Because I no longer write blurbs, but still very much want to help other authors, I've launched a blog series called Better Than Blurbs. The authors and I have in-depth discussions about their books, which I hope will help readers identify whether they'd enjoy reading them.
This is the twelfth post in the series. The author is my old friend (we've never actually met in person, but since when did that ever stop a friendship?) Holly Schindler, and the book is Feral.
Me: Please tell us about the book in your own words.
Holly: Claire Cain endures a brutal gang beating in her hometown of Chicago. This happens after she steps in to save her best friend from being wrongfully accused of distributing drugs. When Claire, a journalist, runs stories to vindicate her friend, the gang retaliates. She spends the next several months healing physically and insisting that she has healed emotionally as well (though she’s still tortured by nightmares and unrelenting anger). When her father gets the last-minute offer to spend his sabbatical in Peculiar, Missouri, Claire agrees to go, jumping at the chance to get away from Chicago.
But Peculiar offers no reprieve. Claire’s struck by one similarity after another once she crosses the city limits: the town is hit with an ice storm, just as Chicago was the night of her beating; her school uses lockdowns and uniforms; the town’s feral cat population stalks her, just as the gang did in Illinois. And soon after arriving, Claire stumbles upon the body of Serena Sims, a classmate. The town is quick to chalk Serena’s death up to an accident. But Claire suspects otherwise…and the deeper she digs into circumstances surrounding Serena’s demise, the closer she gets to learning a horrific truth about herself and the damage she truly sustained in that Chicago alley…
Me: Years ago I wrote a short story called Alice Needs This. It was about a child molester who skillfully wins over a fourteen-year-old girl. I tried to write it from Alice’s point of view, but just couldn’t get it to go. Finally I dropped into the fictional head of the child molester and it all fell together. Except, as I was writing it, I kept realizing I was scaring myself. While writing Feral, did you ever scare yourself? (You scared me!)
Holly: I have to say that I love that I scared you! Mission accomplished! It’s funny—I didn’t scare myself while writing it. (But your story sounds utterly terrifying—there’s nothing more frightening than a scenario lifted straight out of the real—rather than paranormal—world, is there?)
Also, my experience with FERAL is completely different than my readers’. My readers jump into the cold, brutal waters of FERAL cannonball-style. I slowly inched my way into the book one toe at a time. The book started out as a straight MG mystery (the Serena Sims death was a cold case involving an old student at the protagonist’s school); as I revised, it got increasingly darker. So dark, I knew it needed to be bumped up to YA. That might sound easy enough—you keep your characters and put them in high school instead of middle school, give them cars instead of bikes—but it’s actually a complete overhaul. I had to reinvent a new main character (we aren’t the same people at seventeen that we are at thirteen), and had to reinvent several plot points as well (for example, “cheating” took on new meaning in the YA version).
Brainstorming my new protagonist, I discovered the beating backstory. And I knew I also wanted the deeper message of the book to be about recovering from violence. It was also at that point that I knew the book would be a psychological thriller, rather than straight mystery or even horror.
I continued to darken details—especially the beating scene with Claire—as the book went through development at HarperCollins.
Me: Why are you trying to ruin my relationship with my very good-natured cat?
Holly: I’m a cat lover, too, actually. I grew up with two cats I adored. Tuffy, as her name implies, was born feral. She was living near my parents’ home right after they got married. It was driving Mom nuts to see her eating out of their trash cans, so she adopted Tuffy. In the midst of trying to figure out if she was actually going to stay with them permanently, a litter of kittens arrived. Mom found homes for three of the kittens and kept Peter. Pete and I were always together when I was growing up—I kind of always suspected he thought of me as his pet, since he was part of the family before I was.
Tuffy kept my mom in line when my brother and I (we’re just a year apart) were little. Every single time one of us would cry when we were babies, she’d run to find my mom and bite her ankles!
Cats are so cool—I’d love to have another, but you know I’ve got the most spoiled dog on the planet, Jake. He’s a complete only child, and hates sharing—with anyone! I think bringing any other animal into the house would result in a total bloodbath.
Me: You made some reference to this book falling through some genre cracks. Maybe not being quite what people wanted to box it into being. Can you go into that for my readers? I think it will help people understand exactly what it is and who will enjoy it.
Holly: I’m a big fan of vintage movies. Love anything black and white. Big, big fan of Hitchcock—and that definitely shows in FERAL.
FERAL’s a psychological thriller in the classic sense. While the book features mystery, horror, and paranormal elements, the emphasis is on the “psychological” rather than thriller / action. The novel features a Hitchcockian pace and focus on character development (here, we’re exploring the inner workings of the main character, Claire Cain). Speaking of Hitchcock—even the feral cats are a nod to THE BIRDS.
Essentially, every aspect of FERAL is used to explore Claire’s inner workings—that even includes the wintry Ozarks setting. The water metaphor is employed frequently in psychological thrillers to represent the subconscious, and here is incorporated in the form of a brutal ice storm (that represents Claire’s “frozen” inner state). The attempt to untangle what is real from what is unreal (another frequently-used aspect of the psychological thriller) also begins to highlight the extent to which Claire was hurt in that Chicago alley. Even the explanation of the odd occurrences in the town of Peculiar offers an exploration into and portrait of Claire’s psyche.
Ultimately, as I said, FERAL is a book about recovering from violence—that’s not just a lengthy or hard process; it’s a terrifying process, too. The classic psychological thriller allowed me to explore that process in a dramatic, scenic way.
