Author Libba Bray returns to the worlds of young adult literature, the supernatural

Libba Bray
Libba Bray

Texas native and New York transplant Libba Bray is a young adult author whose first book, A Great and Terrible Beauty, became a New York Times best seller in 2003.

The first in what became known as the Gemma Doyle trilogy, the novel introduced readers to a world of mysterious magical secrets in Victorian England.

After writing two more books — one about a boy with mad cow disease and another about a group of beauty contestants who get stranded on a desert island — Bray has returned to the realm of young adult, supernatural thrillers.

Bray, below, will visit Joseph-Beth Booksellers on Tuesday to discuss and sign copies of The Diviners, the first book in a new trilogy — this one decidedly American.

Set in 1920s New York, The Diviners centers on Evie O'Neil, a young girl sent to live with her uncle. Always the life of the party, Evie thinks her uncle, who curates the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, is beyond dull until mysterious occult-linked murders require his expertise to solve. What's more, Evie realizes her secret gift might be able to help catch the killer.

Evie is a diviner, meaning she can touch objects and psychically read their history.

In Evie's own words, "Sometimes the pictures I see are faint; other times, they're stronger."

Evie's gift is one example of the uniquely American supernatural world Bray created, which contrasts sharply with the magical British world of her first trilogy.

"With the Gemma Doyle trilogy — a series that had a sharp learning curve for me in this area — I wanted a magical place and magical powers that were both a contrast to the Victorian world the girls inhabited as well as a reflection of it, like a Mayfield Parrish painted over an Hieronymous Bosch," Bray wrote in an email.

"For The Diviners," she wrote, "I was dealing with an American mythos, and so I wanted to draw on America's rich supernatural history.

"I eschewed certain supernatural creatures — werewolves, vampires, werepires, vampwolves — for the strictly ghostly or vengeful spirit/ demonic category. I felt that whatever powers our diviners possessed had to be narrower in scope and hopefully tied to a numinous world: clairvoyants, telepaths, mediums, dream walkers, perception benders — like the love child of Carl Jung and Nathaniel Hawthorne."

In other words, there is no wand-waving in 1920s New York, a period that intrigued Bray because it marked a unique turning point in the American saga.

"I was drawn to the 1920s, which is such a rich period in American history, filled with glamour and corruption and great slang," she wrote.

Speaking of slang, the book is peppered with quaint, antiquated Americanisms that are reminiscent of early Hollywood films.

"Arguably, New York City was the pinnacle of modernity in the 1920s," Bray explained. "It was where it was all happening. You've got the Harlem Renaissance, the Ziegfeld Follies, the growth of radio, Vitagraph Studios out in Brooklyn, the building of skyscrapers and subways."

Writing about a girl embracing her secret gift — and fighting a battle against evil — at such an active and pivotal time in history appealed to Bray's imagination. And while The Diviners is set almost 100 years ago, Bray points out that we are living in a similarly pivotal era of history, which had been her original inspiration.

"I had really wanted to write something about post-9/11 America" Bray wrote in an email.

"The past decade has seen huge changes in American life and, I think, in our identity as Americans," she said. "I was troubled by it and I wanted to explore that in some way.

"When I began to do the research on the 1920s, I found interesting and, at times, uncomfortable parallels between what was happening then and what is happening now."

While Bray's work might focus on specific eras in history, getting to know her characters deeply is the most important part of her writing process.

"As a former playwright, I find that the more I know about my characters, the easier the writing is for me," wrote Bray, who has a theater degree from the University of Texas at Austin.

"Ultimately, the thing I'm always striving for in the writing are those small moments of honesty and vulnerability in which some aspect of the human condition is laid bare," Bray said, "a moment that opens up something hidden within me as well."