Margo Kelly made a striking impression on the young adult thriller scene with her 2014 debut Who R U Really?, about a teenage girl who becomes dangerously involved with an online stalker. Inspired by Kelly’s family’s own harrowing experience with an Internet predator, the book earned praise from reviewers and readers alike for its sobering take on a very real problem.
At first glance, UNLOCKED might seem like a tamer beast. Kelly’s second published novel, out October 1 from Merit Press, is steeped in supernatural horror and gothic suspense tropes—a far cry from the ripped-from-the-headlines realism of her debut. The plot centers on Hannah, a seventeen-year-old girl who experiences bizarre visions after undergoing hypnosis at a state fair. But when the story takes a surprisingly grim and all-too-relatable turn, readers are once again in Kelly’s familiar purview: a dark, paranoid tale of a teenager girl who must navigate the terrifying fallout of a seemingly inconsequential action.
Kelly sat down with The Big Thrill to talk about crafting psychological suspense for young readers, offer pointers on juggling a large cast of supporting characters, and share her thoughts on the legacy of YA suspense queen Lois Duncan.
I understand your first novel, Who R U Really?, was inspired by your family’s own disturbing experience with an online stalker. Do you have any sort of personal connection with UNLOCKED?
When I was in college I attended my first hypnotism show.
In an auditorium along with a couple hundred other students, I watched as fifteen guys and girls went on stage and participated in the show. The audience laughed and clapped and hooted when the hypnotized students did ridiculous things such as quack like ducks or sing like rock stars. It was great. Terrific. Until the end.
While the participants were still completely hypnotized, the hypnotist turned to the audience and spouted his political views. He didn’t even try to hide what he was doing. He spoke clearly and abruptly. The people to my left and to my right sat in shock. My own mouth dropped open in disbelief. The hypnotist went so far as to tell everyone exactly how to vote in the upcoming election. I was dumbfounded. I felt like my trust had been violated, and I wasn’t even on the stage. I was not hypnotized. I was not in any sort of suggestive state. But those students in the show still were. And I bet there were plenty of others sitting in the audience who were impressionable from watching the hypnosis being performed.
Fresh Insight Into Writing Thrillers for Kids
It’s been a little more than a year since Donna Galanti introduced readers to Joshua Cooper, the young hero of her MG fantasy novel Joshua and the Lightning Road. The book was conceived as a standalone, but Galanti’s blend of fast-paced adventure and unbridled imagination struck a chord with publisher Month9Books, and the author found herself with an unexpected series on her hands.
Book one centered on 12-year-old Joshua’s first ordeal with the Lightning Road, an interdimensional pathway that delivers him to a realm where children are kidnapped and enslaved by a sinister entity known as the Child Collector. In the newly released follow-up JOSHUA AND THE ARROW REALM, the boy finds himself back in Nostos and caught between warring factions of the Olympian heirs–a group that includes Galanti’s distinctive spin on figures borrowed from Greek mythology.
In her latest interview with The Big Thrill, Galanti, who also pens adult-oriented paranormal thrillers, discusses the unique rewards and challenges of crafting adventure tales for young readers.
For readers who are just discovering the series, what was the genesis of the Joshua Cooper books?
My biggest inspiration for writing book one in the series, Joshua and the Lightning Road, was my son Joshua Cooper. Years ago, when my son was four, we’d like to sit on the front stoop together at twilight under a tree and watch the stars come out. It became story time too. That’s where I would spin wild and silly tales for my son. It appealed to my desire to create new worlds where we could live out magical and heroic adventures–all led by a hero who came into his own, Joshua. Those summer nights under the stars faded but the idea didn’t. That story eventually became Joshua and the Lightning Road. As my son has grown older (now 13) he continues to inspire me with plot and character ideas when I get stuck in writing the series!
Drive, She Said
Some of us are suckers for a clever heist story like Ocean’s 11. Other people get psyched for a fast muscle car. And others still love a taut, on-the-clock thriller.
What if you’re Dawn Ius and you love all three? You combine them and write OVERDRIVE, a young adult car-heist thriller set in Las Vegas that guns the engine on Page One and never lets up. The novel’s unforgettable main character is Jules, aka Ghost, the teenager struggling in the foster-home system who can steal any car in Vegas, but whose tough exterior masks a protective love for her kid sister and a yearning to dance ballet.
In OVERDRIVE, Jules is bailed out of jail by a shadowy benefactor and given a choice: Lose her kid sister to the system, or steal seven of the rarest, most valuable muscle cars in the world—in seven weeks.
Ius says, “Seriously, I could watch Oceans 11 and Gone in 60 Seconds every day and not get bored. And although there are examples of teen heist books, I’d never read one involving cars. I just couldn’t figure out how to piece my ‘loves’ together. Then I saw a tweet by my awesome agent, Mandy Hubbard, who’d read an article about a 1967 Shelby GT 500 Mustang that once belonged to lead singer of The Doors Jim Morrison, and had been MIA for decades. Now I had my mystery. That car—also known as Eleanor in Gone in 60 Seconds—is my dream car. Like, I Google it at least once a week. With the mystery solidified, OVERDRIVE fast-tracked itself to being the book I had to write.”
Ius, a journalist based in Alberta, Canada, has written short stories in anthologies published by Leap Books and Vine Leaves Press where she’s also the development editor, and 14 educational graphic novels published by the Alberta Canola Producers Commission. Her first novel for Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster) was Anne & Henry, a wicked smart reimaging of the epic 16th century love story of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII as a turbulent high school romance between the new in school “bad girl” and the reigning jock prince.
