Though she has a background as a lawyer and instructor of academic research and writing, Ellen Oh is best known as a YA and middle grade author and the CEO and president of We Need Diverse Books. She’s been transfixed by the mystery and horror genres since childhood; her new novel, Spirit Hunters, is the first in a duology following 12-year-old Harper Raine as she adjusts to a new city and the realization that there is something supernatural and dangerous afoot. Oh spoke with PW on what makes horror so addictive, new WNDB initiatives, and the biggest difference between her middle grade and YA writing.
What inspired the story and setting of Spirit Hunters? Have you always been drawn to scary stories?
I’m a horror book junkie. When I was young, just four years old, my parents, who were immigrants, took me to the movies. They didn’t know what a werewolf was, so they took four-year-old me to see a terrifying werewolf story. My mother recounts how she couldn’t watch the screen [it was so scary], that she would look at me, so mesmerized I couldn’t even blink my eyes. I often wonder why she didn’t cover my eyes, too! Nowadays people find that horrifying, but back then it was different. A different way of thinking, especially for my parents. I blame them completely for my becoming addicted to horror, to that jump scare. Now, I do not like watching horror movies because I don’t like the visual; I prefer to read horror. In my own head, I can tone down the fear. Once you see it, that’s it.
Do you have any favorite horror novels?
I started off reading Agatha Christie’s mysteries. I read a lot of the murder mysteries, which segued to reading Stephen King. I relate to [Roald Dahl’s] Matilda: I read every book in the genre I liked, then would go to the librarian and ask “now what?” The librarian handed me Cujo. I’ve pretty much read everything by King since. I do remember reading Salem’s Lot and not being able to go to the bathroom at night. I was in my bed shaking until the sun came up. I would always read at night, horrify myself, be scared, then do it all over again. That’s what makes horror so addictive; the fear gets you pumped up, then you’re relieved when everything is okay. After reading late into the night, the sun was a remarkable relief. This is also why I ended up being a parent whose favorite thing to do is to scare her kids. I wait in the hall while my kids are in the bathroom, just for that boo.
Do they try to scare you back?
Yes! And they get me good sometimes, but I always retaliate. It’s hard to get me and when you do, it’s good, but the retaliation will be way worse.
When writing horror for a younger audience, were you aware of there being a line that would be too much? Did this lead you to pull back at any point or to incorporate elements to provide balance?
I didn’t worry about it at all, I just wrote, then I let my editor tell me. I might star something and then say to my editor, “this might be too scary, let me know.” So far, at least in book one, I don’t recall her toning down anything. Book two might be a different story.
Why did you choose Washington, D.C., as the setting for this novel?
I live right outside of Washington. It’s just a great old city. When you think of where ghosts are going to be, D.C. makes sense—there’s so much history here. I also wanted to write about a place I could knowledgeably talk about. Still, even though the book is set in D.C., it’s not a D.C.-based story. People often just think about it from a political viewpoint, but there is so much diversity and history that lends itself to telling dark stories.
You recently edited a collection of stories, Flying Lessons & Other Stories, for We Need Diverse Books. Are there plans to release more WNDB short story collections?
Yes, the second anthology comes out next year. It’s a YA anthology edited by Lamar Giles. He’s an amazing, amazing author who wrote Fake ID. We’re also working on a third anthology.
In addition to representing different experiences and points of view in Flying Lessons, what did you look for when choosing stories for the collection?
One part of the process was a short story contest, which allowed for an unpublished new author to be published with heavy hitters. We received hundreds of submissions, then narrowed it down to a small group. Then it was harder. It was really difficult to choose a winner from such a diverse group of stories. Kelly Baptist’s story was so heartwarming—a lovely story. The characters worm their way into your heart; I couldn’t forget it.
In terms of who we asked to be in the anthology, we actually approached authors. We started with the WNDB advisory board, which is full of people with insanely busy schedules, who took the time to write incredible stories. I’m so grateful for that. It could only happen because of how much these authors believe in the WNDB mission and doing things to help promote a better future for all of our kids.
What does the future of WNDB hold? Are there any new initiatives that booksellers, librarians, and consumers should be on the lookout for?
The big one right now is the OurStory app. It’s really a game changer. When we first started out, the initial thing we thought about was how to make these books accessible to people. We often hear, “I don’t know what books to buy or where to find book lists to work from.” Librarians come up and say, “I have this budget and a short time to buy books, I don’t have the time to research. I need help and resources.” It wasn’t just this idea of “here are the books,” that’s only part of it. It’s also about how to help people who are gatekeepers: librarians and teachers. They need books that are vetted, not just added willy-nilly.
We had librarians work to create this database, coding and tagging and making sure that we touched upon everything that’s in the story to make it efficient and user-friendly. The WNDB web team made code specifically for this purpose, working for two years to get the coding right. Then, we had librarians work with it. So, it was a project that was started at the inception of WNDB, but it’s taken this long to get it right. It’s a tool and a valuable resource. We also love getting feedback about what is and isn’t working—it’s a work in progress!
Do you have any plans to return to YA?
Yes. I have a folder full of ideas. One of them is kind of speaking to me, if I can get through my copyedits. I give myself the flexibility to work in whichever area I feel like writing at the time. I want to have the flexibility to be open and follow whatever idea is most appealing.
Is your approach to writing for middle grade vs. YA audiences different?
Yes, because I don’t have to worry about romance at all in middle grade. If left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have any romance in my books. I don’t think of myself as a romantic writer, even though I think romance is great. I’m not a romantic person, so a love story in my book won’t be lush and romantic. I don’t feel natural writing it. I think middle grade is freeing in that I don’t have to worry about that aspect.
Does your background as a lawyer and researcher affect how you approach storytelling or your writing process?
Yes. Law school makes you very analytical. You outline and do research so every part of your work is accurate and plausible. I always write an introduction and conclusion when working on a project. The introduction may change, but the conclusion never does. I do think that might be part of my legal training. I research, find my conclusion, and then write to back up that conclusion.
Where do you start when writing?
It comes to me in a film sequence, much like a story board. I’m very visual. I will see an idea and then write down what I think that idea is. I always see it with a conclusion, not a character with story surrounding. My books are plot-driven, not character-driven. I get upset by pantsers. I don’t understand that approach! I am a very logical writer; I’m not whimsical.
What do you gravitate towards in your own reading? Do you have any recommendations?
I don’t have a favorite genre anymore. When I was younger, I was always reading horror, mystery, and fantasy. Don’t try to make me read Catcher in the Rye! Now I find myself open to reading anything, but quick to stop reading if something doesn’t catch my attention. I recently read and adored Axie Oh’s Rebel Seoul. It’s action-packed sci-fi with romance. I’m not usually a sci-fi reader, but I really loved it. Of course, The Hate U Give, the first WNDB grant winner, is one of the best books out there. I’m also Nicola Yoon’s biggest fan. I will read anything she writes. She’s a beautiful writer, so I hate her as a [fellow] writer, but love her as a reader. She just wrote an amazing story for the new WNDB story collection. Her approach is so different and new.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m on deadline for book two of Spirit Hunters. I also keep bouncing back and forth on a superhero story idea and another fantasy idea for my next book. I was chugging along well with the superhero idea, but it started getting too dark and political; it was becoming too real.
How many Spirit Hunters books are planned?
Right now Spirit Hunters is a duology. I like to wrap things up when I’m done with a series, but the end of book two leaves a bit of an opening for more.
Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh. Harper, $16.99 July ISBN 978-0-06-243008-3