Swanky Seventeener Andrew Shvarts recently chatted with Sweet Sixteener Margot Harrison about her debut YA thriller, THE KILLER IN ME (Disney Hyperion, July 12).
Hasn’t he lived long enough? Why not? I could take him like a thief in the night. This is how the Thief thinks. He serves death, the vacuum, the unknown. He’s always waiting. Always there.
Seventeen-year- old Nina Barrows knows all about the Thief. She’s intimately familiar with his hunting methods: how he stalks and kills at random, how he disposes of his victims’ bodies in an abandoned mine in the deepest, most desolate part of the desert. Now, for the first time, Nina has the chance to do something about the serial killer that no one else knows exists. With the help of her former best friend, Warren, she tracks the Thief two thousand miles, to his home turf—the deserts of New Mexico.
But the man she meets there seems nothing like the brutal sociopath with whom she’s had a disturbing connection her whole life. To anyone else, Dylan Shadwell is exactly what he appears to be: a young veteran committed to his girlfriend and her young daughter. As Nina spends more time with him, she begins to doubt the truth she once held as certain:
Dylan Shadwell is the Thief. She even starts to wonder . . . what if there is no Thief?
About the Author:
Margot Harrison was raised in the wilds of New York by lovely, nonviolent parents who never managed to prevent her from staying up late to read scary books. She studied at Harvard and Berkeley and now lives in Vermont, where she works at the newspaper Seven Days. Her favorite part of the job is, of course, reviewing scary books and movies.
The Killer in Me is her first novel. Find her at margotharrison.com or @MargotFHarrison.
Andrew: I can’t say I’ve read another YA novel that blends such a haunting, moving voice with a nail-biting serial killer thriller. What was the inspiration for THE KILLER IN ME?
Margot: Five years ago, several miles from where I live, a couple disappeared from their home one night. The whole town puzzled over the mystery. After more than a year of seemingly fruitless investigation, the authorities announced that a man had confessed to killing the Vermont couple after having been arrested for another murder, thousands of miles away. He had a family at home, but liked to travel and kill people, he claimed, choosing victims at random.
This small-town tragedy took hold of my imagination. It reminded me of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood—so unexpected, so senseless. I didn’t want to know what would motivate the killer to lead his bizarre and horrific double life, yet sometimes I did want to know. Then I found myself wondering: What if these crimes had a sole witness, with no way to prove they’d occurred? What if you were that witness—what would you do? That “you” became my main character, Nina.
Andrew: One of the things that most surprised me was that the book is dual POV. Can you talk a bit about the thought process behind that?
Margot: Initially, there was no thought process! I started out writing in Nina’s perspective, and I quickly discovered that her mind is an intense place to be. She’s anxious, angsty, paranoid, self-accusing—with reason, because she’s a nice, quiet honor student who believes there’s a psychopath inside her head.
So, just to give myself some relief, I tried switching to the POV of Warren, the sweet friend who has a crush on Nina. I gave him a nerdy obsession with noir fiction and spaghetti Westerns, two more things that helped inspire the book, and I discovered I liked spending time in his head.
Now, justifying that impulsive POV shift took a lot longer, and much of it happened in revisions. I had to give Warren and Nina a longer backstory together, and give his character more motivations independent of her. Ultimately, I hope it worked. In a dark book like this, where the heroine feels like her view of humanity has been tainted by contact with a sociopath, it’s nice to have a second POV to remind us that the world also contains safe places and good things—old friendships, dog-eared paperbacks, road trips with greasy diner food.
Andrew: Tell me a little about your road to publication. Any words of advice to aspiring writers?
This is roughly the fifth book I wrote, and the second that went on submission to publishers, over about ten years. So it’s been a long haul for me. I was lucky enough to find an amazing agent for this book, Jessica Sinsheimer, who gives spot-on notes and helped me steer it in the right direction. My advice is to learn everything you can about the process, and then keep trying new things. Instead of getting bitter when the book of your heart is rejected, read widely, find feedback, get inspired, and try something new in your own writing—a new genre, a new POV, a new concept. Always be experimenting. Who knows, maybe you’ll be able to come back to the book of your heart one day, make it work for the market and get it sold.
Andrew: We happen to share an editor, the fabulous Laura Schreiber. What was the editing process like for you?
Awesome. After I got my editorial letter, I had to recuperate for a day at a spa on the frozen St. Lawrence River, because I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me. But it was the best kind of work. In many ways, I had to take my book apart and put it back together, but it reassembled itself in a far more effective shape. I edit tons of copy weekly in my newspaper job, so I know how hard it is to figure out how to restructure a 3,000-word story, let alone an 82,000-word novel. Laura gave me a blueprint for doing that in ways that both heightened the suspense and deepened the characters. It worked like magic, and I’m incredibly grateful.
LIGHTNING ROUND QUESTIONS
What’s the oddest job you’ve ever worked?
Photocopying the rare documents in a dark, creepy basement at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. I got to touch field notes scrawled by Ursula Le Guin’s dad!
Two bossy calicos who love posing with ARCs for Bookstagram.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Reformed pantser. I do outline now!
What’s your #1 comfort food?
Movie theater popcorn with that disgusting fake butter. I only have it at the movies, but I review a movie once a week, and I’m ashamed to admit the popcorn makes even the bad ones worth it.
What’s your quirkiest writing habit?
Destroying Pilot Precise Rolling Ball pens. When I’m deep in thought, I start to click the little clippy thing, see . . .
Finally, who’s your favorite fictional serial killer?
Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter is a work of art, but I’d still have to say Paul Spector, Jamie Dornan’s character in the BBC series The Fall. He’s a convincingly empathetic grief counselor who kills people in his spare time, creating new clients for himself—you can’t beat that combination.
Andrew Shvarts is a Russian-born YA writer, living in San Jose, California. He spends his days designing videogames at Pixelberry Studios and his nights playing board games or making growling noises while chasing his 1-year-old around.
THE BASTARD TABLE (pitched as GAME OF THRONES meets THE BREAKFAST CLUB) is his first novel.