Q. In your latest book, The Evil Within (sequel to Possessions), Lindsay Cavanaugh and some of her classmates continue to be possessed by vengeful spirits. Where did your idea for a story about possession originate?
A. My father was a psychiatrist in the U.S. Navy, with many hair-raising stories to share about insanity when he came home from work. He loved to tell me about some of his more extreme patients (without naming names, of course). He would give them tests to figure out what was “wrong” with them–i.e., were they bipolar, psychotic, etc. If he got an “interesting” result, he would ask the patient to take the test again, but he would tell him or her that this time, s/he should answer all the questions as if she or he were “fine.” The scores almost always changed. A lot. As in “normal.” (He also brought my Christmas caroling group into the psychiatric lockdown ward, but that’s another story!)
So he used to talk about us being “more than one person” inside our minds. (He also loved trying to hypnotize me. I had terrible insomnia–busy brain! But that is also another story.) He thought we were having some great philosophical discussions about the nature of consciousness, but the whole subject gave me the willies (which made it tougher to sleep). I was a young teenager and I was having enough trouble figuring out who I was, much less who else I might be. But I never forgot how intrigued he was and, actually, it is intriguing.
Now I am the mom of a young teenager and one day she was acting so weird that I said, “OMG, are you possessed?” And I thought, “Wow, maybe she really is!” So I asked her, “If you are, can you just try acting like you’re fine, or could someone else in there get your math homework done?” And she just stared at me and started laughing. Like I was the possessed one. Go figure.
Q. Growing up, did you go to a private school (and was it anything like Marlwood)?
A. I did go to a private school. It wasn’t a boarding school, though. It’s called Francis Parker and it’s here in San Diego. The biggest downside was that I had to take a bus and the other kids in the neighborhood found this very suspicious. So I had my school friends and my neighborhood friends. We didn’t have school uniforms, but we did have the ugliest gym uniforms ever created, which was possibly an even more downer of a downside. They were all white one-piece belted things with enormous baggy shorts. So whose butt would not look big in such a monstrosity? I think this is where my lifelong interest in dance began, because in high school, if you took modern dance, you didn’t have to wear gym clothes. So I became a dancer. Creative, no?
Like Lindsay, my mom died when I was young–I was nine–and my female teachers at Parker were very momful toward me. One of them even took me to the Mother-Daughter banquet at school.
We had a Lower School, which was K-8, and an Upper School, which at the time held only 9th and 10th grades. The Upper School had dances. The eighth graders were invited to the last dance of the school year, which was preceded by playing a sort of “Capture the Flag” game with a kickball. By the eighth grade, I was a complete, total klutz (most dancers are) of the variety that gets picked last in team sports.
Nothing was different about this night and this team sports activity–except I won the game for my team with the tie-breaking point. It was a complete accident. The Upper School students raised me up on their shoulders and paraded me around while everyone cheered. I was in a daze. I had no idea how I had made us win. Then the cutest guy in the entire Upper School (shoutout, Dean Ouer!) asked me to slow-dance at the dance. Dreams can come true!
Despite this milestone, I dropped out of American high school in my junior year and moved to Germany, where I attended a music high school. I majored in dance, to put it into American terms. This was more like a trade school, not like the creative and performing arts high schools we have here. The only academic subjects we had were art and Labanotation, which is a “language” created to write down choreography. I lived in a women’s boarding house run by the same religious group as in The DaVinci Code–I am not lying!–and later, in a youth hostel. At the hostel, I shared a room with the maids. One of them was a Finnish girl named Arja and she gave me her extra maxi-coat because I was freezing to death. That explains my preoccupation with long coats in Possessions, and also with hypothermia.
Q. Throughout The Evil Within Lindsay struggles with doubt and never knows who she can trust–including herself. Do you think that learning to overcome self-doubt is a part of growing up?
A. I think that learning to overcome self-doubt is a part of life, period. This is one of the el biggos that stays with us all our lives. I think we become aware of it when we’re children, but as teenagers we have to focus on it more because everyone is telling us we have to take responsibility for ourselves. I used to imagine myself with a lasso, lassoing myself. “Yah! I got you!” Then I would hog-tie myself with responsibility.
A friend of mine who is a dad said: “Kids are like windup toys. You have to wind them up, set them down, and try to keep them from falling off the table.” But, y’know, what if your winder is a psycho?
The most important thing I’ve learned about that is that we aren’t just windup toys. We are fabulous creations that run on the super-charged love of the universe. It’s inside us from the day we’re born and the real quest of growing up is to find the treasure that is our own human heart. All we need is love and we already have it. No lassos needed, either.