Thrillers, however, are in her blood. “I was young—maybe 14—when I read John Saul’s Creature and I remember closing that book and thinking, ‘I need to write a thriller.’” Ius, deputy editor of The Big Thrill, took classes with authors of New York Times bestsellers. “I learned a lot about chapter endings by working with Gary Braver, for instance, and have always considered ‘pacing’ the one writing craft device I actually understand,” Ius says. “If anything, my first drafts tend to be too pace-y and I have to go back and fill in the other stuff. I loosely outlined OVERDRIVE—far less than I did in Anne & Henry—but the entire book was in my head by the time I finished writing Chapter 1. I literally had to slow myself down from skipping right to the heist scenes, which were incredibly fun to write.”
Nightmares don’t always hide in shadows; sometimes they come for us on a sunlit suburban sidewalk, or lie in wait in the brightest stretch of a cotton-candy summer.
Seventeen-year-old Scarlett Contreras learns this firsthand in Amanda Panitch’s NEVER MISSING, NEVER FOUND. Panitch’s second novel—coming on the heels of her harrowing 2015 debut Damage Done—picks up several years after Scarlett was abducted from her suburban neighborhood on a bright winter afternoon and subjected to years of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse at the hands of her captor (easily one of the most chilling villains to stalk YA fiction in recent years) before finally managing to escape.
Four years later, Scarlett has nearly rebuilt her life, or at least some semblance of it. Her family still reels from the fallout of her abduction, but Scarlett is enjoying a new job at a superhero-themed amusement park, where she’s smitten with one of her young coworkers. Her hard-won stability begins to crumble, though, when a young woman goes missing from the park, and another coworker seems to know things about Scarlett’s past that Scarlett has never shared with anyone. Equal parts wistful coming-of-age story and grueling psychological suspense, Panitch’s sophomore effort juggles dual timelines that alternate between Scarlett’s unsettling present and her torturous past, all leading up to an atomic bomb of a plot twist and a masterful resolution.
With only two novels under her belt, Panitch has already announced herself as a formidable new voice in the world of suspense fiction. Here, The Big Thrill picks her brain about managing dual timelines, crafting killer twists, and writing delightfully dangerous girls.
Your first novel, Damage Done, was inspired by an article you read about a suicide bomber. Can you trace NEVER MISSING, NEVER FOUND to a single catalyst?
NEVER MISSING, NEVER FOUND wasn’t inspired by one thing in the same way Damage Done was, but I knew right away that I wanted to write a YA psychological thriller set in an amusement park. Otherwise, the relationship between the two sisters—the protagonist, Scarlett, and her younger sister, Melody—has roots in the relationship my sister and I had as teenagers.
Seventeen-year-old Ryan Poitier Sharpe is a gutsy, outgoing girl who spends her summers hurling herself out of planes at her parents’ skydiving center in the Mojave Desert. Fiercely independent and willing to take risks, she challenges those around her to live life fully. But after a brush with death, Ryan is not the thrill-seeking girl she once was and seems to be teetering on the edge of psychosis. As her life unravels, Ryan must fight the girl she’s become—or lose herself forever—in Tracy Clark’s eerie and atmospheric thriller, MIRAGE.
We spoke with Ms Clark about her latest novel and her writing career.
Brian: Prolific writers tend to have a surplus of story ideas. What about MIRAGE appealed so strongly to you that you picked it over all your other ideas?
Without giving too much away, I’ll say that MIRAGE has a tricky element that I wasn’t sure I had the writing chops to pull off. Since I find it nearly impossible to back off from a challenge, I knew I had to try. I also couldn’t let go of the image of a character thinking she sees someone else in her reflections.
As for choosing which idea to commit to; I have to write what elicits the most “spark” in me. I have to be truly excited by it to sustain my enthusiasm for the long haul.
Ellie: What inspired you to write about this individual?
Ryan is one of those characters who arrived fully-formed. She “landed” in my life as the complicated, badass, rebel skydiver that you see in the book. There are elements to Ryan that come from within and some that come from people I know. But one thing is certain—as with all of us, she’s a true individual and her life and her story are unique to her.
Ellie: Do you ever incorporate your adventures into your stories?
Oh, yes! I was a skydiver in my early twenties and I jumped at a drop zone in the Mojave Desert. The harsh, unforgiving desert setting lent itself well to the book. I’m also a private pilot, and that helped as well. I’ll tell you one tidbit: there’s a scene in which Ryan is on a demo-jump and it’s raining. The plane’s stall warning indicator went off and she was pushed out of the airplane by her boyfriend. That happened to me!
Alpert Makes Science Thrilling for Young Adults
By Sonja Stone
Mark Alpert—astrophysicist-turned-author—sold his first work of fiction, a short story, several decades ago to Playboy magazine. The Big Thrill caught up with Alpert to talk about his research, the writing life, and his second young adult thriller, THE SEIGE, sequel to The Six, which releases this month.
The Six tells the story of six dying teenagers, called the Pioneers, whose lives are “saved” when their minds are downloaded into army robots. In THE SEIGE, the Pioneers discover a new enemy—an artificial-intelligence program named Sigma. And Sigma has an ally: one of the Pioneers is a traitor.
You’re on your second YA novel. What would you say are the key differences between writing adult vs. young adult? What advice would you give other thriller writers who want to write for young adults?
The adolescent brain is different from the adult brain. Adolescent brain cells are more flexible (but less efficient) than adult neurons, and there are more connections among them. So it’s natural that teenagers think differently. Their brains are geared for seeking novelty and thrills, and at the same time they have poor impulse control. They feel everything more intensely, both the good and the bad. (I read somewhere that ice cream will never taste as good as it did when you were a teenager.)
I picked up all these neuroscience tidbits because my young adult novels are about teenagers who transfer the contents of their minds to robots, so I had to learn a little about teenage brains. To write a YA novel, you have to show the extremes that your adolescent characters are going through, the crushing disappointments and the dizzying joys. In other words, you have to remember what it’s like to be a teenager.
By Dawn Ius
From it’s chilling opening scene through to it’s shocking end, Anne Redisch Stampler’s HOW TO DISAPPEAR reads like a textbook of how to pen the ultimate cat and mouse chase for young adults.
