Walking with Ghosts
By Dawn Ius
Leanna Renee Hieber has made a name for herself writing gothic literature that is not only “strangely beautiful” but steeped in the kind of atmosphere in which encounters with ghosts are not only expected, but highly anticipated.
Hieber attributes the inspiration for this eerie realism to her personal encounters with the spirit world—many of them facilitated by her part-time gig as one of New York’s ghost tour guides.
“My favorite one of late happened at the Merchant’s House Museum, a bit of a historic miracle whose close shave with near abandon would move any preservationist,” she says. “To this end, my particular spectral experience happened in the fine front parlor that was reserved for the family’s more lavish entertaining, said to be the ‘fullest’ location of spectral energies.”
She stood alone, with only the beautiful parlour settee to her right, listening as the docent discussed George Chapman’s miraculous intervention to save the building.
“The closeness of that call so affected me that I blurted out: ‘Thank God it was saved!’” Hieber says. “In response, an unmistakable, tactile, spectral gesture of commiseration met my emotional outburst. There was no one standing to my right, and yet, as if to say, ‘We’re so glad you feel about it as we do’, an ice-cold hand grasped my elbow and gave a friendly, comforting squeeze, despite the touch being some thirty degrees cooler than the surrounding air.”
An unmistakable sensation of touch and sentiment—Hieber describes the moment as subtle, sweet, and profound. Adjectives that could be used to describe Hieber’s books, actually, including her latest novel. A SANCTUARY OF SPIRITS. The story picks up where A Spectral City—the first novel in the series—leaves off, in which Eve Whitby and the other members of New York’s Ghost Precinct—an all-female team of psychics and spiritualists—are tasked with investigating a mortician’s sudden disappearance.
In the process Eve encounters a magician and mesmerist whose charisma and abilities are beyond anything she’s ever seen before. To get to the bottom of this mystery, the Ghost Precinct must discern between truth and illusion—before another soul vanishes into the ether like a ghost.
“There is something magical about Leanna Renee Hieber’s writing,” says reviewer Shana Dubois—and those words are proved true again in A SANCTUARY OF SPIRITS.
In this interview with The Big Thrill, Hieber shares more on her writing and journey to publication, how she crafts spine-tingling scenes, and of course, what’s in store for Eve and her eclectic team of ghost hunters.
Your books are often called “strangely beautiful”—and I can’t think of a more apt description. Are you a self-taught writer?
I took writing classes very seriously, from grade-school through high-school and sought out every extra-curricular storytelling experience I could, going on to immerse myself in many different types and styles of writing classes in college, such as playwriting, dissection of arc and story structure, and narrative adaptation. I received my BFA in theatre performance with a thematic sequence in the Victorian era and a thesis production of a one-woman show adapted from 19th century text. All while quietly penning my own Gothic novel that I didn’t talk much about outside of close friends.
My love of classical theatre was first and foremost in my life at that time and the only writing I presented publicly were plays and adaptations, keeping my fiction close to the vest. While in college and in my first internships out of college, I had a very active and engaged approach with directors and theatrical collaborators. Scripts of mine and one-woman shows would be torn apart and re-worked, and in that capacity, I received a wonderful, hands-on approach to writing that holds true with my editors and agent today. I spent several years as a professional actress, moving to New York after receiving my Equity card and joining the union.
Once in New York, two paths made themselves clear. I was at a Broadway callback and all I could think about was the book that would become my debut novel in the Strangely Beautiful series. I stopped auditioning and re-focused my attention on fiction, taking classes and attending conferences to hone skills and network with New York publishing. I knew it was time for my other great love to take over. I’m still involved in theatre; creating a one-woman performative lecture last fall was immensely creatively fulfilling and I’m still touring the project adapted from original source texts and 19th century history: “By the Light of Tiffany: A Meeting with Clara Driscoll,” about the woman who designed Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained-glass lamps. But fiction remains my truest love and I’m blessed to have turned in novel number thirteen this year.
In A SANCTUARY OF SPIRITS Eve has concerns about the backlash the NYPD’s Ghost Precinct is receiving. She has to put that aside to solve a new mystery, of course. How do you balance her internal conflict with the real-life dangers that she faces as the plot progresses?
