In Conversation With: Tom Ryan and April Snellings
When I rang up Tom Ryan at his Toronto home on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-April, he was having an exceptionally good week. Only a month away from the publication of his first YA murder mystery, KEEP THIS TO YOURSELF (out May 21 from Albert Whitman & Co.) he’d just unveiled the book’s atmospheric, synth-driven trailer, and he was enjoying a wave of industry press following the acquisition of his second teen thriller, I Hope You’re Listening.
The buzz that’s building around KEEP THIS TO YOURSELF, about a gay teen on the trail of an unidentified serial killer who once terrorized the picturesque coastal town of Camera Cove, is wholly deserved. Simmering with paranoia, shot through with reveals and reversals, and featuring a truly satisfying resolution, Ryan’s first thriller is a prime example of the welcome revival—and long overdue diversification—of a genre popularized by YA heavyweights like Lois Duncan and Christopher Pike.
KEEP THIS TO YOURSELF centers on Mac Bell, whose just-completed senior year of high school was overshadowed by the murder of his best friend. College-bound Mac is anxious to put his hometown of Camera Cove in the rearview mirror as quickly as possible, but when he discovers an overlooked note written by his murdered friend on the night of his death—a note asking for Mac’s help and swearing him to secrecy—Mac becomes obsessed with the idea of doing what the police couldn’t: uncovering the identity of the killer. Mac quickly finds that everyone around him wants the past left undisturbed, except for Quill, a handsome young man with a tragic personal stake in the case. As Mac and Quill undertake their own amateur investigation (and a burgeoning romance), it becomes increasingly clear that the danger has not passed, and a killer might be watching their every move.
The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity (Ryan was great, but I tend to ramble) and indiscriminately purged of spoilers. On that note, once you’ve read the book and uncovered Camera Cove’s darkest secrets, please remember to keep them to yourself…
Tom, I knew we’d hit it off the moment you mentioned Lois Duncan in our first email exchange. Tell me about your personal history with YA thrillers and teen detective stories.
I was a shy kid, and as a lot of shy, introverted kids do, I turned to books for company and entertainment. I read anything I could get my hands on, but in my junior high years I started to gravitate toward mysteries. I read a lot of adult mysteries—everything from Agatha Christie to John Grisham—but I really loved the classics of 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s teen pulp fiction. I was a big fan of Lois Duncan’s stuff, like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Stranger with My Face. I remember the covers of those books being these saturated, graphic illustrations of teens in peril, and I just really responded to that sort of thing. [laughs] I think maybe I was imagining myself in those kinds of adventures, solving mysteries. I also read lots of Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine. Those of us from the thriller world, we know that particular feeling when you get lost in a creepy mystery and you’re trying to solve it, and you’re being scared at the same time. That’s a great combination.
We have some big news to talk about later, but we’re mainly here to celebrate the release of KEEP THIS TO YOURSELF, your first YA murder mystery. Can you give me a little background about the book and why you needed to write it?
I’ve been publishing young adult fiction since 2012, and everything up until this book has been straightforward contemporary YA. That’s a corner of the category that I’m really comfortable in—I like writing about teens in the real world. But I was looking forward to where I’d like to be in the next 10 years, and I started to ask myself some serious questions about making gains in the American market. I love Canada and I hope to publish in Canada forever, but I really wanted to make some inroads south of the border. And more important than that, I started to examine some of the books that I’ve loved over the years to try to find some clues to where I should move next. And what became really clear to me is that I’ve always loved mysteries and thrillers.
So I asked myself, what would a teen thriller from my voice look like? I should mention that I’m gay, and one of my priorities is that I always want to write about queer teens. There’ve been some great teen thrillers with queer characters over the last few years—I’m thinking of Caleb Roehrig [White Rabbit; Death Prefers Blondes] in particular—but I decided I was going to try and tackle one of my own. I had an idea that turned into a premise that turned into a plot, and the book just kind of came from there.
I’d like to hear more about that progression from premise to plot to finished manuscript. How did the experience of writing a mystery compare to your expectations?
Of all the books I’ve written, KEEP THIS TO YOURSELF came to me almost like a gift. I had the idea of a group of friends who had been really close as kids, and I imagined them on graduation night, coming together to open a time capsule, but it was clear to me that they were no longer tight the way they had been in their younger days. And then it occurred to me that one of the members of the group was no longer with them, because he’d been murdered a year before. Within a week I had this separate brainwave on who the culprit would be, and once I had those two pieces—the beginning and the end—I had everything I needed, and the rest of it fell into place.
So you’d spent years writing contemporaries, and suddenly you’re writing this brooding, meticulously plotted murder mystery. Was it tough to switch gears?
