Beginning her career in YA literature while a teen herself, Kristin Cast has spent the last decade working with her mother, P.C. Cast, on the bestselling House of Night series and a related series, The Dysasters. This week she publishes her first solo project, The Key to Fear, which is the first in a planned trilogy. Set in a near future after a pandemic spread by touch has ravaged the world, leading to a reality in which communication and connection are entirely virtual, this new novel is eerily prescient. Cast spoke with PW about publishing a post-pandemic story during an ongoing crisis, branching out on her own, and the ways her goals have changed after a decade in publishing.
What has it been like living through a real-life pandemic while working on and thinking about this book and its speculative premise?
I finished the last copyediting on this book in February, when all the lockdown stuff where I live in Portland [Oregon] was beginning. It felt like the fictional world had bled into our real world. A lot of friends have joked that I must be clairvoyant and I should write about something happy next! I first had the idea of The Key to Fear six years ago, so I wasn’t inspired by this pandemic, but by those of the past. It’s not the first time a deadly pandemic has threatened humanity.
I read Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone when I was in middle school and was convinced I’d one day work at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, so, for my entire adolescence and early 20s, I’ve been fascinated by viruses, reading books and articles about it. The premise of The Key to Fear came to me while I was at a pizza shop back in 2014, standing in line behind a group of teens. I could tell that they were couples, even though they weren’t talking to each other or physically interacting, except to nudge one other to share something on their phones. And, because I constantly think about stories, I thought, what would have to happen in our world to make it so we weren’t allowed to touch each other, and all our interactions were virtual? What if it was mandatory? What if it was the only way we knew? Of course, because of my obsession with deadly viruses, I came up with a virus that is spread by touch.
This is your first book published without your co-writer and mother, P.C. Cast. How does your approach to writing differ when you’re working solo rather than as a team?
For the House of Night series, Phyllis—P.C. Cast—was the writer and I was the editor. The books that we’ve co-authored together are The Dysasters and our upcoming Sisters of Salem trilogy. After House of Night, I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I didn’t think I was actually going to write books. I started working on the House of Night series when I was 19. I didn’t think about writing or the future the way I do now. I had a conversation [about my indecision] with my mom and she said that I should either go back to school or write a book. Back in the early 2000s, when she wrote her first novel, that’s exactly what she did; she was enrolled in a master’s program and writing a book. She decided that whatever was more successful would be the path she followed. So I did the same and found it was writing for me, too. Luckily, because of my past with House of Night, I already had my foot in the door.
When I write alone I create an outline, beginning with a page explaining what the book is about. At that point, I don’t usually have names or characters. Then I do a three- to five-act outline, depending on the story structure I want, followed by breaking it down into a chapter by chapter outline. At that point, I know who the characters are, and if there are multiple points of view, I’ll assign the chapters accordingly. When Phyllis and I work on our books, we do the same thing because there’s two of us and she has a tendency to go rogue and write whatever she wants. After trial and error, we’ve learned that this works well. And if we have rogue behavior, we call each other first to update the outline accordingly.
Having worked on the House of Night books [in an editorial capacity] definitely has had an impact on every book I’ve worked on since. That’s the part of the process I love and am always trying to get to. Having spent a decade of my life in that stage, it really taught me the fundamentals of writing and how to develop strong characters and build worlds in a different way than being a reader or going to classes taught me. It was a baptism by fire; you learn a lot when you’re thrown into the deep end.
The first House of Night book was published in 2007, over a decade ago. How have your goals as a storyteller changed, shifted, or stayed the same?
I was so naïve back then. When Phyllis asked me to work on the books with her, I asked if I was going to be famous. She said yes. It wasn’t until Chosen, the third book in the series and her 18th book, that we finally hit the New York Times list. So, she lied to me about being famous, but, I think, because I was so ignorant to the realities of the publishing industry, it helped me. I felt, without a doubt, that we would be successful. It is embarrassing to look back now.
At that time, it was all about entertainment value for me. I didn’t put a lot of thought into the impact the books would have on readers and the world. Phyllis did, thank goodness. Now I very much want to create a safe space for readers. I am a woman of color who grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma in a predominantly white area. I want to make sure that in everything I write people like me are reflected, because I didn’t see that enough growing up and it really affected me.
I’ve been in the industry so long that I’ve seen the super highs and the very low lows; I know how the publishing industry treats authors. I know standard royalty rates and marketing practices and I think authors should be treated better. As an author with a lot of years ahead of me, it is one of my goals to advocate not only for inclusion, but the better treatment of authors.
What’s next for you?
Next year, on May 25, Spells Trouble—the first book of the trilogy I actually co-authored with P.C.—comes out. It’s about twin witches and is set in a town we created in Illinois, based on the town my mom grew up in. In the books, the twins must protect their town from the five different underworlds, which have gates surrounding the city. We are editing the second book now.
In November of next year, The Key to Fury releases, which is the sequel to The Key to Fear. I’m also working with a different co-author on an #OwnVoices thriller that I’m really excited about. I’ve never been able to tell my personal story and it feels like it’s time.
The Key to Fear by Kristin Cast. Blackstone, $18.99 ISBN 978-1-982548-03-2