In case you didn't know, the heart-pounding sequel to Ashes (review here) was released on September 25. Shadows is every bit as creepy, disturbing, and compelling as its predecessor. I've got a review coming in the next couple days, but today I have the opportunity to share an interview with the creator behind the madness, Ilsa J. Bick.
Shadows) are on the edge of incredibly creepy and disturbing. To the point that I am sometimes intensely uncomfortable reading them. And yet, I can't put them down because the story is so compelling. How do you manage to straddle that line of intense, horrific descriptions and manage to keep the reader engaged?
Oh, gosh, I don’t know. I like creepy? I’m twisted? I’m a strict Freudian, and we all know how bizarre and brilliant the guy really was? The muck is always much more interesting than eternal sunshine and happiness because, in fact, life is fragile, difficult, often cruel, capricious, and fleeting?
Seriously, if I had to really come up with a reason why or how . . . I guess I’d point to my experiences as a physician, both as a surgery intern and then in my career as a psychiatrist. One of the first, great challenges in medicine, for any doctor, is to manage horror while not losing sight of the fact that you are dealing with someone who is both very frightened and in great pain. I’m being quite serious here. There are your everyday horrors—people who are cut up or having a heart attack—and then those that are gruesome: the guy who had the misfortune of being under that girder when the cable snapped; the worker who forgot to put on his safety goggles before he went to work with that wire and now has a long piece sticking out of his eye; the father clutching his little boy whom he’s just run over with that mower; the kid on the prom date—just a beautiful boy, with his whole life ahead of him—who’s now on a ventilator, about to be unplugged, because some asshole got drunk and hit the kid’s car head-on. And all that’s not counting the huge suffering of those with no visible wounds, who carry horror in their heads, often through no fault of their own.
I could go on, of course, but I guess my point is that, as a doctor, you have to be able to do your job and try to help without losing sight of the person. I know that sounds hackneyed, but all doctors have to both detach so they can function and still remain engaged. If you think your doctor doesn’t cry when you’ve left the office, you’re wrong. If you think your doctor isn’t haunted and doesn’t go over what she might have done differently or better—if you think your doctor won’t always remember trying to save your life as you bled out in your bed—you’re wrong. Horror is its own kind of awe; you can’t look away, and so my characters can’t either. You don’t forget, and neither do they.
In fact, if you think about it—I won’t go all biblical, just saying—the most intense confrontations between the divine and humans are all mediated through horror as a synonym for awe. No one can look at the face of God without going crazy or being destroyed. Now, is that because that face is so horrible a person can’t stand it? Or is that because true horror is irrational, illogical, and inexplicable? There is no language; there is only emotion, and it is so intense, so all-encompassing, that it is mystery and awe, all rolled into one.
I try to bring that sensibility—that horror isn’t a video game; there is no safe remove; there are real people who are really suffering; that horror is awe—to my work. Just about everything I describe, I have seen.
Sometimes I’ve seen or dealt with it in a different context. A crush injury, say. But what I put on paper is real or, at least, how it’s real to me.
favorite audiobooks this year! Have you listened to the audio recordings of any of your books? If so, what did you think? And if not, why not?
Yes, isn’t she wonderful? And I got to pick her! Audible has been just fabulous to work with. Since I am a huge audiobook fan and so have listened to many stories, the Audible folks have asked which narrators I’d prefer. Or they come up with a list of audition sequences, and I listen to try and figure just who can capture what I want to convey. Katy’s not only gifted and experienced, she’s SUCH a pro. Before ASHES and, just recently SHADOWS, she and I talked about what my visions were for how people should sound; how to pronounce certain words; all that. If I’m ever in New York when they’re recording, I would love to see her (or any of the other very talented narrators—Joshua Swanson for DRAW THE DARK, again a guy I asked for right off the bat, and Kathleen McInerney for DROWNING INSTINCT) at work. Katy’s stories of what goes into a performance are very eye-opening and kind of funny, too.
So—being a bit of a mimic, and I’ve also done a ton of stage work—I worry that I would hear Katy, for example, and not the Alex I imagine. I know how I think Alex would say something, but Katy is her own person, with her unique interpretation. What I wouldn’t want to do is write Katy. I’m Alex’s mouthpiece, the only one she’s truly got, and Tom’s and Ellie’s, etc. The work is to keep them straight as authentic individuals, with their own voices.
How lucky for you that you get to pick your narrators! Joshua Swanson did a fantastic job on Draw the Dark, and I also loved Kathleen McInerney for Drowning Instinct. In fact, we seem to have very similar taste in narrators. And I have to confess that I had no idea you wrote Star Trek books!
The endings of your books are done in a way that a lot is left to the reader's imagination (or just mean old cliffhangers!) What do you like about these kind of endings, and what do you hope that readers will take away from them?
Yeah, I like ambiguity. Cliff-hangers are very different, so I’m going to just address the open-ended quality. Again, I think you can blame my shrink days and, probably, quantum mechanics. Frankly, very little in life is cut and dried. There are always multiple interpretations and branch points—all those versions of you living a very different life in a timeline you can’t imagine—and the near misses we’ve all had when a few seconds this way or that spell the difference between things going very badly, or well. Ambiguity may be frustrating, but it forces people to think, sometimes outside their comfort zone. Most of the time, that’s what I’m after. If I frustrate you, fine. Life is rarely tidy, and if you’ve followed my characters on their journeys, then I want you to imagine what happens on the next page, that blank one where you get to fill in what happens next.
That playing with the possible and the notion of life as unfurling rather than closing is also central to adolescence. I think when you’re older, it’s easier to forget just how exciting and frightening and ambiguous life is when you’re eighteen. The whole point of adolescence is to turn the knob and walk through that door to your next adventure, and leave parents behind. I’ve said it in other contexts, but a parent’s job is, in part, to become obsolete. Closed endings are satisfying in one sense because they reinforce safety and security. But they also close doors on other opportunities, different outcomes. I’m writing about young adults, kids on the cusp of working up the courage to walk through the door into an ambiguous future where there are always possibilities. Heaven forbid, I keep them from thinking about and exploring all those exciting and scary options.
Thank you so much for stopping by today Ilsa, and for your incredibly thoughtful answers!
amazon | barnes and noble | the king's english
Read Ashes and want a quick refresher before Shadows? Check out Ilsa's recap on her blog.