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Interview: September 4, 2018

Accomplished author Mary Downing Hahn has been writing historical and ghost stories for children for over 30 years. Following last year's ONE FOR SORROW, Hahn returns this September with her newest novel, THE GIRL IN THE LOCKED ROOM. When Jules, a young girl in a new town, discovers a ghost locked in an abandoned house nearby, she initially can't shake her fear. After a while, however, she begins to become interested in the girl's story. Meeting Maisie, another girl who lives in the area, at the public library, she learns some of the history behind the town, history that might explain where the ghost came from, and why she is locked away. Soon the two girls begin working together to try to free the ghost stuck in the locked room. No stranger to the ghost story genre, Mary Downing Hahn joined us for an interview to discuss her writing process, her favorite novels and her own experience with the supernatural. You’ve written books across a variety of genres, but your fans probably know you best from your ghost and horror stories. Can you tell us a bit about what the horror genre means to you and why you like to write ghost stories?

Mary Downing Hahn: I don’t think of my books as horror stories which I associate with violence and bleeding and other gruesome things. My books, on the other hand, are eerie, a bit scary and not intended to horrify anyone. I’m not sure what draws me to ghost stories. They seem to find me even when I’m not looking for them. Like most people, I have a certain curiosity about the idea of ghosts --- you can’t prove they exist and you can’t prove they don’t exist. They dwell in that gray area between realism and fantasy, the twilight zone if you wish. I suppose I enjoy pushing the boundaries of the real world and looking beyond what the five senses tell us.

KRC: THE GIRL IN THE LOCKED ROOM is a ghost story told from the points of view of two young girls, Jules and the girl in the locked room herself. Can you introduce us to Jules?

MDH: Jules is a lonely girl who has never had a chance to form long lasting friendships. Her father’s job of restoring historic buildings takes the family to new locations almost every year. In the novel, Jules finds herself living in close proximity to her father’s current project, an old house abandoned over 100 years ago. Jules immediately senses a presence on the house’s top floor. At first, she’s frightened but gradually realizes the ghost is a child, more lost and lonely than scary. After Jules makes friend with Maisie, a local girl she meets at the public library, she learns more about Oakhill and its mysterious past. Happy to have a friend, Jules overcomes her fears and she and Maisie unite to rescue the girl in the locked room.

KRC: What is it like to write from the perspective of a ghost? How do you get yourself in that mindset?

MDH: I enjoy writing from unusual viewpoints because it gives me freedom to explore an unfamiliar world. Truly, Lily came to me fully formed with a distinct voice of her own. I felt I was simply writing down what she said. 

KRC: Like many of your books, THE GIRL IN THE LOCKED ROOM has a hisorical aspect. How do you choose time periods for your books? Do you have to do a lot of research?

MDH: When I begin a book, the time period seems to come along with the story. THE GIRL IN THE LOCKED ROOM doesn’t include many historical details so it required little if any research. On the other hand, ONE FOR SORROW, set in 1918, required much more research because I was dealing with two significant historical events --- the end of WW1 and the beginning of the Spanish Influenza pandemic.

KRC: In THE GIRL IN THE LOCKED ROOM, Jules knows she is seeing something strange, but she has trouble convincing the grownups in her life that her visions are real. The way you describe her frustration really leaps off the page. Did you draw upon personal experiences to write these scenes?

MDH: I simply imagine what it must be like to be disbelieved. I can’t remember any particular time I had trouble convincing people to believe me.

KRC: The one person Jules connects to immediately is her new friend, Maisie. The two meet at the library, and Maisie recommends The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, her absolute favorite series. Was this one of your favorite series growing up too? What other books did you love as a child?

MDH: Actually I discovered Dianna Wynne Jones when I was a children’s librarian --- sadly, I’m much too old to have read her books when I was a child. You may be surprised to know I never read scary stories when I was little. I loved dog stories (LASSIE COME HOME, CALL OF THE WILD), family stories (the THE MOFFATS, THE SATURDAYS), adventure stories (TREASURE ISLAND, KIDNAPPED), Charles Dickens (especially OLIVER TWIST). By sixth grade, I was brave enough to read Sherlock Holmes, and by seventh grade, I was dipping into Edgar Allen Poe. I’ve loved to read since I was five and still can’t stand being without a good book.

KRC: As the girls work together to meet and save the girl in the locked room, they are forced to really confront their fears and be brave together. What were some of your fears as a child? Did you ever have to confront them like Julies and Maisie do?

MDH: Oh, I was afraid of almost everything --- the long armed witch under my bed, the wolf behind the door, the dark, noises on the stairs, cemeteries, funeral homes, death, dying --- you name it, I was scared of it. On the other hand, my gang of grade school friends and I took all sorts of risks on sleds, roller skates and bicycles. Unknown to our parents, we climbed almost to the top of trees, explored woods and tunnels and creeks and ventured across the train tracks into forbidden territory. Somehow those things didn’t scare me.

KRC: Spooky houses like the one in THE GIRL IN THE LOCKED ROOM are one of the best elements of horror fiction. Even better, it seems that everyone grew up around at least one creepy house with a real or imagined backstory. Did your town have a spooky house in it when you were growing up?

MDH: Sadly, I was deprived of a real haunted house. Instead, my friends and I invented mysterious, possibly dangerous houses. Since there were no Nancy Drew mysteries in College Park, we convinced ourselves, with absolutely no evidence, that counterfeiters lived in a bungalow at the end of a dirt road. The people in the house on the corner spoke with mysterious accents. Therefore they were Russian spies. We actually hid in trees and bushes and spied on these houses, recording suspicious activities in notebooks. Unfortunately, we never caught anyone with the goods, but the Russian spy caught us in his garage looking for communist newspapers. Somehow we escaped and never walked past his house again, even though it meant going out of our way.

KRC: Since we are talking about a ghost story, we have to ask: do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever seen one?

MDH: I think I saw a ghost in Kansas, but I’m not sure. I might have been dreaming the night I saw the old fashioned but harmless gentleman in my room. However, the owner of the house definitely believes it’s haunted. She herself hasn’t seen the ghosts, but she feels their presence. According to her, they are the original owners of the house, staying there to keep an eye on things.

Because I write ghost stories, people often tell me about ghosts they’ve seen. I tend to believe many of their accounts, even though I’m not totally convinced. After all, ghosts have played a part in almost every culture, going back to ancient times. So I keep an open mind. It makes life more interesting to think I might encounter a ghost or a unicorn or a witch someday.

KRC: Last of all, can you tell us anything about what you are working on next? Can we expect (and get excited for) another ghost story anytime soon?

MDH: My next book will be published in the fall of 2019. GUEST is based on folk tales in which fairies steal a human baby and leave one of their own in its place.