Welcome to the blog, Ilsa. Thanks for joining us!
Thanks for having me!
What can you tell us about your newest novel, White Space?
Well, here’s the blurb-y part (which I helped to write, so it counts):
Seventeen-year-old Emma Lindsay has problems: a head full of metal, no parents, a crazy artist for a guardian whom a stroke has turned into a vegetable, and all those times when she blinks away, dropping into other lives so ghostly and surreal it’s as if the story of her life bleeds into theirs. But one thing Emma has never doubted is that she’s real. Then she writes “White Space,” a story about these kids stranded in a spooky house during a blizzard. Only her story turns out to be a dead ringer for part of an unfinished novel by a long-dead writer. The manuscript, which she’s never seen, is a loopy Matrix meets Inkheart story in which characters fall out of different books and jump off the page.
Thing is, when Emma blinks? She might be doing the same thing and, before long, she’s dropped into the very story she’s written. Trapped in a weird, snow-choked valley, Emma meets other kids with dark secrets and strange abilities: Eric, Casey, Bode, Rima, and a very special little girl, Lizzie. What they discover is that they—and Emma—may be nothing more than characters written into being from an alternative universe for a very specific purpose.
Now what they must uncover is why they’ve been brought to this place—a world between the lines where parallel realities are created and destroyed and nightmares are written—before someone pens their end.
White Space has been described as psychological horror. How would you define psychological horror vs. horror in general?
Oh, that’s a very good question, and actually, WHITE SPACE has elements of both. I think that horror, in general, promotes feelings of fear and awe. Think about it for a second. Take those old Bible stories—no, no, relax; I’m not trying to be a religious case here—but every time the Divine shows its face, it’s both a horrific event that inspires fear while also provoking awe. Moses can’t look at the burning bush; Paul is blinded. Stuff like that. Basically, every time that the Divine and a mortal come face to face, one look at the Divine might just drive you crazy, or kill you, or both. (It’s one of the reasons why, in some cultures, you never look a monarch or emperor in the eye, or you only speak of a king or queen in the third person.) That horrific visage is something you have to look away from at the same time that you also feel you must look. In fact, it’s a lot like going to a horror movie, if you think about it. The worst things always happen off-screen or out of the corner of your eye; I’m thinking of The Blair Witch Project here as a great example of exploiting the desire to see the horrific (especially when you can’t quite catch a glimpse and then are always straining to see or hear what you missed). And how many times have you sat through some really terrible scenes that you just can’t stand to watch . . . except you do by peeking through your fingers or squinting? You’re being a bit like Moses that way, aren’t you? Hiding your face and afraid to look, and yet desperately wanting to see, and so your fingers provide you a little distance, some mental breathing room so you don’t really feel the full impact of whatever’s on screen? You can be scared and what you’re watching can be deliciously terrifying, but you feel like you’re going to live through it, and it’s not so bad. But, essentially, horror like that lasts for as long as your fear level’s kicked up a notch to that sense of not being able to look away. Anything less, and now you’re talking garden-variety fear. (Not that fear isn’t horrible, but I don’t think that fear is quite the same.)
To my way of thinking, psychological horror is a little bit different because we’re talking about the mind now, and we all know how revved we can make ourselves, how much dread we can manufacture. Psychological horror owes its power to our imaginations and not necessarily what’s real. In fact, if you think of all those situations where you’ve been just dreading something . . . once you face it and it becomes real, it’s not necessarily as horrible as you thought it might be. Think about movies where characters creep around corners and everyone jumps when the cat pops out. You’re all imagining something much worse, right? You’re filled with dread, and that’s all manufactured by what you’re afraid might happen. There are lots of people, paralyzed by dread and their own imaginings, and so unable to navigate the world because they’re so terrified of what might be lurking, unseen, around the corner.
Your books often feature mature themes. How do you address these realistic situations while keeping it YA-appropriate? Is there a YA line in the sand, or is it more nuanced?
To be really honest, I never think about this; I just do it. I tell the stories that I want to tell, and I don’t worry about the rest. I guess you could say that, basically, I’m all about taking risks and pushing the envelope. (And, honestly, if a kid isn’t interested in what you’ve written, he’ll put the book down and go to something else.)
