Interview with Anika Scott
Updated: Sep 5
The Chicago World’s Fair of 1933–1934 was, according to all accounts, a grand extravaganza. Fifteen years after the end of one world war, with the tensions that would lead to a second coming into view and the Great Depression in full swing, many factors might have dampened public enthusiasm for such a spectacle. Instead, the exact opposite seems to have occurred. From camels to incubators—with magicians and burlesque dancers, an international air show, and more—the World’s Fair had something for everyone. In this author interview with Anika Scott, we talk about how the World’s Fair inspired her third novel, released just two weeks ago.
Against the chaotic but joyous background of the Fair, Scott sets the entwined stories of two cousins, Rosa Mancuso and Mina Gallo. Rosa, although born in the United States, spends the second half of her childhood in Sicily, until a family tragedy linked to the rise of fascism sends her back to the land of her birth in search of revenge. There she renews her acquaintance with Mina, whose out-of-wedlock pregnancy has brought her into conflict with the older men who rule their family and are determined to separate Mina from her newborn baby, whatever the cost to mother and child.
It's a quick and emotionally satisfying read, with many twists and turns, intense passions, hidden pasts, and nasty deeds. Mina and Rosa are both sympathetic characters, and even some of the villains turn out to have hidden, better sides. Nor should we underestimate the role played by the World’s Fair itself. More than a setting, it exudes a kind of magic that reaches across the decades, infusing everything it touches. Read on to find out more.
You are the author of two previous novels, The German Heiress and The Soviet Sisters. Introduce us to them, please.
The German Heiress was my debut, a cat-and-mouse set in post–World War II Essen, Germany, where a German woman on the run wrestles with the wartime guilt for her family’s crimes, and her own. The Soviet Sisters is a twisty Cold War espionage tale about two sisters—one a prisoner in the Gulag, one a KGB doyenne—who have very different versions of the truth about the events one fateful summer in 1947 Berlin.
And what inspired you to set Sinners of Starlight City at the 1933–1934 Chicago World’s Fair?
After two books set largely in Germany, I definitely wanted to write one at least partly set in the US. During the pandemic lockdowns, I really missed Chicago, where I used to live, and after a little digging in Chicago historical photos, I came across a few of the 1933 World’s Fair. It looked so fun and vibrant, I had to set a book there. It felt like the perfect escape.
Rosa Mancuso, whom we meet first under her stage name of Madame Mystique, has not always lived in Chicago. What brings her to the World’s Fair?
One of the biggest events at the Fair was the arrival of a squadron of Italian pilots who flew in formation from Italy all the way across the Atlantic to Chicago. That was a big historical event at the time. Rosa goes to the Fair to take her revenge on one pilot in particular.
We soon meet Rosa’s cousin, Mina Gallo. Tell us a bit about her.
Mina is a young nurse who gets pregnant out of wedlock—already a big strike against her in that time period! But she’s also grieving for the father, who was unacceptable to her family. They try to convince her she’s better off without the baby, that she can only live a happy life without her. But Mina has her own mind.
Mina’s baby ends up in one of the incubators being demonstrated at the fair. That’s such an interesting element of the story. Could you say a bit more about that?
Baby incubators were a very new technology in the 1930s. They were displayed—with live babies!—at various fairs to educate the audience and convince people premature babies were worth saving. Back then it was common for people to argue that preemies should be left to their fate.
Rosa and Mina have to contend with some very nasty people—including some of their own relatives. In particular, much of what drives Rosa is linked to an Italian airman named Paolo. What has he done?
Paolo is a fascist officer who is responsible for the deaths of Rosa’s family in Sicily in the 1920s. What makes his crime even worse is how close he was to Rosa before he turned on her family.
One theme that runs throughout the novel is racial mixing. Both Rosa’s mother and Mina are involved in interracial relationships. Why did you include this element in your story?
Rosa and the baby have a very similar background to my own family—my parents, and many other couples in my extended family. Interracial relationships are a perfectly natural part of my world. So it was exciting to write them into historical fiction in a way that the relationships themselves, while tragic, were love matches.
Are you already working on another novel, and if so, would you give us some hints of what to expect?
I’m working on a novel set during a single night in an American nightclub in Jazz Age Istanbul, so expect big passions, wild partying, lots of intrigue and mayhem!
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Anika Scott worked as a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chicago Tribune before moving to Germany in 2001, where she now lives with her husband and two daughters. She is the bestselling author of The German Heiress, The Soviet Sisters, and Sinners of Starlight City. Find out more about her at https://www.anikascott.com.
Images: poster from Chicago World’s Fair public domain via the US Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons. Photograph of Anika Scott credit Carsten Klein, reproduced with permission from HarperCollins.