Sarah Read writes deliciously dark fiction, and is known to use elegant fountain pens when she does. Her stories have graced the pages of Black Static and Gamut, and have been featured in many anthologies including BEHOLD! Oddities Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders, Exigencies, Suspended in Dusk, and The Best Horror of the Year, Vol 10. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Pantheon Magazine and of their associated anthologies, including Gorgon: Stories of Emergence, and also an active member of the Horror Writers Association. Trepidatio Publishing recently released her novel The Bone Weaver’s Orchard, and her debut collection comes out later on this year. Hailing from Wisconsin, you can find Sarah on Twitter, on Instagram @inkwellmonster or on her website.
What was the impetus for writing this story?
SR: I wanted to write a book with all my favorite things in it—bugs, secret passages, big old houses, family secrets—and I wanted to write a book that teen me would have loved, scary enough for adults but with stakes and tension that a teen could understand. I was a frustrated horror reader at age ten, looking for the right balance of something that would unnerve me with characters I could relate to. I didn’t think anyone but me would ever read it, so I just wrote for myself. And I think that was a good thing in the end. Turns out there are a bunch of you weirdos just like me.
I also wanted to write in a world where I could indulge in an endless spiral of historical research, because that is my favorite part of every project.
And there was the peer pressure of NaNoWriMo as an added fuel to the fire. I wanted to finally succeed at something that had been stumping me for years. I’m very stubborn, thank goodness.
What lessons—good and bad—did you learn writing this story?
SR: Because this was my first novel, pretty much every moment was a lesson. I began knowing absolutely nothing. I was learning things even when I wasn’t aware of the lessons rolling through my brain.
I learned a lot about character development over longer stretches, about structure and pacing and how to let details linger. I learned how making small changes can cause snowballing avalanches of bigger changes down the line. I learned what a bad idea it is to set a novel in a labyrinth of secret passages. Related to that, I learned how to draw blueprints. I learned how to maintain tension over a few hundred pages instead of a few dozen. And nearly every lesson required a fresh revision with new eyes, so I learned that you can spend years revising a book that it only takes weeks to write.
From a more practical perspective, I learned how to write a synopsis (or at least I learned the exquisite torture of trying), and a query letter. I learned how to submit to agents, and how to do a revise-and-resubmit, and how to grieve when it doesn’t work out in the end. I learned how to change gears and pick a small press and work with an editor and publisher and copy editor and proofreader and cover designer, and the army of helpful, wonderful people that put their energy into your project. I learned how to negotiate a contract without an agent, and how to settle for what you can get and live with the consequences (lesson in progress). I learned how to ask for blurbs (terrifying!) and how to process the overwhelming kindness of hearing your heroes say nice things about your work, and how to process the anxiety when they don’t. I learned how to promote my book (sorta?) and myself and do interviews and talk to book bloggers and bookstagramers and a whole new army of lovely people who just love to read.
I learned a lot about how to wait patiently. And when not to wait.
If you were to write this again what would you do differently?
SR: I would have procrastinated less (or at least I like to think so—current trends indicate otherwise). I would not have trusted the scam artist freelance editor I hired at one point, or I would have reported him sooner. I might have queried a few more agents, been more patient.
And of course, every time I open the book I find a word I’d change or a sentence I’d tweak. I’m a compulsive editor, and I’ll fidget with a manuscript forever until someone makes me stop. I’m not quite sure yet how to live in a world where I’m not editing this book. Fortunately, there are more projects to throw myself into.
Describe your writing routine whilst writing this story and how long did it take you from first draft to final edit?
SR: I write all my first drafts by hand, with a favorite pen in a nice notebook. That allows me to write anywhere and anywhen, or else I’d never get anything done at all. When I wrote this book, I was working full time and my eldest son—only son at the time—was just six years old. My husband worked nights at a hospital cleaning operating rooms. I wrote this book sitting in a rocking chair in my living room, sipping rum and coke, in the middle of the night. It was a NaNoWriMo manuscript—the first draft was completed in a month. I usually wrote in two or three hour sittings. I can’t listen to music when I write, unfortunately. Sometimes I can make an exception, but often I find I’m too overwhelmingly influenced by the music and can’t focus on the work. I like total silence, so late at night is perfect. Or the steady background hum of a coffee shop, but I think I just make that work because of the snacks. Coffee shops and libraries are now my favorite places to write, partly because my husband no longer works nights and I now have two sons, so that silence I spoke of does not exist at home.
Really my only big MUST is the writing by hand. Occasionally I have to type a first draft, and that always throws me off. It feels wrong, like only half my brain is engaged. It takes all the magic out of the process for me. Of course, I hate typing … so an embarrassingly large number of my drafts only exist scribbled in notebooks.