The story moves at breakneck speed through the compelling alternating points of view of of a young girl on the run from a murder she may or may not have committed, and the boy who’s sent to kill her.
In this interview with The Big Thrill Stampler talks about her somewhat rocky transition from writing picture books to thrilling young adult suspense, how “dark” she’s willing to go, and the role of humor in the thriller genre.
Prologues can be tricky, but your opening scene is so rich with suspense and atmosphere, it sucks the reader in. What is the key to an effective prologue?
Thank you! Given that the forces of One-Size-Fits-All Writing Advice have it in for prologues, I feel quite protective of the poor things. In my prologues, I try to establish the feel of the book, the voice and tone, in the course of suggesting a terrifying incident that makes the reader go What???? Ideally, awareness of that incident will color the experience of reading the story, and heighten the desire to unearth the story’s truth.
You did a fantastic job of keeping the alternating voices of Jack and Cat distinct, something that is much harder than people often think. Was one character easier to write? How did you navigate the process?
This is hard to explain without sounding crazy or, at very least, more than slightly eccentric, but my writing process involves pretending to be the character from whose perspective I’m narrating. So working with two alternating first person narrators got a little bit tricky. With the first draft, I tended to spend each day as one character or the other—not both—so that I could be fully immersed in that person’s emotions and language. That said, while I like to think the characters’ voices developed organically, entirely as a result of who they are as (imaginary) human beings, I did come up with a mental—and later a written—cheat sheet with the details of each one’s speech.
In terms of which character was easier to write, definitely Cat. Even though in many respects I’m more like Jack than I am like Cat, gender trumped in terms of what I was sure I had right the first time through.
It’s been weeks since the last yard brawl, and every one of us is twitchy, ready to jump out of our skins.
That’s the opening line for Elle Cosimano’s third thriller for young adults, HOLDING SMOKE.
It’s also an apt description for how Cosimano felt before she dropped nearly everything else in her life and became a writer, three books ago. Back then she had it all: a husband and two boys, a 60-hour-a-week job selling real estate, and a big house in the Washington, D.C. suburbs filled with designer touches and a home theatre.
Her misery with her “stuff, stuff and more stuff” lifestyle was brought home when she attended a real estate event with 100 other realtors. A trust exercise required them to tell each other something interesting about themselves.
Cosimano realized that in spite of everything she had, she had nothing interesting to say about herself. So she blurted out, “I’m writing a novel.” Then watched, horrified, as over 100 realtors wrote that down on their Bingo cards.
Now she had to do it. She accepted her mother’s invitation to take the boys to the Mayan Riviera. For a whole summer, while her mother watched the children, Cosimano wrote, delivering her mother a new chapter by the end of every eight-hour day.
“At the start of the summer I didn’t even have an idea, and by the end of the summer I had a 90,000 word draft,” she says.
By Amy Lignor
Reading a Victoria Griffith novel awakens a voracious appetite to…read a whole lot more of them.
As a result of her former career in journalism, Griffith has seen some extraordinary things, and found herself in situations that spanned from unique to dicey. With her new novel, THOSE WE FEAR, fans get yet another story placed in their hands that will have their adrenaline kicked into high gear from the very start.
In this exclusive article for The Big Thrill, you’ll learn more about Griffith and THOSE WE FEAR, a story that weaves facets of three well-loved classics together to form an unforgettable tale.
You have such an amazing background, especially when it comes to travel. Can you tell readers a bit about your time as a journalist? Was there one specific story that stands out in your mind?
I’ve spent time with the Yanomami tribe in Brazil, been threatened by a gun-toting Brazilian politician, and almost crashed into the Amazon jungle in a plane piloted by a shifty character named Amoeba. Those experiences made fun material for my last mystery, Amazon Burning.
For THOSE WE FEAR, I turned my author lens inward to explore the human psyche, which can be just as weird as the most exotic travel destination. THOSE WE FEAR is a twist on a classic Gothic tale, and in writing it I drew on my experiences as a journalist living and working in the UK. Scotland is the perfect setting. Dreary days, stone castles and misty lakes… it’s no coincidence that England was the birthplace of the Gothic thriller genre. When Heathcliff calls out for his Catherine in Wuthering Heights, readers can almost hear the wind howling across the moors.
But it’s not just the landscape. Brits themselves are endlessly interesting. They aren’t as direct as Americans, they’re more subtle. That means things aren’t always what they seem, which is a prerequisite for a good mystery. British society is in constant conflict. They value true love and loyalty. Just look at some of the most romantic Royal marriages, including those of Prince Charles to Camilla, Queen Victoria to Prince Albert and Queen Elizabeth II to Prince Philip. Brits are also deeply conscious of people’s class and background. Some of the best Gothic thrillers, including Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw explore love that bridges a class divide. People in the UK revere tradition but yearn for modernism. That creates a wonderful tension which is perfect for writers like me.
In LONGBOW GIRL, teenager and skilled archer Merry Owen faces the loss of her family’s farm in the wild Welsh mountains but upon discovering an archaeological treasure, she is plunged into a dangerous past filled with dark secrets–and the chance to change history.
Linda Davies deftly blends real-life issues, the challenges of a remote landscape, and the supernatural in this young adult novel The Daily Telegraph picked as one of the top 45 Y/A books of 2015. Stepping away from her financial thrillers, Davies returns to writing thrillers for children and young adults in this novel of mystery, adventure, and history that draws on her life as a longbow archer growing up in Wales.
Davies’ career as an investment banker fuelled her first financial thriller, Nest of Vipers, and launched her career writing thrillers for adults and children. Having lived in London, Peru, and the Middle East, Davies own life became a harrowing thriller when she and her husband were kidnapped by Iranian forces and held hostage for two weeks before being released. Her highly acclaimed memoir, Hostage, Kidnapped on the High Seas, The True Story of My Captivity in Iran, was published last year.
This month, she spoke to The Big Thrill about the inspiration, and history, behind LONGBOW GIRL.
