In Elizabeth Kilcoyne’s chilling YA debut, Wake the Bones, 19-year-old Laurel’s mother Anna, scorned as a witch by their rural Kentucky town, died when Laurel was a baby. Now Laurel is coming home to her family’s tobacco farm after dropping out of college, and she’s haunted by strange and terrifying occurrences, including her mother’s ghost. Laurel tries to untangle the curse with the help of friends Isaac, Garrett, and Ricky, as well as the town outcast and practicing witch Christine—but the more she uncovers, the more complicated her relationships with Anna, her community, and the land itself become. We spoke with Kilcoyne about horror, folk magic, and grief.
What drew you to horror, and how does the setting you chose—rural, small-town Kentucky—lend itself so well to the genre?
I’ve always been a speculative writer. Even though a lot of the fantasy that I write is fairly grounded, I’ve never been able to keep it from lifting off a little bit and flying into speculative territory. But really where I got the inspiration point for Wake the Bones was walking in the woods, where weird things happen and things are often dead and rotting. And so I knew that I wanted to pull that sort of strangeness that comes along with very mundane chores and activities in the woods, as well as connecting that feeling of being watched that you always get. Because you always are being watched in the woods, you know? There’s always a squirrel or something that really wants to know your business.
Then tying that in with local folk horror—I think a lot of people, particularly in the rural South, get parented, to a certain degree, by ghost stories. For my family, it was always very practical: “Don’t play on top of the old livestock well, not only because it’s dangerous, but there’s a ghost in there that’ll grab your ankles and yank you down.” So I think a first book this close to home was always going to hit this sort of subject.
Body horror, for me, is a really good way of processing—in particular the grief of the changing landscape of Kentucky. Especially these past couple of weeks, with everything the Supreme Court could be changing, and all of these trigger laws and various things that are going into effect… it’s the grief of watching your home change. There’s always an element of death and resurrection, living in rural Kentucky, not only with watching animals and creatures around you die but also with watching industries die, drying up and taking people with them. The choice to stay or leave is one that you’re still privileged enough to hold onto for a while, or one that’s taken away from you, and there’s a lot of horror in that, too. So when I was writing Wake the Bones, it was personal grief, loss of family members, loss of friends to things beyond any of our control.
Why did you write this story for teens?
Well, I don’t want to say it’s one of the most horrifying times to be alive, but in terms of agency, you’re being given it for the first time. You have to make that choice. I mean, being from Kentucky, we all had to have this conversation about whether to stay or go. That’s a really common and a really complicated question. At the time that I was drafting this book, I was 21, 22. Even in college, I had this big idea that to become a successful writer, I had to live in New York City and pay New York City rent to succeed. So there was a lot of grief in the understanding that I would be the first person in my family to leave Kentucky in 200 years. (In fact, that was not me—that was my little sister.)
This idea that I had to go to do the things that I wanted to do, whether it’s true or not, is presented to all of us. Well, not presented to all of us, honestly—presented to those of us who are lucky enough to even have that choice in the first place. As a lesbian, as a queer person, I was really fortunate to have familial support to be able to stay. But if I did not have that, I would do like many of my friends have done and leave. The characters in Wake the Bones are all grappling, to a certain degree, with whether to stay or to go, with how much they belong, how much they want to belong, and how much they belong to each other—whether the people that they’ve grown up with and the people who they love and the networks that they’ve found and supported and created together are actually going to be enough at the end of the day. I also had to answer it on a bigger level for myself.
What inspired all of the magic in Wake the Bones?
It was a combination of things. I’ve always been really interested in the folk magic of the region—what is acceptable and what is of God, and how narrowly you’re supposed to stay in your lane with the magical gifts that people believe that you’ve received, versus the concept of witchcraft and how completely taboo and unacceptable it is. So I started there, and that’s a lot of the relationship and dynamic between Laurel and Christine: having a very narrow, God-given gift that allows you to witch the warts off somebody, or draw fire from a burn, or some of that old stuff that they do. You can’t tell certain people about it, you can’t tell people how you did it, the gift has to be passed down from daughter to son—there’s a lot of very strict rigidity within the folk magic beliefs that exist within the region. It’s a region brimming with magic.
But at the same time, I couldn’t just look at what was there and say, “Oh, OK, this is an adequate magical system on which I can base things.” This girl is grieving. This girl has huge problems. This girl cannot just pull a Bible verse and be like, “I’m done.” She has to get into the meat of her world. Given the understanding that God and creation exist within the magical belief there, I was like, “Well, anything that doesn’t fit within that narrow, rigid gift must be God’s business.” Then I started thinking about relationships to the land and what the land is doing—the land is not, obviously, a neutral party in Wake the Bones. That was a really important thing for me, using the land as a character who wants things and who will react if pushed.
So, yeah, [the characters] have big problems. They need the sort of big magic that can solve and change that. When you align yourself with that sort of land-based magic, you can hope for an outcome and achieve it, but you’ll never understand it any more than you’ll understand sitting out in a field for a year and watching it grow and watching it change. There are so many things beyond your control, with agriculture.
It’s the same with magic. You can do your best, but it’s all going to be serving the purpose of the woods, which is life and death and regeneration. It’s a loose magic system, one that I like to play with to fulfill the purpose of whatever the scene is. I had a lot of fun adding some wonder and mystery into it, rather than saying, “These are the rules.”
A lot of this book is dark, but there’s also a sense of hope. How difficult was it to write both of those things at the same time, and how did you balance them?
When I was writing this, I called it “The Big Grief Book.” I had had a lot of people in my life die at once, within a few months of each other. Death was inevitable. Death was heartbreaking. Death was surprising. Death was peaceful. Death put an end to things. Death made things worse. I was just sort of slammed by a semitruck of grief. I’ve always been told that you should write your book knowing the answer to the question that you’re asking, and I absolutely didn’t do that with Wake the Bones at all, because my question was, “Hey, how do I live with this?”
So a lot of the balance of hope and grief and seeing all of that together at once is really just me, on the page, struggling with everything that was going on. I’m glad that it reads as hopeful, because at times it didn’t feel hopeful to write it. At the end of the day, as far as a conclusion that anybody can reach about grief, I think the answer is just loving people as much as you possibly can, loving the land, loving the family that you’ve got, loving all of these things the way that they happen to fall into your lap for as incredibly complicated and imperfect as they were the whole time.
Particularly when it comes to Laurel’s mother, who she lost at a very, very young age, and who, sort of like the taxidermy that Laurel does, has been encased in amber this whole time. When that relationship breaks free of the constraints of both her ideal of what her mother could have been and the town’s demonization and vilification of who her mother was, the person who comes out at the end of that, the spirit, is as close to Anna as anybody in the book ever gets. Laurel gets to her mother by coming to that understanding: “Oh, Anna is a very young person who is making decisions that I, also a very young person, am having to make right now. How do I do this and honor her, but not necessarily fall into the same exact traps that she fell into?”
I feel like 18 and 19, this sort of tail-end of YA, feels like a very finite time in your life, like nothing is ever going to happen unless it happens within the next six months. But at some point, 18-year-olds turn 30. It happens to the best of us. I didn’t want to clear up all the characters’ problems and be like, “OK, happily ever after.” But I did want to leave them with some future.
Wake the Bones by Elizabeth Kilcoyne. Wednesday, $18.99 July 12 ISBN 978-1-250-79082-8