After the draft of this book was written and had rested a bit, I typed it up and sent chapter instalments to a good friend, made changes here and there, sent bits out to friends as beta readers (a lot of them, listed in the acknowledgements). When I had a more solid draft, I workshopped chapters in online writing classes. I did a critique group round of edits with fellow students from my classes. I had an editor friend look it over and make a few suggestions.
Then I wrote a query and synopsis and started sending it out to agents. I sent it to five, and one requested a revise-and-resubmit. His editorial letter that accompanied the request really showed me that he understood what I was trying to accomplish with the project and gave me excellent guidance to better achieve my goal. I spent several months on the revision. Then, when I attended a writer’s retreat, I purchased an “editing package” ticket to the retreat that included an edit of my manuscript as part of the cost of admission. But that editor turned out to be a con. He strung me along for well over a year while I waited for edits. He never gave them. I reported him to the HWA grievance committee and they confronted him. Of course, I was not his only client—he’d been doing this to dozens (and also did much worse). He vanished. But my HWA mentor, wanting to right the wrongs of the world for a baby author, did the edit for me for free. She’s amazing. She had feedback to me in under a week, and I finished my revision and submitted it to the agent with an explanation for the delay. He’d heard of the scandal and was also sympathetic. Though he decided to pass on the project, he also gave me a full edit, and he asked to see my next book when it’s ready (it almost is). So mostly people are awesome.
At that point, I decided to try the small press route. I felt like I had already wasted too much time and I wanted to move forward. I picked JournalStone and was very lucky to be accepted and to have the opportunity to work with Jess Landry and Scarlett Algee there. It’s been such a happy ending to a rather long, frustrating journey. All told it took five years, much of that spent waiting. But all along the way there have been so many kind people. This genre holds some of the biggest hearts.
What stories, films, tv shows, and art directly and indirectly influenced this story?
SR: The biggest influence on this book was the book The Secret Garden. Charley is very much a Mary Lennox to me. I have been fascinated since childhood with stories of children exploring vast, spooky houses with tragic pasts. There’s also a bit of Jane Eyre in there. Some Great Expectations. Victorian British Lit has always been a favorite of mine, but I also like a bit of blood and guts, so…
My favorite director is Guillermo del Toro, and there’s a bit of The Orphanage here, too. One of my blurbs compared the book to The Devil’s Backbone—which might be one of the nicest things ever said about my work.
What were the biggest challenges you faced writing this story?
SR: I really did not know how to write a novel when I wrote this—maybe I still don’t! I may never know. But from where I’m sitting now, I can see that I almost didn’t write one. I kinda wrote a novel-length short story. I wrote with the same condensed layers of detail that I do for short fiction, but with room for much more of it. And it was way too much fun. And now I can’t stop.
The biggest challenge about the story in particular was in developing Charley’s character. He’s not neurotypical. His emotions and responses and manner of thinking are a little askew of typical, and I knew that some readers would interpret that as a failure of writing rather than as a characteristic of this person. It is difficult to write atypicality in a way that is consistent enough that a neurotypical reader will be able to see the world through his eyes, rather than pull away from the story. Enough readers have told me that they love Charley that I hope I succeeded, there. But there was a lot of rewriting—sometimes replotting altogether—to ensure the he remained true to himself.
What do you hope readers get out of this story?
SR: I hope they enjoy this very gothic frolic. I hope that teens and adults alike will enjoy the book together and both feel like they got a good story. I hope people will love the characters and sympathize with them all, and that it will be a bud that blooms into empathy. I hope sufferers of arachnophobia will have a nightmare or two.
About The Bone Weaver’s Orchard
Whenever one of Charley Winslow’s classmates disappear from school, they say: He’s run away from home.
Whenever Charley sees the grey figure haunting the halls of his school, they say: It’s just a tall tale.
All Charley would have to do is just blend in with his classmates at The Old Cross School for Boys. He could complete his studies, and wait for his father to send for him. But Charley can’t stop thinking about what’s been happening at the school. He follows his pet insects to a pool of blood behind a fake wall, and goes deep into the dark tunnels of the school, searching the abandoned passages, picking at a the legacy of murder and madness like a dried scab.
Helped by the school nurse and the groundskeeper, Charley exposes the scandal wide open, a scandal that leads back to the very beginning of the school, to when it was just a home to a noble family, and there he discovers a terrible, dark secret. Something stalks the halls at night, twisting itself into a new generation of students, an all new generation of nightmares.
Buy The Bone Weaver’s Orchard by Sarah Read