“Quiet the Dead” is a vivid, evocative horror story full of literal ghosts and the more personal hauntings that live with Kay and her siblings. I loved the visceral atmosphere, the way the prose draws you in and paints a bleak and bloody portrait of a small, dying town. Stunning! Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for this story?
I created Swine Hill in the course of writing a novel, but there were a lot of characters and stories that I had to leave out of the final version. “Quiet the Dead” gave me a chance to explore another haunted family.
I’m from rural Arkansas, and small, dying towns are a feature of the landscape. I think I’ve been troubled by places like Swine Hill ever since I was a kid. In some towns, there’s a palpable mood that things are bad and getting worse all the time. Obviously that’s not true across the state, and some places are doing fine. But many communities are in deep decline. The past feels heavy there. It’s hard not to see my home state as a little haunted.
The ghosts, something that would come to define the whole setting, were actually the last part of Swine Hill to fall into place. Early readers kept asking me, “If Swine Hill is so awful, why don’t people just leave?” And that’s a hard question to answer, because there are places where the local economy is shattered, where even something as ordinary as an appliance breaking is a catastrophe, and people can’t easily walk away from those situations. Getting out takes money, luck, connections. It takes having somewhere better to go and faith that such a place even exists. The ghosts became my answer. While letting me play with language and create a really interesting setting, the ghosts also worked as a metaphor for all the things that people couldn’t get away from, sometimes burdens and sometimes allies, but always making life harder.
This story has such an incredible voice and sense of place; it feels as if we’re in Pig City and Swine Hill. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? Do you have any writing rituals?
I’m a very thinky writer, what George R.R. Martin would call an architect. I like to work from a blueprint. Before I start actually writing the story, I do a lot of brainstorming and outlining. I want to figure out who my characters are, what their pain is, how they relate to one another. I make a list of scenes and test out various versions of the story. I even make a list of colors, textures, objects, and images. I knew from the beginning that this would be a busted knuckles, dead tadpoles, mop water, and broken glass kind of story.
Even though I do all that planning in the beginning, I still throw a lot away. My revision strategy lately involves tossing out entire drafts, making a new outline, and rewriting the story from scratch, not keeping a single sentence from the previous version. I had to write this story twice before I felt happy with it, not including several rounds of edits and smaller revisions.
Do you have a favorite ghost story?
I love pretty much any story with a ghost in it, but a longtime favorite is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. There are so many moments in that novel that shake me. The creature that runs through the house, like a dog but not a dog. The unseen something that slaps the walls with its heavy hands. But the image that sticks with me more than any other, so strange and new and uncomfortable, is Eleanor’s childhood memory of sitting at home with her mother when it begins to rain stones:
“. . . showers of stones had fallen on their house, without any warning or any indication of purpose or reason, dropping from the ceilings, rolling loudly down the walls, breaking windows and pattering maddeningly on the roof.”
The rain goes on for three days. Eleanor’s mother assures them that it’s because of their spiteful neighbors, people who’d always had it out for them. The moment doesn’t make logical sense. It doesn’t fit human patterns of cause and effect, and her mother’s insistence on such an absurd cause only makes the event that much more alien and uncomfortable.
Ghosts choke and cloud the entire town, the pig plant that dominates it, and the characters whose lives are tied to Pig City. There’s a fascinating range of hauntings—from Kay’s angry ghost to Oscar’s time-looping spirit to the ghost of silence that holds Mira hostage. What are your thoughts or beliefs in ghosts in our world? Is everyone a little haunted?
I wouldn’t say I’m someone who believes in the supernatural (though it’s easy to say that at home, on my couch, with the lights on).
But I love the idea of everyone being a little haunted. Definitely as I was writing this story and the novel that also takes place in this setting, I started looking at the people around me and asking, what would their ghost be? What drive or need is anchored in their bones, making them act or be silent to feed it?
Think of the last time you were ashamed of yourself. Did it feel like your own body was a stranger, some other thing that wore you and spoke in your voice and let down someone you loved? Or maybe you just embarrassed yourself by saying or doing something thoughtless, your own hands or voice betraying you. It might have been unintentional, but you did it. There’s nothing to blame but what’s in you. I think that feeling is pretty close to a haunting.
What can we look forward to reading from you in the future?
I’m incredibly excited that my first novel, Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones, comes out February 5th. It also takes place in Swine Hill, following a different haunted family. Jane is possessed by a specter that can hear other people’s thoughts. Her brother Henry has a spirit that forces him to build strange and dangerous machines. Their mother, consumed by a lonely and jealous ghost, burns anyone she touches.
You can think of “Quiet the Dead” as a kind of trailer for the novel. The book explores Swine Hill more deeply; uncovering secrets within the factory, taking readers down the haunted corridors of the high school, and prying back the ugliness and desperation of both the living and the dead.
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