Robin Wasserman talks new YA novel, 'The Waking Dark'
The Walking Dark
Robin Wasserman’s YA thriller, The Waking Dark, hit shelves earlier this week. And as the title suggests, this novel is seriously dark. Here’s the official description: “Twelve people dead, in the space of a few hours. Five murderers: neighbors, relatives, friends. All of them so normal. All of them seemingly harmless. All of them now dead by their own hand…except one. And that one has no answers to offer the shattered town. She doesn’t even know why she killed—or whether she’ll do it again.”
It’s the kind of page-turner that you’ll probably want to read while it’s still light outside. (Or maybe that’s just me who was totally creeped out—in a good way—by the haunting story that unfolds.) Here, Wasserman answers some of my (spoiler free!) burning questions and talks about her inspiration for the novel (hint: Stephen King).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did you come up with the idea for The Waking Dark?
ROBIN WASSERMAN: For almost everything I’ve ever written, this would be an impossible question to answer—or at least I’d have to make up something about the idea genie who lives in the back of my closet and is occasionally wooed out by the smell of salted caramel cupcakes. But as it happens with The Waking Dark, I can trace the entire sprawling monster of a book straight back to the moment it popped into life (or at least possibility). It was a three-ingredient recipe: First, my lifelong obsession with horror novels—this book is, in many ways, my 400-page love letter to Stephen King.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a small-town horror novel of my own—it was the book Methland, by Nick Reding, that finally gave me a way in to the story I wanted to tell…. The picture Reding paints of small-town life torn apart by drugs and economic devastation—of good people turned unrecognizable by terrible circumstances—is unforgettable.
One last element made everything fall into place, something that’s terrified me ever since I was about 12 years old. I did a lot of babysitting back then, and for some reason—and I’m aware this makes me sound like a more-than-slightly creepy teenager—I was always terrified that someone I was babysitting would mysteriously die, and I would end up framed for murder. It’s a fear that burrowed into my brain. The Waking Dark proved my chance to finally exorcise it. It’s a book about the awakening of personal demons, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised it was born from one of my own.
For lack of a better word, the book is so dark. Was there ever a point in writing that you thought it might be too dark?
I try not to think too much about an audience when I’m writing the first draft of a book—at that stage, the prospect of anyone reading what I’ve written would be enough to scare me into setting my laptop on fire. But after I finished the draft and saw what I’d done, I’ll admit that I did pause and ask myself whether I’d gone too far, whether the book was too dark, too violent, too much. And then I remembered how when I was a young teenager, I didn’t just read horror—I lived on it. I clung to it for survival, through the wilds of junior high. I wasn’t traumatized by its violence or its gore, its frightening depictions of the dark side of human nature—I was comforted by them, gratified by the acknowledgment that the world really was sometimes as dark as it seemed to me…. I read horror novels not because I wanted to be afraid, but because I wanted evidence that it was possible to confront fear—and defeat it. I wrote The Waking Dark for the same reason, and hope there are at least a few readers out there who need it in the same way.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but why did you decide to wait so long for the big reveal? You get about a third of the way through the book before learning exactly what’s going on in the small town of Oleander, Kansas.
I think the main reason for this delay is that for me, the mechanism of evil is less important than its effects. The Waking Dark is about what happens when something awakens a town’s darkest impulses and unleashes them on the world. Of course I hope readers are interested in figuring out what that something is, but for me, the heart of the story is the question of those dark impulses, and whether they were there all along—whether there even is something, or if this darkness is just a natural and inevitable response to circumstance. I wanted the characters (and readers) to have to sit with that uncertainty for a while and consider its implications.
There are so many different characters, and essentially five main characters. How did you keep everyone straight?
I make lists. Lots of lists. Though I will admit that this is one of those books where the characters really spoke up for themselves. I’m not one of those authors who claims to hear voices in my head or “let the characters speak through me,” whatever that might mean. But over the course of writing this book, these characters became so real to me that there was some sense in which they charted their own paths.
I used to be an obsessive outliner—figuring that writing without an outline was like jumping off a cliff and building a parachute on the way down. But recently I’ve tried to let go of my control freak tendencies just a bit and give myself the freedom to feel out the story as I go along. This book, which—because of all the moving parts—you’d think might demand an outline, is the first I’ve ever written entirely without one. Weaving the characters’ stories together felt a little like I imagine songwriting would, feeling out the harmonies by instinct, until everything just sounded right. And, for the record, it was a lot like jumping off a cliff. You could hear my screams from down the block.
Now that The Waking Dark is out, what’s your next project?
My next project is a secret. I’m superstitious like that. But I will say I’ve just finished a short story I’m pretty excited about for the upcoming collection Robot Uprisings. It’s about a robot with PTSD, which is about as weird as it sounds and is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written.
Anything else you want to add?
I hope you like the book, and that if it does keep you up all night, you can take plenty of naps the next afternoon!