On August 21–22, Penguin Random House hosted Book Your Summer Live, a free virtual literary festival featuring both children’s and adult authors. On Saturday, August 22, YA authors Renée Ahdieh (The Damned, Putnam), Jessica Goodman (They Wish They Were Us, Razorbill), Karen M. McManus (The Cousins, Delacorte), and Rory Power (Burn Our Bodies Down, Delacorte) took to Zoom for the “Chills and Thrills” panel, which centered horror, mystery, and thriller narratives for teen readers. Jennye Kamin served as ASL interpreter, and the event was recorded and later made available on YouTube.
The panel kicked off with introductions of each author and her respective book before moderator Shannon Spann, associate manager of digital marketing at Penguin Young Readers, segued to the first question, about the inspiration behind each novel’s setting.
They Wish They Were Us, Goodman’s debut, takes place at a private school on the North Shore of Long Island, “an upscale, exclusive, very well-off suburb of New York City,” and was inspired by Goodman’s childhood experience growing up in that area. Living “in the shadow” of a big city like New York and all its glamour fascinated her.
McManus also drew from her childhood, choosing to set The Cousins on the fictional Gull Coast Island, which was modeled on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. McManus grew up in Massachusetts, and thought the beach setting would challenge her, as she has previously written stories focused on schools. The island also provided “a contained environment,” which McManus considered a fun fishbowl setting to build upon.
“New Orleans is one of my favorite cities in the entire world,” Ahdieh said, but she did not process why until her sixth or seventh visit, when a cab driver informed her that it had been “a majority-minority city for a very long time.” As a half-Korean person who grew up in blended cultures and often felt othered, Ahdieh felt at ease in this melting pot world of “food, music, and culture,” captivated by its reputation as “a haven for paranormal stuff.” With The Damned, Ahdieh loved creating a world within a world, a “filmy overlayer” atop our real world.
As for Power, she said that she has “always been very into Nebraska,” where her sophomore novel Burn Our Bodies Down is set, for no discernible reason. On a call with her editor, reaching for book ideas, she discovered a photo by Ellen Jantzen on Pinterest that portrayed a hand rising from the grass (which she mistook as corn), and was instantly inspired.
Spann then asked Goodman and McManus how they crafted plot twists without completely giving away the mystery.
Goodman said that the best thing, as the reader of a thriller, is “not knowing what’s happening, figuring out at the end, and then going back and finding all the little breadcrumbs the author left you.” Her goal, then, was making the red herring believable enough, paired with subplots that were just as intriguing as the unveiling. She said that her editor, Jess Harriton, was instrumental in helping determine how many breadcrumbs to leave.
“Ideally,” McManus mused, “the success or failure of the book does not rest on a successful plot twist.” She finds that writing multiple perspectives, with characters who have secrets that unspool alongside the plot, helps divert attention; adding “little sub-mysteries happening throughout” also aids that objective. “Having that many elements in play lets you, hopefully, keep the readers a little bit off-balance,” she concluded.
Spann next asked Ahdieh and Power about the key ingredients in creating overall mystery.
Agreeing with McManus’s previous response, Ahdieh speculated that one macro-conflict should take place above consistent micro-conflicts, and “as you resolve one micro-conflict, reveal another one” to propel the narrative forward. Good mysteries should not hinge on “one big A-ha moment” or twist, Ahdieh explained; creating compelling characters should take the fore.
Power identified her love of setting. For her works, she usually utilizes one main perspective and attempts to figure out “who the best person is going to be, to get through this landscape knowing the least at the beginning.” Thus, in Burn Our Bodies Down, protagonist Margot has an impetus to find out what’s going on; it “matters to her on an emotional level.” It’s all about the “capital-E, capital-J Emotional Journey,” Power emphasized.
Spann then praised all of the authors’ talent for creating surprises, asking if anything had taken them by surprise during the writing process.
Goodman revealed that the emotional journey of Jill’s boyfriend Henry “was difficult to figure out.” As a debut author, she felt pressured “to cram a romance in there,” and she only ended up discovering his true purpose as a character at the end of the writing and revising journey.
McManus identified the voice and gallows humor of Addy in One of Us Is Lying, saying that the character was “funnier than I thought she was going to be.”
Ahdieh selected “a technical surprise,” as in her previous books, third-person past tense narration came to her “much more easily.” So when the voice of Bastian in The Damned, as well as the killer in The Beautiful, flowed so easily from the first-person perspective, she was taken off guard.
Power divulged that the first “four or five drafts” of Burn Our Bodies Down featured protagonist Margot “falling completely head over heels” for Tess, a popular, privileged, bored character in the town of Phalene. “I’ll say a romance, [but] nothing with me is true romance—it always ends pretty badly,” Power clarified, before eventually editing the duo’s relationship because she didn’t feel the romance was necessary. “There’s this pressure to equate queer representation with queer romance,” Power said, “and those aren’t the same thing, but disengaging them was tough for me.”
Next, Spann asked each author to identify the character most like themselves.
The obvious answer is Jill, Goodman said, but “there’s a little piece of me” in every character. Goodman pulled extensively from her diaries and her teenage self to create her protagonist.
“Similar to Jess, I do put a little bit of myself into each character,” McManus responded next, specifically identifying Knox from One of Us Is Next as the beneficiary of “all my annoying character traits.”
Ahdieh confessed that the witty Shahrzad from The Wrath and the Dawn duology was who she wanted to be when she was 16, while Mariko, the protagonist of the Flame in the Mist duology, is based on her “brilliant scientist” younger sister. Ultimately, though, Celine from The Beautiful series is most like Ahdieh, corroborated by her writing partner Sabaa Tahir. Ahdieh shared how she drafted that book during the Kavanaugh hearings, and how that time caused a lot of rage since “three out of five women have experienced some form of sexual assault.” Writing protagonist Celine, who killed a boy who tried to rape her, felt scary, but also powerful and cathartic.
Power joked that the bear in her debut, Wilder Girls, was most like her—“it’s just living its life and has a lot of aggression pent up.” More seriously, however, she shared that Margot’s emotionally abusive household was based on the environment she grew up in. “It’s real, it happens,” Power said. “So much of Margot’s life is just gaslighting... and that can really mess you up and change who you are as a person.”
A lightning round was the penultimate part of the panel, covering the authors’ favorite tropes, whether they were planners or pantsers, their projected professions when they were five years old, their writing kryptonite, and their latest works in three words.
The panel closed with an audience q&a, wherein the authors addressed how their writing is affected by the pandemic, how they create characters who resonate, what their respective writing processes are like, tips to create thrillers or horror stories, and who or what inspired them to become authors.