What was Heathcliffe like before he showed up in the pages of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights? Clare B. Dunkle gives readers an answer to that question in The House of Dead Maids, published last week by Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. Teen readers and Brontë aficionados can learn more about this prelude to the classic 19th-century novel, and the story behind its creation, by following the author’s 20-stop blog tour, details of which appear on her Web site. Here’s a peek at some of what Dunkle might blog about in the next weeks—as well as a look at the impetus for the tour.
Dunkle’s novel, which centers on a young woman who encounters ghosts of former maids when she becomes nursemaid to the boy who will become Heathcliffe, grew out of her lifelong connection to Emily Brontë. The author’s mother, a Brontë scholar, wrote her master’s thesis on Heathcliffe, and Dunkle first read Wuthering Heights at the age of nine.
“I grew up hearing great stories about the lives of the Brontës and I reread Wuthering Heights many times as a child and teen,” she says. “I was fascinated by Heathcliffe and bonded with this boy who was unwanted from page one to the very end. I was acutely aware that the boy was already damaged goods before he came into that story, and that interested me very much.”
Yet Heathcliffe was not Dunkle’s first book subject. A former librarian now residing in San Antonio, Dunkle began writing in the early 2000s, when her family was living in Germany and her two teenage daughters were at a boarding school several hours away. “I didn’t want to keep writing them the same old letter from home, so instead I began writing a book and sending them installments,” she says. That book became the first novel in The Hollow Kingdom trilogy, which she eventually sold to Reka Simonsen at Holt. Several other novels followed—Dunkle sold eight books in eight years—before she refocused on Heathcliffe.
“As a writer looking around for new projects, I realized that Wuthering Heights was the perfect Victorian novel to introduce to modern readers,” she explains. “It’s gritty and rough around the edges and has no formal or mannered speech. It really was way ahead of its time—Brontë refuses to weigh in and point out who is good and who is bad, and leaves readers to make all those decisions. That’s very empowering for teens and I really believe that the novel still has the power to speak to young people.”
To research The House of Dead Maids, Dunkle visited Yorkshire, touring the Brontë parsonage where Emily lived for much of her life, with the graveyard just feet away from the home. “I also did a lot of biographical reading about the Brontës and read quite a bit of literary criticism,” says the author. “I wanted to get this book right, to make sure I captured the true feel of a Victorian story.”
Fittingly, one of the sites Dunkle will visit on her blog tour is BrontëBlog, frequented by fans of this literary clan. The tour, which was organized by Barbara Fisch and Sarah Shealy of Blue Slip Media, also touches down on blog sites aimed at young adult readers, on literary blogs, and on some blogs focusing on darker fiction.
“With shrinking print coverage of books, as freelance publicists we look for other promotional opportunities to complement publishers’ efforts,” Fisch says. “I think young adult readers, as well as teachers and librarians, are increasingly visiting these bloggers’ sites. The House of Dead Maids has received great early reviews, and this tour will definitely broaden exposure to the novel.” Each blog post will include instructions for entering a sweepstakes to win a copy of Dunkle’s novel as well as a copy of HarperTeen’s edition of Wuthering Heights.
The author has enjoyed preparing her blog posts and touts the benefits of touring virtually. “If I were physically touring, I’d be able to touch a few people in each room, but this way I can reach so many more readers, librarians, and other gatekeepers who work with young adults,” she says. “It’s a huge online community and these blog entries will live on on the Internet. Things echo and reecho in the blogosphere.”
Dunkle hopes that her tour will not only acquaint teens with The House of Dead Maids, but with Brontë’s novel about Heathcliffe as well. “I want readers to ask, ‘What’s going on with these characters? And what happens next?’ she says. “I want them to then go to Wuthering Heights to find out. That is my number one goal.”
The House of Dead Maids by Clare B. Dunkle. Holt, $15.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-8050-9116-8