Kit Frick specializes in smart, thrilling novels for teens. Her fourth novel, Very Bad People, follows Calliope Bolan, a new student at an elite boarding school. Calliope finds community and purpose as a “ghost” in Haunt and Rail, the school’s longstanding secret society, which uses pranks (“larks”) to expose campus community members who misuse their privilege. As the larks escalate and connections between the society and Calliope’s own tragic past reveal themselves, she begins to wonder: do the ends truly always justify the means? We spoke with Frick about moral gray areas, the allure of boarding schools, and the thriller genre.
Very Bad People interrogates whether it’s right to do bad things in service of a good cause. What inspired this theme?
Very Bad People tackles some big questions about right and wrong, and it doesn’t offer up any easy answers—that’s not the kind of book that I’m interested in writing. But I am interested in the questions, so that was really the inspiration behind the exploration in this book: thinking about moral gray areas, which is something that always fascinates me. I hope it inspires a lot of really chewy discussions among readers. This isn’t the kind of book with an ending that ties things up in a neat little bow; even though, in a mystery, it’s certainly important to have all of the key elements of the mystery resolved by the end, there’s still an ethical quandary for the main character and the reader to sit with, and that’s exciting to me as a creator.
How did you decide on the boarding school setting? What was the appeal for you?
I’ve always been interested in setting a YA novel at boarding school, and when the idea for this one came to me, I knew that this was the right time. I didn’t go to boarding school, and I was fascinated by what that world might be like. I think that’s in part the reason that I wound up at a quirky, small, residential liberal arts college—which was, of course, not a boarding school, but there’s a lot of overlap, based on the research I did for this book. I was lucky; my spouse went to boarding school and I have a close girlfriend who went to boarding school. So both my college experience and the lack of a romanticized boarding school experience, as a high school student at a large, suburban, public school, got me interested in the setting.
What other research did you do for this book?
I had a few specific questions for other writer friends. In particular, there was a point when I was drafting when I realized that I really needed there to not be security cameras all over campus for the ghosts to be able to conduct their various larks. Then I worried that maybe that was something that would stretch the bounds of reality too far for readers who did attend boarding school. So, in a panic, I started asking around for friends who had kids in boarding school now, with more recent boarding school experience than my peers. I was hugely relieved to find that there are at least several campuses, according to folks I spoke with, that did not have cameras.
When it came to forming the Haunt and Rail society, I of course did all of the reading I could get my hands on. As you can imagine, it’s limited—because secret societies are, by definition, secret. There have been reportedly a few such organizations at boarding schools, and of course many more at colleges and universities that are more well-known. But while I did all of the reading that I could find, instead of modeling Haunt and Rail after a specific, real-life society, I thought instead about what might drive a group of highly intelligent, motivated students to form a society at an elite boarding school. And the answer was, of course, that at the most idyllic, privileged institutions on earth, there are always imbalances of power, and often corruption. For adolescents navigating high school anywhere, whether it’s public school or boarding school, these power imbalances, often between students and the authorities, are front-of-mind. So I made addressing these issues the focus of Haunt and Rail. That’s what I like to do in my YA thrillers: tie issues that are of interest to teen readers to thrilling, entertaining stories.
You have written three other YA thrillers, and they all have socially conscious themes. Can you expand on why you find the genre so compelling?
When I was in high school—which at this point is a ways away, but I still remember my 16-year-old self very vividly—everything felt like life-and-death stakes. Because that’s how it is when you’re walking around with an adolescent brain. Issues that may seem pedestrian or mundane from an adult outlook, whether it was crushes or family issues or academic performance, felt extremely heightened in terms of the stakes that they held in my life at that time. In a thriller, of course, the stakes really are life-and-death. And that just felt like a natural extension for me, when I sat down to write my first young adult novel.
In the first book I wrote, See All the Stars—which is being rereleased under a new title, Before We Were Sorry, in the fall—the main character, Ellory, is dealing with first love and a big friendship breakup. I don’t think I knew from the outset that it would be a mystery or a suspense-driven novel, but it was a natural leap for me as a writer to take those stakes and make them even bigger. And with each book that I’ve written, they become more firmly situated in the mystery/thriller genre. So it started as my way of tapping into that adolescent voice. The thriller is a bit of a metaphorical exercise for me as a creator, in thinking about what adolescence means to me and how I connect with those feelings. Also, of course, I just love a good mystery story, so I was naturally drawn in that direction as a writer.
This book has several different mysteries to untangle. How do you juggle the multiple plotlines and make them work together?
I find that I have to be really organized in my writing—I’m a big outliner and plotter—and I have found that every book asks for something a little bit different. For Very Bad People, I had a rather loose plot outline, but I did have all of the major bullet points in terms of where the mystery was heading and where the various storylines needed to go by the end. I had all that worked out before I started writing, but I didn’t really know on a chapter-by-chapter level how it would unfold. I think that had to do with the fact that I have one narrator in Very Bad People, and the story unfolds chronologically. While that seems completely normal, it’s abnormal for me—this is the first book I’ve written for which that has been the case. I’m usually juggling more than one timeline, more than one narrator, and sometimes both. So I had a little bit more flexibility in the creation of this book to only have the big points mapped out beforehand, and then on the chapter level let things flow a little bit more.
For the book that I’m writing now, though, I’m working with a big Excel spreadsheet, because I have a large cast of characters and suspects. I have a lot of motives and backstories and secrets that I needed to get organized before I could even start thinking about how it would unfold, in terms of a chapter-by-chapter outline for the plot. I also check back as I’m writing. I refer frequently to the outline that I’m working from, and I’ll make updates to it, because after I get into the draft new avenues unveil themselves to me, or more exciting possibilities pop up that I wouldn’t have thought of beforehand. It’s a living document, for sure.
Can you say more about what you’re working on now?
My next YA book is not announced yet, so I’m a bit limited in what I can share. But it’s another murder mystery, and you might describe it as a YA White Lotus meets a dysfunctional family reunion, set at a luxurious Caribbean resort. It is about a privileged, fragmented family that reluctantly comes together for a week of bonding that ends in murder. And like my earlier novel, I Killed Zoe Spanos, this one takes teenagers out of the high school setting and into an exciting but dangerous world. I’m having a lot of fun with it, and I hope I’ll have more to share soon.
Very Bad People by Kit Frick. McElderry, $19.99 Apr. ISBN 978-1-5344-4973-2