Saturday, February 15, 2014

Winter People: Jennifer McMahon, inspired by what scares kids

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. 

A sleeper? Whoa, creepy. Can you give us just a tiny hint of where you went with it from there?

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.


  1. What is it that makes clowns so scary, anyway? I don’t remember ever being afraid of Clarabelle . . . .
    However, being alone in the dark with everything so quiet . . . yeah, that was creepy scary. I don’t remember a lot of scary things from my childhood, but I’ve always been creeped out by horror films and I remember being “hide your eyes, crouch behind the chair” scared by the film “Invaders from Mars” even though I really loved most science fiction . . . .

  2. Jennifer, your "The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old" is so intriguing I'm definitely adding your book to my to-be-read pile . . . .

  3. I had many nightmares as a child and I walked in my sleep, so that was pretty scary to wake up in the living room too paralyzed with fear to get back to my bed. And I read Poe and Conan Doyle at way too young an age, so I scared myself by imagining that I could hear the telltale heart beating beneath the floorboars or I could see that snake coming out of the grate in the ceiling above my bed. I still can't watch scary creepy movies (although we're into season two of House of Cards now, and that's pretty scary creepy!).

    But I'll make an exception for Jennifer's books!

  4. Dolls and stuffed toys can be scary, too. I LOVED the movie Babe and bought both of my kids a Babe stuffed toy. They insisted that they were both demon pigs and would not have anything to do with them.

    The truly scary looking and hairless, rubber headed Bert puppet they loved.

    Back to boring captcha...

  5. My older son was terrified of ET for three and thought ET was hiding in his closet at night. Cute little ET!

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  7. Scary? Mom dropping me off at nursery school was the worst I can remember. I think I screamed for two days.

  8. Ooh, cue the creepy music! Isn't that every child's fantasy when their parents are "mean" to them? To have them suddenly taken away? It's both exciting and horrifying at the same time.

    I have never understood being afraid of clowns, either, but I have also never understood clowns in the first place. They're just bizarre.

    My big terror as a child was triggered by watching the cheesy, black and white old movie, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". It was on after school, so it was broad daylight when I watched it, but for years I was unable to be in the basement alone at night, and never in the dark. If I had to go down there for some reason I would tear up the stairs as if the hounds of Hell were after me.

  9. I wasn't scared of much as a child, other than my irrational fears of spider and bridges. When I was 13 or so, my younger brother and I were home alone and we heard a knocking sound from the basement. Our Doberman looked at the floor with his head cocked to the side. When we heard it again I grabbed my brother and told him we were going to my friend's house. Before we could get out, my dad came up, holding a broom and laughing. He'd tapped the handle on the ceiling. My most unusual experience with fear was in college. I read an Ellery Queen novel called "A Fine and Private Place" that creeped me out so badly my heart started racing if my hand or foot extended past the edge of the bed. For a month. It wasn't even a scary book, there was just something in it that struck a nerve.

  10. Thanks so much, Hallie! Wow, these are some scary memories. Dolls and stuffed animals can be very scary (clown dolls are the worst!!!). I think one of the things that makes them that way is that are in between lifeless and living -- you know they're just toys, but your love and belief in them make them almost alive, and when you catch them looking at you in the dark with those blank, glass eyes -- aaaa!

  11. Whoa! This sounds marvelously creepy! And I'm ordering it today - my kinda book.

    I won't say I was exactly scared of dolls, but I never particularly cared for them. I was a book kid and never a doll kid.

    Then, I watched a TV show about a doll that scared the beejesus out of me and I haven't liked them since. I'm like - "back away from the doll, back slowly away from the doll."

  12. Dolls and clowns, no. But Charlie McCarthy-type puppets? Ewwww.

  13. My grandmother told me the foxes would steal my hair in the night (I am a red-head and we lived next to a 10,000 acre wood)so I slept with the covers pulled over my head - a habit I had until I left for America and found the sheets on my bed in the college dorm where not long enough to pull that high!

  14. OH MY GOSH, Jennifer. These books sounds so so so good and scary. If I were a person who could bear to read really scary books, I'd be all over them.

    But I'm not. I'm too nervvous....

  15. Hi Jennifer. I love a deliciously creepy novel. Yours sound terrific.

    My fears? Clowns, dolls, and lumberjacks, all from traumatic movie experiences. Also, rabbits. Night of the Lepus scarred me for life.

