The Furnace Girl Q & A
Q & A with Kraig W. Moreland
Q. How did you become so interested in the Elfrieda Knaak case?
A. I’ve always been fascinated by this strange story. Salem is known for “witches” and Lake Bluff, Illinois, is known for “Elfrieda.” The story of Elfrieda Knaak is a tale every child in Lake Bluff learns as part the history curriculum in middle school. I grew up in Lake Bluff and back when I was in junior high school, my history teacher Miss O’Hara would tell the story of the girl who was discovered naked and burned in the Village Hall basement. After I graduated from college, I moved back to Lake Bluff and became involved with our local history museum as a board member. One fun event we ran each fall was the Lake Bluff History Museum Ghost Walk where haunting stories of our town’s past were re-enacted by local actors at various points of our downtown business district. I started as a guide and then worked my way up to co-producer, writing and setting up the technical effects for the Knaak story - my favorite story of the Ghost Walk.
Q. What inspired you to tell the story?
A. One of the “scenes” acted out in the 2008 Ghost Walk was about the Lake Bluff Orphanage (LBO) that housed and served nearly 10,000+ children from 1894 to 1969. It was clear from all the questions asked during the scene that there was more that needed to be told. I decided to use my film-making skills to produce a short documentary. I headed around the country with my black camera and lighting bag on a journey to interview former children and staff that spent time at LBO. After hearing stories of children running away from the orphanage and finding a clue about the Knaak case, I started formulating a narrative about how a boy would run away from the orphanage and become an accidental witness to what has always been an unsolved crime.
Q. How did you and Toby meet?
A. Lake Bluff was and still is a place populated mainly with young families. After I graduated from college, I moved back to my childhood hometown and rented an apartment right next to the Lake Bluff Village Hall. Toby was a young, 20-something minister who ran a small church in a neighboring town and lived in the apartment adjacent to mine. Since there weren’t many people our age living in town, and seeing how we were both sports fanatics we naturally gravitated toward one another and a great friendship ensued. Little did I know we would be working on a book project together about a story that took place 20 yards to the west of where we first met.
Q. How did you come to ask Toby to write the book?
A. After I finished the documentary, it took me roughly two years to put the pieces of the story together for the book. I needed to find the right voice to write the story. Right about that time, Toby made a return visit to town to guest preach in Lake Forest. I knew Toby had written two books based mainly on religious themes - so after he returned to Petoskey, Michigan, I gave him a call. I explained I had a story I dreamt about getting made into a movie someday - but in order for that to happen a book needed to written first. I asked him if he would consider writing it. He said, “Well what’s the story?” And I replied, “Get comfortable because I’m going to talk for about an hour” - and I did. When I finished, he said “Dude, you want me to write that story? That is a great story!” The next morning the start to Chapter 1 was in my inbox.
Q. How did the writing process work?
A: Many people will be surprised to know Toby and I only met one time during the three years it took to write, edit and design the book. The only time we physically saw one another was at his wedding at about the one year mark and we didn’t even discuss the book during those two days. After the initial discussion about the plot, I told Toby I would narrate the chapters by voice memo and then send them to him via email. So the process started by me recording voice dictation messages for the first six months and then emailing it to him. I would record a six to seven minute narration as if I were describing a scene from a movie. Toby would then write a draft and send it to me. I would look for inaccurate information or make suggestions for improvements and then we’d move on to another chapter. After about 25 chapters were complete, Toby had three trusted friends read the manuscript. There was a major rewrite at this point based on feedback that there were two different narratives. After this was fixed, the rest of the manuscript was finished. Then three more focus groups read and reviewed the book. After their feedback was incorporated, the editors Margaret Kelley and Leslie Basedow worked for 10 months making corrections and revisions. During the final editing process the cover and interior were designed.
Q. How long did it take to write this book?
A. Almost three years - but if you want to factor in the time spent doing the orphanage documentary and the research it took putting that together you can add another two years to that … so five years total. I must confess - I thought this was only going to take about a year. This project has really changed the way I look at books these days. Until you’ve gone through the process yourself, you’ll never understand how long it takes and how much work is involved.