In some ways it was a little difficult, mainly because I had to stop and do a lot of thinking about the genre and what was expected of me. Mystery and thriller readers expect certain things going into a reading experience, while at the same time they hope to be surprised. So I had to find that balance, where I was targeting certain benchmarks along the way in the plot—I knew there were certain beats I wanted to hit—but I also wanted to make it a fresh and surprising experience. My contemporary stuff was a bit more straightforward; there were no specific beats I needed to hit, other than just a typical three-act structure. But once I’d come up with my list—I need to nail down this and this and this, I need some red herrings in there, and I need to make sure there are several characters who could be suspects—the rest of it came to me really easily, and I found that I appreciated having those genre conventions to fall back on. If I ever did get stuck, I knew I could kind of stop and squint and think of some other books that had played the same sorts of games with readers, and I often found that there were lots of tricks out there in the canon to help me out.
Let’s talk about those tricks. As a book journalist I read upwards of 150 thrillers a year, so it’s hard to be surprised—only a few books a year pull it off, and KEEP THIS TO YOURSELF is one of them. What’s the key to playing fair and giving readers all the clues they need but still surprising them?
Something I think worked in the favor of this particular book is that there were a few layers to what was going on. There was the actual mystery, but Mac, the protagonist, was also dealing with some other emotional stuff at the same time. I don’t think he’s a traditional unreliable narrator, but I do think that his paranoia around his sexuality and his slow realization of various people’s ulterior motives [created] a perfect set of conditions where you have a lot of characters who seem to be hiding things, and that’s a great set of circumstances to have if you’re trying to surprise people. I tried to take advantage of that feeling of teen paranoia—at the best of times when you’re a teenager, you’re uncertain of your identity, but when you bring in the sexual identity thing on top of that, it helped create a mood of uncertainty and suspicion that I was able to take advantage of and kind of hide a few things in plain sight. [laughs] It’s hard to talk about without giving too much away, right?
It is, and that was an appropriately cagey response. Since you mentioned Mac’s headspace, let’s talk more about that. There’s a conversation in the YA lit world about coming-out stories, and the need to move beyond them. In KEEP THIS TO YOURSELF, Mac is out from page one, but I wouldn’t say he’s comfortable with it. Why did you make that choice, and what are your thoughts on the state of the coming-out story, especially in genre lit?
Queer YA has come a long way in the last ten years—almost unbelievably so. The gains we’ve made in Canada and the gains you guys have made in the States have been amazing, and I think that’s reflected in the fiction for young people, which is great.
My first book that came out in 2012 [Way to Go, from Orca Book Publishers] was a traditional coming-out narrative, and even at that point seven years ago, I got some comments along the lines of “we need fewer books about coming out and more books about teens who are just in the world as openly queer teenagers.” And I could see that point, but I pushed back a little because I think coming-out stories are as universal as love stories or family dramas. Coming out is something that every queer teen is going to have to deal with at one point or another. But it’s also really healthy and wonderful for teens to see themselves solving mysteries and going on adventures, and by the time I started to write this book, I was ready to tell a story about a teen who was gay, but [his queerness] wasn’t the be-all, end-all.
At the same time, it would be naïve of me personally, writing from my own experience, to have just made everything hunky-dory for Mac. The reality for a lot of queer teens, especially in small towns and rural areas, is that even if they’re out, there are a lot of pressures and struggles that they have to deal with. I wanted to reflect that while also giving Mac the opportunity to find romance and be open about his relationship, so I tried to walk a tightrope of, yeah, he’s out, he’s clearly gay, his friends and family and the town know that. But at the same time, he’s got some internal struggles he’s still dealing with.
When I was about 17, I found an LGBTQ bookstore in Raleigh, North Carolina, called White Rabbit (now sadly defunct). They had a section of queer mysteries and thrillers, and it’s not an overstatement to say that finding those shelves was a life-changing experience for me. I loved genre lit, but outside of horror, I hadn’t encountered genre stories with queer protagonists. Do you have a similar story?
Unfortunately I don’t. I wish that I did. I’ve only been out since I was about 30—I came out when I met my husband, which is very nice but also kind of sad at the same time. I had really internalized it and would basically avoid anything that was too queer at the risk of being outed, which was really quite sad. Because of that, I missed out on a lot of opportunities and a lot of media that probably would’ve been quite helpful to me. And when I was a teen in high school back in the early to mid-’90s, [queer media] existed, but it just was not made available to me in any way. And I’m hoping that’s changing for young people. I think it is, at least in certain parts of the world.
