Kathy Reel! Congratulations! You are the winner of our story challenge! A copy of Lucy Burdette's MURDER WITH GANACHE will be winging its way to you just as soon as you email me at Hallie "at" HallieEphron dot com with your mailing address.
HALLIE EPHRON: Lucy Burdette and I went on tour some months back in North Carolina (yay, mystery maven Molly Weston!) with Jennifer McMahon, so we heard bits about Jennifer's new novel, The Winter People and I've been looking forward to it every since.
I fell in love with Jennifer's work when I read "Island of Lost Girls." It's about a little girl who's kidnapped from from her mother's car by a life-sized Easter bunny.
Jennifer told us the idea came to her when she was stopped at a gas station in Vermont. A woman pulled in, left her car running, and ran into the store leaving a little girl strapped in the backseat. Jennifer's mind started to what-if terrible scenarios: what if someone came along, jumped in the car, and drove off with the girl?
What if it was stranger than that; what if it was someone in a costume: Santa, a clown, the Easter Bunny? What would she do, and who would believe her?
No one (including yours truly) does CREEPY better than Jennifer. Her new book, The Winter People, is about a town of strange disappearances, a missing sister, and an ancient diary. I asked Jennifer to tell us how she came up with its story. I was not surprised to hear that it was inspired by a child's scary fantasy.
JENNIFER MCMAHON: A few years ago, my daughter asked me to play a game -- she loved to create these tightly scripted make-believe games. She gave me the set-up: “We’re sisters. You’re nineteen. I’m seven. You wake up one morning and I’m in bed with you. I tell you our parents are missing.”
“Missing?” I said. “That’s terrible. What happened to them?”
“They were taken,” she said. “Into the woods.” She shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly and added, “Sometimes it just happens.”
I knew right away that it belonged in a book, and wrote it down -- "The Missing Parents Book," I called it. I didn't have a feeling for what had happened, though, who these girls were, or where their story would go. So, like with so many half-formed story ideas, I set it aside.
Then a couple of years ago, I started playing around with a story set partly in the Civil War, about a woman who becomes a spiritualist in Vermont at the turn of the century. She'd lost a child, but came to believe she could communicate with her and with others who had passed on.
One day, I was writing from the point of view of this character, Sara. And I wrote down this line: "The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old."
Whoa! I thought, getting chills. What’s a sleeper?
I had to keep writing to find out. Soon I understood that I was writing about a woman who believed she could bring the dead back to life. I remembered my two sisters with the parents who were taken into the woods (“Sometimes it just happens”) and knew they belonged in there, too.
HALLIE: A sleeper? Whoa, creepy. Can you give us just a tiny hint of where you went with it from there?
JENNIFER: Well, it continues to get creepier! Sara believes she can use a ritual she learned about as a child to bring her beloved daughter back to life. Her husband Martin is baffled and horrified by his wife's apparent descent into madness.
In the present day, our two sisters, Ruthie and Fawn, are living in Sara's old farmhouse in West Hall, Vermont with their quirky and reclusive mother. They wake up one morning to discover their mother is missing, and in trying to figure out where she could have gone, they discover a published copy of Sara's diary along with some other disturbing items.
I ended up including a third storyline, about Katherine, an artist in Boston whose husband has died recently -- she learns that he visited West Hall the day he died, and is determined to find out why. Naturally, her story intersects with Ruthie's and Sara's before long.
HALLIE: Have you started your next book, and did your daughter inspire you?
JENNIFER: I just finished an early draft of my next book, actually. It takes place largely at a strange roadside motel, and is set in the 1960s, 1980s and present day.
Last summer, two of my daughter's cousins -- twin girls, one year older than Zella -- came and stayed with us for a week. The twins were fascinated by the fact that I write scary books, and the four of us had many long, animated talks about what the scariest things in the world are.
Without giving away too much, there is a certain critical and creepy aspect of this next book that was inspired by these chats.
HALLIE: Inviting our readers to share what scared you as a kid... I'm sure I'm not the only one who was afraid of clowns.