By Paula Tutman
So many characters so little time. How on earth will author, Jennifer McMahon pull it off in her soon to be released thriller, THE WINTER PEOPLE? She will tell you, it wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.
When you can scare the pants off yourself—that’s a thriller.
While many authors swear by the ‘process’, they outline, they journal, they keep a strict writing schedule—McMahon listens to her heart and the urge to stretch herself creatively.“I knew I wanted to do something different; something bigger and more complex than my previous books,” she says. She goes on to say how surprised she was in what her heart was saying to her hands. Cue the scary music! “I thought I was going to write a book about a Civil War soldier and ended up writing about a woman who believes she can bring her dead daughter back to life.”
When you leaf through the first pages of the novel, your first greeting is this:
For Zella, Because one day, you wanted to play a really creepy game about two sisters whose parents had disappeared in the woods . . .“Sometimes it just happens.”
That’s not just author-speak or an imaginary leaf plucked from the creativity tree. Sometimes the best ideas for scary-monsters-under-your-bed stuff comes from children—your children, or in the case of McMahon, her child. “One day, a few years ago, my daughter asked me to play a game. Her games at that time tended to be these very tightly scripted dramas. She said, “We’re sisters. You’re nineteen 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?”
“They were taken,” she said. “Into the woods.” Then, she shrugged her shoulders and said matter-of-factly, “Sometimes it just happens.”
THE WINTER PEOPLE was quietly conceived. Its gestation took some years, but those words from a little girl wanting to play a spooky game with her mother, festered and grew and when McMahon was able to speak them again, it was in the opening pages of her book. Sometimes, it just happens.
McMahon explains that THE WINTER PEOPLE is actually three stories from three different points of view that converge. “In 1908, in West Hall, Vermont, Sara Harrison Shea and her husband Martin lose their beloved only child, Gertie. Grief stricken, Sara believes there might be a way to bring Gertie back. In the present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie is living in Sara and Martin’s old farmhouse. One morning, she and her six-year-old sister Fawn wake up to discover their ever-reliable mother has disappeared—while searching the house, they find the diary of Sara Harrison Shea, along with some other troubling items. Meanwhile, across town, Katherine, an artist and recent widow, has just moved to an apartment in West Hall hoping to find answers of her own. She wants to know what brought her husband to this little town the day he died and why he kept his visit to West Hall a secret from her. These three women—Sara, Ruthie and Katherine—are bound together by secrets over a century old.”
So many sub-plots, so little time. How on earth does Jennifer McMahon pull it off? “As I was writing, I didn’t know just how these storylines would fit together,” she explains, “or what the connections would be, but I trusted that the story would show me and sooner or later, it did.”
McMahon took pieces of everyday life, pieces of conversations between friends, the fears of others, and a few fears of her own—she took long germinating ideas that had no place to grow until the very moment they presented themselves fully formed and ready for the page and tied them neatly into what she believes is her scariest thriller, yet. “I think that writers are a little like magpies; we look around for shiny objects to gather up and weave into what will become our book. Late night talk radio, snippets of conversation overheard in the grocery store, dreams, things that pop into my head when I’m walking my dog, stories my family tells over dinner. Ideas and inspiration are all around us—I think the key is finding a way to capture them, to get them down before they’re gone. I carry a notebook and index cards with me everywhere I go and I’m always scribbling down random things. Some of my recent notes to myself: the Pileated woodpecker that seemed to follow me; the story on the radio about the experiment with mice and blood; the disco killer. Sometimes one of these things will spark something bigger and I’ll go with it and see where it might take me. Sometimes little bits of inspiration will connect together in this really amazing way and then I’ll know I’m onto something. I actually have something I call my idea box. It’s a black cardboard box that I’ve decorated, and whenever I get an idea or image I can’t let go of, I write it up and put it in the box. I also keep an ongoing list of interests and obsessions in there. When I’m feeling stuck with a book, whether it’s at the very beginning or near the end, I open the box. I’m never sure what I’ll find, but I always end up getting unstuck. I have this great line I read somewhere that I typed up and put on the outside of the box: ‘When you’re looking for an idea, your idea is looking for you.’ I think that’s so true! The tricky part, sometimes, is recognizing it when it finally comes to you.”
That’s not to say every concept of the intricate novel were whispers from the wind. In fact, McMahon did exhaustive research to bring her characters and their odd worlds hurling together. “I did more research with THE WINTER PEOPLE than I have with any other book. I read quite a bit about spiritualism (fascinating stuff, but I didn’t end up using much of what I learned once the book took a different turn), but the bulk of my research was on life in Vermont at the turn of the century. I spent a lot of time reading journals and diaries from Vermont and New England and trying to pick up whatever historical facts I could that might help. I looked at old photos, and read up on the history of little towns in Vermont.”
Sometimes, children can scare us the best. “I wrote my first story in third grade. It was about a haunted meatball. I remember it being this incredible rush—this idea that I could invent a world where anything was possible, even a glowing, talking meatball tormenting the child who had tried to eat it. It was magic. I was hooked and have been scribbling away ever since.”
Jennifer McMahon wants to hear you scream. She wants you to be afraid.She wants to change your life by making you think of death in a whole new way. She wants you to read THE WINTER PEOPLE and she wants it to scare the Hell out of you.
“This might make me sound a little warped and twisted, but I’m always happiest when I hear that I’ve really scared someone and that they had to sleep with the lights on. So my hope is that when readers finish the book, they’ll never look at their closet the same way again!”
THE WINTER PEOPLE is published by Doubleday and released February 11, 2014.
Jennifer McMahon is the author of DISMANTLED, the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller ISLAND OF THE LOST GIRLS, and the breakout debut novel PROMISE NOT TO TELL. She lives in Vermont with her partner, Drea, and their daughter, Zella.
To learn more about Jennifer, please visit her website.
Photography credit: Michael Lionstar