I'm just gonna dive right in, because Clare has some fabulous things to say!
Okay. My first question has to be about the ghosts you created! They were so creepy I still get chills along the side of my neck when I think about them. I mean, I read a lot of ghost stories as a kid and have flipped through a few as an adult, and no ghost that matched the scariness of your ghosts has come across the pages! If you don’t mind, I’d like to give a small example to my readers:
“It wasn’t the pallid hue of her grimy face that shocked me, or her little gray hands and feet. It was the holes where her eyes should have been, great round sockets of shadow.
The dead girl opened her lips as if she meant to speak. Her mouth was another black pit like the black pits of her eyes. She was nothing but a hollowed-out skin plumped up with shadow. I had the horrible idea that if I were to scratch her, she would split open, and the darkness within her would come pouring out.”
That passage was the first one to make me “give into a shiver,” but it wasn’t the last! How did you create your ghosts? Are they based off of anything, or did they just come to you like that? Either way, you have one heck of a descriptive style!
Thank you so much! Like you, I read a lot of ghost stories as a kid and still enjoy them as an adult. My favorites are the collections of “true” tales—eyewitness accounts of preternatural events—because these stripped-down, straightforward recountings of odd incidents can make me shiver when literary offerings can’t. (If you like that sort of thing, I heartily recommend Glen Grant’s Obake Files.) So one detail about my ghosts came right out of a haunting account: the young son of the person being interviewed complained of seeing an old man with “eyes like windows.” I loved the ambiguity of that: what exactly is he seeing? So Himself makes a very similar statement.
I can’t remember how I came up with the idea for the maids to be eyeless. There’s a scary eyeless ghost in one of the accounts Glen Grant collected, though, so I was familiar with the idea. And I wanted to stress the fact that these “maid” forms were something like puppets—not typical souls of the deceased, but forms that seem to have been taken over and inhabited by an evil force. Since the eyes are the “windows of the soul,” then these “soulless” forms have no eyes.
But the success of the second paragraph has as much to do with word choice and imagery as the appearance of the ghost itself. Certain words in our culture are nasty words—almost taboo words—and I used those to heighten the shiver because it isn’t just ghosts that make our skin crawl. Examples: plumped up (which awakens dim associations with ticks), scratch, and split open. This takes the scare factor and adds a gross factor to achieve a true visceral reaction of disgust.
Yeah, true visceral SCARY reaction? Totally achieved!! I own an ARC, so I’m not sure if the illustrations changed in the final version, but the artwork in my copy is amazing! To say Patrick Arrasmith is talented would be an understatement. How did that process work? Did he create images based on descriptions in your writing, or did you tell him what you wanted, or did he have creative freedom? Or am I totally off the mark and it was something I’m not even asking about? :)
Those illustrations are astounding, aren’t they? They’re absolutely perfect! When my wonderful editor, Reka Simonsen, approached me with the idea of illustrations, I immediately lobbied for woodcut-style chapter heads because that’s what my childhood Modern Library copy of Wuthering Heights had: wonderfully creepy illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg. (I’m throwing one in here so you can see what I grew up with.)
The process of working through choice of illustrator and then sketch approval normally wouldn’t necessarily involve me but would involve the art director, book designer, editor, and marketing people. However, Reka is the best editor on the planet, and she made sure my input counted. Patrick Arrasmith was my first choice as well as theirs, and although he and I didn’t interact directly, all my concerns got addressed. As sketches came to me (through Reka), I would send back photos or drawings of period clothes or architecture or other details that I thought he was struggling with, and every time, his next sketch just nailed it.
Patrick did read the book, and his illustrations reflect that level of care and involvement. They make real contributions of their own to the story. I particularly love that he came up with the crumbling, mask-like faces of the dead maids, which stress that hollow quality they have. He creates the perfect atmosphere to make the story a success—even before the reader begins to read.
I read Wuthering Heights right before reading The House of Dead Maids. It was my first time and I can’t believe I missed out on such an amazing classic for so long! I loved it, obviously—and I also absolutely loved the view I got of Heathcliff while reading your book! I puzzled over him while (and after) reading Wuthering Heights, and your take on his background really resonated with me, so thank you for that. My question here is: What drove you to write this story? Were you as puzzled over Heathcliff as I was?
