Sunday Brunch: Three Spooky YA Authors Answer Frolic’s 5 Questions

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[Note from Frolic: Our resident YA expert Aurora got the opportunity to interview three authors with spooky books in honor of Halloween. Up first, her chat with author Kat Ellis!]

Aurora: What was your inspiration behind your most recent novel? 

Kat Ellis: Harrow Lake was inspired by an amalgamation of creepy things, such as my love of horror movies like The Babadook and urban legends like Slender Man, but there are also parts of the story that have some real-life roots. For example, the monster in Harrow Lake, Mister Jitters, was the product of a sleep-paralysis dream I had a few years ago where a demonic creature was watching me sleep, and making terrifying clicking sounds with its teeth. And the caves where Mister Jitters lives have pretty much been transplanted from near my home in North Wales. 

But the deeper story — that of screwed-up families and the dark secrets they keep — was something which evolved with the characters as I wrote. I’m happy to say none of that was inspired by my own upbringing!

What character in this novel do you most relate to and why? 

Definitely Cora, the local girl Lola befriends in Harrow Lake. Cora and I both grew up in small towns, raised on whispered myths and legends, and we both have an appreciation for the macabre. For me, that’s probably down to the fact that I was brought up playing in the cemetery next to my grandmother’s house, rifling through my dad’s VHS horror collection on weekends, and devouring all the Welsh legends of witches and dragons, curses and magic. Cora has Harrow Lake’s local lore to revel in; she has creepy caves and sunken graveyards to explore, and a keen desire to attach stories — and meaning — to her surroundings. I think that’s a part of her I took from my own bones.  

Why do you feel novels with powerful and unique characters are so popular and have such a voice right now? 

I think readers, especially teen readers, have always been drawn to powerful and unique characters, whether they’re saving the world or figuring out their own identity. But maybe — hopefully — our understanding of what it means to be ‘powerful and unique’ has evolved; become more inclusive and diverse, and something that speaks to a broader range of people and experiences. 

Please describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it. 

Harrow Lake is a horror-thriller about Lola, the 17-year-old daughter of a celebrated horror filmmaker, who arrives home to find her father has been brutally attacked in their New York apartment. She’s sent to stay with a grandmother she doesn’t know in Harrow Lake, Indiana — the isolated town where Lola’s father’s most iconic horror movie was made, and where Lola’s estranged mother grew up and met Lola’s father as a teen.  

When Lola arrives at Harrow Lake, she finds a town obsessed with its own dark past and the legend of Mister Jitters: a monster who preys on the locals, and who might have had something to do with Lola’s mother’s disappearance 12 years ago. As Lola is drawn into the search for answers, she starts to question what is real, and whether she’ll ever get out of Harrow Lake alive. 

Readers of Harrow Lake can expect an eerie, dark horror-thriller that’ll keep them on the edge of their seats this spooky season, and leave them questioning what really makes a monster.

What’s next for you in the bookish world? 

My next book, Burden Falls, comes out in the summer of 2021. It’s a small-town YA thriller with plenty of chills, a healthy dose of murder, and a ghostly town mascot called Dead-Eyed Sadie. 

Aside from working on edits for that, I’m also doing a lot of fun virtual panels and events, and starting work on what will hopefully be my next-next book!

Who is your current favorite writer? Why? 

I was recently introduced to the graphic novel writer and artist Junji Ito, and am now obsessed. The first book of his I read was Uzumaki, about a town in Japan which becomes infected by spirals, and one by one the inhabitants meet horrific spiral-related ends. It’s such a unique concept for a story, and executed so mesmerizingly through both the art and the text, that I know Uzumaki and Ito’s other works are going to be ones I come back to time and time again. 

Any writing advice for aspiring writers?  

Embrace the weirdness. In all of my books, the things I’ve been least sure readers would buy into — like a tree hung with teeth, a haunted weathervane, a vindictive giant squid — have all been the things readers loved most. While relatability is important, it’s the quirks that make stories unique and memorable. 

Up next, Mara Fitzgerald!

Aurora: What was your inspiration behind your most recent novel? 

Mara Fitzgerald: I got the idea for Beyond the Ruby Veil from a dream. I woke up from an intense vision about two characters who were looking for something. I immediately began to interrogate this—what were they looking for, and why was it missing in the first place, and why did it matter so much to them? Slowly, the answers became clear: they were looking for water, and it was missing because one of them had killed the only person in their city who could make that water…and it mattered so much not only because they would die without water, but because they were personally responsible for this crisis and needed to prove they could fix it. As the story started to take shape, a lot of my favorite things subconsciously made their way in—classic fantasy with a portal element, settings with a goth feel, and dark humor, to name a few. 

What character in this novel do you relate most to and why?

