Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Interview with Award-Winning YA Author Wendelin Gray

The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak

1. What inspired you to write this book?

I always wanted to write a more traditional gothic ghost story since I was thirteen years old and saw a contest for that type of story in the mall bookstore, but I only got to do it in 2015. Starting off with the setting of a traditional Chinese mountaintop temple, I wasn't sure at first what genre I wanted to work in but eventually decided to do this ghost story. The first order of business was to figure out who lived in the temple and why they were dead. Traditionally, the people living in this setting would be male Buddhist monks, and there's certainly a lot of representation of them in East Asian literary history and media, so I wanted to put some thought into who else could live there. (I started thinking about this story in 2013.) Then in 2014 I noticed some headlines in the news about ISIS attacking churches and the Yazidis in the Middle East and about the recent capture of the female assassin who killed a group of Catholic nuns in Liberia under Charles Taylor back in the 90s. Both of those news stories gave me some place to start exploring the problems of isolated, vulnerable religious groups in world history, particularly women's groups. I ultimately decided to create a fictional world with a fictional religious community of young women, sort of like a religious finishing school, where a conflict among the acolytes led to this historical massacre that my main heroine tries to unravel in the novel's present day.

Of course, the novel was also very much inspired by East Asian regional history and language, which I've studied intensively for 20 years. The early Vicki Zhao Wei TV series "Princess Returning Pearl/Huan Zhu Ge Ge" definitely gave me ideas about how I wanted to write my group of main characters, and the now defunct local pan-Asian film festival I worked for for a dozen years provided some of the cultural range of my work since the festival's content covered mostly the traditional Silk Road region, which I wanted to use in my stories as a support to the organization's mission. I also looked back at Victorian-era literary horror stories, both classics and lesser known stories such as "The Jewel of the Seven Stars," which inspired me to use some Indian archaeological sites as inspiration for the culture of the province near my mountain temple in the novel as well as some of those traditional horror tropes for my villain, the murderer. This allowed me to feature the spectacular stepwells from India that were discovered not all that long ago. I'm specifically targeting the old "Egypt Gothic" from 19th century British literature by replacing it somewhat with traditional Indian cultural markers.

2. Who should read it — and why?

Although this novel has two awards for YA and Tweens, one traditional and one non-traditional, I actually write my stories for other adults. However, because I write stories a reader wouldn't feel embarrassed to read with their grandmother or that the whole family can enjoy together, they're not excessively graphic in spite of my very dark themes. I think that's why my customers have been looking at them as good fodder for the precocious young readers in their families, much younger than I had anticipated, which is fine. I liked to read stuff like that, too, at those ages. It should appeal to anyone who likes ghosts, monsters, mystery, historical fiction and even romance, as well as to readers who want something to enjoy together with their older kids around Halloween. Readers interested in foreign cultures or who have international families also find it interesting. I've also had some local readers tell me that, although they didn't typically like to read horror, they really liked this book. 

3. How is it better or different from others in its genre?

My main perception of my novel and how it fits in the genre is actually kind of strange. I'm not really sure that it does fit in the horror genre any more after I started marketing it, and I actually was pleased that it won for the fiction category for Moonbeam rather than horror after the fact. I've noticed that the horror genre seems to encompass such a wide variety of topics that it doesn't even seem like it's a singular genre at all.  I saw the list of nominees for another book award I was up for, and looking over the titles and descriptions, I was really struck by the fact that my novel seemed almost quaint in comparison. I felt it was really out of place in the category at that moment, though as far as I knew it was horror. However, I did write it to be more of a throwback to another era, and I wrote the type of story I wanted to read, and it just doesn't happen to sound like these other books.

My story should have a much more romantic feel with the sensibility of a historical novel. Right or wrong, I definitely want my story to feel more literary even as a genre piece. That's just my background. I've studied multiple languages since I was in eighth grade, majored in a language/literary field where we did literary analysis, and continued to learn more languages to an even deeper level later as I entered the workforce and volunteered on the side as an ESL teacher. Exposure to world literature and reading excerpts of those works in their original languages just puts you at a different starting point as a writer.

4. What challenges did you overcome to write your book?

It took me an awfully long time to get from that contest I saw as a teen to the point where I wrote this book, and I actually went through a phase in the early 2000s where I decided I wasn't going to write again. I was really excited about the idea of being a writer back in college, but I lost interest in that quickly enough even if I continued to write stories for no one in particular. Eventually, I put away my pens and just didn't do any creative writing for over a decade, turning to other art forms instead. I started writing again mostly out of necessity as a blogger and as part of this local pan-Asian film festival, as well as creating a place to react to the reading I have been doing for years in the foreign languages I study. Writing fiction is a way of processing the culture and language that I've been exposed to, and some of my novels I've published since this book are part of my project to experiment with writing in my second and third languages. I've been looking at second language acquisition studies for years on advanced reading and writing, so these stories also function for me as what we would call "student generated texts" from my years as an ESL teacher. I'm very interested in the cognitive processes that entails, and I know there's not a lot of data available to advance the field otherwise, especially with native English speakers.

5. What lasting messages do you hope your readers are left after consuming your book?

I hope that it's fun and still leaves a good feeling in the end in spite of the awful deaths and hauntings. I wanted my group of main characters in the novel's present day to be as warm and silly at times as the characters from "Princess Returning Pearl" who served as their direct inspiration. Though it's horror, the story still has its moments of humor and humanity that I hope come through to the reader. I've taken to calling the type of horror I write "transcendent horror," because I want to emphasize the mystical side of the hauntings, which sometimes puts me more in the genre of straight fantasy, as well as give the reader some feeling of being uplifted by the end.

6. What advice do you have for struggling writers?

I would recommend just spending some time working on the nuts and bolts of writing. Many years ago, I went through a phase where I'd just get up on days off and write passages in different ways to see how I could get different effects. I also would tell them to expect to produce a box or two of finished manuscripts that just don't work that will stay buried under your bed forever. Like everything in life, you only get better with practice. Reading widely also helps your writing.

7.  Where do you see the book publishing industry heading?

I hope that it gets more diversified, and what I mean by that is that it's willing to take more risks on different types of stories rather than just looking for the next story just like the last big seller. Hopefully, the indie and self-publishing scene will help make that possible.

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog ©2019. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America.

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