November 17, 2017

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Malinda Lo and Stephanie Perkins On Genre Hopping, Slasher Films, and More

Malinda Lo
Photo by Patty Nason

Stephanie Perkins is known for her nuanced romances (Anna and the French Kiss) and anthologies (My True Love Gave to Me). Malinda Lo has made significant contributions to the sci-fi  and fantasy categories (Adaptation; Ash). Both of these YA authors made a leap this year by writing thrillers just right for Halloween (and any time of the year readers need a good fright). Perkins and Lo share what inspired them to write venture to the scary side, how their writing process changed, and their feelings on “unlikable” characters.

Stephanie Perkins: We both made pretty big genre switches this fall! What motivated you to write a psychological thriller as opposed to another fantasy or science fiction novel?

Malinda Lo: It started with a conversation with my editor, Andrew Karre, who asked me what I’d been reading lately. I’d been reading The Secret Place by Tana French, which is crime fiction, and that book is set in a private school in Ireland. As Andrew and I talked, I started to think: maybe I should write a crime novel. I’ve been reading mysteries since my childhood, when I read every single Nancy Drew I could find. A Line in the Dark (Dutton, Oct. 17, 2017) isn’t a traditional whodunit, but it certainly falls in that broader genre, which I’ve loved my entire life. To me, it doesn’t feel like a switch. It feels totally natural.

ML: You made the jump from contemporary romance to horror. What motivated this change? 

SP: I relate to your answer so much. While I can recognize, of course, that this looks like a massive leap to my readers, the switch felt natural to me. I’m a longtime fan of horror. I grew up reading R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike, and Lois Duncan, and then I was a teenager when Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson reinvigorated the slasher genre with Scream. All of those mid-to-late 1990s horror films were so much fun and hugely influential—and they gave a lot of power back to women. Their characters were smarter and stronger and more complex than the “Final Girls” of decades past.

Another thing I appreciate about slashers, in particular, is how they’ll often use humor, romance, and meta self-awareness to balance out the scary bits. Those are things that interest me in any type of story. Those are things I was already writing about. I always say that this new book is like Anna and the French Kiss with a body count.

ML: What was your writing process for There’s Someone Inside Your House (Dutton, Sept. 26, 2017)? Was it different from your previous books?

SP: Yeah. Anna, Lola, and Isla were character-based stories. The plotting isn’t complicated, and it isn’t really the point, either. Readers already know the characters will fall in love. The excitement is in that buildup of small, everyday, emotional moments into something greater.

But in a slasher, plot always comes first. There was no getting around that. So this was the first time that I had to outline the entire story, chapter by chapter, before writing a single word. It was a learning process that took a long time—and a lot of help from author friends who are much better plotters. So with this book, while I did have an idea of who the characters were from the beginning, it was the plot that shaped and filled them out. Not the other way around.

SP: How about you? Was your writing process similar, or did you have to learn any new tricks?

ML: My previous two books, Adaptation and Inheritance, were both contemporary science fiction thrillers, so they also required a whole lot of plotting. A Line in the Dark definitely benefitted from my experience writing those two books. I also, as I mentioned, have been reading mysteries my whole life, and I love to plot. This time around I felt like I actually sort of knew what I was doing, at least when it came to plot.

Of course there were new challenges too, like there are with every book. It was my first time working with Andrew, and he helped me see how to use point of view quite differently than I had in the past, which is very important in a psychological thriller.

SP: Thank goodness for editors, right? (Shout-out to my brilliant editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, who really had my back on this one.) But speaking of plotting, as a reader, there’s such satisfaction in reaching a thriller’s “aha!” moment—a reveal that shows me [that] everything I thought was true actually isn’t. And as an author (whose strengths, unlike yours, do not include plotting), I’m always curious about the challenges of writing them.

SP: Is it safe for me to assume that you knew your twist from the beginning? What challenges did this create for you, and can you share any tips for writing plot twists—how to bury your secrets so that readers won’t discover them too early?

ML: Actually, I did not know what the twist would be from the beginning. Believe it or not, this book had three different endings. The one I ended up with was nowhere near my initial idea! This meant that each time I changed the ending in revision, I had to go back and tweak the earlier elements of the plot to make every thread tight. I was checking these threads all the way through page proofs, which are the very last stage before publication.

In terms of how to bury your secrets, you have to remember that you don’t need to explain everything. This seems pretty obvious, right? Except in early drafts, I was constantly explaining things, partly so that I would understand what was going on. However, part of your job as a writer is to tell readers only what they need to know. They don’t actually need to know that much in order to follow the story.

ML: Without giving anything away, there’s a moment halfway through your book that—while not a twist, exactly—is an uncommon move for the slasher genre. How did this come about?

