I do most of my fiction writing late at night in a darkened office before a glowing screen—and so revising my latest novel, Ghost Signs, has been a sort of creepy experience. Imagine how startled—and then delighted—I was one night, as I sat conjuring a séance in my imagination, when writer Beth Kephart appeared on my screen to tag me for the Next Big Thing Gang. Here’s the deal: I answer the following questions about my work-too-long-in-progress, and then tag my brilliant friends Marta Maretich, Joanne Green, and Andrea Jarrell to tell you about theirs. Here goes:
What is the working title of your book?
I started out calling this novel The Fortune Teller, but changed it midway through the first draft so as not to mislead the reader into thinking it’s a trendy paranormal book. As a teenager, I was fascinated by paranormal stories, but the question raised in this book—whether or not my protagonist’s sister is faking her apparent power to predict the future—is really a question about whether God (and an afterlife) exists. My new title, Ghost Signs, gets at the book’s spookiness, but also refers to the echoes of the past in our present lives, apparitions in the form of old letters and photos, century-old houses in which modern families dwell, and faded advertisements that still haunt the sides of old buildings in the old town that is the book’s setting.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I read a fascinating book called Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death by Deborah Blum, about a group of scientists (including James, the founder of American psychology) who studied many of the 19th-century mediums popular at a time when scientific discovery threatened to upend religious order. Coincidentally, my youngest daughter was going through the confirmation process at our church, and was surprised and frustrated by the youth leaders’ seeming intolerance for her monkey-wrench questions (pardon the pun) about evolution. These questions are no less urgent for teenagers than they are for adults. It seems to me a braver thing to pursue the question of God’s existence than to dash off a faith statement you don’t quite believe; for a teacher to discourage the questions of a teenager who is developing his or her faith is a missed opportunity.
What genre does your book fall under?
This is the first book I’ve set out deliberately to write as a young adult novel, using what I’ve learned from reading and teaching the work of excellent young adult authors. I’ve tried to employ certain aspects of style to create a sense of authenticity, immediacy, heightened emotion, and—yes—adolescent narcissism that contribute to a young adult sensibility. Teenagers can smell a lesson a mile away, and so I’ve tried to write a story for them that doesn’t teach so much as ask. I don’t presume to tell my readers what to think.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
My daughter Catherine Mosier-Mills is a talented actress, a beautiful girl and a writer just like my character Cassie Schulz—she’d be perfect in the role! Though Cat would probably prefer the adorable Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) to play her boyfriend Troy, I’d cast him as Cassie’s brother (and narrator) Jack. Asa Butterfield (Hugo) would be great as Dan, Jack’s genius best friend.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
In Ghost Signs, 15-year-old Jack Schulz conspires with his 17-year-old sister Cassie to convince their parents, the school principal, and the town police of her psychic powers in order to solve a century-old murder.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Two years. The final version—four years in the writing—has been interrupted, deconstructed, and reconstituted by many life events since then. I’m reminded of this every time I talk to the wonderful Julie Tibbott at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who read an early chapter one million years ago this fall.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I know I should know the answer to this question, but in order to write a book I have to ignore the market. Ask me when I’ve printed out the penultimate draft.
Who or What inspired you to write this book?
My interest in teenagers—the two I’m raising, the ones I teach—and my wish to encourage them to be skeptical: to read, to question, to reason, to find the answers they seek.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Wanna fool your friends into thinking you’re communing with spirits? Here’s how! Cool psychic tricks…and unexplained paranormal phenomena to keep you wondering.
Who have you tagged?
I’ve tagged these writers, whose work I admire (and whose works-in-progress I’ve read), to get them to spill the beans: Joanne Green, Andrea Jarrell, and Marta Maretich. While they’re pondering the answers to these questions, you can check out their work by clicking these links.