This year has brought us some great young adult and middle grade dark delicacies. One of my favorites has been Dan Poblocki's NIGHTMARYS.
Synopsis: Timothy July has been having nightmares. About his brother, who is in a coma after being wounded in Iraq; about his best friend, Stuart, who is behaving like a jerk; about the old biology specimens in jars lining the walls of his classroom; and about Abigail, the new girl who seems to be a magnet for trouble. Or perhaps she is the cause. Suddenly Timothy’s nightmares are coming true. His brother, his face decaying, approaches Timothy on the street. Stuart ends up in the hospital, terrified that monsters are stalking him. And the specimen jars are tormenting not only Timothy but his teacher as well. What is the secret in Abigail’s past that is the key to these horrors? And can Timothy figure it out before his nightmares become a deadly reality?
Can you tell me a little of your background and what brought you to writing for children?
Did you know that you wanted to write scary stories or did that manifest out of writing something else first?
DP - The first two manuscripts, which are not published, are contemporary teen stories. They are in no way scary, at least not on purpose. In fact, the books are more romantic than anything else, I suppose, because that's what I was obsessed with when I was a teenager. Relationship stuff. Growing up. Dealing with friends and so-called enemies. Looking further back, at Middle School Land, I was obsessed with other things... Mysteries! Horror movies! Scaring my sister! For me, the spooky stories come directly from where my brain was at when I was twelve.
In your opinion what are some of the key elements a genre story needs to be successful in its execution?
DP - I'm not an expert, but I know what I like when I see it. I think the most important element in a genre story is that it works. There's nothing more unsatisfying after being drawn in by an intriguing plot is to watch it fall apart in the third act. So watch out for plot holes...
Speaking of plot... much of genre is plot driven, but often what makes a genre story so compelling is when the characters are as human as possible. We have to care about the characters on some level in order for the plot to have the highest impact on our senses.
For kids literature, I think another key element is that the child characters are the ones who must solve the problem, or defeat the villain, or save the world. No fair if an adult comes in at the last minute and sets everything right.
Were you writing anything into Stone Child and Nightmarys that had to be dialed down or would not get through edit because of it being too (violent, scary, gory?)
DP - Writing both books, I was surprised that my editors gave me free reign to be as scary as I wanted to be. In fact, for The Stone Child, my editor suggested I ratchet up the suspense even more. In The Nightmarys the only thing that the editor thought might need to be dialed down had nothing to do with the horror elements of the story. In the first draft, one of the main characters had cancer. We all agreed that with everything else that the characters had to go through, this aspect was just too much, so I cut it out.
What is the biggest misconception people have about authors who write creepy stories for kids?
DP - I think the biggest misconception about authors who write creepy stories is just that: we're authors who simply write creepy stories. I certainly like reading creepy stories. I love when someone tells me my books freaked them out or that they couldn't put them down. I love coming up with the darkest, scariest scenes I can imagine, because it thrills me. But I also love inventing complicated characters and exploring relationships and building the place where the story lives and discovering the voice of each book. All of these later elements are parts of story-telling in general, creepy or not. My dream is to be known (someday) as a great story-teller, rather than someone who writes creepy stories. But I'm working on that!
What has been the most challenging part of writing these two books for you? Why?
DP - Waiting. When I started all of this, I had no idea how long it would take for the books to finally reach not only the shelves, but also readers' hands. I was so excited to start sharing my work, but I was also nervous. And time moves really slowly when you're feeling like that. It's not a great feeling.
What is your biggest fear?
DP - One word: Sharks.
Okay, sharks are pretty scary. Since we are putting fears on the table, I thought I would share one that creeps me out every time I think of... her.
Cute little bugger, isn't she?
I want to give a huge thank you to Dan for stopping by the asylum and for giving me the heebie jeebies during the late night hours. I have no doubt he will be known as a great story-teller someday. He's off to a great start.