Gretchen McNeil is the dynamo behind a POSSESS, and most recently, TEN, both from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, a member of YA Rebels, a leader among Apocalypsies and just generally someone you want to know. Her books are bloodcurdlingly scary with taut pacing, vivid characterization and plenty of gallows humor. That's why we've taken her into the Interrogation Room—if we can get her to crack, we're pretty sure she's got some important information to reveal.
A bit about Gretchen McNeil:
Gretchen McNeil is an opera singer, writer and clown. Her YA horror POSSESS about a teen exorcist debuted with Balzer + Bray for HarperCollins in 2011. Her follow up TEN – YA horror/suspense about ten teens trapped on a remote island with a serial killer – was released September 18, 2012, and her third novel 3:59 – sci fi doppelganger horror about two girls who are the same girl in parallel dimensions who decide to switch places – is scheduled for Fall 2013. Gretchen's new YA contemporary series Don't Get Mad (Revenge meets The Breakfast Club) about four very different girls who form a secret society where they get revenge on bullies and mean girls begins Fall 2014 with GET EVEN, followed by the sequel GET DIRTY in 2015, also with Balzer + Bray.
A bit about TEN:
And their doom comes swiftly.
It was supposed to be the weekend of their lives – three days on Henry Island at an exclusive house party. Best friends Meg and Minnie each have their own reasons for wanting to be there, both of which involve Kamiak High’s most eligible bachelor, T.J. Fletcher. But what starts out as a fun-filled weekend turns dark and twisted after the discovery of a DVD with a sinister message: Vengeance is mine.
Suddenly, people are dying and the teens are cut off from the outside world. No electricity, no phones, no internet, and a ferry that isn’t scheduled to return for two days. As the deaths become more violent and the teens turn on each other, can Meg find the killer before more people die? Or is the killer closer to her than she could ever imagine?
TEN is inspired by AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (which was made into the film Ten Indians). Can you tell us what made you want to do a retelling in general, and an Agatha Christie story in particular?
My editor, actually. We were talking about what my next project should be, and she mentioned that one of her favorite things about my style is my ability to write scary, suspenseful novels. Then I started thinking about why I enjoy writing that genre. Basically, I'm a junkie for a good mystery and anyone who can spin me along on a tenuous thread of suspense and expectation, turning the screws and upping the ante with every page. Agatha Christie and Christopher Pike were huge influences on my writing and clean, direct style of storytelling. And of course, the masterful cinematic storytelling of Alfred Hitchcock. Put those pieces together and you have TEN!
Slowly but surely, each of your characters gets bumped off. How did you generate your ideas for how they would be killed? Did you enjoy this part of the process? C'mon, you can admit it!
Without giving too much away, each of the characters dies in a very specific way. Deliberately so. Kind of like thematic deaths. So they were absolutely a blast to come up with, since they were plot-driven. I definitely had to do some research, which I'm hoping won't get me on any government watch lists, but the whole process was a total blast!
One of the most suspenseful elements of this book is the claustrophobic setting. What were the advantages and disadvantages to trapping your victims in a single space for the duration of the book?
The disadvantages are ALL for the characters trapped there. HA!
Actually, there's something easy about establishing one setting, as opposed to a sweeping fantasy world. However, the key to a locked room mystery, which is TEN in its essentials, is making the setting an actual character in the book. White Rock House and Henry Island have to be as menacing and as terrifying as the unknown killer.
I especially loved how each character comes under suspicion over the course of the novel. How, as an author, do you juggle the different suspects, keeping readers guessing, while laying the groundwork for the "aha" moment?
The key is knowing who did it and why. That has to be in the front of your brain at all times. Then you keep that person's actions under close scrutiny, to make sure she or he isn't too obvious, either by their actions or their inactions. Then you have to make sure that other characters would have the opportunity to commit the murders, thus making them plausible suspects. And lastly, red herrings. I love me some red herrings!
What lessons about mystery and/or horror writing did you come away with after having written this book?
You have to keep things moving. The moment you slow down, or ease up on the tension throttle, that's the moment your readers lose interest. You want them to keep turning the pages, staying up well past bed time just for one more chapter…
You're a superprolific writer with a prominent internet presence and a day job. How do you balance it all? When do you fit the writing in?
I don't sleep much. ;)
I think that because my time is so precious – and scarce – I'm really good at scheduling. I actually have to put "writing time" in my calendar, otherwise I'll just fill it up with other things! But seriously, it's hard. I feel like I don't get any down time, and some months, that really takes a toll.
Any writing secrets you want to reveal under the harsh light of the interrogation room?
Get used to rejection, criticism, and people hating your books. Not everyone is going to love what you write. Or they might love your first book and hate your second one. Or love the plot but hate the main character. Or vice versa. It's literally impossible to please everyone all the time, so the sooner you get used to criticism, and learn to let some of it go, the happier you'll be.