Swanky Seventeener Sarah Henson recently chatted with Sweet Sixteener Erin Petti about her debut middle grade, THE PECULIAR HAUNTING OF THELMA BEE (Mighty Press, September 6, 2016).
Eleven-year-old Thelma Bee is never bored. In fact, she has curiosity and adventure in her blood. She spends her time running science experiments, practicing Spanish, and daydreaming about exotic landscapes. But Thelma gets more than she bargained for when a strange woman sells a jewelry box at her father’s antique shop. That night, a ghost kidnaps her father, and the only clues are the jewelry box and a word the ghost whispered in her ear: “Return.” Now it’s up to Thelma to get her dad back, and it might be harder than she thought—there’s someone wielding dark magic, and they’re coming after her next.
Erin Petti lives beside some very tall pine trees in Massachusetts and loves to read about magic, dinosaurs, folklore, and ghosts. She has a masters in education and a background in improvisational comedy. Erin lives with her husband, excellent toddler, and very helpful cat, Lucy.
Sarah: Tell us a little about yourself. Did you always want to be a writer? Do you write full time or do you have a separate day job? What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Erin: Yes, I always wanted to be a writer. I wanted to do other things too over the years, like be a Disney animator, a lawyer, an actress, and an art historian – but through it all, writing was always my main passion.
My day-job is pretty great because I work with a reading program that helps kids succeed in school and develop a love for literature. So, different roads to the same destination, I guess!
When I’m not writing or working, I’m pretty much always hanging out with my daughter who is the funniest human alive. I also enjoy naps, coffee, re-watching the LOTR movies, reading, and attending any kind of fair or festival that allows me to buy soy candles that smell like autumn.
Sarah: The spooky New England setting is ripe for a ghost story. Middle-school me would’ve gobbled this up (adult me did too for that matter!). What inspired you to write THELMA BEE? Have you always been interested in ghost stories?
Erin: I’ve always had a very intense relationship with ghost stories because I crave them, and I’m also a huge scaredy cat! I’m totally the kind of person who’ll wake up in the middle of the night convinced that there’s some seething demon in my bathtub. But it’s too fascinating for me not to indulge in, so I just keep torturing myself.
The first inspiration for Thelma Bee was the town she lives in, Riverfish MA. When I started writing this book I lived in the quirky river town of Maynard, MA – and I took lots of inspiration from that location. I basically stocked this book up with all the things I love – crisp New England weather, spooky old houses, the dark woods, hot chocolate with whipped cream, girl power, and ghosts.
Sarah: This book is full of awesome, driven females. From tenacious and smart Thelma, to tiny but tough Izzy, to Thelma’s super explorer mother, and more that I can’t say without giving away spoilers. I adore how Thelma uses the scientific method to analyze everything. Did you always intend to include such tough girls or did they emerge as you were writing? Do you hope this book will keep more girls interested in STEM?
Erin: If a girl feels encouraged to pursue an interest in STEM because of my book I will be absolutely over the moon! I didn’t set out with the intention to make all of the female characters super-strong, I think it’s just where I’m coming from as a writer. I’m inspired by the unbelievable women I’ve known in real life. So maybe we can safely say that the presence super-strong women in this book is just a reflection of super-strong women in reality J
Sarah: I fell in love with THELMA BEE way back in 2012 when we both ended up on the same Writer’s Voice team (#TeamKristaForever!). Is THELMA BEE the first book you’ve written? How long did it take to go from idea to book deal, and how many revisions did it undergo along the way?
Erin: Oh, thank you Sarah! And yes #TeamKrista4LIFE!! This is my first book and I think it will have taken a full five years from the time I first made a brainstorming sheet to the moment it hits local bookstores. Quite a journey! Revisions? Maybe three million? Seriously though, I had no idea how to write a book when I began this adventure, and I learned by doing. So there were many, many revisions. The great thing is that with each re-visiting I got closer to my characters and the story felt more and more authentic. I’ve been very lucky to have brilliant beta readers, a superstar editorial agent, and a truly insightful editor. It’s been a team effort, for sure.
Okay, Lightning Round!
In the book, Eugene names his car Gary Indiana (which is awesome!). Do you name your cars?
My family is the proud owner of Vinny Vibe-arino, a 2003 silver Pontiac Vibe
Other than writing, what’s the most fun job you’ve ever had?
In college, I was a historical interpreter at The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, MA and I would go back to that post in a hot second if it paid enough for me to keep my house. Edwardian dress EVERY DAY. Also, it’s haunted.
Do you believe in ghosts?
What’s your Hogwarts House?
This is a tough one because different quizzes have given me different results. Pottermore told me I was a Slytherin, which was initially shocking, but I’m making peace with it.
Any writing rituals?
A Yankee candle and tall glass of cold water help, but when I’m drafting sometimes I just have to pull out the laptop whenever I have 10 minutes!
If you could be any dinosaur, what would you be?
I’m a big fan of the Brachiosaurus. They seem pretty chill and can eat the leaves at the very tops of the trees because of their enormous height. I’m 5’2” so…maybe that has something to do with it.
S.F. Henson is a YA author, born and raised in the deep south. She graduated from Auburn University with a degree in Animal Science, which she put to great use by attending law school. Her law degree has gotten some mileage, though, giving her the experience to write about criminals and other dark, nefarious subjects. She lives beside a missile test range in Huntsville, Alabama with her husband, dog, two oddly named cats, and, of course, the missiles that frequently shake her house.
Her debut, DEVILS WITHIN, comes out in the spring of 2017 from Sky Pony Press. Nate grew up at The Fort, a white supremacist compound. He was eight the first time he stabbed someone; he was eleven when he earned his red laces—a prize for spilling blood for “the cause.” And he was fourteen when he murdered his father (and the leader of The Fort) in self-defense, landing in a treatment center while the state searched for his next of kin. Now living with his estranged uncle, he struggles to overcome the racist beliefs he was taught since birth, while hiding from the violent men who want him dead.