  16. Jennifer! so happy to see you here today and congrats on WINTER PEOPLE. (Reds, we had a lot of fun getting to know Jennifer last May. She seems like such a sweet woman, until you hear what comes out of her creepy creepy imagination:). But we love her anyway!)

    I think we are going to visit one of the scariest places in Key West today, the museum holding "Robert the doll." Robert is apparently haunted, and one writer told me his hard drive was wiped out twice when he was working on a book about Robert. Now that scares me...

  17. EEK!

    I do not want to visit Robert the Doll! I have heard about him.

    Lucy/Roberta, back away from Robert the Doll. Back slowly away from Robert the Doll.

  18. Kaye, thanks for ordering the book! And was the TV show you mentioned that Twilight Zone episode, "The Living Doll"? That's one of my all-time favorite episodes! "My name is Talky Tina and I don't think I like you..."

    Karen, ventriloquist puppets are truly terrifying!

    And Mark, your fox story belongs in a book!

    Lucy, when I was in Key West I was not allowed to go see Robert the Doll, though I wanted to very badly. Zella was pretty convinced something terrible would happen to us if we did. Be careful though! I have heard he does not like having his picture taken...

  19. I don't like clowns or ventriloquists' dummies. Eeeew.
    Living in Houston I was a rodeo fan, not a circus fan. Mom claims the evil queen in Snow White freaked me out when we saw the movie. To this day I do not like The Wizard of Oz. I found it very disturbing that this poor girl was whisked away from home and couldn't find her way back. As a child I loved horror movies and all the creepy TV shows. Twilight Zone had a story that scared the bejesus out of me. A little girl had gotten out of bed and disappeared into another dimension. You could hear her but not see her. Between that and atomic bomb drills at school, no wonder I'm warped!

  20. Jennifer, yes! "My name is Talky Tina and I don't think I like you..."

    and that line still gives me goosebumps!

    AND (I don't know how I forgot this), now I'm not overly fond of the big angels you see in cemeteries. This since watching that particular episode of Dr. Who


  21. Mark, my nightmare: your grandmother.

    One of my daughters had a morbid fear of squirrels. She would not not not rid her hot wheels outside when there were squirrels about, and we live in Squirrel Central.

  22. Kaye Barley, eeekk!!! The Weeping Angels are the scariest ever. I was never scared of Daleks or Cybermen--although in defense of my British friends who were terrified of them, I never saw Doctor Who until I was in late teens...) but those angels are terrifying. I used to love walking around English churchyards looking at the Victorian monuments--not so much now!

    Scary childhood memory? My grandmother used to take me to the drive-in (yes, we had a drive-in in those days) and one night the feature was a movie called The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I have no idea now what it was about, only that I couldn't sleep for weeks afterwards.

  23. Oh, Jennifer, so sorry! I got so wrapped up in scary I forgot to say your book sounds fabulous and I'm ordering it right now! I love stories with interconnecting time segments, and I love stories with a little creepiness. Perfect match!

  24. Hallie, one of my daughters took fright at a hole in the driveway, about the same size as if one stuck a finger into it. She was terrified to leave the house that way until I filled it up so she could no longer see it.

    No clue what that was about.

  25. Jennifer, kids seem to be a great source for scary ideas. I have had my eye on Winter People, and I believe it is on my Amazon wish list. I will be ordering this one for sure. I have a board on my Pinterest page entitle "Creepy Cool," so I'm fascinated by creepy, although I am not without boundaries in its realm. Oh, and I love cemeteries.

    As a child, an insect was scary to me (and still is). I have my brother to thanks for my fear of grasshoppers, as he would chase me with one, threatening to put it down the back of my shirt. I don't believe he ever did, but the threat was enough to send me screaming. Another more sinister act by a sibling (I was the youngest) involved vampires. As with most kids, I loved to be scared, but it was, well, scary. Somehow I managed to watch a vampire movie, black and white, and afterwards tiptoed into the bedroom I shared with my sister, who was already in bed with the lights out. Well, I was one scared and jumpy kid and had already grabbed a cross to sit on the nightstand. I eased into the bed, and as my head hit the pillow, my sister turned and did a vampire imitation with her lip stuck above dried teeth so her fangs would show and a snarling hiss. Don't think I've ever quite forgiven her for that terror that served to feed my fear.

