I awoke this morning from a dream about my stressful day-job, forgetting for a few minutes that today is the release of my seventh book, The Haunting of Gabriel Ashe.
This is the first time I don’t have any celebratory event planned. I’m not really sure why I’ve chosen to be low-key this year, but I thought that instead of eating cake with friends, I’d write a little bit about where this story came from.
Here is a description, from the book’s cover:
Something sinister lurks in the woods outside Slade.
Gabe has seen it, or he thinks he has — a shadow standing at the tree line, watching Gabe’s house with faintly glowing eyes.
Despite Gabe’s misgivings, his new friend Seth relishes the creepy atmosphere of the forest. It’s the perfect setting for his imaginary struggle against the Hunter, a deformed child-eating creature said to leave the bones of his victims in his wake. It’s just a game, but it’s all a bit much for Gabe, who loses interest as summer ends and the days grow shorter.
But then strange things start to happen. Frightening things. And Gabe knows it has to do with the dark figure watching him from the edge of the woods.
Is Seth out to teach Gabe a lesson? Or is the Hunter more than just a myth? Gabe isn’t sure which option is more horrifying, but he’s determined to learn the truth before someone gets hurt … or worse.
Gabriel’s story is one that lived in my mind for many years, in various forms. In one version, it was a tale about evil fairies and changelings. In another, it was a fantasy book for adults.The Gabriel that ended up on the page is a ghost story, as well as a story of broken friendships.
For some reason, it ended up being the most difficult piece of writing I’ve ever done. During its writing, months went by in which I told myself, you’re almost there, just a few more pages — seriously believing that I was almost finished. But the chapters kept coming, the ending continued to dash out of reach. I won’t give away any spoilers, but I will say that this book doesn’t quite have as happy a conclusion as some of my other books. So I think the reason it took me so long to get there was that I was scared to get there. Because there was not a very nice place.
I was also frightened that I wouldn’t be allowed to write the story I needed to write. And I was actually shocked that my neither my editor, nor my publisher flinched at the manuscript I turned in. In fact, they were enthusiastic that I decided to take the story where I took it. I apologize that this all sounds so vague, but I guess you’ll have to read the book to totally understand what I mean.
Writing for upper middle-grade/ YA, I’ve been constantly aware of what I’m putting on the page. I understand that some young readers can be sensitive to scary stories (I’ve had a couple kids become overwhelmed during school visits). I certainly don’t want to hurt anyone with what I write or to give anyone horrible nightmares. But I do believe that an intense story, whether it’s a ghost story, a crime story, or a coming of age story, serves a purpose. For me, reading is a cathartic experience. Writing is too. I believe that young people know what they can handle and what they cannot. And that’s why I think that oftentimes my books end up in the right hands, with the right readers.
Those readers (and I) seek out an intense experience, but one that is also safe, an experience contained in words and ideas. And if it feels like the experience is becoming unsafe, we can always just stick the book in the freezer. It would be a different story if we all went out, wandering darkened city streets, expecting to find adventure. That’s not safe … And so we read, we watch movies, we play games, we talk.
In The Haunting of Gabriel Ashe, the characters invent a game that seems to become real. When I was young, I played these kinds of imagination games with my friends all the time. I remember during recess in fifth grade, my friend Alicia and I came up with a game called MYSTERY. There were no rules, I don’t think, except that we had to pay attention to the world around us, tell one another if we noticed anything out of the ordinary. Sometimes, the wind moving through the trees that surrounded the playground were spirits watching us from the wild. Other times, a break in the clouds became a portal to another realm, and we had to figure out a way to close the portal, to save the world. And we did it all before the teacher called us back to class.
How I wished that the things we saw, the things we imagined, could be real. I wanted adventure. I looked for it everywhere. I’m sure this is why I became such a voracious reader.
John Bellairs. Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Mary Downing Hahn. Bruce Coville. James Howe. Madeleine L’Engle. All my favorite authors were a little spooky, but they all had characters who might break your heart. This is what I reached for with Gabriel Ashe. Maybe I was scared to finish my story because I wasn’t sure I could ever accomplish what these writers had.
In the book, Seth Hopper is Gabe’s neighbor. He lives beyond a thick forest at an old farm that is surrounded by horse trails and stone walls. When I was young, living in Lincoln, Rhode Island, one of my best friends, Matt, lived in a 250+ year old farmhouse with his family. I remember being fascinated with its low ceilings, with its unconventional layout, with its barn and its stable and the woods that surrounded the property. Matt even had a horse with which he competed in equestrian events in our area. It was quintessential New England, a place that I moved away from over 25 years ago, but which seems to be stuck in my head. I can’t stop writing about it. It was this farmhouse that inspired the landscape of Slade, the fictional town in my book. In recent dreams, I’ve traveled back there, to a similar house, to visit a similar family.
I suppose that if I look to writing as a cathartic activity, I’m still trying to figure out a way to let go of leaving that place of my childhood, of saying goodbye to my old friends. Or if not let go, then maybe what I’m doing is holding on …
It’s for these reasons that The Haunting of Gabriel Ashe feels so personal, and possibly, so dark to me. That’s not to say that when I moved to New Jersey at the age of eleven that my life became horrible. It did not. I made new friends. Explored my new world. But at that time, there was no denying that life had forever changed for my family and I. A door had closed, a portal to another realm, the realm of Before.
When I think about why I write for young people, I keep coming back to this part of my life. Between the ages of 11 and 13, my eyes were opened. I understand now that my experiences at that time — the staggering separation of my parents, the horror of having to start at a new school, and, especially, realizing that I was unlike other boys my age in many, many ways — have stuck with me into adulthood, have formed the person and the writer I am now. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Adolescence was terrifying. I marvel now that I was able to get up every morning of my sixth grade year and just keep going. Because everyday felt insurmountable in some way.
I believe that children are the strongest, most resilient human beings alive. And, I think, it’s for this reason that I write the stories that I write: for release, but also, to help me understand how it was that I got through it all.
No ghost, no monster, no Darkness can match what it feels like to encounter a bully, to learn how to stand up for yourself, to finish a test on time and get a passing grade, to come home to an empty house, to make yourself dinner, to do what’s right when you face so much pressure to do what you know is wrong, to be good.
This is why I wrote The Haunting of Gabriel Ashe. I needed to. I’m sharing it with you because I know you can handle it. Because we all went through it. Because some of us still are.
I’m so excited that Gabriel is now out in the world. And who knows, now that I’ve gotten all that out of my system, maybe today I will eat a little cake. Have some yourself! Then go get a copy, and let me know what you think …