Interview with… Cordelia Frances Biddle

It’s late February and I’m feeling good! Several of my projects are all lined up: publication, editing, writing something new, revisiting. I’ve gone from wandering around aimlessly at the end of last year to full-on bam-bam-bam.

Today I’m delighted to introduce you to another Vine Leaves Press author, Cordelia Frances Biddle.

Cordelia writes fiction and nonfiction, is addicted to historical research, and loves to explore the dark places in the human heart. Her newest novel is They Believed They Were Safe. Prior fiction: Sins of Commission, The Actress, Without Fear, Deception’s Daughter, and The Conjurer. The five mystery novels are set during the early Victorian era in Philadelphia. Her first novel, Beneath the Wind, examined colonialism during the Edwardian Age.

Nonfiction: Biddle, Jackson, And A Nation In Turmoil: The Infamous Bank War, and Saint Katharine: The Life of Katharine Drexel.

Cordelia teaches creative writing at Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College. She is the recipient of the 2021 Drexel University Adjunct Teaching Excellence Award.

Hello, Cordelia, and welcome to the Fountain Pen. Tell us a little more about yourself.

I grew up revering books. The all-girls school I attended lauded its athletes. That was not me. Not by a long shot. I don’t know whether I chose bookish solitude out of protest or whether authors and imaginary places beckoned me into a more complex world where poetry and poetic images held sway. Given that I was always rebellious, my choice was probably a combination of both factors. At the time, we lived in an 18th century farmhouse outside of Philadelphia. I was convinced it had a ghost and equally convinced I could communicate with her. And, yes, in my mind, the ghost was a woman.

Even now, as I walk the streets of Philadelphia, I peer into upstairs windows of historic residences and wonder who dwelt there and what travails or joys their lives encompassed. I have a sense of existing within differing eras, of hearing supposedly vanished voices. That belief in time travel led me to write I Remember You (recently completed), a novel consisting of interwoven short stores spanning Philadelphia’s tumultuous history. The house is the narrator, addressing the reader directly. AND there are ghosts! I’ll keep you posted re publication…

A narrator house and ghosts? I’m hooked already!

How did your writing career begin?

I started crafting my first novel, Beneath The Wind, while acting on the soap opera, One Life To Live. I had a tiny part and was alone in a dressing room for hours at a time. What better opportunity to write! A pitfall was “soap” dialogue and questionable plot devices. I came home each night and threw out my hard-won pages. That experience, painful as it was, taught me how to remain true to my own voice, while hopefully creating a credible narrative arc that moved according to character development, rather than a scriptwriter’s whim.

My experience as an actor and my studies of the technique encouraged me to dig deep into motive and character development. Even the most problematic and heinous persons believe in their own credibility and viability. Working in theatre also allowed me to appreciate the collaborative process – which is why I love editors. I met my husband, Steve Zettler, when we were both actors. As our careers shifted into writing, he and I penned twelve murder mysteries together under the pseudonym Nero Blanc. We each brought our unique perspectives to the series and melded them into a third voice. And we had fun.

Why literary fiction? Did you choose it, or did it choose you?

I write nonfiction as well as literary fiction. The genres choose themselves. A commonality in both is my devotion to historical research. I need to immerse myself in other cultures. My Martha Beale mystery series takes place in Philadelphia during the 1840s. I selected the time frame because the city had not yet been “consolidated” as the metropolis it is today. A criminal could escape by disappearing into another geographic section of the town. The series gave me an opportunity to examine the chasm between wealth and poverty and the role of women within all segments of a patriarchal society.

 When writing nonfiction, Biddle, Jackson, And A Nation In Turmoil, or Saint Katharine: The Life Of Katharine Drexel, I use my instincts as a fiction writer, looking for motive and again, placing myself squarely within other historical periods and mores.

My newest published novel, They Believed They Were Safe, may seem like a departure from my previous works, but it’s not. Set in 1962 in a small New England college town, it examines an enormous social justice issue: what happens to victims of sexual abuse?

What do you hope your readers take away from your work? What are you trying to achieve?

I want readers to confront tough topics: misogyny, sexism, child abuse – and in the case of Saint Katharine – the United States’ pervasive, violent racism.  While researching that book, I had to come face to face with the horrors inflicted by the Ku Klux Klan; while writing about Martha Beale, I addressed the fact that children were sold into prostitution – among other gruesome crimes. They Believed They Were Safe deals with rape.

How do you approach a new project? Are you a plotter or a pantser, or somewhere in between? Where you do get your ideas?

I would love to be a plotter! But I admit to being a pantser. Characters burst onto the pages while I’m in the midst of writing. I never know where they will take me, or if their motives are well intentioned or not. In Beneath The Wind, a Robert Browning poem, “Incident of the French Camp” kept repeating itself in my protagonist’s brain. Although my father was a R. Browning fan and I’d memorized the poem as a teen, I had no idea why my protagonist, Eugenia, became fixated with what was essentially a paean to Napoleon. Nor did she, but every time she opened her diary, new lines appeared. The tragic denouement revealed the connection between Eugenia’s psyche and the novel’s grim conclusion.

Even in nonfiction, I’m a pantser. Historical research: an article in a period newspaper or an advertisement for a runaway slave will yank me in new directions. It’s only when I’m finished a first draft that I fully examine narrative arc and human intersections.

The idea for They Believed They Were Safe came to me in a dream.  I’m given to vivid dreams, and always listen to my characters’ tales of nocturnal enchantment.

Tell us about your most recent publication.

They Believed They Were Safe is set in a world where all appears peaceable and nurturing. 1962 was pre JFK assassination, allowing the residents of my fictional New England college town to exist in a pleasant bubble of their own devising. When Mabel Gorne, a Midwestern graduate student arrives and takes up residence with an older, childless couple, all hell breaks loose. It was a difficult book to write because I was conjuring up disastrous misunderstandings and heinous abuse. Henry Alston is the most brutal character I’ve invented. I often wonder if I truly invented him, or whether he exists in some nether zeitgeist…

How did your relationship with Vine Leaves Press begin? Was it a conscious decision to work with a small press rather than a Big 5 or self-publishing route?

Vine Leaves Press published my husband’s novel, Careless Love. His experience was everything an author could wish: hands on, a collaborative relationship with a great editor, and everything that the Big 5 do not offer. My experiences with those folks left me jaded. I was thrilled when VLP gave me the green light. The cover of They Believed They Were Safe is the most compelling artwork I’ve ever had.

What’s next for you?

I’ve just started continuing Mabel Gorne’s story. She’s a survivor, but her experiences have left her feeling shattered and alone. How she will find the means and stamina to heal will be an intriguing path for us both to follow.  I say “both” because all my characters – whether fictional or factual – become partners. I listen to them, consult with them, wait for each to speak and each to stride forward. I journey with them.

That sounds like a compelling continuation to Mabel’s story. Good luck!

You can learn more about Cordelia and her books on her website and connect with her on Facebook.

12 thoughts on “Interview with… Cordelia Frances Biddle

  1. I found the part about writing on the set of the soap opera, but being stuck with soap opera dialogue and such really interesting. It’s just not something I would have thought of as being an issue until reading this, but it makes sense, of course. The same goes for using an acting background to be able to flesh out characters.


  2. Hi Annalisa and Cordelia – how very fortunate you met a husband who shares your love of words and writing. Fascinating interview … I loved reading it … as too knowing your publications with your husband – under the pseudonym ‘Nero Blanc’ – cheers Hilary


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