We often talk about what the publishing industry can do to change that, but what can we do as readers to speed things along?
That’s a great question. I’m starting to hear more people talk about setting themselves reading challenges. When you give yourself specific challenges, like “I’m going to read five mysteries by women of color,” or “I’m going to find three or four young adult novels by transgender writers,” you start to recognize the gaps in your own reading. I’ve done this the last couple of years, and when I do it, I tend to see what I’ve been missing. It’s led me to read a lot of stuff that I otherwise wouldn’t, and that broadens my perspective on literature and the world in general.
So when it comes to YA fiction, I think all of us, whether we’re reading YA for pleasure or buying YA for family members or friends or providing it to students or kids who frequent our libraries, really need to stop and think about what’s on the shelves and what isn’t. And if we’re not giving young people the broadest possible exposure to what’s out there, then how do we identify those titles and make those changes?
That’s a great point. We can talk about what the publishing industry can do differently, but if we’re not facilitating those changes as readers, they’ll never happen.
Exactly. It’s a bit cynical to say that publishing responds to the demands of the market, but at the same time, I think publishing has a responsibility to go out and put marketing weight behind books that will create those demands in the marketplace and show people that there are other voices and other stories that haven’t traditionally been given presence on the shelves.
Switching gears a bit, you’ve got some very cool pre-order swag for KEEP THIS TO YOURSELF. Please tell me about it.
Pre-orders are very important to a book’s success, and we’re all trying to hustle our books out the door before they’re even available. What’s become quite popular in YA fiction in particular is to do a pre-order giveaway. So when I started having discussions with my publisher, Albert Whitman, about what would be a unique, interesting pre-order incentive, I brought up my love for classic YA thrillers and those amazing, garish illustrated covers—the Lois Duncans and the Christopher Pikes and the R. L. Stines, and even the old Hardy Boys covers. And I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to imagine a scene from KEEP THIS TO YOURSELF and have it illustrated in that vintage style? And in some ways it’s a reclaiming exercise, because there were obviously few if any queer teens in those books that I read when I was younger.
To my delight and surprise, Albert Whitman thought it was a great idea. We sourced a whole bunch of queer illustrators and ultimately approached a comics artist and illustrator named Cat Staggs [DC Comics’ Smallville Season 11; Image Comics’ Crosswind], who is just fantastic. We’re going to be giving away an art print of that illustration along with a signed bookplate, a bookmark, and a postcard from Camera Cove. Everybody who pre-orders in the US and Canada by end-of-day on May 20 will get a swag pack. They just have to go to KeepThisToYourselfBook.com to fill out a form.
It’s been a big month for you, with the highlight being the announcement of your next YA mystery, I Hope You’re Listening. How much can you tell me about it?
It’s about a queer 17-year-old girl in a small town in the Midwest. Her name is Dee, and I love this character. She’s just great—she stands on her own two feet and she’s got her own sense of self that just blows me away. The big, haunting thing from Dee’s past is that when she was eight years old, she and her best friend were playing in the woods behind their house, and her friend was kidnapped in front of Dee’s eyes. The mystery was never solved, and Dee was the only witness and was unable to give any solid information to police. So it’s nearly ten years later, and she’s still struggling with a lot of guilt over this situation. She’s always thought, if I’d been able to do something to help in the moment, or if I’d been able to give them one clue that could’ve led to them finding my friend, maybe things would be different.
To deal with this lingering guilt, she decides to start a podcast that channels the online detective community to help solve open missing persons cases. It’s all anonymous—she disguises her voice—and to her surprise it becomes very popular. Then another young girl is kidnapped from the same neighborhood, and all signs point to the two kidnappings being related. So Dee has to decide whether to reveal her secret identity. She’s being pressured externally and internally to try to figure out what’s going on with this new case.
From the title to everything you’ve just described, I Hope You’re Listening is definitely from the author of KEEP THIS TO YOURSELF. Forgive me for asking such an inside-baseball question, but I’d love to know what kind of conversations you’ve had with your agent and publisher about branding yourself.
We do talk about it quite a bit. There was something about writing KEEP THIS TO YOURSELF that made me feel like I’d found my sweet spot, so we’ve been discussing where to go from here. I know that Albert Whitman would like to continue building my brand in a mystery-thriller direction, and that sounds great to me. If I had to pick one genre to write for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t have to think twice about it: I would stick with mysteries and thrillers because I love them so much, and to hopefully have the chance to contribute in my own way, to add my voice to that tradition, is an honor and a thrill. With any luck readers will find my books and give me the opportunity to write more of them, because I just want to keep writing mysteries and presenting them to readers to solve for as long as I possibly can.
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