LONGBOW GIRL is steeped in your own youth, from having lived in Wales as a young girl (with your own Welsh pony that you rode bareback!) to your longbow expertise. How did this story come about at this particular moment in your life–or was it long in the making?
The roots of Longbowgirl go back many years to my own childhood. The longbow that my father gave me when I was eight definitely inspired me to create Merry. She wields her bow to save her family. I just wielded mine for fun, but I always used to feel different whenever I picked up my bow. There’s something very satisfying about using a long slender piece of wood and a shorter pointed piece of wood with feathers and a bit of skill and strength to hit a target. Longbows were and still are lethal weapons. They changed the course of history, they won unwinnable wars. In a weird way I felt like just by picking one up I was stepping back in time. It’s a talisman for a story-teller!
The other connection and inspiration for Longbow Girl was the black Welsh Mountain Section B pony, Jacintha, my parents gave me when I was nine. I would roam the nearby hills for hours on end riding Jacintha and daydreaming. I relished that freedom. I think it’s what helped turned me into a writer. I could explore both geographically and in my head during those long hours alone.
By Stacy Mantle
Jae Hwa has spent sixteen years in Seoul, trying to destroy the evil mortals who’ve been torturing her family for centuries—the last thing she expects is to become their assassin.
Now, trapped in the darkest cove of the Spirit World as a servant to a Korean god, Hwa fights for her humanity and freedom. But she’s starting to lose hope that she’ll ever see her family again. Especially since her captor will do anything to keep her as a pawn in his quest to take over Korea.
In the third installment of her Gilded series, author Christina Farley truly puts her character through the paces. In this interview with The Big Thrill, she tells us a bit more about her latest release, BRAZEN, and what fans can expect from her next.
Tell us a bit more about your BRAZEN.
BRAZEN is the third and final book in the Gilded series. I’m super excited about this book, not only because it’s my favorite, but also because I pulled in some of my experiences and adventures while I traveled in China.
Hwa’s entire family thinks she’s dead, and Jae’s true love, Marc, believes she is lost to him forever. So, When Kud sends Jae to find and steal the powerful Black Turtle orb, Jae sees an opportunity to break free and defeat Kud once and for all…but first she needs to regain Marc’s trust and work with him to vanquish the darkness that threatens to overwhelm Korea. There’s much to lose as Jae struggles to save the land she’s come to call home.
By Anne Tibbets
Young adult thriller YOU THINK THIS IS A GAME? is set in the throws of a Somalian energy war, where young mercenaries and tech specialists Ted Reagan and Alex Kirwan join the fray against a massive army of hired guns.
Bernard Maestas’ third installment of the Internet Tough Guy series, takes the reader on a thrilling adventure full of action, witty banter, and international intrigue.
A police officer by day, and writer by night, Maestas is quick to set the record straight about which came first. Surely, it’s being a policemen, right?
“Really, it’s the other way around,” he says. “I’ve been writing my whole life, since I could hold a crayon. I did some short stories in grade school but I also started writing screenplays around the same time as well. I worked on a TV series, played at creative writing with some friends in high school (this I really credit with honing my prose), I’m sure I even wrote fan fiction at some point.”
But Maestas is quick to point out how much he loves his day job. “Being a police officer was high on a short list of dream careers from childhood and I’m fortunate beyond words to have gotten to do it. It is a passion and a calling and, thankfully, I happen to be quite good at it.”
It also feeds his creative muse. Between his day job and keeping abreast of world news, Maestas says he isn’t worried about running out of ideas for his books.
SWEET MADNESS is the fourth book by writing partners Trisha Leaver and Lindsay Currie. It’s a fictionalized re-telling of the Lizzie Borden murders. If “Lizzie Borden” makes you think you know what this is about, think again.
Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Read it again, and imagine the lyrics sung to the tune of the vaudeville dance song “Ta-ra-ra Boom De-ay.” Because in 1892, the year of the murders, that’s how they sang it. Watch the YouTube video here.
At the time of the murders there were four clear suspects: Lizzie herself, her older sister Emma who was visiting friends at the time of the murders, the Irish maid Bridget Sullivan, and Lizzie’s maternal uncle John Morse, who had suddenly come to visit the night before after years of avoiding the family.
It came out in the trial that Emma and Lizzie disliked their stepmother, Abby Borden, who had raised them, because their wealthy father had given Mrs. Borden’s sisters a house to live in but Emma and Lizzie hardly even had pin money. This theory usually points to Emma sneaking back into the house to commit the murders and Lizzie covering up for her. Another theory is that Mr. Borden abused Lizzie physically and sexually and she finally snapped. Another theory is that Lizzie and Bridget were having an affair and Abby Borden walked in on them.
I’ve always been drawn to the water. As I write those words, they seem a bit hokey. It’s not like I’m a sailor or have spent a whole lot of time on boats. I don’t squander my time standing on some perilous cliff, searching for my lover who has gone away to sea. But I have chosen to live a short walk from Long Island Sound. And whenever I travel, I make sure to spend time on whatever body of water happens to be nearby.
Water has inspired a great deal of my writing.
I can’t say for sure why this is the case. Maybe it’s the hypnotic rhythm of the waves. Maybe it’s the smell of ocean air. Maybe it’s the sense of intrigue that surrounds so many bodies of water. After all: Water can hide. Water can cleanse. Water can devour.
Water can also add the thrill to a thriller.
From the Loch Ness Monster to the missing Malaysian Airlines airplane, water has a way of creating mysteries, both legendary and real life.
One of my favorite novels of all time is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Essential to Rebecca is Manderley’s proximity to the sea. Her death needed to be by drowning. How else could her body have remained hidden? How else could Maxim de Winter have falsely identified her remains? I recently watched the Hitchcock film for the first time. All those images of water crashing on the rocks add a sense of foreboding, a sense that things are not what they seem at Manderley.