Q. Are you going to continue authoring books?
A. I guess I’d answer that by saying I need to wait and see how this first story goes. I’ve got no less than five to six more stories up my sleeve that involve Lake Bluff. I can see this literally turning into a “Lake Bluff” series that goes back in time before 1928. There was a true story about a romance / affair that took place at the orphanage by someone I interviewed who I think people would find compelling. And there are several other things that happened in Lake Bluff’s shady past before 1928 I think people would love to read about. Some are downright scandalous and there were small “hints” to these in this story. First rule in show business is "always leave them wanting more." There’s more to come.
Q. Are you planning to adapt the story to the screen?
A. That is my ultimate goal. When I first reached out to Toby and asked him to write this I told him I’ve always seen this as a movie or an eight-part Netflix drama. But you can’t have a movie until you have a screen play, and you can’t have a screen play until you have a book. So the book was the first step. The mysterious case of Elfrieda Knaak will be featured in a new prime time show that will air nationally this fall hosted by WGN’s Larry Potash. We filmed the interviews and even went into the basement of the village hall where the furnace once stood to film segments for the show. Perhaps when this story airs and as the book gains some momentum it will garner the attraction of someone connected to Hollywood.
Q. What were some fun facts about chapters that people might find interesting?
A. There were several true stories that took place that were used in the book. “Saving Lazarus” the story of trying to rescue a bird that had become strangled in a tree by string and was suffocating was a true story. The story of what happened at Lake Bluff beach was based on a real event as well, but that took place at a different time.
Q. Who came up with the Chapter Titles?
A. That was all Toby’s department. I tried to respect the role of the writer. So I never tried to micromanage that process. Throughout the process I always looked forward to seeing what he was going to come up with.
Q. How was the book title chosen?
A. The working title for the manuscript was "The Refiner's Fire"… something Toby came up with. I actually really liked it, until I discovered there were 19 other books on Amazon with the exact same title. One had just been released and they were all mainly books on religion. I went back to my old advertising days and took all the newspaper headlines that were written back in 1928 hoping to find a title from a few keywords. Mystery, Burned, Conflict, Torture, Probe, Victim, Death, were all words used over in over in newspaper headlines. But the other thing I noticed was they stopped referring to Elfrieda Knaak by name after the first week and started to refer to her only as "The Furnace Girl" - and when I read that for about the third time I said 'That's IT!- it's The Furnace Girl." Toby came up with "The Mysterious case of Elfrieda Knaak" and noted the importance of the word "case" instead of "tale." A "tale" is often a made-up story - but a "case" is something that is true.
Q. Do you like attending book signings and doing speaking engagements about the book?
A. I am a teacher and entrepreneur and Toby is a minister. We spend the majority of our time talking in front of groups of people and we get a lot of energy from it. I built an exact scale replica of the furnace that once existed in the village hall from architectural plans I got from the U.S. Patent office (based on the serial number found on the furnace unit). I also worked from photos. My hope is to bring the furnace around to different events and let people have an interactive experience they won’t forget!
Q & A with Toby Jones
Q. What is your favorite book of all-time and why?
A. I have to go with John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. Owen is such a compelling character with a profound faith and a deep sense of purpose. His faith and purpose lead him on an incredible journey, one that is not easy for those in his life to understand. I’ve felt that way through much of my life, plus I was always a shrimp, the shortest kid in my class from kindergarten through tenth grade, much like Owen Meany. Irving writes with such humor and theological profundity, a mix I find irresistible. It helps that most of that book takes place on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, a place where I taught English for many years. Irving was a student there and absolutely nailed his depiction of the academy.
Q. What's your favorite under-appreciated book?
A. I love Irving Stone’s fictional biography of Vincent Van Gogh Lust for Life. I learned so much about Van Gogh and was inspired to take a pilgrimage through all of Holland, attempting to see as many of his paintings and settings as possible. I’ve always been a huge fan of Van Gogh’s earliest period, when he worked with only charcoal, and Lust for Life helped me understand where all that darkness came from. Plus, as a pastor, I was super inspired by Van Gogh’s work as a pastor in the coal mining towns outside of Amsterdam.
