Beth Fantaskey may be best known for her vampire books, including Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side, but now she has bitten into a different genre. In Buzz Kill (HMH, May), a bright, offbeat student reporter tries to catch a murderer on the loose at her school, which leads to some outrageous moments – and even a sweet romance. Here, Fantaskey tells PW what it was like to write a new kind of novel – in particular, one that mixes murder and humor – and why she tells her young fans to join the school newspaper staff.
How did Buzz Kill come about?
Normally, I am a paranormal writer – or I was – but when I tried to write my fourth book with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as a paranormal book, it just kind of fell flat for both my editor, Margaret Raymo, and me.
Margaret said, “Just take your time and write the book of your dreams. Don’t think about genre, don’t think about what your readers would expect from you, just write whatever feels right to you.”
Right up until the moment I sent that manuscript to her, she had no idea what I was doing, and I had no idea what her reaction would be. I just thought, “I love this book, so hopefully she is going to love it.” And she did, fortunately.
What was the inspiration for the idea?
I think it comes from growing up reading all the old Nancy Drew novels. I loved them, but I was a geeky little kid and I always knew I was never going to have this perfect Nancy Drew life, with this perfect boyfriend and hair that doesn’t blow when you’re in the convertible. I just thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a Nancy Drew novel that’s updated and edgier, with this heroine who was more relatable to most girls?”
Was writing this book different than writing your other books?
It was a little bit different. Basically I would think, I am going to sit down every day and I am going to have fun with this. Hopefully that shows. I definitely felt I laughed every day. My favorite scene is when Millie and Chase give the dog a bath, and they are finally getting to understand that they feel more than friendship for each other, but there’s this funny juxtaposition of this wet, unhappy dog.
The book is very funny, but it’s also a murder mystery. Did you find it difficult to find the right tone?
I didn’t find it difficult when I wrote the murder of the coach because he was so horrible in so many ways; at least you think so at the beginning of the book. But I did find it really difficult to approach the death of the high school student. I worried about that, but I knew from having read millions of mystery novels that it’s standard to have more than one murder – there’s another murder halfway through. And I felt like it needed to be the student.
I tried to strike the balance by having Millie have that moment later on where she melts down and says, “I know I am finally dealing with the idea that I lost a classmate and I didn’t like him, but he didn’t deserve that.”
Can you talk a bit about your career path and how you ended up writing novels?
It’s kind of a weird trajectory. I got out of college with an English degree from Shippensburg in Pennsylvania, got a job in public relations, and wrote political speeches, newsletters and things like that. Then I started gravitating towards journalism and freelancing for newspapers and magazines. Later, I decided to start a Ph.D. program in media history at Penn State, because I thought it would be fun to teach. That is when I had the idea of my first novel. I also am an adjunct professor at Susquehanna University and teach journalistic writing, public relations, and public speaking.
Does your journalism background influence your writing?
I feel like I learned a ton by being a journalist for so long, such as how to create a story arc, how to write dialogue, and how to pick out quotes that sound good and have meaning.
A lot of kids will email me, asking “How do I become a novelist?” or “How do I become a writer?” One of the things I tell them is, “Don’t be afraid to work on your school newspaper.” By the time I wrote a novel, I intrinsically understood a lot of things. Every day I was on the job as a journalist, my work was preparing me to be a novelist.
What do you have plans to work on next?
Nothing that I am really ready to talk about. I just finished my Ph.D., and wrote my dissertation about five women who worked for Chicago newspapers in the 1920s. They weren’t confined to the women’s pages; [they] wrote about crime, which was pretty much unheard of at the time. It has inspired a possible project, but it is still in the private phase.
Buzz Kill by Beth Fantaskey. HMH, $17.99 May ISBN 978-0547393100