Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ghosts, Sarah Smith, & "The Other Side of Dark"

Welcome Sarah Smith, who made fans of many of us with her “Vanished Child” trilogy of novels and followed by the fantastic “Chasing Shakespeares,” and is out with a YA novel “The Other Side of Dark.”

It’s completely riveting from the opening lines--

THE MAN IS HANGING FROM THE STAIRS AGAIN, which means it's going to be another bad day
I slide past him without looking in his direction. He's just a shadow hanging off the stair rail, la la la, he doesn't exist, nothing to worry about.
Instead I'm thinking about Mom.
Immediately intriguing. Can’t put it down.

Sarah, who is Katie? And already wondering: Does she see dead people? Is she crazy?

SARAH: Both of Katie’s parents are dead. Her mother was killed by a hit-and-run driver just a year before the story opens. She was always a talented art student, but now she deals with the stress by—she thinks—having to draw people she read about, people who died violently, like the man hanging from the stairs in the hall of her building.

She’s sure she’s made up her father, who comes to check up on her every night. He died when she was young, and she’s deliberately turned him from the lout he was in life into her imaginary friend. “He even apologized to me. It was a good apology, since I made it up.”

But is she crazy?

As her dead father says to her, “You think you see ghosts, and you do see ghosts, but honey, that don’t make you normal.”
JRW: Tell us about the ghosts in the novel (the “violently dead”).

SARAH: In a Boston park—Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, for those of you who live around Boston—Katie sees a little boy playing outside a derelict old house. (Until recently there was a real derelict house in the Emerald Necklace.) George tells Katie that he’s living in “Pinebank” with his grandfather. Katie starts drawing him and what she draws is Pinebank burning and George about to go back in.

Then she realizes she only draws deaths that have already happened.

But George isn’t the only ghost in Pinebank. George tells her solemnly that there are other people there, “the ones we don’t talk about.” He is too innocent to see these other ghosts, but Katie does—and the ghosts realize that she can see them.

And they want something from her…

JRW: Did your family really live in a haunted house?

And still does. As a child my mother saw a ghost there, a full-bore misty white ghost recognizable as her great-aunt. (During the Second World War she also saw, repeatedly, people on the street who she later found out had been killed.)

I experienced a very strange thing in the house, which I managed to ignore until someone else staying at the house experienced the very same thing.

I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, but if I do, yup, haunted house.

JRW: This is much more than a ghost story, more than a mystery -- aren’t you really tackling some serious themes here?

SARAH: Ghost stories and mysteries tackle serious themes!

But, yes, The Other Side of Dark is a little unusual. While I was researching Pinebank, I discovered that it was owned by the Perkinses. They were major Boston philanthropists, helped to found the Athenaeum, the Perkins School for the Blind, and the MFA. And they got their money from slave trading.

Katie has a mixed-race potential boyfriend, Law Walker. When Law and Katie go ghost-hunting in Pinebank, they get into the whole history of that family and what they did—which brings them up against the history of slavery.

The mystery beyond the mystery is how we deal with that now, how we live with each other when we see those ghosts.

JRW: If people want to learn more or hear you talk about this wonderful new book, Sarah, where can they go.

SARAH: I’ll be talking about The Other Side of Dark on “The Literati Scene,” airing on these wonderful local stations:

I’m honored to be appearing with Judge Gordon Martin, who as a young trial lawyer prepared the first big voting rights case brought in Mississippi. His book is Count Them One by One: Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote.

JRW: And in honor of Thanksgiving, we resurrect the Jungle Red Quiz... with a few tweaks.

Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot?
Sarah: Who could resist that shiny bald alien head? Poirot.

Sweet potatoes with or without marshmallows?
Sarah: You are one sick group of ladies. When I have sweet potatoes in hot chocolate, I’ll have marshmallows in sweet potatoes, thankyouverymuch.

Light meat or dark?
Sarah: Either, as an accompaniment to the true star of the Thanksgiving feast, whole berry cranberry sauce.

Sex or violence?
Sarah: One from Column A and two from Column B.

Werewolves or Vampires?
Sarah: Excess body hair on men is no more attractive than excess body hair on sinks.

On the other hand, sleeping with a man whose feet are colder than yours…
Leave the man, take the cape, give the cape to Severus Snape.

