910s; for women—who win the right to vote by 1920; and for the country—the United States transitions from being a second-tier nation to a leading world power during these crucial World War I years. But we see all these big-picture stories unfolding through Kitty’s eyes, and through her investigations. She starts off ambitious, but naïve and a bit sheltered—she’s well-off, she drives her own car, she’s a recent graduate from a Swiss boarding school. But these attributes are also her strengths. She’s an outsider, a keen observer, and independent. She can get around. She’s thrust into a world that’s rapidly changing around her and she has to figure it all out in order to make something of her herself.
Each book in the series tackles a different mystery that Kitty has to solve, and she grows and changes through each of her adventures. All the books will shed light on a different aspect of what was going on at the time, and all are closely based on historical research.
2. Speaking of which, how do you do your research?
I like to go to primary sources, and when I started delving into the period a lot of materials hadn’t been digitized so I had to go to the New York Public Library, which fortunately, has an amazing reference collection. I spent a lot of time looking at books published during the early 1910s—for example, decorating guides, exercise manuals. I also studied floor plans of different apartment buildings and the amenities they offered in order to pin down where Kitty would live and what type of home she has, and so on.
When historical characters—for example Anne Morgan, JP Morgan’s sister—speak in the novel, I like to remain as close as possible to their own words. So, I try to read books or articles written by them or about them from the 1910s. I go to secondary sources to get a general overview, but as far as specifics are concerned I much prefer to go back to original material because that’s where you find little unexpected bits of information that add something special to a character.
I try not to research too far ahead. For instance, while I know big picture outcomes—who wins the war, that women do get suffrage—like Kitty, I don’t know the outcome of specific issues. It’s only when I began researching Murder Between the Lines that I realized that President Wilson and the German government were still arguing about the Lusitania into 1916!
3. How does your background, both in film, and as a woman who came from India as a teenager to study in the U.S. shape the books you’ve written?
Without studying silent cinema, I doubt I would have discovered the 1910s as this fascinating and rewarding period in which to set a mystery. I also discovered the wonderful action-heroines and the actresses who played them—who were the inspiration for a character like Kitty. (I've written on the action heroines of silent cinema here.)
Coming from India to attend boarding school in Connecticut on a scholarship as a teenager was a pivotal moment in my life. I was old enough to be able to look critically at the world I was entering, but also young enough to assimilate very quickly. I remember a friend telling me, “I keep forgetting you’re not American.” I used to forget that I wasn’t American, too! But it’s this divided identity that gives Kitty her unique viewpoint—she can be in a certain milieu and seem like she’s part of it, but she also has the perspective of an outsider looking in. This doesn’t exempt her from the consequences of her actions of course, but it does make her an effective, although unlikely, detective.
Funnily enough, I think my childhood in Mumbai helps me to imagine New York in the 1910s. I grew up amongst a very colorful cast of characters from all walks of life. And my family was and is filled with strong, outspoken women. My grandmother ran a large and rambling house in the style of a bygone era. Watching her converse with the tradesmen—everyone from the upholsterer to the fruit seller to the man who fixed broken necklaces—and hearing them talk about their families and life gave me some insight, I think, into a more a personal time. A time when you knew the person who brought your milk and sewed your clothes—although by the 1910s in New York that was slowly changing.