I sometimes think that adults don’t give kids any credit for being able to handle risky “mature” themes. Heck, if you think about it, in times past kids as young as twelve, thirteen, fourteen were getting married, going to war, having babies . . . our definition of maturity changes with the prevailing culture. Turn on the TV news, and there are plenty of mature themes kids are exposed to every day. They’re either interested, or they turn off the TV and go blow up aliens on their computer games.
Adults worry too much, you ask me. There was a great article in The Atlantic about this just the other week, about how over-protected kids are these days—how risk-aversive and increasingly dependent they are—primarily because their parents are so bloody anxious and want to shelter them from every single little bruise and bump. You should check it out: http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/03/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/
How does your work as a child psychiatrist impact your YA fiction?
I’m not trying to dodge this question, but I also don’t know how to answer it. It’s kind of like asking me how being me impacts my writing, you know? I’m a child shrink, and I’ve been one for so long that I can’t imagine not being one. I guess you could say that I think I have a better understanding of and respect for how nuanced things can be for kids, and that they think way more deeply than a lot of adults—and writers—give them credit for. Really, not everything is about how to get a boyfriend, or whether you should put out for the guy, or if tangerine nail polish goes with pink lipstick. (I remember reading a book a ton of people were just wild about, and all those girls nattered on about for pages was nail polish. Like . . . wuh? I finally couldn’t stand it and chucked the book, which is a shame because I’d had such high hopes. But . . . seriously?)
It’s not that the kids in my books are navel-gazers or broody or crap like that, but I do think kids can be pretty deep thinkers. Unfortunately, a ton of that stuff—all that drama under the surface, and there is so much of it; for a teenager, everything feels immediate and earth-shattering and as if things will never get better sometimes—is stuff that a lot of adults just don’t really want to acknowledge or hear about. But me being a child shrink . . . that was my job: to listen to kids and help them find the words to tell their stories.
What makes the zombies in Ashes different? What do you find interesting about dystopian/horror fiction?
Well, first off, there are no zombies in ASHES. (I just thought I’d get that out of the way.) The Changed don’t die; they’re not shambling creatures who only want to have you for lunch; they don’t have a virus; they don’t bite and then infect you. The Changed are fundamentally altered by something that happens to their brains. Think of it this way: they’ve undergone a major lifestyle change and are now people you really wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. Personally, I don’t think the Changed are the scariest people in my books either—although, yeah, they are pretty frightening because they’re so cunning and single-minded. They scheme; they’re very smart; they can be ruthless, and yet in some ways, they’ve got a certain purity to them, too. As you go on in the trilogy, you find that there are a couple with ulterior motives—known only to them because we’re really not privy to how and what they think—but pretty much, with the Changed, what you see is what you get. You can’t really say that about the adults in these books. In some ways, the adults are way more frightening, especially the lengths to which they’re willing to go in order to survive.
Gosh, in terms of what I find interesting about dystopian fiction . . . that’s pages and pages, seriously; I give whole presentations on this. One thing, though: dystopic fiction and horror fiction are two different animals. ASHES is not a dystopian; I know people say it is, but it’s not anything like the dystopians out there (although there are some dystopic elements in Rule; I’ll grant you that). But ASHES is an apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novel. It’s about the world falling apart and the choices people make, the rules they’re willing to make, and the compromises they’re prepared to live with in order to stay alive. ASHES is not about people trying to get out from under a brutal regime. (Although I can tell you why I think adolescents like dystopians so much: it’s because they all live in them. They’re called parents and school.)
As for my interest in horror fiction . . . I don’t know. I just like it? I tend to see the dark side of things, but that might also be my training as a child shrink talking. Hardly anyone is sweetness and light, and I’ve seen families who say they love each other but who are only bound together by hate. I guess I’m just intrigued by all that ookiness: the things that terrify people; the cruelty that people sometimes wish they had the courage to inflict as well as the petty things they do; the very bad decisions that sometimes very good people make that leads to their lives unraveling before their eyes; and the lies people tell themselves in order to justify greed or avarice or just plain meanness. Life is filled with pleasure, sure, and nice things. But we’re all capable of living down to our worst impulses.
YThank you so much for joining us on the Freelance and Fiction blog!
You’re welcome. My pleasure.
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