Q & A with Katherine Arden

Small Spaces, Katherine Arden’s atmospheric middle grade horror quartet, comes to a close with Empty Smiles, which features the final, frightening face-off between Ollie, Coco, and Brian and the smiling man. PW spoke with Arden about the importance of honoring the emotional impact of her characters’ terrifying experiences, her favorite seasons to write about, and why kids love horror.

Middle grade horror is a growing genre these days. What is important about exploring horror for this age bracket?

Kids love to be scared. It is fun to experience a primal feeling like fear in a safe environment, like when you’re reading a book. The best horror also explores real-world emotions, like loss, anger, and longing, in a way that empowers a young reader. In horror, the bad thing is externalized. It’s a monster, it’s a ghost. It can be seen, be fought, and be defeated, and that is so powerful for a kid.

A thread through the latter three books is how Ollie, Coco, and Brian were affected by their experiences in previous adventures and grapple with what reads as PTSD. How does showing the impact of trauma fit in the arc of the series?

Once I knew I was going to write multiple books about Ollie, Coco and Brian, I wanted them to read as real kids, who are undergoing real experiences. And there is no way you could go through the scary things that they do—and the accompanying uncertainty—without having to deal with the emotional fallout. I asked myself how I would feel, if I was still 11, and I’d been through an enormously scary experience and was living on tenterhooks, waiting for the next one. Real people are the sum total of all their experiences, and I didn’t want to simply erase the emotional impact of one book when writing the next.

Protagonists’ parents are famously absent for much of the action in many middle grade adventures, but in the Small Spaces series, they are important characters. What is significant to you about involving them?

In the books I read as a middle schooler, parents were almost always either deceased or absent physically or emotionally. But I thought it would be more interesting and different to buck that trend and try to write good parents. The parents in the quartet aren’t perfect—who is?—but all the parents in the book are trying to do their best even though they don’t quite understand what is happening with their kids. This situation creates interesting conflicting impulses in the young protagonists—they want to ask their parents for help but are afraid of putting their parents at risk. I asked myself what a parent—a good ordinary parent—would do in a situation where they know their kids are struggling, their kids are frightened, but they don’t know why, and the kids are reluctant to tell them. I tried to be true to that.

Each of the books in the Small Spaces quartet can be read as a standalone or series entry. How did you shape them so that they could be read individually and without context? Did you always plan on making it a series?

I didn’t always know I wanted to write a series, but after Small Spaces came out, I realized I had more to say about the adventures of Ollie, Brian, and Coco and their dealings with the smiling man. So I embarked on this seasonal approach—I decided to write one book for every season of the year. I knew that horror is often read in standalone installments, so I did my best to make each story self-contained, and to give enough information in each book so a new reader could follow.

Each book in the series is relatively short, under 300 pages. Was it a deliberate decision to keep them brief?

A book is as long as it needs to be. I was definitely inspired by Goosebumps, where each book is short but packs a wallop. I also think I’ve seen a trend for chunky middle grade books—which I would have loved at that age—but I feel like sometimes thick books intimidate some young readers, and I thought shorter books would seem friendlier to all.

Each of the books takes place during a different season, beginning with autumn and finishing with summer. What was your favorite season to write about? And how did you decide the potentially scariest (and coziest) elements for each season?

Fall and winter are my favorite seasons, and in some ways they lend themselves best to horror anyway. So Small Spaces (scarecrows in autumn) and Dead Voices (ghosts in winter) were the most fun to write about. Creating atmosphere is one of my favorite things to do as a writer, and so I had the best time trying to evoke all parts of the seasons. For fall, that included red sugar maples, rainy nights, hot chocolate, wet leaves, mist, fires in a wood stove, a corn maze, a creaking haunted house with a ghost upstairs, and of course, far too many scarecrows standing and staring at you. For winter I loved writing about an all-enveloping snowstorm, a delicious pancake breakfast while it snows outside, and of course, how dark winter nights can be, especially when you are stranded in a hotel with ghosts whispering in the corners.

Your first book, The Bear and the Nightingale, was for adults. What do you like about writing for a younger audience?

I really enjoy switching voice from adult to middle grade. The change is quite dramatic and it is fun for me as a writer to work at keeping my voices distinct. I also like writing horror for a younger audience because it is such an interesting writing challenge—the spookiness has to come from a carefully constructed, ominous atmosphere—you can’t have blunt, outright violence. I also like writing for kids because there is no better feeling than when a kid tells me they love my book or when a parent or teacher tells me that one of my books got a reluctant reader into reading. Those are the best moments.

What are some of your favorite horror books and creators for children and adults? Have you always been a horror fan?

I am a huge horror fan, both of books and film. I grew up reading R.L Stine and Mary Downing Hahn, as well as books of ghost stories and scary folklore. When I was older, I got into Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Shirley Jackson. My favorite horror novel for kids will always be Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn, a chiller that I still shiver thinking about 20 years later. Some recent middle grade horror novels I have enjoyed are Scritch Scratch by Lindsay Currie and This Appearing House by Ally Malinenko. On the grown-up side, I adore We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. My favorite Stephen King is Misery. More recently I really enjoyed The Only Good Indians and My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones.

What’s next for you?

I’ve done my horror quartet, but I have a few ideas for horror standalones that I am excited to explore. I am also hoping to try my hand at middle grade fantasy at some point. I also have a new adult novel coming soon, which will be historical fantasy.

Empty Smiles by Katherine Arden. Putnam, $16.99 Aug. 9 ISBN 978-0-593-10918-2

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