Author Interview: Gretchen McNeil

IMG_7315_tinyAuthor of YA horror novels POSSESS, TEN, and 3:59, as well as the upcoming YA mystery/suspense series Don’t Get Mad, beginning in 2014 with GET EVEN and continuing in 2015 with GET DIRTY. Gretchen also contributed an essay to the Dear Teen Me anthology from Zest Books.

Gretchen is a former coloratura soprano, the voice of Mary on G4’s Code Monkeys and she sings with the LA-based circus troupe Cirque Berzerk. Gretchen blogs with The Enchanted Inkpot and is a founding member of the vlog group the YARebels. She is repped by Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

The protagonist of your debut novel, Possess, is, if I’m not wrong, half-Chinese. I am sure you are aware of the vibrant Happa culture and the issues they face both internally and from others. Was there a specific reason you gave Bridget Liu the ethnicity that she has?

I grew up in San Francisco, which has a very rich and varied history ethnic diversity.  I had so many mixed race friends growing up, when I decided to set POSSESS in my home town, I felt I needed the main character to reflect the diversity of the city.

Possess, at the core of it, deals with the loss of one’s control over one’s body. As a former coloratura soprano (which is fascinating by the way, I had no idea what it was until I researched it), how important is it for you to maintain a strict control over yourself? Would you say that the true horror is not demons but the loss of self that comes with demonic possession?

To answer the second part first, for me, the true horror of demonic possession is the pure, unadulterated hatred of the entities.  That kind of hate isn’t something you can reason with.

As for opera, I’d say the wild card of the human body is the most frustrating part of that career.  You can’t get sick.  You can’t go out with your friends the night before a performance because your voice will be trashed the next day.  You can’t eat and drink certain things before auditions or lessons or performances because it will affect your voice.  And unlike an instrumentalist who can tweak their reeds or adjust their valves, the human instrument is completely esoteric.

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 How has your background in performing and singing affected your writing? What drew you to writing initially and did you choose to write children’s literature or was that the natural result as the story progressed?

I think I’ve always been a storyteller.  Even though I only came to writing about seven years ago, I’ve been telling stories on stage since I was a child.

Acting is so much like writing.  In both cases you need to show a story.  Your characters need to have intention for every decision they make, and you’re constantly asking yourself these questions: who is my character? What does she want?  What’s in her way?  How does she overcome that obstacle? What’s at stake if she fails?  Being an author is exactly the same, translated to the written word.

I started writing to overcome a difficult time in my life.  I originally started writing adult fiction, but several agents suggested my voice sounded more like YA so I wrote a young adult novel and that’s when everything came together!

 What kinds of literature do you draw your inspiration from? Do you have a particular story or novel that you return to? Is there any author whose career you aspire to emulate?

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, and also books from the last two centuries.  Gothic, Victorian ghost stories, historical epics and World War One spy fiction are my go tos.  But my favorite author of all time is Agatha Christie and I find myself rereading my favorites almost every year.

I believe all of your novels so far deal with the darker aspects of human nature. Traditionally, childhood has been seen as a period to be safeguarded against darkness and horror. How do you account for the changing tastes, at least in children’s literature? Do you believe that the unceasing demand for fantasy, horror and paranormal YA novels suggests that a redefinition of childhood is in its nascent stage?

As a tween and teen, I was always drawn toward darker novels.  I wanted to be scared.  I wanted to feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  I wanted to jump at every creak of the house.  So when I started writing for teens, I gravitated toward the kind of stories I would have wanted to read at that age.

Of course, that was a long time ago, but it seems like kids are still drawn to the “scary.”  I think it’s a way for them to experience something dark without actually experiencing something dark.

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Tell us about The Traveling Story. It seems like a fascinating new way for storytellers to explore their craft. Do you think new media allows for greater innovation where storytelling is concerned? Does it ever concern you that digital reading may take away something intrinsic from reading?

I can take no credit for the Traveling Story!  That was the brain child of Jessica Brody, and I’m just grateful she asked me to do a chapter.  It was so much fun, something I’ve always wanted to do.  The process of continuing a story that someone else wrote, and trying to put enough story and options in your chapter so that the people who come after you can run with them…  It was hard!  But I loved the freedom of it – like doing a writing prompt where you just write what pops into your head.  I needed that in my writing at the time.  Sometimes, I get so bogged down with deadlines and outlines and story, story, story, I forget that writing is supposed to be fun!

And I’m all for the expansion of the reader base via digital means.  The more people who are reading, the better it is for all of us!  I own an e-reader, and I do a lot of reading on it.