Quartet of Screams: A Katherine Arden Interview to Remember
Scary season is upon us.
Now let’s say you had the option of interviewing any author of frightening tales for kids out there, living or dead. Whom would you choose? Would you opt for R.L. Stine? Track down Alvin Schwartz of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark fame? Christian McKay Heidicker?!?
Me? Gimme Katherine Arden every time. I can still remember reading her first book Small Spaces. Let me put it this way: I wasn’t scared of scarecrows until I read that book.
That title started an entire series which ended, this year, with the final title Empty Smiles. So I’ve asked Katherine all kinds of questions about the books, and she’s been kind enough to reply to my queries:
Betsy Bird: Katherine, thank you so much for answering my questions today. I remember back in the day when I first saw a copy of SMALL SPACES. The cover of the book was great, but it was the blurb from Jonathan Auxier that really caught my eye (he doesn’t blurb just anyone, y’know). Where did this series originate? How did you come up with it in the first place?
Katherine Arden: The series originated somewhat by accident—I was waiting on editorial notes for my second book for adults, The Girl in the Tower, and decided to take a weekend to visit a dear friend in Boston. I took the bus from Burlington, and as we were rolling through southern Vermont, a heavy fog came down over the road. I wondered vaguely what would happen if the bus broke down, trapping us in that fog—it was like water, just dense. Since I had some time on my hands, I started riffing on this idea—fog, a bus breaking down—and thought that it sounded like a scenario I might have come across when I was a horror-obsessed eleven-year-old, staying up late with a flashlight to mainline Goosebumps, or reread Wait til Helen Comes. So my broken-down bus became a school bus. When I asked myself what monster exactly, might menace kids in a fog-bound bus, I looked no further than my own town, which every fall sets up dozens of homemade scarecrows all over main street. At dusk, with their scowling burlap faces—I remember one had rusty garden trowels for hands—they almost seem alive, and out for blood. I was like, great. What if they actually are?
So that was the origin of the idea, and the rest was just inventing as I went, fueled by nostalgia for middle grade horror, Faustian bargains, and love for fall in Vermont.
BB: Right off the bat I’m going to take a deep dive into my most burning question: Your book series is now officially coming off as a “Quartet”. Was that the plan from the very beginning? Did you plan everything that was going to happen from the start, or did it come to you as you wrote each subsequent book?
KA: I did not plan a quartet originally, no. After finishing Small Spaces, and exploring autumn horror vibes, I thought it would be fun to do a book based on each season. I built the plot as I went along. I enjoyed figuring out seasonally-appropriate horrors, watching the kids evolve, and figuring out the smiling man’s endgame.
BB: Well, I love the trajectory of frights that occur in each book in the series. The first was haunted scarecrows (I never had a fear of them before, but that ALL changed after I read SMALL SPACES). The second felt influenced by the film THE SHINING. The third had hints of LOST. And now with the fourth (EMPTY SMILES) we’re in serious IT territory. At least two of the books I’ve mentioned have a hint of Stephen King about them. When you were younger, what books or movies scared you? And what influences the books you write today?
KA: I definitely read Stephen King as a tween, and Dead Voices was certainly influenced by The Shining, among other things. As a kid I was really into Goosebumps, and the work of Mary Downing Hahn. I also watched a lot of, Are You Afraid of the Dark—we need more kids’ horror on television these days, in my opinion. I also read books of ghost stories and creepy folklore. When I got a little older, I read a lot of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Shirley Jackson.
As far as my influences today, they are wide. I read a ton of nonfiction, especially history, as well as a lot of historical fiction. I read fantasy, mystery, thrillers…really anything I come across. I think it is important for writers to read widely. My current favorite writer of horror is Stephen Graham Jones.
BB: I’m still gleeful that you watched Are You Afraid of the Dark. When that show was on it was ON. Was there any idea you wanted to try with this series that simply didn’t work out? Anything left on the cutting room floor? Anything you wanted to try but couldn’t work in for one reason or another?
KA: Of the four books, Dead Voices went through the most drafts. I had all these ideas about having the kids out and about on the ski hill, meeting more ghosts, finding a cabin of horrors, encountering frost monsters, etc, but in the end, those ideas didn’t really fly, and keeping the characters in the ski lodge turned out to be the more viable path. The cabin of horrors sort of made an appearance in Dark Waters, actually. For the summer book, Empty Smiles, I thought about setting it around a real-life puppet theater in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont but decided that carnival felt more summery. I do have an idea for a puppet-theater horror however, that I’d love to tackle.
Horror is such a fun, thrilling genre to write and really feels like the sky’s the limit.
BB: You’ve been writing these characters for a number of years now. It must feel a little strange to say goodbye to them now. Will you miss writing about Ollie, Coco, Brian and (to a lesser extent) Phil?
KA: It does feel strange, but I do feel like I’ve told these kids’ stories, and I am excited to go in new directions. I’ve had a lot of students ask me what Ollie, Coco and Brian do when they’re older, and ask if the smiling man ever comes back. I have a few thoughts, but honestly, I’m happy to leave the answers to readers’ imaginations. I think it might be fun to do an historical horror, with the smiling man making a cameo, but no specific plans right now.
BB: I confess that I myself am sad to see this series go. Are you looking to continue to scare the socks off of kids in the future or will you be trying entirely different creative ventures? What’s next for Katherine Arden?
KA: I have a new adult book finished that will hopefully be announced later this year. I’ve also been working concurrently on a middle grade fantasy and a new middle grade horror. I’m not trying to draft them on a schedule, just work steadily and see what I come up with—it is really nice to just be creative and try different ideas and see.
Loads of thanks to Katherine for the answers and to Jordana Kulak and the team at Penguin Young Readers for setting this up. Empty Smiles is already out so enjoy it this Halloween season!
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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