It’s impossible for me to read the entirety of every book by every author featured in this series before the interview runs. But sometimes, the planets align, and in the case of Jennifer Fawcett‘s eerie debut, Beneath the Stairs, I’m glad they did. This book has been called creepy, unsettling, and thrilling, and I’d agree with all three words. Rachel Harrison, author of The Return, takes her description further, calling the book “a poignant haunted house tale about guilt, grief, and the nightmares of adolescence that follow us into adulthood. Fawcett delivers genuine scares in this chilling, mesmerizing debut.” My point? If you like to experience shivers while reading, then this story is probably for you! The book was released just last week, so Jennifer is deep in the throes of book-launching mania. I’m grateful that this busy writer had the opportunity to answer my questions.
Christina: Your debut, Beneath the Stairs, has been called “spine-tingling” and “an atmospheric suspense thriller with supernatural undertones.” You’ve mentioned that a real-life octagon house inspired the book. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? What sort of research did you need to do to bring the book to life?
Jennifer: The summer before I started high school, my friends and I went into an abandoned house that was in the shape of an octagon. We were told it was haunted because a woman had died under mysterious circumstances there. I don’t remember how long we were in it—probably only a few minutes—but it left a big impression on me. I’ve never forgotten how it felt when I walked into it, like I was disturbing something. As if the house, or something in it, knew we were there. Was it all in my imagination? Maybe? Probably? That long-ago summer day immediately came to mind when I started writing this book. I didn’t know what I was going to write about (I was “pants-ing” I learned later), but I knew it started with four girls going into a haunted house and waking something up.
My research was digging up that memory and then constructing this version of the octagon house in my story and moving through it in my imagination. I can picture every part of it. I only hope I’ve done the image that lives in my head justice on the page.
Christina: In some ways, the house in Beneath the Stairs serves as a character. How do you write an inanimate object as a character? How did you make sure that the house didn’t overshadow the active, human characters?
Jennifer: Yes, that’s tricky because the house was so fun to write. People might think that I’m the sort of person who would willingly go into a haunted house—absolutely not! I created this story by thinking about what would scare me (hint: a lot! My imagination is way too active).
One of the big questions I asked was whether the evil was already in the house or whether it was the residue of events that had happened because of the people who had been there. I decided on the people. They are the ones who have wants; they are the ones who make choices and then face the consequences for those choices. And their lives continue past the last page of the story. Ultimately, I think this story is about the way fear and regret can haunt us. One of the characters says, “Fear is real. Even if what you’re afraid of isn’t, the fear is.” That, to me, is the thesis of the book.
Christina: Anyone who experienced childhood fears will recognize themselves and their emotions in this book. Did you have any fears that you had to conquer? As a writer, how do you dial in to those emotions and bring them out on the page? Do you have any fears as a writer?
Jennifer: Do I have fears as a writer? Ha. Yes. Too many to list here. Writing this book hasn’t conquered my fear of haunted places; if anything, it’s made it worse (call it karma, I guess). Much of this book was written late at night, and there were definitely times when I was mentally very in the scene and got myself frightened, especially if there was an unexplained noise in the house. I live in an old house, so unexplained noises are not unusual.
Beyond that, my protagonist, Clare, has a loneliness and longing for connection that are very familiar to me. I wouldn’t say that I’ve conquered fears I have about being alone, but being able to live with this character for so long has been a way to examine them. Writing the conclusion (I won’t give it away here) was cathartic.
Christina: Beneath the Stairs first emerged from National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Do you still participate? What did you learn from the experience, and what advice can you give to anyone who might be thinking of tackling the challenge in 2022?
Jennifer: I highly recommend NaNoWriMo. The best thing that it does is demand that a writer not be precious with their work. It’s just about hitting a word count. A lot of writers—myself included—worry about not doing it “right” (whatever that is) and then feel blocked when what’s coming out isn’t as good as what’s in their head. I didn’t enter NaNoWriMo thinking I’d get a book out of it; I just wanted to see if I could write 50,000 words because that seemed like so many. No matter your process (and if you’re a new writer, you’re not going to know what your process is until you’ve written for a while), letting go of trying to be good is essential.
My advice would be to push through discomfort and hit the daily word count. Then, when you start seeing that number creep up, it’s this tangible proof that you can make a big story. For me, the story only comes out when I’m deep in it and can cut through the initial noise in my head.
Christina: You’re also a playwright. How does writing plays differ from writing novels? Are you drawn to one form over the other? Do you think one is easier to write?
Jennifer: The most significant difference between writing novels and writing plays is interiority. In novels, the reader goes inside a character’s head. Depending on the POV, the writer can move the reader’s perception around the way the director of photography does in a film. In plays, you have language and action, period. Anything else has to be communicated through subtext, and the actors have to figure this out based on the clues you have given them. There’s a layer of interpretation by the actors and directors before the story reaches the audience. When writing a novel, I get to control everything. A play is a collaboration, and the playscript is only the blueprint for what will happen in time and space. I wouldn’t say that one is harder than the other; they just use different tools to tell a story.
Christina: Interviewing teachers is fun because they’re usually willing to share at least one lesson learned from their students. What have your students at Skidmore college taught you?
Jennifer: We read a range of stories and other texts in my classes, and my students often see things that I don’t because they are coming at them from such different perspectives. That probably seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget, especially in the curated bubbles that social media and Covid isolation have intensified. My students are a daily reminder about how varied readers are. It’s disappointing if they don’t love something that I think is amazing, but we can still have a great discussion about what the author is doing and why that is or isn’t resonating with them.
Teaching other writers’ work has helped me dig into their ideas and techniques in much more detail than I usually would just reading it once. Even though I’ve taught some of these stories and essays multiple times, I find myself looking forward to being able to explore them again with a new set of students. Writing that can hold up to repeated readings (and repeated student essays about it!) is the best material for me to learn from.
Christina: On Twitter, you admit that you “grew up in an old stone house in the country, filled with creaks, pops, and all sorts of strange sounds.” What sort of house do you live in now? What sort of house would you consider your dream house?
Jennifer: Funny you should ask because my husband and I are trying to buy a house right now, so we have this conversation all the time! I love old houses and am drawn to places with character, but I also know from growing up in an old house that “character” can sometimes equal an expensive repair. In my dreams, I live near water. My next book is set at a lake. So maybe that’s me channeling my dream house into those pages.
Thanks to Jennifer for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.