Together again–and I’m so glad to see your shining face! Thanks for joining me for another exploration into where book ideas come from. And I can tell you, I’ve really been looking forward to this one.
Snuggle in, light a crackling fire or stream one on your device, because I’ve got some spooky personal anecdotes in store. However, when talking about my only published paranormal novel to date, THE DOOR TO JANUARY, I don’t so much enjoy recalling the writing process from page one to final draft because it was soul-crushingly lo-o-o-ng. So long. This one wins the prize for most frustrated tears shed, most lost sleep, most close calls with dumping the document into the laptop recycling bin, just hoping to banish it from my imagination forever. Because in a way, I was writing this story on and off for nearly two decades.
I wrote the rough draft when I was a sophomore in high school, the third completed book I’d produced at that point, and it was an embarrassing, amateur mess. The repeatedly revised fully-edited novel was published by Islandport Press when I was thirty-three. Talk about a marathon. I wrote lots of other books in between versions of TDTJ (working title WINTER PASSAGE), but I kept returning to the basic concept of a creepy abandoned farmhouse on a hill summoning a girl to help right past wrongs by way of ghostly intervention, convinced I could work out the kinks and finally write something grabby enough to get me an agent, a book deal, and a career. I suppose it says something about the spirit of the book that I couldn’t shake free from it; maybe it demanded to be written, and it needed to come from me. At least, that helps me come to terms with the time I invested, which seems crazy to me now, given that the rest of my books have taken around ten months to finish.
Part of the reason it took so long was because I simply wasn’t good enough yet to tell the tale effectively, and wouldn’t be for a long time. Some authors seem to burst into existence fully-formed, a “big bang”-style insta-novelist; they write two books and the second one gets published, viola. They’re in. The rest of us churn and churn, cringing against the maddening, helpless knowledge that we aren’t getting there–no matter how many chapters we rewrite, the captivating soul of the story we envisioned floats just out of our reach, like trying to pull down handfuls of fog. Growing pains, essentially. So we start a new idea. And each time we get a little closer.
TDTJ did receive the most partial and full manuscript requests from agents I’d ever gotten while querying, but in the end, none of them took me on. I started querying the few remaining publishers out there who still look at unsolicited manuscripts, and finally, thank goodness, Maine-based publisher Islandport Press made an offer. About three months later, the manuscript I’d spent the past nine months on caught the interest of my agent, and suddenly, it was happening. What I’d worked so long for. Two books coming out in one year! I spent the coming months afraid I would wake up from the dream, breathless; the whole thing felt that surreal and impossible. Now, compared to NYT-bestseller-anticipated debut authors whose publishers place billboards in Times Square advertising their upcoming book (this really happens, I was stunned to discover) I was small potatoes and still am, but trust me, nothing could’ve darkened those clouds I was walking on.
What followed was an insane but exciting period of five months or so where I was working with two editors simultaneously to edit two books as well as writing the second book to fulfill my two-book deal with HarperTeen, all while stumbling through the nauseated, surreal haze–though precious, so incredibly precious–of the first two trimesters of pregnancy with my middle son AND getting ready to move out of our tiny apartment to someplace which could accommodate our growing family, sooo you can understand why my memory of that time isn’t very clear. I made some stupid missteps, but did eventually reach the other side, a bit more knowledgeable, if not necessarily wiser.
In my experience, this is the nature of the debut year. Please go easy on first-time authors. It’s a strange, strange thing adjusting from being someone whose more recent jobs included stocking grocery store shelves and having customers yell at them when there’s nothing but oven-ready lasagna noodles left the day before Thanksgiving (wish I was making this up) to being reviewed by Kirkus and receiving invites to speak to high school English classes. Suddenly, people seem to respect you. They think you KNOW THINGS. You’re desperate to make everyone like you in a way you never have been before, and scared to death of letting anyone down. But you will. It’s the human side of your public face. The best I can promise is that new writers will eventually reach a more comfortable balance–usually after some negative reviews and failures in the publishing realm–where you realize the world will keep right on turning even if you’re late to a speaking event or take too long responding to someone’s DM. What really matters is family–I hope the pandemic has taught us this, too. Tangible things happening right now, like the silken feel of your kid’s hair beneath your hand when you pull them in for a kiss. That matters.
But I promised spookiness! And as much fun as remembering Lasagna Lady is, let’s move along to the spooky personal anecdote part of our program. Since TDTJ is a haunted house story, I thought I’d tell you guys about two memories which contributed to the finished book in subtle ways, mostly in creep factor, atmosphere building. I hope you’ll read on, my friends!
THE DOOR TO JANUARY
Where it Came From: So, in either late elementary school or early middle school (the mists of time have obscured some details of that particular day) my best friend at the time and I did a stupid thing: we explored a condemned house.
