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.
Your writing career started in picture books but HOW TO DISAPPEAR is decidedly darker. How did you transition to YA? Any challenges along the way?
The challenge was learning to write novels.
Picture book writers tend to say, “Ha! You think short form is so easy? Try writing Anna Karenina on a grain of sand.”
And I bought this, I completely did, to the point that I thought, “Wow, I can squash Tolstoy onto a couple of molecules! Only imagine how easy it will be to write a book when I have a whole truckload of molecules to play with!”
Not that I was arrogant; the more accurate term would be “deluded.” I figured that given that I’d read thousands of novels, a novel would just somehow magically flow from my fingertips. It was as if I’d gone, “Yay, I like little tailored suits. I’ve worn little tailored suits before. I must be Coco Chanel.”
A dozen rewrites and a couple of years later, I sort of had the hang of basic tailoring. By then, I’d realized both how liberating and how demanding it is to have all the words, and all the emotions, all the pages and all that depravity available.
So while I’m not saying, “Screw talking kitty cats, bring on the teenage psycho killers—” Ummm…okay, maybe that’s what I’m saying.
Although this is a dark YA, you’ve infused some great humor—Cat’s voice, in particular, has some wonderful sarcasm that feels authentically teen. Where does that inspiration come from? What do you think the role of humor is in thriller—regardless of age category?
I’m convinced that the sensibility of the person you’ve been at every stage of your life is in there somewhere. For an adult writing from the perspective of a teenager, the trick is to access all that teen feeling and— for Cat’s character—snark. Having raised teenage children helped me get back there, but as calculated as every single word of a book (especially a thriller!) must be, there’s also an element of unconscious process; Cat’s humor just showed up on the page and became more essential to her character as she unfolded.
For me, humor is one more way to illuminate character. In thrillers, you want to make sure that the humor doesn’t undercut the tension you’ve painstakingly created. But to the extent that a character’s humor makes her more three-dimensional and accessible for readers, the more urgently readers feel the character’s peril.
For a while it seemed that YA shied away from thrillers while authors navigated how far they should go. What does the balance of “too far” look like for you? What parameters do you set for your own writing?
Once I’ve found my characters, I see my job as depicting them authentically and telling their story honestly. Period. (You would think this would be a given in writing for any audience, but as we are reminded by all-too-frequent efforts to ban YA books, this isn’t always the case.)
I respect the intelligence (and the BS-detectors) of my teen readers. They live in a complicated world with exposure to every atrocity under the sun every time they log on to a computer or flip on the news.
My characters tend to be flawed and often make questionable decisions. Some are under more pressure than others. Some swear; others don’t. Some are sexually active; others aren’t. They are not intended as role models or as standard bearers for a particular message.
Teens readers get this. I cannot imagine a teen girl reading my first novel, Where it Began, and going, “Yay, I too long to wear really expensive shoes while drinking so much I pass out by the side of the road, only to be exploited by my cute, sociopathic boyfriend who doesn’t really love me!” (Maybe the shoes…)
I can’t offer up the conclusions my readers won’t take away from HOW TO DISAPPEAR without major spoilers. But what I’d like teen readers to consider as they navigate the book is whether their own moral precepts are absolute or would be flexible if they were pushed hard enough. I’d like them to consider which aspects of their personalities/values/selves are fixed, versus what could be expunged as a result of their own efforts, or by life circumstances. I’d like them to ask themselves if it’s ever all right to lie, to knowingly hurt others, to put others at risk, to kill?
In HOW TO DISAPPEAR, you really put your characters through the paces—Cat, in particular. What is the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to you?
Things that touch on mortality do it for me. The plane that hits an air pocket and seems to be falling from the sky. Trying unsuccessfully to ward off the realization that the parent on the garage floor is dead. The emergency room.
As for phobic-terrified, not sure how far I want to take this, but let’s just say I won’t be driving along any fog-bound, rain-slick, ill-paved mountain roads with sheer drops and no guard rails any time soon.
Ann Redisch Stampler is author of the young adult novels Afterparty and Where It Began, and six picture books. Her work has garnered an Aesop accolade, the National Jewish Book Award, the Middle East Book Award, and Bank Street Best Books of the Year mentions. How to Disappear (Simon Pulse, 2016) is her first thriller. Before becoming a full-time writer, Ann was a lawyer and a therapist. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband Rick.
To learn more about Ann, please visit her website.