Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me and congratulations on your first book The Dark Beneath The Ice ($24.99, Raincoast Books, Sourcebooks Fire). How exciting is it to see your name on a book? Have you discovered on store shelves yet? What was your reaction?
Thanks so much! Having it out there in the world is the very best kind of thrill and also deeply surreal – I’ve wanted to write books since I was five years old, so it’s literally a lifelong dream come true. As soon as it arrived at Chapters, I tracked it down to see it in the wild for myself, and fortunately nobody paid any attention to the weird lady tearing up and taking selfies in the teen fiction section.
Q. Can you please tell me your publishing story. How long did it take you to write this young adult supernatural thriller? How many people did you send it to? Once it was accepted, what was the process to have it published? How long did it take?
A. I first had the idea for this story back in 2006, but it took me until 2013 to figure out how to write it – both in terms of getting the pieces of the story to crystallize and in the sense of pushing through all the anxiety and doubt that comes with putting pen to paper and hacking your way through to the end of a project. At the time, my favourite models for “understated but deeply scary ghost story” were technically middle-grade books, so I started with about 30,000 words; it took a number of helpful readers – family, dear friends, fellow writers on Twitter – and a few drafts to flesh it out to the point of viability.
Twitter was a huge help in wading into the query trenches; I threw my submission materials into several online contests and was never shortlisted, but the feedback was invaluable in determining whether and when I actually had something that would catch people’s attention. I spent about six months sending 80-odd queries to literary agents, and I was lucky enough to sign with Lana Popovic, whose eight-page edit letter was possibly the best feedback I’ve ever received. She saw right to the heart of what I was trying to do and asked all the right questions to show me where I needed to go.
Lana sent the revised manuscript around to editors, and rejections rolled in over a few months until Annie Berger at Sourcebooks Fire picked it up in October 2016. From there it was another two years and three rounds of edits (two with Annie and one with a copy editor) to publication.
So from original inspiration to a book on shelves, The Dark Beneath the Ice was 12 years and six or seven drafts in the making. Publishing definitely forces you to cultivate patience!
Q. On your website, you mention you like to write about “ghosts and monsters and other things that go bump in the night with the liberal sprinkling of weird Canadiana.” What sorts of weird Canadiana are found within the pages of your book? Why do you like to put it in? What is it about ghosts and monsters that appeal to you?
A. When you go looking for them, it quickly becomes clear that Canada is chock-full of weird and spooky places and stories – we have our very own brand of Gothic up here, expressing our various experiences of the landscape, and I’m completely fascinated by that. One of the things I enjoy most about scary stories is their ability to forever change the way you see ordinary places and objects, and it’s fun to imbue the landscapes I know and love with that extra layer of potential. The Dark Beneath the Ice, for example, is set in the west end of Ottawa, and I had lots of fun painting local landscapes – like Britannia Beach – in a new and spooky light.
I find ghosts and monsters most interesting when they reflect pieces of ourselves we can’t bear to look at head on – the pieces of ourselves that scare us, that we don’t dare to own. Casting those scary things in fantasy forms, I think, lets us look at them “through a glass darkly,” at a safe distance.
Q. What kind of research do you do when you write about things that go bump in the night?
A. My stories always seem to start with a setting, so my first stop is to revisit the place in question and soak up the atmosphere. This book reflects a number of late-night walks around the neighbourhood and a wonderful night I spent wandering Hintonburg in the pouring rain with a notebook and no umbrella. I also did a bunch of reading about neighbourhood history and what it looks like in flood conditions; I was probably the only one who was excited when floodwaters threatened in the spring of 2017. And I hit the library at Carleton, my alma mater, to read up on poltergeists and possession, particularly the case of Esther Cox.
Q. Ottawa, where you live, has its share of ghost stories, offering a pretty good Haunted Ghost Walk. Do you have any personal ghost stories? Do you want to share?
A. Unfortunately, I have never had any ghostly encounters – like one of my characters, I am about as psychic as a fence post, so maybe that’s why…
Q. Do you believe in ghosts and/or evil spirits. If yes, what do you believe them to be.
A. Let’s say I suspend my disbelief. The world is much cooler and more interesting with the supernatural at work in it!
Q. In The Dark Beneath the Ice, your main character, Marianne, is losing time, breaking objects around her and doing things she wouldn’t do. Her “first attempt at an exorcism calls down the full force of the thing’s rage.” What was your inspiration for this book? How did the story change from initial idea to final copy?