Q. Does writing energize or exhaust you?
A. Both, I suppose, but probably more the former than the latter. For me, writing is nothing less than creating a world and getting to live in it for a while. Characters become friends, roommates. At its root, writing for me is always an exercise in compassion; I genuinely “feel with” my characters, and such an emotional outlay is always exhausting. It has to be. But what a privilege to write – to entertain, to inspire, or to instruct. If such work is exhausting, bring it on!
Q. Is there another writer's "style" you tried to replicate or use as inspiration when writing The Furnace Girl?
A. It’s weird, but I’d have to say there isn’t. The reason that’s weird is that I am a total imitator in virtually everything else I do. From a very young age, I was a master of vocal impersonations – John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Howard Cosell, As a musician, I’ve been performing for over 40 years and still don’t know what my own voice sounds like, because I’ve always sung other people’s songs in their particular vocal styles. As a former tennis instructor, I constantly modeled my strokes and those of my students after particular players. But as a writer, I have no sense of any other voice than my own. I’m sure I’ve been unconsciously influenced by certain writers, but I write with a fierce commitment to my own voice and don’t have any idea how I’d go about imitating another writer’s style, even if I wanted to.
Q. What was the most interesting historical fact or piece of information you learned while writing The Furnace Girl?
A. This is a question better posed to Kraig, who is the undisputed master where facts in the Knaak case are concerned. We had so many conversations over the last 3 years that would start with him saying, “Did I tell you that…” then he’d lay some incredible fact on me that I would simply have to write into the narrative. But if I had to pull out one that really blew my mind, it would have to be the fact that no record of Elfrieda Knaak’s autopsy report exists in either the Lake County jurisdiction nor in Springfield. If that doesn’t suggest some sort of conspiracy, I don’t know what does.
Q. What was your favorite scene in The Furnace Girl to write and why?
SPOILER ALERT !
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A. I love the chapter “A Day at the Beach.” Artie is one of my favorite characters from the moment he was introduced. His physical limitation coupled with what led him to the orphanage in the first place was gut-wrenching enough. But to write this drowning scene was an incredible challenge emotionally as well as practically. I still cry every time I read it, and in many ways I view it as the critical turning point in the entire story.
Q. What scene in The Furnace Girl was the biggest struggle to write and why?
A. It is a tie between the opening scene “A Conversation with Detective Hargrave” and Chapter 30 – “The Coroner’s Jury.” These scenes are loaded with facts – some critics might even say overloaded with facts. We had so much information we felt the reader simply had to have in order to understand and ultimately buy Kraig’s theory of what really happened. I revised these two chapters so many times, that a part of me never wants to see them again.
Q. You have two other works you published based on your spiritual journey. Compare writing those to your experience collaborating on a work of historical fiction?
A. There is no comparison. I wrote those books to give voice to my spiritual journey, things I felt needed to be said to free Jesus of Nazareth from the ridiculous things his supposed followers were saying and doing in his name. Those books were written without any collaboration or assistance. I was telling my story, my spiritual journey. But from the beginning, this was a story Kraig wanted to tell – his story, his theory. It’s a very different enterprise trying to tell someone else’s story. Obviously, I wanted to be faithful to his theory, but there was still a great deal of freedom in it. He gave me the skeleton of the story but trusted me to put flesh and bone on it. I’m glad he gave me that freedom because the deeper I got into this project, the more these incredible characters got into me. At a certain point, I had to balance being true to Kraig’s story with being true to these characters as they evolved. It was a tremendous challenge but also a ton of fun.
Q. Do you write regularly when you are not working on a book?
A. As a pastor, I write a four-page message or sermon to be delivered to a live audience every single week. So yes, I’m writing all the time. I also do a lot of teaching, particularly in the area of World Religions, and my teaching requires a lot of writing as well. I used to do a fair amount of journaling but not so much lately.