Sweet Sixteener Ruth Lehrer recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener Dawn Kurtagich about her debut YA novel, THE DEAD HOUSE (Orion Publishing, August 6, 2015 (UK) and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, September 15, 2015 (US).
Dawn Kurtagich is a writer of creepy, spooky and psychologically sinister YA fiction, where girls may descend into madness, boys may see monsters in men, and grown-ups may have something to hide. By the time she was eighteen, she had been to fifteen schools across two continents. The daughter of a British globe-trotter and single mother, she grew up all over the place, but her formative years were spent in Africa—on a mission, in the bush, in the city and in the desert. She writes over at the YA Scream Queens, a young adult blog for all things horror and thriller, and she is a member of the YA League. Her life reads like a YA novel.
Twenty-five years ago, Elmbridge High burned down. Three people were killed and one pupil, Carly Johnson, disappeared. Now a diary has been found in the ruins of the school. The diary belongs to Kaitlyn Johnson, Carly’s identical twin sister. But Carly didn’t have a twin . . . Who was Kaitlyn and why did she only appear at night? Did she really exist or was she a figment of a disturbed mind? What were the illicit rituals taking place at the school? And just what did happen at Elmbridge in the events leading up to ‘the Johnson Incident’?
Ruth: Congratulations on a really scary book coming to both the U.K and the U.S.! THE DEAD HOUSE has multiple time lines and is very non-linear–when you were writing how did you keep track of it all?
Dawn: It was a little like working with a bowl of slippery spaghetti on some days. Other days it was like trying to unpick knotted cotton threads while trying to sew a sock at the same time. I relied on my calendar for the timeline events, so I would input everything as if the scenes were my own appointments, and then thought about how long certain things would take. For example, if my character Mike was admitted to hospital for cuts to the face, how long was the hospital likely to hold him? How long would [spoiler] be admitted for [spoiler]? *grins* I researched procedural police techniques and how long bureaucratic things took, applications, forms, when an officer could to what and when, and made sure I logged every single piece of information I might need.
Ruth: THE DEAD HOUSE is incredibly visual, almost like a movie. Do you have a background in the cinema? Watch a lot of horror movies?
Dawn: I’m definitely a movie junkie. I didn’t study cinema, but I tend to write as though I’m watching something happening—and I am, in my brain-cinema. And then finding the words to translate the scene is such a fun adventure.
Ruth: The concept of Dissociative Identity Disorder (D.I.D.) is surreal enough for those of us who don’t have it. What was your thinking when you added the paranormal aspect to the experience of the character?
Dawn: Many reasons, two listed here: One, because this book was always about duality and the alternative explanation; D.I.D versus what someone who has this condition might think: A supernatural experience. Second, because some people with D.I.D do actually think that what’s happening to them is a spiritual encounter before they are diagnosed. Imagine waking up in strange places. People telling you that you did things you have no memory of. People yelling at you for breaking something in an area you’ve never been to. What might you think? I would think: I’m crazy, or I’m possessed.
Ruth: I see in the acknowledgements you thank a family member with D.I.D. What kind of research did you do about D.I.D.? Did your family member read the manuscript?
Dawn: Yes, I did research into D.I.D, spoke to a specialist D.I.D psychologist, and most importantly, drew from mine and my family member’s experiences. The family member did read it, yes, and was surprised at how connected they were to it, and in particular to Kaitlyn’s inner demons. I was honoured to be told that. Having said that, I was able to take certain liberties, because the question still remains: is it D.I.D in Carly/Kaitlyn’s case, really? Because of this question, I could do things like have two alters come out at timed intervals, night and day, which as far as I have read and experienced, does not happen. I could also give Kaitlyn and Carly therapy in a way that would never happen in the true treatment of D.I.D (certainly not in this century). This is the fun of being a writer, but also of maintaining integrity as an author.
Ruth: What was the revision process like? Did your editor move a lot of stuff around? Cut? Add?
