Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Interview with Kris Waldherr, author of the Victorian gothic novel The Lost History of Dreams

Kris Waldherr's accomplished debut novel The Lost History of Dreams, set in Victorian times, is suffused with Gothic atmosphere while playing with genre tropes.  In 1850, Robert Highstead, a post-mortem photographer, is asked to transport the remains of a distant cousin, noted poet Hugh de Bonne, to the stained glass chapel in Shropshire where Hugh's beloved wife, Ada, had been laid to rest years before. Ada's niece Isabelle, however, proves unwilling to unlock the chapel to fulfill Hugh's last wishes unless Robert listens to her account of the couple's  tragic love story. Thus two intertwining storylines are unfurled, each heightening the experience of the other. Kris Waldherr is a talented visual artist, and her skills are reflected in the writing, with its subtle attention to detail and multilayered themes.  Hope you'll enjoy this interview, as well as the novel!


I love the Gothic themes and haunted Victorian atmosphere of The Lost History of Dreams. Where does your interest in Gothic literature originate?

It’s hard to recall ever not being fascinated by the Gothic—I was that precocious kid sneaking into the adult section of the library. I’d read the nineteenth century greats, like the Brontes and Victor Hugo, as well as contemporary authors such as Victoria Holt and Daphne du Maurier. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I yearned for a life on the moors where I’d live in an old house crammed with secrets and ghosts. I was obsessed with the sheer romanticism of it all, especially if there were ghosts involved. The irony is I now live in an old house that’s had its share of ghostly visitations. In particular, there’s a spot on the stairway that seems to be a draw. Members of my family have caught glimpses of shadowy figures there—even our cat seems to sense something. That written, the longer we’ve lived in this house, the quieter they’ve become.

Isabelle tells Robert that while the public venerates Hugh and his poetry, “no one knows about Ada” – and she later reveals the details of a life that’s been hidden from view. It all reads smoothly, but how challenging was this story-within-a-story approach to conceptualize and write?

I’m glad the story-within-a-story reads smoothly because it was incredibly tricky to write! I especially struggled to keep one story from overpowering the other—I spent a lot of time editing for this alone!

I knew from the beginning I wanted The Lost History of Dreams to have a nested story structure akin to novels such as The Thirteenth Tale and Possession. But how to go about writing it? After several experiments, I ended up writing each storyline separately, then combining them into one document using Scrivener. One storyline is written in a close third person, the second in a more omniscient point of view that occasionally breaks the fourth wall. On top of that, I included letters and poems, which were intended to add another layer of commentary, if you will. Finally, I revised the novel for pacing, plot, and tension—I needed to have each storyline hand off to each other in a way that felt organic. I also made a spreadsheet diagramming the the two timelines, to keep all the details straight. When I printed out the spreadsheet, it filled the length of my large worktable!

I was also curious if Ada’s character was modeled on anyone from history. Are there any historical women, muses or partners to their more famous 19th-century husbands, that you feel deserve to be better known?

Ada wasn’t modeled directly on anyone, though her character was definitely informed by Gothic tropes, primarily the one of the orphaned heiress at risk. That written, I couldn’t resist giving Ada the same first name as Ada Lovecraft, Lord Byron’s brilliant mathematician daughter—the name was a wink at Hugh’s Byronesque qualities. As for historical women who deserve to be better known, there are so many! If we’re talking nineteenth century muses and wives, off the top of my head I’d love more people to learn about Elizabeth Siddal’s poetry and paintings, and Jane Morris’s brilliance as a needlewoman. Both remain better known as Pre-Raphaelite adjuncts to Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris than they do as artists in their own right.

Where did you come across the concept of eye portraits and then decide to include them in the novel?

Eye portraits, aka Lover’s Eye jewelry, were fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries with couples having secret affairs. It was a way to wear a physical representation of your beloved while keeping your involvement on the low down—most people can’t identify who someone is from only an eye. I first learned of eye portraits from an exhibition catalogue a friend had out on her coffee table. I was instantly intrigued by their beauty and history, and knew I had to somehow work them into The Lost History of Dreams. I hadn’t expected an eye portrait to end up on my book cover as a design element, but I’m delighted it did!

During your research trips to England, were there any facts or topics you learned about that you might not have discovered otherwise?

For me, research travel is an essential part of my creative process. I can’t really write in depth until I’ve personally experienced the landscape and architecture surrounding my characters. I especially love walking in their footsteps, getting those sense memories.I was glad to visit Herne Bay, a seaside resort Ada and Hugh visit during their courtship. I’d assumed Herne Bay had a sand beach, but turns out it’s quite rocky—very different from what I’d envisioned even after studying period photographs. I was also surprised by how the water seemed less oceanic than I’d thought, and how close various landmarks were to each other. Herne Bay wasn’t very glamorous, to be honest—more like the Jersey shore than the Cote d’Azur.

One aspect I found especially memorable was the beauty and mystery of the chapel called “Ada’s Folly,” especially the stained-glass windows. How did you come up with the design of the chapel?

Strangely enough, the initial inspiration for Ada’s Folly was a newspaper article about a Paris apartment that hadn’t been opened in seventy years. For some reason, this led to my imagining a glass chapel in the woods that had been locked since its creation; I wondered what might be found inside. From there, I read about Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill and other architectural follies. In terms of the design for Ada’s Folly, I was inspired by a photograph of an abandoned chapel in a French forest taken by Romain Veillon; the photograph served as my computer desktop while I wrote Lost History. I also read about neo-Gothic stained glass of the nineteenth century and the history of French stained glass after the Revolution, which is a fascinating story onto itself.

What do you enjoy most about writing historical fiction?

I love the world building that’s involved in writing historical fiction, how richly immersive can be. Though I’m fascinated by all the details, I’m especially intrigued by how history influences character and visa versa. I also love exploring the social constraints of a period, which spurs ideas for plot and character. Sometimes when I’ve finished work for the day, it’s a shock to turn from the nineteenth century back to contemporary Brooklyn!


The Lost History of Dreams by Kris Waldherr (Atria; April 9, 2019), is a story about a post-mortem photographer who unearths dark secrets of the past that may hold the key to his future, in the gothic tradition of Wuthering Heights and The Thirteenth Tale. Waldherr effortlessly spins a sweeping, atmospheric gothic mystery about love and loss that blurs the line between the past and the present, truth and fiction, and life and death.

Kris Waldherr is an award-winning author, illustrator, and designer. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, and her fiction has been awarded with fellowships by the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts and a reading grant by Poets & Writers. Kris Waldherr works and lives in Brooklyn in a Victorian-era house with her husband, the anthropologist-curator Thomas Ross Miller, and their young daughter.  Visit her website at


  1. Reading this right now, only about 60 pages in but it's good.

    1. Hope it continues well - I really liked the ending!

  2. I'm way partial to Gothic novels - I'm definitely going to read this. And thanks for an excellent interview, I enjoyed it.

    1. I grew up reading Gothic novels, so the genre's always been a favorite for me. This one is more moody than out-and-out creepy, but that's what I prefer. Thanks for your comments on the interview!