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Dawn Kurtagich Interview: 'The Dead House' author talks finding inspiration in alter egos and near-death experiences

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If you’re looking for a haunting new thriller to get you into the Halloween spirit, look no further than Dawn Kurtagich’s YA novel The Dead House. Told through transcriptions of found footage, diary entries, newspaper clippings, and recordings from psychiatric counseling sessions, the story of two girls — Kaitlyn and Carly Johnson — who share a body, emerges. Carly only exists during the day, and Kaitlyn only exists during the night: Are they two souls in one body, or is one of them an alter ego? And what is their connection to the terrible high school fire that happened 20 years ago?

Kurtagich’s novel was partly inspired by her own experience with “inversion syndrome” in 2011, when she found herself in liver failure. “You sleep during the day and you’re awake all night, so your sleep patterns completely invert,” she explains, hypothesizing that one possible cause of inversion syndrome might be the itchiness liver failure brings on, which worsens at night. She started to have weird, hallucinatory dreams, and increasingly morbid thoughts as her disease — still undiagnosed, even though she’s had a liver transplant and is well in 2015 — progressed. “I thought about what would happen if I didn’t make it,” she says. Awaiting her transplant complicated things further: “You have this sense of guilt, because you don’t want to lie there wishing for someone to die.”

After spending night after night awake, she started to wonder what it would be like to only know the nighttime world, the world of darkness. That’s where the idea for Kaitlyn’s story began, but then she had to figure out what would happen to Kaitlyn’s body during the day. Carly, the daytime alter ego, was inspired by Kurtagich’s own experiences with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder, DID is “characterized by ‘switching’ to alternate identities,” according to the Mayo Clinic. “You may feel the presence of one or more other people talking or living inside your head, and you may feel as though you’re possessed by other identities. Each of these identities may have a unique name, personal history and characteristics, including obvious differences in voice, gender, mannerisms and even such physical qualities as the need for eyeglasses.”

“I’ve got someone in my family with DID,” Kurtagich explains. “And this person’s DID was really not under control when I was ill. It’s triggered by trauma, so because I was so sick, it wasn’t under control, and the person was shifting all the time. The alters were coming out all the time.” Once she decided Carly would be an alter, she could delve into the ways each girl’s environmental and social circumstances would affect her. “Because I deal in extremes and halves, I was like, ‘Okay, well Carly would only have the day, so she’d be normal — but also not, a little bit.’ She would also have issues, but she’d be more hopeful and well-rounded, have a social life and go to school, whereas Kaitlyn would have the burden of secrecy and darkness,” she says.

Though Kurtagich had a complicated childhood due to this person’s DID, once they were diagnosed and began therapy, things became clearer — for everyone. “It’s actually been kind of freeing, because you go from having a relationship where you don’t think you can trust someone, and you think they’re lying and you think they’re crazy, to understanding,” she says. “There’d be moments when there would be a fight, and the next day there’d be no memory of that. And to realize how difficult that could be for someone — imagine waking up and finding out that your family is pissed off with you and they don’t want to talk to you, and you have no idea why. I remember crying over the idea of that because I just felt so guilty.”

Because the therapy has been so helpful for this person, Kurtagich knew that to take the character of Kaitlyn to an even darker place, she had to have an incompetent therapist: Enter Dr. Annabeth Lansing, who constantly tells Kaitlyn she needs to die in order for Carly to live a full life. “You’d never have a therapist treating someone with DID the way Lansing treats Kaitlyn,” Kurtagich says. “I know some of the alters in my family member feel like they’re useless, and then some defiantly think that they’re real. Some of them don’t know they’re alters, and some do. Some say to me, ‘Okay, I’ll let you go. I’ll let you talk to X other alter.'” Progress, she explains, is “co-consciousness.” Because of whatever trauma created the alters in the first place, the person may not be able to deal with certain situations. In those cases, the alter who can deal with that situation will come forward to help out — but it’s more of a cooperative process than a complete takeover.

In therapy, “you make the alter feel vital to the core of the person,” Kurtagich says. “Lansing doesn’t do that, and I did that on purpose because I needed to isolate Kaitlyn. I knew I needed to break her down, and to do that, you can’t have any real support, because that’s what you latch onto.” With no support and a failing grip on reality, Kaitlyn’s world grows darker and darker, until she starts hallucinating about the titular Dead House, populated by a creepy dead girl who lurks in corners and appears in mirrors. That’s where Kurtagich’s disease comes back in.

“The dead girl is me, by the way,” Kurtagich divulges. “She’s just how I looked when I was at my worst point. My pupils were all weird, my eyes were completely yellow, I was skinny — I just looked really creepy.”

The book is full of smells, like a rotting, dead scent that Kaitlyn and Carly’s younger sister notices when she comes to visit. They’re extra-sensory details Kurtagich was inspired to include after reading Perfume by Patrick Süskind (“I just lost myself in his descriptions of scent,” she says). Smell also played a big part in her life when she was ill — but not in the way you might expect. “I always had this impression, when I was healthy, that sick people smell,” she says. “It sounds so weird, but health smelled so bad to me when I was sick. My husband said I had a particular scent when I was ill, and it’s associated with liver disease. It’s a very sweet smell on the breath and on the skin. It’s not quite floral, but it’s on the verge of floral.”

“Logically,” she says, “it’s a very pleasant smell. But I’ve smelt it on myself after [being sick] and panicked because I knew something was wrong, and something was wrong at the time, so I associate it with a terrifying sense of dread.”

If it sounds like Kurtagich has enough material to fill more than just one book, you’re right. “I thought I was done with all the issues that were causing me difficulty moving on,” she says. But we haven’t seen the last of The Dead House yet: She’s writing a Dead House e-novella that will be released in February. “It’s interesting, because I get to open the book’s loose ends, and explore them,” she says. “And I’m really intrigued, because the same questions about what is real are coming up again in a different way.”