Katharine or Audrey Hepburn?
Sarah: Katharine for conversation. Audrey for clothes. Those cute ballet flats.

First person or Third?


Multiple first or multiple third—The Other Side of Dark turned out multiple first, which should have been gimmicky but felt right. Multiple always.

Prologue or no prologue?
Sarah: No prologue. Never apologize, never explain.

JRW: Thanks, Sarah! On this day before Thanksgiving, Sarah will be checking in to chat, so please, chime in!


  1. I love ghost stories... and mixing in Boston history... well, so much the better.

    Thanks for sharing, I'll be putting you book on my TBR pile soon.

  2. Welcome Sarah! I don't think any of us here really serve marshmallows, but I did love your answer about sweet potatoes in hot chocolate!

    I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at Crimebake that included Sarah, Charlaine Harris, and Wendy Clinch. I could tell that this book should not be missed...

  3. Hi Sarah,
    Last time I saw you you were in full war paint (Sarah was dressed and made up to the nines at the Vampire Ball.) I've got a question re YA novels - do you ever ask yourself if you've gone too far for a YA mystery? Is there anything so scary for kids that you won't touch it. I had a young girl at a recent library gig show me some of her writing and it was extremely dark for a 12 yr old. Maybe they're tougher than we think?
    BTW Hallie just reminded me to get marshmallows for the sweet potatoes.

  4. NO marshmallows! Yuck.

    Sarah, I have "The Other Side" on my nightstand right now! Cna't wait...and I MUST get you to sign it.

    ANd wonderful answers, are hilarious, as always.

    Happy Thanksgiving, all!

  5. Hi Sarah, Happy Thanksgiving and good luck with the new book. It sounds fantastic.

    I knew I was right to join Jungle Red. I HATE marshmallows in the sweet potatoes. My son is making them for tomorrow--and he works at a tres upscale restaurant so he's been refining his recipe with the head chef--he's baking them, mashing and whipping, adding crumbled sweet bacon and some kind of cheese then rebaking to make the top crisp Sounds great.

  6. Thank you all and a Happy Thanksgiving!

    @Rosemary, I wish I were a YA expert--I'm such a newbie. But I worked with a wonderful editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, who is an expert. The Other Side of Dark has challenging material in it. Caitlyn didn't question those parts at all. But she took pains to make sure that the characters treated each other like true friends. Some of the best bits in the book are due to her.

    Look at some of the things that real people are going through at 15 year old, or younger: family breakups, trauma, alcoholism, the sickness or death of friends. We'd love to have it be all kittens and princesses for them, but it isn't.

    So having real friends is so important in YA.

    And later :-)

    @Rhys-- M'm, sweet potatoes with a crispy crust!

  7. I grew up hating sweet potatoes because my mother made them with marsh mellows. Now, I make them with BOURBON - a much better recipe.

    Sarah, your book sounds terrific. I love ghost stories anyway, but it sounds like you've added some fabulous twists.

  8. Spelling according to Jan:
    marsh mellows.
    Love it.

  9. I think a marsh mellow is a kind of a bird.

    Rhys! We need that recipe..

    And talk about spooky, Iwas just in a drug store. I had a very clear thought--buy a lottery ticket. I NEVER do that. NEVER.

    I thought, oh, well, okay. FINe. I bought a scratch ticket. Two bucks. And won 25 dollars.

  10. @Hank, clearly a case of ghostly possession. In this case you possess $25.

    Bourbon with anything, yum, @Jan. Bourbon with chocolate. Chocolate with sweet potatoes? (Didn't we do this?)

  11. Sarah, I love ghost stories and can't wait to read "The Other Side of Dark." It's right at the top of my Crime Bake pile of books to be read.

    It was great to see you at Bouchercon and Crime Bake!

  12. Sarah,
    Weighing in late as I stay up so I can pick up son & friends at a concert this Thanksgiving eve, but wow, your book sounds even more terrific than when we did our panel of sorts in Roslindale. Glad I have a signed copy that I'll start reading soon. Also, love your answers re sweet potatoes, etc., which I hated as a child, but now, well, tolerate.
    Happy T-day to you and the Jungle Red Writers!

  13. I've read it and the book is wonderful. I recommend it to all.