Dawn: Revision was surprisingly simple and fairly short. There weren’t any scenes moved around, but one was added in earlier (a new scene entirely) to back-up what comes to fruition in the second half of the book. Both of my editors made the whole process amazingly fun.
Ruth: I read the ARC which didn’t have the pictures yet. Did you pick the pictures? Did you have input? When you visualized the book did you think of it as having pictures?
Dawn: Because of the nature of the story, I was hoping for images, but not expecting them in the slightest. And when it was decided that pictures would be used, it felt like dream come true (on top of having the actual story published). I was involved with four of the pictures that appear in the final book. In fact, my good friend and author, Kat Ellis (author of BLACKFIN SKY, PURGE and BREAKER [forthcoming] took photos of her beautiful little sister, Amy—she also features in the The Dead House book trailer—and the publishers chose the images they liked best for certain scenes in the narrative. Look out for more of Amy though, she is not done with THE DEAD HOUSE yet! 🙂
Lightning Round Questions:
What are you reading now?
THE SECRETS WE KEEP by Trisha Leaver
Do you read a lot of horror/thrillers? Any horror recommendations for beginners (the wimps trying to expand their horizons)?
For a younger audience you can’t go wrong with GOOSEBUMPS and FEAR STREET. R.L Stine is a master. Some Stephen King books are also fairly tame, but you have to know how to pick them, or you might end up cowering under your duvet until morning! I’d recommend slow builders or slasher horror to start with. Maybe a murder mystery horror like Gretchen McNeil’s TEN, or something a little gothic like the classic THE WOMAN IN WHITE which was brilliant and beautiful. It’s probably best to leave HOUSE OF LEAVES by Danielewski for later . . .
Favorite books when you were a “young adult”?
Funnily enough, I read Juliet Marillier (historical fantasy) and Jacqueline Carey (Alternative history fantasy) mostly. And if not those, then I read Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, WUTHERING HEIGHTS—lots of classics, fantasy and literary fiction. I still love all of those. In terms of horror as a young adult, I read IT, CARRIE and MISERY. Loved every page. 🙂
Are you a planner or a ‘wing-it’ kind of writer?
A little of both. I read an interview recently (or did I watch it?) with Victoria Schwab where she summed up her process (and mine) very nicely. She said she is a stepping stone sort of writer. Laying down a trail of stones (core scenes) and then letting yourself write freely to reach those stones. The only difference for me, is that I fluctuate in how I write, so it changes, but it usually comes back to the stepping stone (or cookie crumbs) method.
THE DEAD HOUSE did not follow this method, however. I had to plan fairly carefully, but only a few steps ahead at a time. At certain points, I had to believe the psychological reading of my novel, like Dr. Lansing. At other times, I had to believe Kaitlyn and Naida and the supernatural side. so I had to divide myself in half and believe to the core of my being which ever side I was working on. When I didn’t, I didn’t believe my own words, and I knew a reader would never either. So I couldn’t know too much. Since that was the case, I also had no idea what the ending was until I got there. It really is a book of many untruths. I couldn’t believe any side, or know where any of this was going, because none of my characters did, and I needed to keep that authenticity.
What’s your best advice for those writing scary tales?
Remember the importance of the things not seen. The things that can’t be explained. Those things are more scary, sometimes, than a vampire running at you dripping blood. Sometimes nothing is scarier than something.
If you could give some advice to yourself as a teenager, what would you say?
I’d say: It’s going to be awesome. Don’t worry, kid.
About the Interviewer:
Ruth Lehrer is a writer and a sign language interpreter. Depending on who she’s speaking to, she says she is an interpreter and a writer, or a writer and an interpreter. She lives in the woods of western Massachusetts. Her debut, BEING FISHKILL (Candlewick Press, 2017), is a literary coming-of-age novel about a hardscrabble young girl whose tentative family bond with a new-to-town single mom and her precocious daughter is suddenly threatened by the reappearance of her own unstable mother, long presumed dead.
You can find Ruth Twitter.