Cape Fear, Jaws, The Lady in the Lake: the list of thrillers and mysteries with ocean or lakeside settings is quite lengthy.
Joelle Charbonneau, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Testing trilogy and two adult mystery series, has now released a Young Adult novel that reveals sinister social media forces at play—NEED.
In NEED, high school teenagers are drawn deeper into a social networking site that promises to grant their every need . . . regardless of the consequences. Soon the site turns malevolent, with simple pranks escalating to malicious crimes that deliver a rising body count. In this chilling YA thriller, NEED examines not only the dark side of social media, but the dark side of human nature.
Charbonneau’s Young Adult books have appeared on the Indie Next List, on the YALSA Top 10 books for 2014 as well as the YALSA Quick Picks for reluctant readers and state reading lists across the country. The Testing trilogy and NEED have both been optioned for major motion pictures and are currently in development.
Ms. Charbonneau shares today why she’s drawn to writing darker fiction for a younger audience and how her years as a voice coach for teens fed into her inspiration for NEED.
Like your trilogy, The Testing, NEED is a voyage into dark Young Adult fiction—unlike your adult mystery fiction which tends to be light and funny. What prompts you to dive into darker, intense topics for teens that ask big questions rather than amuse?
While I loved writing funny mysteries, I’ve found myself compelled to explore areas like the dangers of high stakes testing and the crazy scary pitfalls of social media because of my work with teens. I teach singing when I’m not writing. I’ve seen up close how certain issues lead some teens and their parents into making questionable choices. Exploring my thoughts about those choices or the choices others have made turned my writing darker. To be honest, I was surprised to learn that in going darker I had also taken a turn into writing Young Adult. After writing funny for adults, it was startling to find out that Young Adult could be so intense and violent. I guess I missed the memo on that.
By Wendy Tyson
B. K. Stevens is perhaps best known for her short fiction. Truly a master of suspense, she’s authored almost fifty short stories, most of them published by Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and has garnered a number of prestigious awards and award nominations. Ms. Stevens recently published her first adult mystery novel, Interpretation of Murder. Now she is using her talents to thrill the young adult audience. Her newest novel, FIGHTING CHANCE, tells the story of Matt Foley, a seventeen-year-old martial arts student and basketball player, in his quest to find justice when his beloved mentor and coach is killed during a tae kwon do tournament. A smart, gripping whodunit set in a small Virginia town, FIGHTING CHANCE is a must-read for sports and mystery enthusiasts alike.
The Big Thrill recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Ms. Stevens to talk about her writing career and her love of the mystery genre.
Congratulations on the upcoming release of FIGHTING CHANCE, your first mystery for a young adult audience. Can you tell us something about the book that’s not on the back cover?
I’ve sometimes described FIGHTING CHANCE as a cross between The Hardy Boys and The Karate Kid: It’s a fair-play whodunit laced with action and adventure, but it’s also a coming-of-age story about a teenager growing into manhood while studying a martial art. And, since I’m a longtime English teacher, I made a conscious effort to include elements students can analyze in outside reading reports, such as complex characters and a sense of place.
Matt Foley is an interesting protagonist. A seventeen-year-old boy from small-town Virginia, Matt feels compelled to investigate the death of his coach. What was the inspiration for Matt’s character? Did you have to do any special research when writing FIGHTING CHANCE?
In various ways, Matt’s character was inspired by some of the boys I got to know when I taught high-school English. Whenever it was time to write outside reading reports and I suggested titles to them, they responded with a question straight out of The Princess Bride: “Are there any sports?” So I began playing around with the idea of writing a young adult mystery with a protagonist those boys could relate to and respect. Matt loves sports, both basketball and martial arts, and he’s impatient with school. That impatience, though, is partly an act—Matt’s smarter than he thinks he is, and he enjoys intellectual challenges more than he’ll admit. I wanted to make this a novel that would appeal to young people who don’t think of themselves as readers, but who might discover they love reading after all. (And, by the way, I wrote this novel with boys in mind, but I think girls will like it, too.)
August saw the debut of Alan Gratz’s young adult thriller CODE OF HONOR. The author of a number of historical adventure novels for young readers, Alan answered a few questions for The Big Thrill about the challenges and opportunities in writing a ripped-from-the-headlines contemporary thriller for teens.
What is CODE OF HONOR about?
Persian-American high school senior Kamran Smith is on top of the world until his brother, Darius, a U.S. Army Ranger, goes on TV claiming credit for an attack on a U.S. embassy. Now everybody thinks Darius is a terrorist, and that Kamran must be one too. When the Department of Homeland Security brings Kamran and his family in for questioning, he begins to see his brother in a whole new light. But Kamran is still unconvinced the brother he grew up idolizing could be a terrorist. With the help of a sympathetic CIA operative, Kamran goes on the run from the government to prove his brother’s innocence. But where do his brother’s loyalties really lie? That’s a question only Darius can answer—if Kamran can find him before everyone else does.
Where did the idea for CODE OF HONOR come from?
It began with the idea of writing something like Showtime’s Homeland for young adults. A realistic, contemporary thriller with spies, terrorists, secret loyalties, heartbreaking betrayals, and real stakes—all starring a seventeen-year-old protagonist. But any time you write a book with high stakes involving a young main character, you have to answer one big question: why is the kid solving this problem, and not the adults in his life? Why not his parents, or the police, or the CIA? So to be able to write a “YA Homeland,” I had to have a compelling reason for Kamran to not just be involved, but to be the only person who could save the day.
My idea was to have Kamran’s older brother, Darius, sending secret coded messages in his terrorist videos—coded messages based on the make-believe adventures he and Kamran used to have in the backyard as children. So now Kamran is involved whether he wants to be or not. Kamran is literally the only other person on the planet who could ever translate Darius’s codes. As CIA agent Mickey Hagan tells him, “That’s the best kind of code. Unbreakable.” It also makes Kamran indispensible to the story, seventeen years old or not.
