POSSESS is a read-it-in-one-gulp novel about a girl named Bridget Liu who has more troubles than seems fair: her father has been murdered recently, under highly suspicious circumstances, her mother’s recent flirtations with fathers of Bridget’s schoolmates seem to be getting out of hand—and Bridge has a seriously alarming talent for “banishing” demons who have taken possession of things (like houses or people) that aren’t theirs.
Gretchen floats into the Inkpot Interview Room and settles gracefully into the comfy chair.
Thank you so much for coming by, Gretchen! I have to say, POSSESS did a lot of damage to the normal sleep hours in our household. My kids and I all took turns staying up late to finish it—and then staying up even later eyeing those creeeeepy shadows in the corner over there….. Are those just shadows??
Anyway, we do have a bunch of questions for you! Let’s start with the basics: did you, at some point in your life, go to Catholic school? Were your teachers as, umm, unsettling as Bridget’s?
I actually did NOT go to Catholic school, though I did have to attend CCD, which is like night school for Catholic kids whose parents send them to public schools. We’d sit in the local Catholic school classroom one night a week and “round out” our regular education with good Catholic morals. Or something.
So while I’m not actually a product of Catholic school, I was definitely raised Catholic and spent a lot of time in and around churches. And priests. And nuns. (Oh my!)
How about Latin? Does your use of Latin in this book reflect years and years of hard study, or did you just figure out those Latin quotes and phrases as you wrote?
Well, I have some experience with Latin, but not in a traditional scholastic way. I’m a trained opera singer, and a huge part of your education and performance experience in that business involves liturgical music, a great deal of which is written in Latin. Always such a fun language to sing.
The Latin in POSSESS is straight out of history. In the opening exorcism scene, Monsignor Renault and Father Santos are using the Rituale Romanum, an exorcism ritual codified by the Catholic Church in the 17th Century.
That makes sense: singing lessons + Catholic night school = perfect training for writing novels about demonic possession! But what made you choose San Francisco as the setting for your demons and exorcists?
I am a San Francisco girl! My home town. And somehow, when I was thinking about the creepiness of exorcism and demonic possession, the fog-blanketed city seemed to be the only place I could set the novel.
The neighborhood of the Sunset District is actually where my family is from. St. Cecilia’s – the elementary school Bridget’s mom teaches at – was where my mom, my aunt, and all my cousins went. Bridget’s school – St. Michael’s prep – is based on St. Ignatius Prep on Sunset Blvd. Even the houses I used in the book were cannibalized from my life. Mrs. Long’s house is my grandmother’s house on 18th Avenue. The Liu household is my aunt and uncle’s house on 24th.
That makes me want to go on a POSSESS bus tour right now--we should put plaques on all those buildings! Is that great feline Mr. Moppet a figure from your past, too? How did you come up with his name, and do you have any ghost critters wandering around your house?
Creepy story. The impetus for the ghost cat was from a ghostly encounter in my own life. I had a beloved cat pass away a few years ago. I was going through a very difficult time personally, and her death was just one more thing. I was inconsolable.
One morning, I woke up around 4am to the sensation of my dead cat jumping up on the bed and slowly walking across the down comforter. She lay down next to my leg, just how she used to sleep at night. I was paralyzed – couldn’t move or speak. After a few seconds I just thought, “I miss you, Pocket.” The pressure against my leg dissipated and she was gone.
Afterward, I thought maybe I had dreamed the whole thing. Still not quite sure about that…
Oh, Gretchen! That’s quite a story. Sounds comforting, actually, more than creepy. Pocket must have been a great cat…..
I’d love to hear more about your inspiration and research for this book. Was there some little bit of existing folklore about demons/angels/possession/”banishment” that, when you found it, convinced you a story was waiting to be told?
I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of exorcism and demonic possession, and by the fact that the Catholic Church is the only western religion with a codified exorcism ritual. Pope Benedict the XVI even issued an edict instructing all archdioceses around the world to send one priest to the Vatican for official exorcist training. How freaky is that?
Basically, my original idea was to write a scary book. Borderline horror of the hopefully page-turner variety. And when I started to think about what really scared me, The Exorcist movie was at the top of the list. I started doing so research, mostly first-hand accounts of exorcism and possession, and was totally hooked. The rest just sort of grew from there!
There’s a poignant (and slightly disturbing, which I’m afraid is realistic) example in POSSESS of someone whose crush on poor Bridget has become an obsession. Do you have any tips on how to defuse obsession, in oneself or others?
I think Bridget’s approach of steady avoidance was probably not the best. Sometimes you just have to sit down and address a situation like that head on. It’s hard, and stressful, but better in the end, I think!
Do you plot out carefully before you start writing? What’s your favorite part of the writing process? What does an ideal writing day look like, for Gretchen McNeil?
Ugh. I’m probably the worst writer to answer this question. My favorite steps in the process are research and revision. Writing the actual manuscript? It’s like pulling teeth. I force myself on a strict 1000 words per day schedule when I’m writing a first draft and most days are a struggle to get that far. But once it’s done, then I feel energized. I have this problematic stack of pages, I need to figure out a way to make them work. Problem solving is my strong point.
As for plotting, I usually start out with a strong outline for the first act of the novel, and then something looser for acts two and three. I find the last two thirds of the story really changes as I write and I like to keep things open for flights of inspiration.
What’s up next for Bridget? Does her story continue? What are you working on now? When will we get to see it?
Next up is TEN which is a stand alone contemporary horror novel about ten teens trapped on an island with a serial killer. It’s in the vein of Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan, and tentatively scheduled for Fall 2012 with Balzer + Bray. After that, I’ll be going back into Bridget’s world with the sequel to POSSESS which would be a 2013 release.
So, in other words, if we thought POSSESS was scary, are we ever in for sleepless nights in 2012 . . . . Gee, thanks, Gretchen! Let’s see, now . . . has steadying sip of tea; checks notes . . .
Have you always liked writing? What were some of your earliest stories about, if you remember them?
Heh. I actually didn’t start writing until late 2007. I never wrote when I was a teen, didn’t even really keep a journal. I was a singer and a stage performer and that’s what took most of my angst and energy. Writing happened a little bit on a whim, however once I started I was completely addicted to the process.
Nothing before 2007? Gretchen, you are an amazingly quick study! Finally, could you tell us something about your other fascinating talents and careers? Do you see any ways in which those other talents and your writing overlap?
So, I’m a trained opera singer, though I don’t pursue that professionally anymore. Instead, I sing with a circus troupe in Los Angeles called Cirque Berzerk. I’ve been on stage since I was about five years old, first as a tap dancer, then in musicals, then opera, then the circus.
Believe it or not, performing and writing go hand-in-hand. There’s something to be said for showing a story on the stage and how that translates into showing a story in written form. I have a keen appreciation for character motivations – the “why” of writing – and I think most of my plotting comes from that. Why does Bridget make this choice? How does that choice affect everyone else? I’m constantly answering those questions on stage, and when I write.
I know you have been answering questions like crazy this month, as POSSESS
gets ready to hit the shelves—is there a question you really wish someone
would ask you, but for some reason nobody ever comes up with it?
I’m dying for someone to ask me if I’ve ever witnessed an exorcism (I haven’t) and maybe invite me to do so (I’m not sure I would.) :D
Okay, Inkies, you heard her! Gretchen gets the extra ticket to your next exorcism, please! The rest of us can stick safely (safely??) with the fictional variety. My paranormal abilities suggest that the summer and fall of 2011 will be known as the time when POSSESS kept us all up late! Congratulations, Gretchen, and ***good luck*** with this and all your future projects!