SP: Before I answer that, I have to tell you that I took a screenshot of your advice! That’s such a good reminder about not needing to explain everything. It’s easy to forget.

But, yeah. It’s hard to discuss that moment in my book without spoilers, but it was certainly one of the trickier aspects. The decision was partially made because I’m aware of my authorial strengths and weaknesses, so I knew a traditional twist wasn’t an option. I doubt I could come up with something that would feel new or fresh or satisfying to readers. But there’s an equally important reason why I broke away from narrative tradition, and it’s this: I don’t believe the killer should be the most interesting person in stories like this, whether fiction or true crime. It has to be about the victims and survivors. That’s who really matters. What do you think?

ML: I totally see your point. I think that some writers are capable of writing incredibly nuanced portraits of people who do terrible things, and those stories also fascinate me. I also enjoy a traditional crime novel in which “whodunit” is revealed at the end. In those books, the most interesting person tends to be the detective, not the killer or the victim. They serve a purpose (a lot of crime fiction is about restoring order) and can be very satisfying.

My novel is more of a psychological thriller, and I wanted each character involved to be perceived as culpable by readers. That meant the truth could not be revealed until the end. Of course, it also means that readers may not like the characters!

SP: I love what you said about crime fiction being about restoring order. I think that’s why I gravitate toward these darker stories, including horror and true crime. For me, it’s about exploring something frightening in a safe way, as well as searching for answers and solutions to real-life problems. I’m someone who is deeply afraid of the world and always looking for help.

SP: Totally changing the subject, but do you think of your protagonist Jess Wong as “unlikable”? I enjoy stories with unlikable female protagonists, but they often get a bad rap. What do you think of these so-called “unlikable” female characters?

ML: I don’t think that Jess is unlikable at all. I think she’s complex and human, and I hope all the other characters are as well. I think the idea of unlikable female characters is a product of sexism. All too often girls are expected to fulfill traditional norms of good behavior, which generally precludes making mistakes, exploring their sexuality outside heteronormative boundaries, or doing anything perceived as immoral. I don’t think those qualities make very interesting characters.

SP: Yes, yes, yes. To all of that. You also made an interesting choice with regard to point of view. Halfway through the novel, it changes. Why did you decide to do this?

ML: During the first draft, the book had the same perspective the entire time—Jess’s point of view. During revision, Andrew suggested splitting the book into two parts: part one from Jess’s point of view, and part two from a more distant third-person point of view. I thought this was a brilliant idea, because it immediately problematized Jess’s perspective. When readers get to part two, they should wonder right away if Jess told them the whole truth. That’s a key element in a psychological thriller. The truth should always be just out of reach.

ML: The third-person omniscient narration in your novel made…it especially creepy. Why did you choose to go that route?

SP: Thank you. It was another practical decision. This book has a huge body count, and again, it was important to me to give each victim a voice before they were murdered. I wanted it to be clear that even though the book is a traditional slasher, a genre that’s typically—and often gleefully!—disposable, the lives being lost are not disposable. The characters have families, friends, hopes, fears. They’re humans, they matter, and each death has an impact on their community.

SP: And I do find it interesting that we both wrote about such small, insular communities. Was that a deliberate choice on your part?

ML: That’s a fascinating question, because I don’t think of the world in A Line in the Dark as insular, but I do think there’s a feeling of claustrophobia, and that was deliberate. I wanted Jess to feel trapped in her world. That feeling of being trapped is intensified by the glimpses of the wider world that Jess gets during the story. She’s from an immigrant Chinese family, so she knows her family came from very far away, and that certainly affects her interactions with others. And she sees what wealth can bring when she meets the students from a nearby prep school. That knowledge of bigger and maybe better things makes her feel even more trapped.

Stephanie Perkins
Photo by Destinee Blau

ML: Did you choose to set your book in an insular community on purpose? Do you see that as an ideal setting for a thriller?

SP: My setting is rural, so it’s geographically insular. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s ideal—obviously there are tons of great suburban and city thrillers that play on different fears—but it is a widely used trope, especially in horror, because it is so instantly effective. It’s terrifying to be so isolated that even if you’re attacked in broad daylight, no one will notice. And no one will hear you screaming.

SP: Finally, I’m so curious! What’s next for you? Another thriller?

ML: Actually, no. I continue to genre hop! I’m working on a historical novel set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950s. It’s about a Chinese American girl who becomes fascinated by a male impersonator and then gets involved in the underground lesbian community. It’s also about Chinese American identity during McCarthyism, and of course, coming of age.

ML: How about you? What are you working on?

SP: Hooray for genre hopping! I hope we both do it forever. And it’s funny—I always ask this question, yet I’m always hesitant to answer it myself. I have a few different projects in the works. I hope they’ll satisfy all different types of readers.

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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