Kara Thomas (The Cheerleaders), Kiersten White (The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein), and Marisha Pessl, whose first YA novel is Neverworld Wake, talk about the benefits of reading scary books, navigating boundaries in YA fiction, and finding their stories.
When writing YA horror and thrillers, is any subject matter off the table? Do you feel an obligation to provide a sense of resolution and levity for readers?
Thomas: There are subjects that I personally won't touch, but I have seen sensitive and taboo issues handled with great care in YA. I have my own boundaries with violence, in terms of how I describe it and to what extent. Unsolved crimes are some of my biggest sources of inspiration. I think it's interesting when a reader is able to fill in the gaps themselves for some story threads.
White: You can cover almost anything as long as there's an undercurrent of hope. I like to end on a note that gives my main characters power. Whether or not they're meeting a happy ending, they're not victims.
Pessl: Teens have the emotional bandwidth to handle a full range of subjects, maybe even more so than adults, as they tend to be less rigid in their thinking and more questioning. [As a teen], books gave me a sense of connectedness, humanity, infinite possibility. That's what I want to give my readers.
What do you think draws readers—particularly teens—to read scary or unsettling books?
Thomas: It's normal for teens to be drawn to darkness and to have questions about things they don't understand. And then, unfortunately, you have the young readers who have experienced some of the things I'm writing about—murder, incarcerated parents, poverty. It's good for kids who are experiencing them to know they're not alone.
White: I read horror when I'm feeling the most overwhelmed or sad. I find it oddly comforting! And reading it also allows you to play out those scenarios in a nonthreatening way. What would I do if it were me? How far would I go? Watching characters go through the very worst can be empowering.
Pessl: The other day, my two-year-old made up a story about a machine that lived on the stairs, and she happily announced the machine was "scary." It made me realize that to get outside our comfort zone, to be afraid and to survive, is part of our life experience.
Are you prone to nightmares? Do they inform your stories?
Thomas: I was the kid who couldn't go to sleep unless my parents proved to me that the doors and windows were locked. I think it's why I became fascinated with crime stories—it's as if I feel like writing gives me control over all the terrible things that happen in the world.
White: For years they were really awful. But once I started writing more intense books, those dreams shifted. Instead of constantly being chased, I was figuring out how to turn the tables on what was pursuing me. By claiming these elements in stories, my dreaming consciousness was also allowed to claim them and retake the power.
Pessl: I am a working mom with a one-year-old and a two-year-old, so when I go to sleep, it's a blackout, as if I've left Earth and been jettisoned into outer space. When I wake up, I have no recollection of my journey across the universe.