The 16th century love affair of commoner Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII is one that resonates like few others. Their passion changed the course of England and produced Queen Elizabeth I—but it also ended in grisly tragedy, ie, the headsman’s block. Ever since, novelists and biographers, poets and playwrights have tackled the telling of this relationship. Now it’s the turn of Canadian writer Dawn Ius, with a young adult novel set in a modern high school. ANNE & HENRY is fresh, daring, sexy, funny, and suspenseful, with an Anne Boleyn who rides a motorcycle!
Experienced journalist and editor Ius, who also writes short stories, graphic novels, and YA paranormal, tells The Big Thrill why she answered the siren call of Anne Boleyn with this novel, going on sale September 1st.
Are you interested in Tudor fiction and the other real-life royals who lived in that century or is it the love story of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII that dominates your interest?
I have a deep-rooted fascination with historic (and modern) love stories—and few are more compelling than Henry and Anne’s. But while researching this book, I came across quite a few intriguing characters. At some point, they may make their way into future stories.
How much research did you have to do for the novel?
Before I started writing ANNE & HENRY, I borrowed about ten books from the library and poured through them. I watched The Tudors (mostly for Jonathan Rhys Myers), and I read quite a few blogs and articles from Tudor fan sites. But I also had a great “live” consultant—Bree Ogden, then of D4E0 Literary, co-agented this book with my agent Mandy Hubbard, and she has a tremendous wealth of knowledge (and passion) for and about Anne Boleyn (her signature is tattooed on Bree’s shoulder!) If I couldn’t find something or had questions, I knew I could ask Bree. And yet…I probably only scratched the surface of what’s out there.
When were you first drawn to Anne and when did you decide to tell her story?
My stepfather is in love with Anne Boleyn, and even at a young age, I remember him telling stories about her—trying, in his own way, I suppose, to separate myth from fact, as best he could. Even though ANNE & HENRY is told in alternating points of view, her side of the story resonates with readers the most. I’m constantly in awe of Anne Boleyn’s continued (and passionate!) fan base—decades after her beheading—and I know my Anne won’t please them all, but I wanted to write her character in a way that would pay tribute to the strength, courage, and beauty that my stepdad always talked about.
Sure, Arielle won’t deny that she has a vivid, even wild, imagination. Sure, it sometimes runs away with her. And yes, it’s true that she never recovered from the drowning death of her older brother, Justin, ten years ago, when Arielle was a little child. She almost hopes that ghosts are real, so that she might see Justin again.
But ever since the misty morning when Arielle stumbles on the macabre sight of the body of her sister Casey’s best friend, Perdita, being lifted from a nearby pond, ghostly images begin to appear to Arielle. Can they be Perdita, reaching out as speculation about her death ramps up from suicide to foul play?
Perdita’s younger brother, Tex, is back from private school, and Arielle can’t get him off her mind, although he’s a beautiful boy with scary secrets. Worse yet, there’s no one to tell: big sister Casey’s off to college, and Arielle discovers her own sister’s cache of secret writings, along with a bizarre note from Perdita. What’s real? What’s fantasy?
In a compelling tale that hurtles toward a stunning conclusion, the imprint of grief and the boundaries of human imagination are stretched to their limits.
Adam Armstrong is a brilliant, wheelchair-bound seventeen-year-old dying of muscular dystrophy. While playing one of his virtual-reality games he encounters Sigma, an artificial intelligence program created by Adam’s computer-genius father. Sigma has gone rogue, threatening to kill Adam and then the rest of humanity, and the only way to stop it is to use the technology Adam’s dad developed to digitally preserve the mind of his dying son.
Along with a select group of other terminally ill teens, Adam becomes one of the Six who have forfeited their failing bodies to inhabit weaponized U.S. Army robots. But with time running short, the Six must learn to manipulate their new mechanical forms and work together to train for epic combat…before Sigma exterminates the human race.
“I loved The Six by Mark Alpert. This is serious YA sci-fi, full of big ideas, big questions, real science, and things that will make you think and wonder and lie awake late at night. And it’s all wrapped up in a wonderfully exciting action story chock full of characters you’ll love. You’ll want to believe the Sigma threat is far off in the future, but it’s probably not as far off as you think. These revolutionary capabilities are likely within the lifespan of readers, so this is not far-off spaceship sci-fi, this is OMG-this-is-actually-happening sci-fi. And props to Mark Alpert for including a population of kids that has very little visibility — the handicapped, the terminal, the ultimate outsiders. A very nice piece of work.” ~Michael Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Gone
Between her largely dysfunctional family of two and the friends she doesn’t feel particularly close to, Violet thinks he’s the least of her problems. What she fails to understand is that the guy is no prankster and soon people turn up dead or missing. Because of her.
Things change when Violet’s best friend disappears and realization sinks in that the stalker means business. Denial put aside, Violet has no other option but to accept the help of police Sergeant Willard Kelley and his rather sweet protégé, to come to terms with the seriousness of the situation.
Yet nothing could’ve prepared her for her close up with the psycho.
Who will survive in this tale of obsession and misplaced devotion?
As most of our readers know, the young adult category for fiction is booming, and the thriller genre is no exception to the trend. Centered on teen protagonists, the popularity of blockbusters like Twilight and The Hunger Games has enabled such books to expand far beyond the original target audience and create fresh, exciting possibilities for authors to explore ,and readers to enjoy.
In CODE HUMAN, author N.J. Paige offers readers a glimpse into a future red in tooth and claw, where oppression reigns, yet resistance will never be considered futile by those willing to fight. The Big Thrill recently caught up with Paige to talk with her about her most recent work.
Congratulations on your latest novel and thank you for taking the time to join us. Tell us about CODE HUMAN. What aspect of this book do you think readers of The Big Thrill will find most appealing?