A. The first spark of inspiration for The Dark Beneath the Ice was a famous Nova Scotia poltergeist case known as the Great Amherst Mystery. In the late 1800s, a teenager named Esther Cox was pinched, slapped and even stabbed once by a spirit that made water boil without a heat source, moved furniture around and dropped lit matches out of thin air. Interestingly, in all the commentary and speculation about the case, Esther herself is silent – as in most stories about poltergeists or possession, you hear from witnesses, observers and so-called experts, but not the person at the epi-centre of the haunting. Even more interesting, these cases seem mostly to revolve around young women…and most of the commentary comes from men.
So what was it like, I wondered, to be the person in the middle of something like that? And what, or who, was the spirit in question?
The story’s evolution mostly had to do with rounding things out and filling things in. I had to get a lot more explicit about some things I had initially left as subtext, mostly because I was a little afraid of writing about them: details about family dynamics, the love story between Marianne and Ron (Rhiannon), the theme of mental illness. Ballet also became a much bigger part of the book as I dug into Marianne’s background.
Q. What do you like best about Marianne? Ron? How about Ron’s mom?
A. Marianne’s journey takes her from staying fearfully invisible to taking ownership and action, and I think, in her own quiet way, she’s very strong, though she’d never describe herself that way. I admire Ron’s badassery and loyalty. And I had a great time bouncing Ron’s skepticism and impatience off her mother’s combination of shoot-from-the-hip practicality and New Agey weirdness.
Q. Are any of your characters inspired by real-life people? If yes, who? How?
A. I poured a lot of my own fear and anger into Marianne’s emotional landscape, and I borrowed pieces of a number of other people to populate the rest of the book. Ron combines the high school shenanigans and Gothly aesthetics of a few dear friends, while her mother’s blunt charisma is based on a psychic who read tarot cards for me once. And the divorce that rocks Marianne’s family is based on my parents’ sudden split, though the circumstances and the people involved are quite different.
Q. Your second book, Here There Are Monsters, is set to be published in 2019. What is this book about? Where are you in the book journey? What do you love most about the book journey? Least?
A. Here There Are Monsters involves spooky woods, a missing sister, monsters made from sticks and bones, and awful secrets. I’ve been working on edits with the publisher over the last six weeks or so, which honestly is my favourite part – chewing through a list of things to fix is so much easier and more satisfying than hauling myself through a first draft. When I’m drafting, I never feel like I have any idea where I’m going and am constantly plagued by the fear that the answer is “nowhere.”
Q. As a mother a two and a public service editor (what is that?), when is the best time for you to write? What is your writing process?
A. My day job involves writing and editing various documents for a small government department – correspondence, text for the website, reports and whatever else they feel like throwing my way. I’m lucky enough to be working four days per week right now, so the extra day goes to writing, along with whatever time I can carve out during evenings and weekends. Before that arrangement, I generally did my writing between 9 and 11 pm (i.e. once the kids were in bed) with one evening a week where I would take myself out to a pub somewhere and write over a pint of Strongbow.
So far, when I sit down to write, I know the first act and the ending; I write as far ahead as I can see and then have to stop and untangle what’s supposed to happen next. I’ve been drafting in bursts of four to six weeks of one or two pages a day, eventually accumulating a too-short “skinny draft” that I then send to a few reader friends to tell me where the holes are. I bulk it up into approximate book-like shape over a couple more drafts before sending it to my agent.
Q. What is your next project after Here There Are Monsters? How many ideas do you have in your head at any one time? How do you get those ideas out? What is your dream project?
A. Right now I’m working on a story about being haunted by the radio, set in Sackville, New Brunswick, where an international transmission station run by CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) used to send such a strong signal that people would hear voices in their sink or refrigerator. I’ve got a couple of other fragments stashed away for further investigation once this one wraps up – I can only really draft one thing at a time! My next destination is Newfoundland in the dead of winter. My dream career is basically to jet-set around the country and write about all the weirdness I can dig up.
Q. What do you hope people will love about The Dark Beneath the Ice? What do you hope they take away from it, if anything?
A. I hope it spooks people out a bit, and I hope it leaves them thinking; my goal was to write a scary book that you could talk about in English classes. If readers walk away from it with a little less self-loathing, a little more equipped to face their demons, then I’m beyond delighted – but if it just leaves them sleeping with the light on, I’ll call that success, too.