Now, as a parent, I think my head would probably explode if I found out one of my sons did something like this, but at the time, all that seemed to matter was that the house was right down the road from where she lived, and we were curious. It didn’t strike us as particularly foolhardy, and one of her older sisters came with us, so therefore it was no big deal, right? I don’t agree with the “kids/teens think they’re invincible” belief; I think you just don’t have the life experience to see how much you stand to lose by not surviving to, say, voting age, so you aren’t as naturally cautious. You’re just bobbing along, following whatever current your parents drop you into every day, waiting for life to really start.
Please understand that the road in question was a fateful one in my childhood. The little league field was on it, the skating pond, a big gravel pit which offered hours of fun sliding down the sides (and sometimes a dog corpse or two), and a couple notorious families with whom my friend’s parents were often having neighbor drama. Sheds were broken into, mailbox baseball was played (think Kiefer Sutherland in Stand By Me.) Some of the MEANEST older boys in our tiny rural school system lived on this road (seriously, looking back–um, budding psychopaths, by any chance? Holy . . . .) but for some reason my friends and I were so determined to prove we weren’t scared and couldn’t be pushed around just because we wore our hair in pigtails and rode bikes with plastic flowers stuck to the baskets. Also, a friend and classmate died in an accident on this road in fourth grade, a girl full of humor and vibrancy–one of those special people, you know?–who never should’ve been cheated out of the chance to grow up. This is what I mean when I say kids don’t think they’re invincible. We know death is real. The First Death teaches us that; as in, “After the first death, there is no other,” courtesy Dylan Thomas. The stunning impact felt the first time someone in your life dies who isn’t old, isn’t sick. Who had everything to live for. I still think of this particular friend all the time, more than anyone might guess. It would be a sin to forget.
Maybe this coming-of-age confrontation of mortality and a girl’s need to prove her fearlessness is why we went in the house. Maybe we were simply bored. It had sat abandoned for who knows how long, two-and-a-half stories, peeling white paint; I have no idea who once lived there or when they left. It was definitely officially condemned, the sign stuck right to the clapboards.
I remember shadows, stained walls, bits of dusty household detritus on every surface. There was a hole in the kitchen floor–we should’ve turned right around and left then, of course, but instead we merely stopped at the threshold of that particular room–the underside covered in chicken wire. I can’t imagine having a chicken run underneath your house, so perhaps the former owner put it there so no one would fall through? Anyway, the effect was cage-like and unsettling.
We went up the stairs, and here’s the most inexplicable thing I remember from exploring the house: the large, open attic was completely littered with purses, thrown all over the place. Heavy, fake leather, old lady purses like you can find by the dozen in secondhand stores, and these purses were all stuffed to the brim with some sort of ticket stubs. Blue and red ones. For life of me, I can’t remember what they said on them, other than there was handwriting with names and addresses; I was too young to know what they were, and as a result, still don’t. Why in the world would anyone have that in their attic? Some sort of small town scam? Hoarding? I just don’t know.
On our way down the stairs, my friend’s big sister blithely pointed to something over to our left–this is totally the kind of thing she would do, and also makes me think she must’ve been in the house before–and we looked over to see a rack of bones leaned up against the wall. It was a big buck’s spine and rib cage, stained brown with decay, most likely hidden by a poacher after they’d taken the parts they wanted, I suppose, since I can’t imagine scavenging animals dragging it inside a house, abandoned or otherwise. That was it–my friend and I both shrieked and bolted from the house, racing back down the road to her house, half laughing, half screaming, with that tireless wild energy of childhood.
Where it Came From – Part 2: I’ve only encountered a ghost once. I’m what you might call a hopeful skeptic; I’d like to believe, but I work pretty hard to find a rational explanation for things. There is one uncanny happening from my teen years which I can’t explain away, can’t rationalize, and even now, the memory holds a disturbing resonance, as if I could step back into it and find my place–paralyzed, listening–in that moment, as if crystallized in amber.
I was watching TV with my dad; it was night, and at that time my parents were using a room toward the back of their small 1700’s Cape as the living room, where there’s no view of the main entrances or kitchen.
We heard the distinct sound of the sunporch door–at the front of the house–opening. I knew it the way you know every creak and groan of a house you’ve lived in since you were two: the rattle of the old knob, the wheeze of the weather-stripping as the door glides inward. What followed were unmistakably a big man’s heavy booted footsteps walking through the kitchen into the downstairs room which had been converted into my brother’s bedroom. It took me a second to react, assuming it was my brother coming home from a friend’s house, a sound I was used to–until I remembered that he was away at college and had been for some time.
My dad and I exchanged a look; we had both heard the same thing, it wasn’t even necessary to speak. Dad went out to see who had let themselves into our house without so much as a knock, but there was no one. Not one single sign anyone had come through or that the door had even opened. And our dog, who generally leaped to her feet at the slightest sound of any visitor, was fast asleep and never stirred.
I tell you, it was SO odd. I can’t explain it, but I have complete conviction that we weren’t imagining things or simply hearing the house settle. And with a house as old as that one, where so many people have lived, birthed, and died right there over the generations . . . well, maybe a ghostly memory passing through now and then is to be expected.
Thanks for listening, guys. Wishing you the best.
A cool, eerie song to enjoy:
NEXT POST: THE LIES THEY TELL