First of all, thanks for having me. To answer your question, I think the interesting characters such as the Shillers, the Purestkind, Rubrics, and the Besmirchians may appeal to readers because of their unique physical characteristics. Also, the main character, Fenesia, although she loses her innocence when she makes her first kill, she questions the morality of it. And she questions the morality of Purest’s treatment of the Underkind, which includes the Shillers, Besmirchians, Rubric, as well as disgraced Purestkind, such as Fenesia.
Both your novels involve teenage protagonists. What is it about the young adult market that interests you? And what do you find the most challenging about writing youthful characters?
It may be because I have two teenage children—a son and daughter. Watching them grow has been interesting and wonderful―the changes they go through, not to mention the many challenges.
Many of us who love reading thrillers started reading them in our teen years if not sooner. Jeffrey Westhoff was one of those readers and with the publication of THE BOY WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, has written a book he would have wanted to read back then.
So what started a newspaper feature writer on the path to write a young adult novel? It began with a misheard question.
While working on an article about young adult spy novels (Alex Rider, Young James Bond, and several others), Westhoff attended a book signing by an author friend, Laura Caldwell. “Looking for sources, I asked Laura if she knew anyone writing a young adult spy novel. She misheard my question and responded with enthusiasm, ‘You’re writing a young adult spy novel?’ I said no I wasn’t, and she said, ‘You should!’ Then I said, ‘You’re right, I should!’”
Westhoff acted on the idea right away. As he was driving home he remembered the man he saw in Lucerne while on a trip to Europe as a teenager. He was absolutely certain the man was a spy. Westhoff posed a question to himself: “What if I came across that man dying in an alley five minutes later, mortally wounded by an enemy agent?” The book spun off from that question.
In brief, while on a school trip to Europe, Milwaukee teenager Brian Parker hopes for a taste of the glamor and excitement of his favorite spy novels. What he didn’t realize was that he would get more then he bargained for. Stumbling across a dying spy catapults Brian into a desperate chase across the continent. He faces a deadly path but reading all those spy novels has taught him a few tricks; and it just might save his life.
By Barry Lancet
Donna Galanti has led an interesting life to date, and an interesting life can lead to interesting stories. By the time she was nine, she’d lived in nine separate places. And she kept moving. She’s lived in England, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and once went to school in an English castle not unlike Hogwart’s, the fictional centerpiece of the Harry Potter series.
The first book to leave her breathless was C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. She went on to devour all his other books, along with those of Roald Dahl. She wrote her first play, a mystery, at the ripe old age of seven. Decades later she wrote a pair of paranormal suspense novels, A Human Element and A Hidden Element, two-thirds of her Element Trilogy.
And now, taking a breather from the adult world, Galanti has penned a Middle Grade (MG) novel, JOSHUA AND THE LIGHTNING ROAD, returning to the books of her youth.
Galanti took some time out to talk about her latest book with The Big Thrill.
In JOSHUA AND THE LIGHTNING ROAD, you’ve created another world that exists alongside ours. The story takes a dramatic turn when first Joshua’s friend Finn, then Joshua himself, are whisked away to this second world during an unusual lightning storm. Tell us about this place where kidnapped kids are kept in a pit until they are sold as slave labor and the guards carry “snake spears.”
The medieval world of Nostos (meaning “homecoming” in Greek) consists of twelve realms that steal mortal children from Earth via the Lightning Road and uses them for resources. Between the realms are lawless lands where outcasts roam, and if you’re a slave child lucky enough to escape your workhouse—and the clutches of the Child Collector—you’d better watch out for The Edge, where you could fall into the Great Beyond and never return.
Humans are thought of as uncivilized, ignorant beings, and therefore expendable. A myth exists of a way to change the hierarchy of power and end mortal slavery. Through the generations, some have tried and been cut down by those who want power for themselves—but someone may be coming, whose voice will not be silenced…
Ella and Maddy Lawton are identical twins. Ella has spent her high school years living in popular Maddy’s shadows, but she has never been envious of Maddy. In fact, she’s chosen the quiet, safe confines of her sketchbook over the constant battle for attention that has defined Maddy’s world.
When—after a heated argument—Maddy and Ella get into a tragic accident that leaves her sister dead, Ella wakes up in the hospital surrounded by loved ones who believe she is Maddy. Feeling responsible for Maddy’s death and everyone’s grief, Ella makes a split-second decision to pretend to be Maddy. Soon, Ella realizes that Maddy’s life was full of secrets. Caught in a web of lies, Ella is faced with two options—confess her deception or live her sister’s life.
Welcome Trisha, it’s good to talk to you again.
Brian: Just reading the synopsis, it strikes me that this is a story that my youngest daughter (and interview partner) Ellie, would go wild for. Do you run your story ideas by your own children before you write them?
I do not. In fact, I rarely discuss my books with anyone, with the exception of my agent and editor, until they are complete. I am a bit superstitious that way. I do have a group of teen readers that I hand my finished drafts off to before I send them in, but no…my kids pretty much know very little about my books until they are done and shipped off.
By E. M. Powell
I’m going to start by making a confession. When I got the e-mail asking if I’d be interested in covering Nicole Maggi’s new release, THE FORGETTING, my initial reaction was, “Well, it’s probably not for me.” You see, THE FORGETTING is a Young Adult (YA) thriller and the last time I could be described as a YA was in another century. But then I read the description, and saw that it’s about a teenager who wakes up after a heart transplant—and finds that she’s inherited the memories of her donor. I’ll admit: I’m a sucker for medical thrillers. I was in. Nicole very kindly provided me with a copy of the book, and with a bit of time to spare, I thought I’d get started on a few chapters. I emerged hours later with my afternoon’s other tasks still to do. It is a gripping, original read, and there was so much I wanted to ask Nicole.
Nicole is originally from upstate New York and has worked as an actor. But sunny Los Angeles is where she’s made her home with her husband and daughter, and two oddball cats. Nicole is also the author of The Twin Willows Trilogy.
