How did you come to write “The Girl Who Escaped From Hell?”
I’ve been having a terrible amount of trouble with my writing lately. It’s almost like I’ve forgotten how to tell a story. So I decided to intellectualize the whole thing, and I created a schema for storytelling. I decided that in order to work, a story needed four things: i) a concrete goal; ii) an internal need that meeting that goal would achieve; iii) a reason, springing from the character’s backstory, for why that need was the most important one in the character’s life; and iv) some sort of consequences if the character didn’t meet that goal. And in order to test this out, I decided I would write a story that I’d designed using this schema. This story was the result: I plotted it out while I was driving home from my girlfriend’s place (it’s a forty-five minute drive), and when I got home I wrote it over the course of about two hours. It was one of the easiest writing experiences of my life, and I thought I had it made from now on! Of course, nothing is ever easy. While this story worked out great, the other stories I’ve written with this framework haven’t yet sold.
(In this case, the external goal was for him to get his daughter to stop believing in hell. The internal need was that he needed to believe he was a good father. The backstory was that he’d ripped this girl from his mother, and he felt guilty about it. And the stakes were that if he lost control of the girl then he’d lose his cushy life.)
The most obvious inspiration for the story, of course, is The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, which is a nonfiction account by Kevin Malarkey and his son Alex (that’s really their last names . . . you can’t make this stuff up) where they claim that Alex saw Heaven while he was a in a coma. The boy later recanted, saying his dad had planted the whole story in his mind, and it was a huge mess, but for a while it was quite a cultural phenomenon. There was even a major studio picture, starring Greg Kinnear.
The horror in “The Girl Who Escaped From Hell” really falls on three levels—the fear of hell itself, the fear of a parent unable to protect his child, and the fear of becoming what one hates. Which of these scares you the most? Or is there some other aspect of the story you find more disturbing?
I think the thing that scares me the most is the ending, where the dad realizes that he no longer knows what his daughter really thinks. It reveals the abyss that lies between all people. We open ourselves up to those we love, and we allow them to see what we really think and feel, but we can close that down at any point, and once it’s closed, then we’re nothing more than strangers.
What are you working on these days? Any upcoming publications or exciting projects you’d like readers to know about?
My debut novel, Enter Title Here, is coming out from Disney-Hyperion on August 2nd, 2016. That’s definitely the biggest event in my life nowadays! My little promo blurb for the book is:
In order to score a book deal, an unscrupulous overachiever has to turn herself into a quirky, light-hearted YA novel protagonist. But after she’s caught plagiarizing an assignment, Reshma Kapoor will need to decide how far she’ll go to get a satisfying ending (Note: it’s pretty far).
The book is really good! Reshma is so manipulative and evil, but she’s also magnetic. Girls in YA novels are supposed to be insecure and/or whimsical, but Reshma is hard-charging and ruthlessly effective. I loved writing her, and I know that people will love being in her head.
I also have another novel in my contract with Disney. It’ll probably be another YA contemporary, and it’ll probably come out in 2017. Other than that, nothing is known. I’ve also been working on a middle-grade novel that will probably go out to publishers sometime in the next few weeks!
What’s the scariest five-word story you can tell us?
The cockroaches learned to read.
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