    Oh, and speaking of the Twilight Zone, the boy who wished people into the corn was the creepiest one to me. So many of my peers know exactly what you mean when you threaten to wish them into the corn. LOL!

    Lucy, I hadn't heard of Robert the Doll. Do be careful. I think I might skip that one. It is just a little too spooky for me, although I must admit it has sparked my curiosity.

    I am speechless and so happy about the honor of winning the story challenge. This blog has been such a positive force in my life. I'm so grateful. Thank you. Lucy had already sent me a copy of her book, which I devoured as the delicious morsel it is. I plan on giving this copy to my friend, who is starting these novels and will be as thrilled with it as I.

  26. As a kid, I was terrified of the woman in the striped skirt on the Old Dutch cleanser and detergent boxes. Her face was averted, and she carried a cudgel. Who wouldn't be frightened of that?

    I was also terrified of forest fires after seeing "Bambi." And the whale in "Pinocchio." And the evil queen in "Snow White." (Thanks, Walt, for so many of my childhood terrors).

    Airplanes scared me until they came up with jetways-- now you just walk from one room down a hallway into another, and you never have to see the actual plane (with hundreds of thousands of flight miles under my belt, I'm still not sure I believe they can actually fly).

    I grew up in the country, so bugs never scared me-- until I went to college in NYC and saw roaches for the first time. THOSE scare me. When I clerked for a federal judge, there was, for some reason, a black mark high on one wall in the chambers, and for the entire year I worked there, I would see it out of the corner of my eye and think it was a roach.

    Clowns never actually frightened me, but they make my skin crawl. Worse than roaches. Magicians, too. Also acrobats. No idea why, but they all creep me out.

  27. Yay, Jennifer--I am such a fan! ANd I will see you at the Big BOok Club at Mohegan Sun, too--if there isn't a blizzard.

    Yeah, I dont hink clowns are one bit scary. Not funny, either.

    Mark, the FOXES would steal you HAIR?? Yow. That is--ca-reepy.

    What was I afraid of as a kid? I was a big Twilight Zone fan, and LOVE to be scared. I wasn't big on dolls, either.

    I was pretty petrified by the book Dracula, I must say. And slept with my arms in a cross to keep away the vampires. I guess it worked.

    We'e had Robert the Doll on Jungle Red--Julie Hyzy brought him, remember?

  28. Oh, right, ROACHES. Yes, indeedy. And those fast-moving water bugs, and centipedes. But there's nothing weird or wrong about being scared of those.

    1. Fearful of Them Too..Not Weird Just Bad Dirty..

  29. Oh, yeah-- the book, "Dracula." So I was about 11 years old, and staying alone in the big victorian house out at our summer place (everyone else was in the other houses, but it was a choice of either the screen porch in one of those houses, or the big house, and I chose the latter because there was a storm brewing). "Curse of the Cat People" was on the TV, and I was reading "Dracula." And then the storm came up. Way to scare yourself silly.

  30. I was afraid of the Banshee and of ghosts; I believed in both. Later, vampires were pretty scary after I read Salem's lot

  31. These are all so great. Karen, I love the hole in the driveway story -- such an oddly particular fear. Kathy, I can see grasshoppers being scary if they were dropped down your shirt! Our siblings can scar us in so many ways... Ellen, the woman on the Old Dutch cleanser does sound terrifying when you describe her like that!

    Deb, I remember seeing several scary movies at the drive-in -- so much scarier than being in a theater or the safety of your living room.

    Hank, I'm looking forward to seeing you at Mohegan Sun and Sleuthfest -- and yes, fingers crossed we are spared any more winter storms!

  32. Being left alone alone at night. There was a hurricane. Tall pines were being uprooted. I didn't know how to use the telephone.

  33. Hi Jennifer..Having read and sometimes Discussed Your Books.."Promise Not To Tell" My first and continued on..Living in Vermont,How Lucky we are!!
    Your Books Actually Become Alive for you can Imagine...Will Finish "The Winter People" before you come to Manchester Center The Northshire Bookstore...Ghosts,Vampires,Werewolves Have no fear of..(They all live Peacefully in VT) Blaming "Stephen King" "It" ClownFear!!