The Sirens of Suspense

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An Anthony Award-nominated website on all things mystery.

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Jennifer McMahon is the New York Times bestselling author of DON'T BREATHE A WORD, DISMANTLED, ISLAND OF LOST GIRLS and PROMISE NOT TO TELL. She grew up in suburban Connecticut and graduated from Goddard College. Over the years, she has been a house painter, farm worker, paste-up artist, pizza delivery person, and homeless–shelter staff member, and she has worked with mentally ill adults and children in various capacities. She lives in Vermont with her partner, Drea, and their daughter, Zella.


Find her on Facebook and Twitter.


(Jennifer McMahon will be atThe Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ, February 25th at 7PM)


Genre-defying is one way to describe your work. When you began writing fiction, did you have a particular genre in mind? Has this been an advantage or disadvantage?

I've never thought about genre when I'm writing, and honestly,  I'm never sure how to answer when someone asks me what genre my books fall in.  I just set out to write the stories that  would most want to read; as it happens, those stories contain elements of suspense, the supernatural, coming-of-age, even horror.  I think it's okay to write books that don't fall neatly into one particular category -- I absolutely love that I have readers who enjoy mysteries, horror, and women's fiction.   I really think the most important thing is to write the best story you can and trust that if you get swept away in it, readers will too.  


You grew up in Connecticut, but several of your novels take place in Vermont, where you live now. What about the state has made it such a source of inspiration for you?  

I've lived in Vermont on and off since I came up here to go to college in the late 1980's and it's been a huge source of inspiration.  I think setting is almost like a character itself -- a living, breathing thing that's an integral part of the story and affects the other characters in ways they're aren't even aware of.  I spend a lot of time out in the woods and I have a pretty wild imagination (is that just a shadow moving across the path up ahead, or a something more sinister?).  I often come back from a walk with a thousand new ideas (not to mention thoroughly creeped-out!).  I love that Vermont is so quaint and beautiful, and that it seems like a place where bad things never happen.  I enjoy peeling back the layers, showing the dark side, the secrets, the shadowy parts of the forest where evil dwells.  


Your novels alternate between the past and present. Did that method of storytelling come naturally to you? What are the challenges of researching the history of these parts of New England? 

I happened upon the back and forth technique by accident with my first book, Promise Not to Tell.  I had big chunks of both the past and present storylines done, but I wasn't sure how they might fit together.  I took what I had and laid it out all over the floor of my house, then started moving things around.  This is how I realized how well the story would work if I went back and forth, and it's a form I've been using in one way or another ever since.  I absolutely love connecting characters and stories through time and showing how places and landscapes change in some ways, but remain the same in others.  I love the challenge of working with more than one storyline and tying them all together, weaving the past and present together in a way that not only makes sense, but really resonates and makes the story in each time period stronger.  The Winter People was my first book with a really historical aspect -- one of the storylines takes place in 1908.  I'd never done anything like this before was really intimidated.  It was important that I get the details and voices right.  I spent a lot of time reading up on Vermont history, looking at books of old photos, and reading letters and diaries from that time period.  I think with this research I was able to weave in enough details to make it feel authentic without hitting the reader over the head with a history lesson.  


THE WINTER PEOPLE, your latest, was inspired by a game you with your daughter (who sounds like she has the makings of a future writer). Can you tell us about that?  Also, your work frequently involves children/young women, how has having a daughter of your own informed your writing?

Several years ago, my daughter, Zella, and I played a game that very much inspired one of the present day storylines in The Winter People.  Her games, at the time, were very tightly scripted dramas and were a lot like doing improv in an acting class.  She'd give me the set up, the characters and we'd go from there.  That day's game went something like this:

She said, "We're sisters.  You're nineteen.  I'm seven.  You wake up and find me in bed with you.  I tell you are parents are missing."

"Missing?" I said.  "That's terrible.  What happened to them?"

"They were taken," she told me.  "Into the woods."  Then she said very matter-of-factly, "Sometimes it just happens."

I got chills and knew that those two girls with their missing parents belonged in a book.  Zella, of course, was thrilled that she had inspired an idea for a story.  And I can't tell you how happy it made me to see her face when I showed her the finished copy of the book with my dedication to her in it.  She was over the moon.  She has been, and continues to be, a constant source of inspiration.  I love children's imaginations -- the wild leaps they take, how anything seems possible.  Being with her brings me right back to my own childhood self at times, and I find myself remember things I'd long forgotten -- games I used to play, silly songs, stuff I'd do in school, how fun snowball fights are!  I also write about children in peril and have some pretty bad things happen to the kids in my books.  I think being a mother definitely informs how I write about these things; it adds a whole other layer when I'm thinking, "this could be my kid."  


What’s coming next for you?

I've just finished a draft of my next book, but it's still in the very early stages so I don't want to jinx anything by saying too much (I'm superstitious like that!).  I can say that it's set at a roadside motel in Vermont, and has bits that take place in the 50's/early 60's, the 80's and today.  And, of course, it's really creepy!





COMMENT ON THE INTERVIEW by using the Comments box further down on this page, or on our Facebook page and be entered to win one of THREE copies of THE WINTER PEOPLE! (US entrants only, please!)



Writing ambience: I like to write in front of a fire (or woodstove!) with a cup of coffee and chocolate (usually dark chocolate peanut M&Ms) beside me.

Book(s) she wishes she could read again for the first time: TO KILL A MOCINGBIRD.

What she's reading now: BONESHAKER by Cherie Priest — loving it!

Book or eReader? Book.

Outline or no outline? No outline — an outline takes away all the fun and magic of not having any idea what's going to happen next.

What period in history she'd most like to visit: My own childhood because I'd like to have a chance to meet and talk with the younger me; there's so much I would love to ask her.

Favorite online resource: It's not really aimed at writers in particular, but these days my favorite site is The Near-Sighted Monkey. I absolutely love Lynda Barry and she teaches me so much about the creative process.

One thing she wishes she had known when she started: That it would take so very long and be so very difficult to get published, but that it would be so, so worth it in the end!

Favorite independent bookstore My favorite bookstore is my local bookstore, the wonderful Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont.

If she could invite any four people to a dinner party: Shirley Jackson, Anne Sexton, Patricia Highsmith, Zelda Fitzgerald — just think of the dinner conversation!