Part of what makes Eve mature for her age is the ability to (mostly) put fear aside in order to do what she feels is right: what will bring justice and peace to the afflicted who are placed in her path. That maturity came from being scared out of her wits as a child before she learned how to harness her psychic powers. Learning to communicate with ghosts on their level, rather than thinking them solely a fright, was a process that made Eve who she is: a strong woman with a sense of purpose; however, she’s still very young and inexperienced. In this novel especially, Eve is forced to take everything around her one step at a time, and she knows if she thinks too long and hard about what she’s up against, she’ll fall apart. So I just try to keep her running, while being honest about her fears and vulnerabilities. I think that’s relatable to anyone who may be driven but overwhelmed, and I hope readers will root for Eve just as they’d want a hopeful outcome for themselves.
*coy smile* More of them. More of them being adorable. Considering how slow-burn they’ve been through two books, they’ve earned some fireworks in book three. In all seriousness, I didn’t think their romance would be as important of a factor as it became, but their chemistry simply flowed off the page and it delighted me so much I let them carry me forward, a thrilling, sweet engine of the series.
What was the inspiration for Horowitz’s character?
The initial inspiration for the Spectral City series was that I thought to write a bit of a love-letter to one of my favorite novels, The Alienist by Caleb Carr, but filled with paranormal angles. I fell utterly in love with the Alienist, Dr. Kreizler, when I read it years ago, and I’m sure there’s a ghost of him that informs my Jacob, but I have to say, Jacob is, in the end, truly himself and I just feel lucky to channel him. He really leapt off the page for me, all charm, kindness, and fortitude. I never had to struggle with any of his lines, he just radiated for me.
My wonderful sensitivity reader Brina Starler has made sure that I was representing him and his Jewish background and family well and without harm, as it’s critical to me that my diverse cast of characters are represented fully and appropriately. In this regard, I use several sensitivity readers for the different intersectional identities that co-exist in this series, all kinds of folks from different backgrounds, orientations, and ethnicities that were all historically present but not always given voice.
Jacob charmed the living daylights out of me and I hope he’ll continue to do the same for readers. His and Eve’s chemistry has remained one of the most complimented aspects of the series.
Your books have such a strong—and authentic—gothic vibe to them. Not an easy feat. What draws you to the genre and who have been some of your mentors/go-to authors?
Thank you so much. Toeing the gothic line between drama and melodrama is always hard, but I find when I allow myself the atmospheric trappings of the genre, my characters can often be playful about the gothic tropes while still creating the feel, look, intense psychology, and lush drama of it.
I was drawn to the genre as a young adult by 19th century masters: Mary Shelley, all three Brontë sisters, Stoker, Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, but more than any other, Poe. I cut my teeth on them and began aping their style as a pre-teen, penning torridly terrible tales.
One of your jobs in New York is as a ghost tour guide—and I suspect you’re quite busy around this time of year. How does this job inform your fiction? Has anything truly extraordinary happened during one of these tour adventures?
Yes! ‘Tis the busy spooky season. At this point, my work as a ghost tour guide and as a novelist specializing in ghost-filled narratives has become entirely entwined. The themes that engage me as a novelist—what does the presence of a ghost mean and how can I make it matter?—this also drives me as a guide. The existential question is a constant engine and I take a philosophical angle more than wishing to scare anyone. Though I do find the stories we tell chilling, being scared by a ghost story has as much to do with our own fear of the unknown as it is about any one entity. Thematically, the jobs are in constant discourse.
I set Eve’s home just off some of the most haunted territory we cover on my ghost tour route, so I regularly walk her haunted paths and mention the history there, guiding the reader through routes that are so familiar to me, they are second-nature. Publisher’s Weekly noted the feeling as “lived-in” when they have complimented the series as engaging and diverse. I want the reader to be able to be immersed in another era and atmosphere.
When can we expect the next book in the series and what can you share about it?
A Summoning of Souls releases July 2020 from Kensington! I bring us back to the prologue of the first book involving a ghostly disappearance and focus on bringing the mysterious Prenze family, and the danger they represent, into sharp focus. The series was operating on three central plot themes dealt with in each book and the Prenze family drama brings this three-book arc to a dramatic, life-threatening close as the Precinct ghosts find new, unorthodox ways to help the cause. Eve’s trusted team of psychics each hone new talents while Detective Horowitz is endangered trying to separate tactile evidence from the intangible. This threat causes Eve to question everything and she puts herself in harm’s way instead. And as promised, there’s loads more chemistry and fireworks! Join us! Cheers and Happy Haunting!