Q. What is your favorite scene from The Evil Within?
A. That is like asking me which part of my daughter is my favorite! (I’m very partial to the part that gets her math homework done, by the way.) There were a lot of parts of my own life incorporated into this story. Without spoiling, I really like the scene where Shayna has her meltdown and in spite of everything, Mandy shows some thoughtfulness toward her. Lindsay sees it and acknowledges it.
I also love the Riley scenes. That relationship reminds me of one my first boyfriend–especially the scene in the movie theater and the drive up the coast. BTW, I have had two boyfriends with the names of famous comedians–Steve Allen and Danny Thomas. Shoutout, boyz!
I also love all the scary bits, of course. I wouldn’t be a card-carrying member of the Horror Writers Association if I didn’t!
Q. Like Possessions, The Evil Within also ends with a major cliffhanger. Can you give us any hints as to what’s coming up next for Lindsay?
A. Lindsay is going to die! Okay, maybe that’s a lie. Let’s just say Lindsay’s going to figure out all kinds of interesting things . . . including whom to trust . . . a little . . . . And she’s going to have to go through more terrifying experiences. But she is also going to learn the big lesson, which is that she has everything she needs right here and right now to be okay.
Q. Both Lindsay and Jilly, the main character in your short story, “Changed” (from Immortal), have problems with depression. Do you think that these struggles make them more relatable to teen readers?
A. I was depressed as a teenager and I even asked to see a therapist about it. I went in and we sat around, and I said, “Aren’t we going to talk with puppets or anything? At the end of the session, the guy said, “You’re fine.” I didn’t feel fine, but then I even questioned being depressed about being depressed! What the heck did I know about how I was feeling? When I write, I try to say the things my readers may be thinking but are afraid to say themselves. The best compliment I can get is when a reader says, “How did you know?”
Adults have a lot invested in seeing teenagers a certain way, so they’ll project their expectations onto them. They see what they want to see or are afraid to see. They start labeling them–“My kid the superachiever”; “my kid the shy one.” And they also get invested in “proving” that these labels are true. So sometimes they work hard to convince their kid to wear the label. They might not even realize they’re doing it. That can make it hard for a teen to get past the notion that they can be or have been labeled in the first place. I think that’s why my daughter and I squabble sometimes. Okay, fight. We fight.
Sometimes I look over my daughter’s shoulder into the bathroom mirror as she is looking into it, and I see her differently–not my kid, but an individual, a person I don’t “own” and who is probably very different from the person I have come to expect her to be. All she needs is some help not to fall off the table. BTW, that’s part of the reason there’s so much imagery in the Possessions novels about mirrors.
Q. There’s certainly nothing sexy or romantic about your vampires in “Changed.” Why did you decide to take this route?
A. I was actually planning to incorporate “Changed” into a world I had already begun working in, the world of the Gifted. In that world there are sexy vampires but they’re evil. I realized I was doing too much explaining, as that world has been established over in the paranormal romance world I inhabit at Harlequin and not in the YA world. The story got away from me, to be honest. Leah Wilson, my editor, helped me get back to the essentials. Props to you, editor woman! This is a great place to acknowledge my editor at Razorbill, Brianne Mulligan. She is so awesome!
Q. There are so many YA paranormal series out now–do you have any favorites?
A. I’m always nervous about naming series because I’m going to forget someone. I love the Vampire Babylon series by Chris Marie Green and I really enjoyed the Darkest Powers series by Kelley Armstrong. I’m excited about the Shade series by Jeri Smith-Ready. Plus, as we say, “and many more!”
My frequent co-author, Debbie Viguie, is working on a series about vampires for a Christian publisher. I haven’t read it yet but I know I’ll love it because I love everything Debbie writes.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I just turned Possessions 3 in to Brianne. It will probably be titled The Screaming Season but that may change. And Debbie and I have a new paranormal series out in September from Simon and Schuster. It’s called Crusade. We are very excited about it!
Brianne and I are talking about the next book after Possessions 3. I just read Rosebush by my fellow Razorbill author Michele Jaffe–sly and brilliant!–a totally cool murder-ish mystery. Hopefully Brianne and I will also do something equally sly and brilliant on our next writer-editor date.
Q. If you could tell us to read one book this year (other than your own, of course!) what would it be?
A. I would hurt feelings from here to eternity if I answered that with the name of one living author. I will say that I really love reading Shirley Jackson. She’s one of my literary heroes. So how about an oldie but a goodie: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson.
And stay away from psychology textbooks. At the very least, you will convince yourself that you are possessed.