It’s really been fascinating to read the response to FERAL (I read all my reviews—reader reviews, blog reviews, trade reviews). I went at FERAL assuming some genre conventions are just intrinsic…but I have to say I do think that the psychological thriller is changing as a genre. When I try to brainstorm favorite recent psychological thrillers, I get to MEMENTO or WHAT LIES BENEATH, and then I start to stall out—but I saw those movies years ago, in college! Perhaps as a result of the classic psychological thriller being a bit underrepresented right now (especially at the box office), I absolutely think that modern readers see the term “psychological thriller” and assume that the emphasis should be on “thriller” rather than “psychological.”
The strongest positive response I’ve received are from somewhat older readers—those, like me, who are fans of or remember some of those classic psychological thrillers. Those who remember not wanting to get in the shower after watching PSYCHO or getting goose bumps at the sounds of pigeons at the park after watching THE BIRDS.
Me: Over the past year or so, I’ve watched you go through some growth spurts in the publishing business. I know you’ve had to learn how to stand your ground when you know the work is right, and some other lessons. I know some may involve other people, which might prevent you from going into detail. But all in all, can you give us some idea of the changes that have allowed you to move your career forward?
Holly: You know, I think every author goes through a similar process: first, all you want to do is just get IN the industry—you want to sell a book. Then, once you’ve signed a contract or two, you’ve got to figure out your own way within the industry.
One thing I’ve learned is that I sometimes disagree with feedback I get from industry insiders—and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that I’m a crummy writer, and it doesn’t make the person I happen to be dealing with a crummy [fill in the blank here—editor, agent, publicist, publisher, etc.] It only means we disagree. I’ve learned that it’s my responsibility not to simply swallow my disagreement, but to voice it. No one knows I disagree if I don’t say anything.
The cool thing is that by saying what I think, I wind up getting new feedback—engaging in a conversation that helps me find my way with a WIP. That recently happened with my next MG. It’s based loosely on a family story, so that made it easy for me to pipe up during revision requests and say, “Here’s what this book is, and here’s what it isn’t.” It resulted in a really great conversation, and I thoroughly enjoyed revision. It’s under submission right now.
Me: You do an amazing job, I think, of writing for different age levels. This book, Feral, and A Blue So Dark seemed on the mature end of YA, and yet you struck such a perfect middle-grade voice for The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky. Is it as effortless as you make it look? Does it take time to shift gears? Do you get to tell your creative process who you’re writing for on the way into a novel, or does it tell you? Anything else you want to add about age-driven voice?
Holly: Thanks for that—I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve tackled different genres and age groups. So far, I’ve done contemporary realism, romance, psychological thriller, YA, MG…There’s definitely something to be said for author branding, but I know I’d feel stymied pretty quickly.
Finding the right age category can, sometimes, be a no-brainer. Aura came to me really quickly for A BLUE SO DARK. The original book was drafted and edited in two months. And though it went through several rounds of revision, her voice remained the same.
Other times, the process of finding the right age category can be pretty tough. FERAL and THE JUNCTION were harder, for instance…FERAL, as I said, started out as an MG, and THE JUNCTION started out as a picture book. Early response to the PB version of THE JUNCTION was that the concept of folk art was too advanced for the readership, and I was encouraged to bump it up. (Several phrases from the PB version made it into the MG version, which shows the book should have been MG all along, I think.)
So it can happen in all sorts of ways: you can hear a voice and know it’s a teenager talking to you. Or you can get feedback that makes you realize where you need to take a project. Or a project you try to make fit in one genre keeps refusing to click—like your experience with Alice Needs This—and you know you need to take it in a different direction.
One thing that can help is to think of specific people at certain ages: a family member, a niece or nephew, a neighbor. When I was drafting my earliest works, I was also teaching guitar and piano, and I sometimes go back to those students. I think, “What would ten-year-old Mitch do at this point?” Or, “Would sixteen-year-old Megan be responding this scenario in this way?” It can help drive specific scenes, and it can help give you a better feel for which category the book should be, especially during the initial process of character brainstorming.
Me: Can you tell us about what’s next for you?
Holly: I’m branching out into hybrid status. This is definitely part of my “growing” stage. I write quickly, and I write where my heart takes me—which means sometimes generating manuscripts that don’t fit the traditional platform. It’s so cool that the line between indie-pubbed work and traditionally-pubbed work is no longer the line between bad and good. It’s just that some books don’t fit the traditional platform. And, again, rather than trying to force a manuscript to be something that it was never intended to be, I’m going to be taking those manuscripts that are best for the indie format and putting them up myself. I’m incredibly excited about this prospect, and will be blogging about the entire process at Holly Schindler’s Character Driven. You can also follow along at Twitter and Facebook.
Me: Please write your own question, and answer it.
Holly: You like to branch out and write in different genres—but what genres would you like to revisit?
I don’t think you can beat a great contemporary read—and I do tend to think readers also connect most strongly with characters in contemporary books. But I also thoroughly enjoy writing love stories. I can’t wait to return to books like PLAYING HURT.
FERAL, as I mentioned, plays with several different genres—and I’d love to tackle both a straight mystery and a straight horror novel (I actually have outlines for them both).
The first genre I’ll be tackling in the indie format is a romantic comedy. I think I’ve had sprinkles of humor—often darker humor—in some of my other books. It’s a delight to dive into something that’s just full-on funny…