It’s an intriguing hook to have your heroine, Georgie Kendrick, as the teenage recipient of a transplanted heart. So much of her experience reads as genuine. Have you had experience of this in your life? What research did you do around this topic?
I have not had an organ transplant myself, so I wanted to be sure that I was accurate with the research. I reached out to a couple of transplant recipients but wasn’t able to connect with any, so I relied on information from some other sources. I talked to my own cardiologist and I connected with LifeSource, which is an organization that helps educate the public about organ donation and offers support to donors and recipients and their families. I read a lot about real-life recipients who have gone on to do some incredible things, which I managed to work into the book. And I talked to my dad, who had quadruple bypass surgery over a decade ago, about the physical effects and recovery from open-heart surgery.
When their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, Dee, her boyfriend Luke, and Luke’s brother, Mike, seek help in the nearby town of Purity Springs. But as they walk the vacant streets, the teens make some disturbing discoveries. The seemingly deserted homes each contain a sinister book with violent instructions on disciplining children. The graveyard is full of unmarked crosses. Worst of all, there’s no way to contact the outside world.
When Purity Springs’ inhabitants suddenly appear, the trio find themselves at the mercy of Elijah Hawkins, the town’s charismatic leader who has his own plans for the three of them. Their only hope for survival is Elijah’s enigmatic son, Joseph. And his game may be just as deadly as his father’s . . .
Welcome Trish and Lindsay, and thanks for spending some time with us.
Brian: CREED sounds like a very grisly story. Did you pull any punches because of the intended young adult readership?
Lindsay: Absolutely not. While I think an awareness of the target audience you’re writing for is important, we don’t like holding back for the sake of being safe. There’s a line between content that is valuable and content that is gratuitous, and we truly believe we’ve stayed on the right side of that line with CREED.
Ellie: What kind of ambitions do you have for your career?
Trish: To give the hundreds of characters circling my mind a fictional world to call their own. To get better with each chapter, with each manuscript I write. To find the courage to dig deeper and write harder than I ever dreamed possible. Essentially, I want to continue to grow as an author.
Lindsay: I love writing, so my ambitions are pretty simple: to keep doing it. Ten years from now if I’m still fortunate enough to be writing YA lit, I’ll be one grateful author.
AMAZON BURNING, my new eco-thriller, is, above all a fun read. But hopefully it’s more than mindless fun. Emma and Jimmy, the main characters, are caught up in an important fight to protect the rainforests of Brazil. And that’s something we should all care about.
The character of Souza in AMAZON BURNING is, unfortunately, a pretty good representation of some of the Mafioso-type ranchers and farmers in the region. They want to make a quick buck by clearing vast areas of jungle to plant crops or graze their cattle. Sadly, we’ve all seen so many of those photographs depicting the Amazon going up in smoke that I think we’ve become immune to them.
What those pictures don’t show is the human cost of all that destruction. Deforestation is not the only problem. The whole eco-system of the Brazilian rainforest is under attack. In scenes that are also true to life, Jimmy and Emma try to root out a wildlife smuggling ring. Criminals make billions of dollars each year from the illegal capture and sale of wild animals. Some of the creatures become exotic pets. Many others are just turned into potions and powders, because there are people around the world who really think that these animals can give them magic powers.
Jake Lukin has an incredible power he’s been hiding his whole life…but one (big) mess-up later, and the U.S. government knows all about it. Suddenly he’s juggling high school, tennis tryouts, flirting with Rachel Watkins, and work as a government asset, complete with twenty-four-hour bodyguards. When his family is threatened, Jake has to make a terrible choice.
TUNNEL VISION is a young adult thriller with psychic spies, graveyard chases, Call of Duty, Buffy and Veronica Mars references, and a stubborn little sister you’ll wish you had, even if you are an eighteen year-old boy.
The book already is receiving rave reviews, and the author graciously agreed to answer a few questions.
Welcome Susan, and thanks for spending some time with us.
Thanks so much! I’m so excited to be involved with The Big Thrill.
Brian: I’ve raised three teenagers, my interview partner Ellie is the youngest, and I’ve seen how hectic a modern teenager’s life can be. How much of a challenge was it for you to take an already hectic teenage schedule and cram in the potential complications of life as a psychic and secret government work?
Poor Jake. I never let him have a restful moment. I did try to make sure that his full life before this happened was reflected: he’s focused on trying to get into Stanford, playing on the tennis team, helping with his sister, and trying to balance friends and a love life before the government even enters into it. If he was the sort of person to have a to-do list, it’d be crazy full.
Ellie: What ambitions do you have for your career as a writer?
My ultimate goal is to be able to balance two threads, writing books for teens and for the middle-grade audience, and to keep publishing in both!
Brian: TUNNEL VISION is your first published work. How long have you written with an eye for publication?
I’ve been dabbling in writing for about fourteen years. I completed my first novel and began querying agents in 2006. I’m now working on my eighth manuscript. So…a long time.
A rural Missouri girl, Kate Brauning fell in love with writing at a young age. She was that child who practically lived in the library, discovering all its treasures. Now, she resides in Iowa with her husband and a Siberian husky, and works in publishing. She loves to connect with readers. If you see her and say hi, she might invite you for a coffee—if you want to talk about books.
Her debut novel HOW WE FALL is a young adult tale about two cousins with a secret relationship, a missing best friend, and strange girl with secrets. Will this strange girl be a harbinger of doom? Will they find their friend? THE BIG THRILL sat down with Brauning to find out more.
When did you start writing?
Oh, I was pretty young. I wrote my first “story” at ten or so, I think. I’ve always had fun writing stories, and I wrote a novel all through high school. I loved it, but it just never occurred to me that I could write for a career. I kept on loving it, though. In college I decided that I loved it too much to not try.
Did you ever want to be anything besides write?
I decided early on that I wanted to be an author, so no, not really. Along the road to becoming an author, I’ve discovered I love the publishing world and I love editing, so if I couldn’t write anymore, I’d continue to work with publishing houses as an editor.