Four seemingly unconnected individuals vanish from suburban Illinois on the same night in YA supernatural horror story The Bad Ones, the second standalone novel from Melissa Albert, author of the Hazel Wood books and Our Crooked Hearts. Teenage best friends Nora Powell and Becca Cross have been estranged for months, but when Becca texts “I love you” and nothing else late one night, Nora runs over to check on her, only to realize she’s missing. Soon, she starts finding clues alluding to a dangerous game that she and Becca played as kids surrounding fictional goddesses from local lore. Desperate to uncover the truth, Nora dives headfirst into the other disappearances, along the way uncovering terrifying secrets about her small town. In a conversation with PW, Albert discussed creating a narrative around a friendship on the outs, her fascination with invented culture, and how hope and firsts define the YA genre.

Mother-daughter dynamics are common in your previous titles, but the driving force in The Bad Ones is Becca and Nora’s friendship. Why did you make this choice?

My first books are about fairy tales, so the mother-daughter dynamics in those come right from the source material that I was working with. But when I wrote Our Crooked Hearts, which was my first standalone that I was writing as a pandemic parent, it was very much colored by my own parenting anxieties. With The Bad Ones, I feel like it’s a little bit haunted still by the lingering sense of the importance of mothers. When you’re writing a teen novel, you have to have some stakes with the parents. Are they present? Are they absent? Are their children defined by their absence?

Still, I very much wanted The Bad Ones to be a friendship story. I’ve always been super fascinated with the liminal space between childhood and the teen years, that space where maybe you’re growing at a rate that is a little bit slower than the kids around you. I just find it so interesting, the friction of having half the people in a particular grade growing into things like dating and other teen stuff, and the other half are still clinging to the magical thinking of childhood. I wanted to set a friendship story in that shadow space.

Is that liminal shadow space what inspired the darker supernatural horror elements?

It just came out naturally from the things I wanted to work on with this book. I had someone say to me once that if you have different ideas you’re working on and you’re not sure which to go with, you should ask yourself if they are, in fact, the same idea. So, I centered everything around this idea of a friendship defined by artistic and magical creations. I was one of those kids who was like, “I’m a witch, and I want a coven,” so I wanted to play with that notion of girls creating their own magic and, out of that magic, and out of their troubled friendship, the horror elements started to arise.

YA is such an exciting space to read and work in because it celebrates firsts. It’s not just first kisses or first loves, but it’s also first betrayal. Beginnings are also endings, and in this book, Nora wants to start the next phase of her life, but Becca can’t because the next phase of her life isn’t life if it’s a phase that will always be missing her parents.

I also believe that young adult novels are defined in part by their feelings of hope and hopefulness. In The Bad Ones, Nora is nominally a writer; we don’t really see her doing much writing on the page, but she’s finding community within a circle of writers with her literary club. Her creations with Becca are like art, but they’re also like magic, and they’re also telling stories about themselves in their own world—they’re centering themselves, in whatever way that might look like, and however dark it may go. It’s like a source of joy and power for them. But as I wrote, I realized that the stakes of the ideas I was playing with had a true kind of undertow drag of horror in them, and so I couldn’t just stay in that more magical spot.

In your 2018 PW Flying Starts interview about The Hazel Wood, you said that you wanted to create a “writer’s book.” How has that desire influenced your recent works?

When I said I wanted The Hazel Wood to be a writer’s book, I meant that I wanted it to be a book that writers would enjoy reading. I know it’s kind of an evergreen topic in publishing that people love books about books, but for me as a reader and as a writer, it’s always been about the invented culture behind books about storytelling. I love those spaces where fandom starts to touch the edges of religiosity.

Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on next?

I’m not under contract so right now I’m writing what I hope to sell as my first adult novel. It’s absolutely treading the ground that I love; it has to do with creative people and storytelling and the power and danger of making art and magic.

The Bad Ones by Melissa Albert. Flatiron, $19.99 Feb. 20 ISBN 978-1-250-89489-2