Of course my main character, Emanuela, has some parts of me—I’ve given her the gift of a lot of my fears and insecurities, for one thing. But in many ways, I am much more like her best friend, Alessandro. I am non-confrontational and very much prone to getting lost in my own head. I am, after all, a writer, not a bold adventuring protagonist! If I was truly like Emanuela, I would have no interest in sitting down and carefully tinkering around with books about other people. She’s nothing if not self-absorbed. 

Why do you feel novels with powerful and unique characters are so popular and have such a voice right now?

I think they’ve always been popular, because characters like that are always compelling. In regards to the current moment, a character who feels larger-than-life has an element of escapism to them. These sorts of characters can be good people or bad people or morally gray people—the point is that we get to disappear into their heads for a little while. Novels have a particular gift for providing that interiority. We can really feel as though we’ve stepped into someone else’s shoes. Emanuela’s head is a terrifying place to be, and I would never want to live there permanently, but as the writer, I can’t deny that it’s almost cathartic to leave the terrible parts of the real world behind and get to be an unapologetically selfish girl in a fantasy land. I hope readers can experience that escape, too!

Please describe the content of your latest book and what readers can expect from it.

I just finished Iron Heart, the sequel to Crier’s War by Nina Varela. The books are a classic tale with a modern spin—two girls from opposite sides of a conflict fall in love while, at the same time, unraveling the dark secrets behind their fantasy world. Readers can expect lush world building, a delicately-rendered romance, and writing so good I had to keep pausing to highlight bits of amazing prose!

What’s next for you in the bookish world?

Beyond the Ruby Veil is a duology, so I’m currently working on the sequel, where we will find out just how terrible Emanuela can be. The rest is a mystery!

Who is your current favorite writer? Why?

I can’t choose just one! I’ve recently loved books by Kacen Callender, Roseanne A. Brown, and Alexis Henderson. Callender has an incredible range in their work—whatever genre and mood you like, you can find it. Brown and Henderson each have one book out so far—A Song of Wraiths and Ruin and The Year of the Witching, respectively—but they both have such a command of prose and fantasy storytelling that I can’t wait to see what they do next! 

Any writing advice for aspiring writers? 

Don’t be afraid to take a long time on a project if your intuition is telling you that’s what it needs. Don’t be afraid to listen to your intuition, period—especially if society is telling you that your stories and your point of view are “unwanted” or “not marketable” or “doomed to fail.” Find writer friends whose vibes and opinions you love, and genuinely cheer on their successes. It makes the journey a whole lot more fun! And—cannot stress this enough—if you have a brilliant idea about your book while lying in bed in the middle of the night, write it down!

Last but not least, a chat with author Jennifer Donnelly!

Aurora: What was your inspiration behind Poisoned?

Jennifer Donnelly: Ever since I was little, one thing in Snow White scared me more than anything else – and it wasn’t the evil queen. It was the mirror. That eerie, disembodied voice got to me. I wanted to know who was in there. And why did the queen listen to him? Where did his authority come from? I wrote Poisoned to find answers to these questions. I learned what’s in the mirror, and it’s every bit as scary as I thought it would be.

Tell us what to expect from this book.

Hmm…without giving too much away…you can expect a huntsman who does exactly as he’s told. A heart in a glass box. A haunted queen driven by a menacing figure. Crows. A prince. A very tall spider. Strudel. And a life-restoring kiss. But above all, you can expect a plea for kindness. The Snow White character – in my story her name is Sophie – is a kind, gentle person, but kindness is not valued in her stepmother’s court. It’s seen as a sign of weakness, as something shameful . Sophie is mocked and disparaged for being who she is, but – as readers will see – sometimes the thing that makes you all wrong is the very thing that makes you perfect.

Why do you feel books with powerful and unique themes are so popular and have such a voice right now?

I think it’s because people are hurting. They’re worried and scared, suffering and grieving, and they want something strong and sure to hold on to. And stories are the strongest, surest things I know. They are enduring and unbreakable.

What’s next for you in the bookish world?

I’m working on another fairy tale retelling. Can’t say much now, but I’m so excited to share it with readers!

Who is your current favorite writer? Why?

I just finished reading The Mirror and the Light, the final book in Hilary Mantel’s brilliant trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell – Henry VIII’s fixer. I was spellbound, loved every word, and am heartbroken that it’s over!

Any writing advice for aspiring writers?

Never, ever give up. It took me ten years to write and publish my first novel. There was a lot of self-doubt, and frustration, and rejection along the way. Those were hard, lonely years, but I learned something so valuable that I really want to share with aspiring writers and it’s this: No one can ever guarantee that you’ll get published, but one person can guarantee that you won’t – and that’s you, if you quit. So don’t. Keep going, keep writing. Don’t ever give up on yourself.

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