Jennifer McMahon: Scary Bedroom Closets

photo: Michael Lionstar

Jennifer McMahon, her partner and their daughter live in an old house in Vermont. Her fiction lies close to home--her six literary thrillers are all set in Vermont. The Winter People (see review below), McMahon's latest book, is set partly in the present day, where the mother of two girls has gone missing, and partly in the same house in 1908, where Sara Harrison Shea grieves the death of her young daughter.

Do you have a high tolerance for scary movies and books? How do you write such deliciously creepy fiction without scaring yourself?

I love scary movies and books, but the truth is I'm not all that brave--I'm really a big scaredy cat! I love a book or movie that makes me need to sleep with the light on (and it doesn't take much, believe me!).

And I do scare myself when I'm writing. When I'm sitting in front of the computer and I feel the hair go up on the back of my neck and get goose bumps, then I know I'm onto something good. There's one particular scene in The Winter People that terrified me when I wrote it and still scares me when I think about it--the bit where Martin wakes up and finds Sara sitting in front of the closet and he hears a scrabbling, scratching sound coming from inside the closet. I think we all had that deep, almost primal fear of our bedroom closets at night when we were kids, and I guess I never really got over mine.

The Winter People is your sixth book, and they all fall somewhere between literary suspense and supernatural mysteries. Do you think of yourself as falling into a particular genre? If so, which one do you claim?

Honestly, I don't think any of my books fit neatly into one particular genre and I'm certainly not thinking about trying to make them fit when I'm writing. I'm just doing my best to write the book that I would most want to read, hoping that if I do a good job, other people will want to read it, too. Even though it can be tricky at times, I really love that my books are enjoyed by mystery/thriller fans, paranormal/horror fans, women's fiction readers and young adults.

When you were writing The Winter People, which came first: the idea for Sara Harrison Shea's story (set in 1908) or the modern framework starring Ruthie?

I had Ruthie's storyline before anything else. It was inspired by a game my daughter, Zella, had me play several years ago. She could be kind of a bossy kid, and her games at the time were very tightly scripted.

The set up for this one went something like this:

"We're sisters. You're 19 and I'm seven. You wake up one morning and I'm in bed with you. I tell you our parents are missing."

"Missing?" I said. "That's terrible. What happened to them?"

Then Zella told me they were taken. Into the woods. She shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly and said, "Sometimes it just happens."

I wrote down this idea for a book with two sisters whose parents disappear into the woods, but it didn't go anywhere, so I put it away for the time being.

Years later, I had this idea for a book set during the Civil War. I was watching Ken Burns's Civil War, and there was a short bit in there about Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln's young son dying in the White House. Mary Todd believed the boy came back to visit her and started having séances in the White House. I dropped my Civil War idea and decided to write a book about a spiritualist at the turn of the century who loses her young daughter, but believes she can still communicate with her.

As I was writing this, my character, Sara, had a few surprises up her sleeve. One day, when I was writing, I got this line from her: "The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old." I got chills, wondered what on earth a sleeper was (part of me wasn't sure I really wanted to find out, because I knew that whatever it was, it was going to scare the heck out of me!). The whole book took a turn and I soon realized I wasn't writing about a woman who believes she can communicate with her dead child, I was writing about a woman who believes she can bring her daughter back.

It was around this time that I decided I'd put my sisters with their missing parents in there, too. They'd live in Sara's house in the present day. They'd wake up one morning to discover their mother had vanished, and eventually come to realize that her disappearance was linked to a dangerous secret over a century old.

Was Sara's story inspired by any legends or stories from New England history?

I wish! Nothing specific, but when writing The Winter People, I definitely relied on the atmosphere of a long, hard Vermont winter, where shadows loom large and trees seem to morph into something more sinister, and if you listen hard enough, the creaking of the snow-burdened tree limbs could be mistaken for someone--or something--stealthily approaching.

You write about small-town Vermont very convincingly. Have you come across any haunted houses in your area?

Thank you! I grew up in Connecticut, but have been in Vermont since the late 1980s. Even though I've lived here ever since, any native Vermonter will tell you I'm a flatlander. I think not being a real Vermonter gives me a bit of outsider perspective that helps me to pick up on little details I might not catch if I'd grown up here.

I went to Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., where there were ghost stories aplenty. There's a building called the Manor that now houses faculty offices and classrooms--it used to be the grand home of the Martin family, who owned the farm that would eventually become the Goddard campus. (I just looked it up, and believe it or not, the Manor was built in 1908--the year of Sara's diary.) It was full of curving hallways and alcoves, as well as some big echo-y rooms with old tile floors. If you went in there at night and sat quietly, you could just tell you weren't alone; doors would open, you'd hear the creak of what you'd swear were footsteps, and every now and then catch a shadow moving in the corner of your eye.

Here in Vermont, in all of New England, we have a lot of old houses and I have to believe that if a house is well over a hundred years old, there may well be a ghost or two hanging around.

Hopefully we don't have any sleepers hiding in closets, but you never know.... --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

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