I’m glad I’m not the only one who has pondered Heathcliff! I’ve been mulling over him for decades. Heathcliff was very important to me when I was nine—freaky-looking little kid that I was, I needed his toughness to get me through my school days. Because I met him as a child and was so sensitive to his horrific childhood at Wuthering Heights, I’ve never understood those who’ve dismissed him as nothing but a regular villain. Heathcliff suffers too much for that.
This story might never have been written, though, if my family hadn’t unexpectedly gone into a dark chapter of our own. My older and then younger daughter went through bouts of serious mental illness, and for my part, I pulled away from my friends and isolated myself while I dealt with that. Working with the Brontës was a relief because I knew they had also dealt with the bitter grief of a mentally ill family member. So I wrote out all the pain and darkness I was going through and put it into this story.
What your daughters (and you) went through must have been extremely difficult. Writing truly can be a healing process and I'm glad you were able to push your emotions into your words, because the book really is amazing.
A large portion of my blog readers are aspiring writers. And you’ve made it! You’re there :) Successful, multiple books published, and—let’s be honest—a truly fantastic weaver of words. What’s been the best part of your journey so far? What’s been the hardest? Any tips for those of us aspiring to follow in your footsteps? And, of course, what is your writing process?
You’re so sweet! Those are very nice words to read. Because you know what? No writer feels he or she has made it. Imagine a job where you start over every year, where you don’t know if you’ll be good enough to earn a paycheck next year, and where the only feedback you get is on work you completed two or three years ago. It can be nerve-racking! That’s why we have to love the writing itself.
The best part of my journey—the very best—is when people come up to me and talk about my characters as if they’re living people we both know. That’s certainly how I think of them! The hardest part is having the courage to love what I write even when it carries a price tag. For years, I didn’t presell books because I didn’t want to think about this as I was writing the first draft. And I still can’t write if I think, “Is this chapter worth x number of thousands of dollars?” I have to pretend that I’m writing just for myself.
My website is full of writing advice, much of it geared (of course) towards teens, and it also contains a large section of general publishing advice. I did my very best to pour out all the most important tips I could think of in those pages. You can get to them here, under the pictures of heaven and hell: http://www.claredunkle.com/Design/writelife.htm.
My best tip? I do think it’s very important to be picky about what you read if you want to become a good writer. Try to read the very best stuff out there, as well as classics from around the world. Think of your reading time as research, and push yourself out of your comfort zone. I used to think that it was important not to try to read and write during the same week, so I put a moratorium on reading fiction for several years. Now I know that we need that infusion of prose to keep going, but it’s still important to be very choosy: it helps you to train your critical thinking and your word-smithing “ear.”
Process? What process?! My writing process has been crazy over the last several years as I’ve had to fit it in along with family obligations. Writing has to feel fun and special to me; if it does, then I’ll find a place for it in a busy schedule. So it’s the attitude that matters most, I think.
Finally, things have a tendency to get a little silly here at the Babbling Flow—so I have to wrap up with some silly questions!! Quick! Answer these questions with the first response that comes to mind!
What’s your favorite time of year and why?
Autumn, when the leaves start falling and chilly winds blow. That’s when the world of imagination draws near and touches our own world.
If you could own one mythological creature as a pet, which would you choose?
For years, I daydreamed about owning a “teacup” unicorn—a tiny unicorn only a foot tall. But now I think I’d rather own a tiny dragon that could sit on my shoulder. (Those aren’t entirely mythological since they’re modified, though.)
Of course, from my own personal mythology, I’d choose Charm, the golden snake from my trilogy!
What’s the best thing about the month of May?
The fact that it inspired Loreena McKennitt’s “The Mummer’s Dance.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0B7sH5QLyXY
Quick! What’s the first thing you see in this inkblot?
Two little girls who set out to play “Cowboys & Indians,” but now they’re arguing because both of them want to be the “Indian”! I can sympathize because I used to play this game with a little boy down the street, and I drove us to create elaborate narratives for our play in which we were first one character and then another. One day, he ended up being the entire U.S. Army Cavalry, and I was the entire Apache Nation. Needless to say, we couldn’t resolve our differences, and he stomped home in a huff.
Hehe! I see a girl getting ready for a date and checking her hiney out in the mirror. (That's something I can sympathize with, ha!) Thanks so much for stopping by! Have a blast on the rest of your blog tour!
Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a real delight! May you always write the stories you want to read, and may everyone else want to read them too.
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