Horror author Jennifer McMahon:
"I am a big scaredy-cat!"
Jennifer McMahon is the Oh, The Horror series' featured author at 7 p.m. Thursday, October 24, in the Library Center auditorium. She often hears, "I don't usually read this kind of book, but..." See why in our interview with her.
The idea actually came from my editors at Doubleday and my agent — they'd been talking about me and decided it would be great if I wrote a haunted house book. I honestly wasn't very enthusiastic at first. There are already so many great haunted house books out there, and it had never crossed my mind to write one myself. But I promised I'd think about it — because that's what you do when your agent pitches you an idea!
I spent the next week or so pondering, thinking about haunted house books I love — The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining, The Little Stranger — and thinking about how I could approach this classic story from a new angle, how I could make it my own. And it hit me — what if instead of moving into a haunted house, my characters build a haunted house from the ground up? My partner and I actually built a small house in the early 2000s, so I had some real-life experience to pull from. I knew immediately that was the way to make it "my" haunted house story, and I started writing!
I don't really think much about genre when I'm writing, but I am naturally drawn to creepy and mysterious things, and to how the past influences the present, so those elements definitely find their way in! Ultimately, I'm trying to write the best story I can and to do that, I'll sometimes have to move back and forth through time, have a historical storyline, tackle an old mystery and even throw in a ghost or two.
I do think each of these elements — mystery, supernatural, and historical — adds a layer that helps makes the book deeper and more rich. I'm building a world, and hoping that each layer will pull the reader in just a little bit more. What's really fun for me is when I hear from all kinds of readers who enjoy my books, people who usually stick to mysteries, or women's fiction, or horror, yet find something that speaks to them and draws them in. I often hear, "I don't usually read this kind of book, but…." — I love that!
I say, "Come to the dark side!" My stories are primarily about regular people living their lives who suddenly face some sort of extraordinary circumstances, and have to adapt. The characters and their relationships to each other and what they learn about themselves are really important — I'm never going for non-stop scares or gore. That said, "The Invited" is meant to be scary, and there are some scenes that (I hope!) will give readers chills. So maybe don't read it alone in the dark!
I tend to think the past is inherently haunting — don't we all have at least one memory (I have many!) that haunts us? Whether it was something wonderful we fear we'll never experience again, or something we did that we regret deeply, or something awful we wish could forget? And of course, on a larger, collective level, the human race is "haunted" by all we've done that's led us to the present — the horrifying things as well as the beautiful things.
I think both being a mother and a daughter have shaped my writing. I had a particularly complicated relationship with my own mother and I feel like that's a theme that comes up again and again in my own writing. I was also raised by my maternal grandmother, who was a psychiatrist, one of the first women to graduate from her medical school in the 1920s. So on the one hand, I had my mom, who struggled with mental illness and alcoholism, and was teaching me to believe in ghosts, do séances and leave offerings for the spirit world; and on the other hand, there was my grandma, teaching me to rely on science and reason, to always look for rational explanations.
Being a mother myself has been huge influence. My daughter is a constant source of inspiration and makes me question everything I think I know about motherhood and life in general. Watching her grow up brings back so much of my own childhood and adolescence. She and her friends also sometimes just straight up give me ideas — the modern-day storyline in The Winter People, where a teenager and her younger sister wake up one morning to find their mom missing, came from a story Zella told me.
All the time! I am a big scaredy-cat! I'll be writing a creepy scene and I'll totally get myself all freaked out, sure there's someone (or something!) lurking in the dark corner of my office. My partner and daughter are used to me jumping, sometimes even screaming if they pop in unexpectedly while I'm working on one of these scenes. When I was writing "The Winter People," I could barely look at my bedroom closet without having a panic attack — was it better to leave the door open or closed? (If it was closed, I couldn't see what was in there. If it was open, whatever was in there could come out...). I consider it a good sign if I scare myself when writing!