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Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls is Mary Downing Hahn’s thirtieth novel, and a notable departure from her usual middle-school territory. Markedly YA, the book is based on an event from Hahn’s own adolescence, when two girls she knew were shot to death by a still-unknown person.
Roger Sutton: I want to start with the book’s dedication page which reads, “To Jim, who has encouraged me to write this story since 1980.” Tell us what that’s about.
Mary Downing Hahn: My first book, way, way, back, with editor Jim Giblin, was The Sara Summer (1979). It was a pretty mediocre book, but he kindly published it after many, many, revisions – seven, I think. He must’ve thought, “Maybe the next one will be better. I’m as sick of rereading this as she must be of rewriting it.” Which was true. So then, you know how it is with editors, they always want to know what you’re working on, what you’re thinking about. I told him about what had happened when I was a teenager, and that I wanted to write that book – I was trying to write that book – but I just couldn’t find my way in. And he said, “Oh, I’d like to read that.” Mind you, this is 1979 or 1980, and I’m saying, “Yeah, I’ll work on it.” But then it fell by the wayside. I wrote, as you know, many other books, but whenever I was between projects Jim would say, “What about your idea from a long time ago, about your friends who were murdered when you were in high school? How’s that coming along?” And I would say, “Well, it’s not.” I’d go into it sometimes and I’d struggle with the story, I’d lay it aside. Part of what was going on, I think, was that I had a lot of unresolved feelings, and I also was never sure I should write about what happened. Fear, which I was calling laziness, I guess. Inability to focus. And then that whole beginning part with the murderer came into my mind, and I could see it so clearly and feel it so immediately, and I thought, “Well, this is how the book should start, with this scene.” And then I thought, “God knows where it will go from there, but at least I’ve got a beginning.” And that beginning put me in the right direction to start putting a book together, but it took a really long time.
RS: And all of your books have been with Jim, haven’t they?
RS: I think that must be a record.
MDH: Well, it doesn’t happen today because editors don’t stay around as long as Jim.
RS: Or you.
MDH: Or they change publishing houses, you know, which Jim has never done. Even though he just works as a consultant now, he’s not a full-time employee of Clarion. But so many friends of mine, their editors quit, they get a job someplace else, the relationship ends. I think more people now have relationships with agents than with editors. And I don’t have an agent, I just have Jim.
RS: Why do you think this story stayed with you?
MDH: It had such a profound impact on me as a teenager.
RS: Was this the first time someone you knew had died?
MDH: My grandmothers had both died by then, but that’s different. These were people my own age, and I never thought that people my own age could die, let alone be murdered. Things like that didn’t happen in 1955. The suburbs were a safe place, where nobody even locked their doors.
RS: Do you think this experience had anything to do with your becoming a writer of suspense novels? I know that’s not all you do, but you do do that expertly.
MDH: I’ve often thought that. And in many ways, I’ve drawn on the fear those events instilled in me. I was so afraid of things afterward. I still worry when I go into, say, a park, and I’m walking along a trail, I still have this deep-down fear that if I go poking into the bushes I might find a dead body. I think it’s dead bodies that really haunt me. I didn’t see Nancy and Mike, but I was so close to where they were found. I was right there in the park heading down toward them with my friend Rosemary when the other kids in the neighborhood all came running out screaming that Nancy and Mike were dead. And we just turned around and ran. That part in the book is almost exactly like it really was.
RS: I think one of the scariest things in that scene is that we’re in broad daylight.
RS: And it’s the last day of school. The heroine has had this sort of semi-sexy night before, a little adventure, a little drinking, a little necking. But now it’s daytime, and everyone’s looking forward to the summer, and boom.
MDH: Right, exactly. We actually had the stuff for the picnic in our hands. I was carrying the hot dogs. The first time I tried to eat a hot dog after that I broke out in hives all over.
RS: What particular challenges did you face in taking what was a real episode in your life and turning it into a novel?
MDH: The biggest fear – and it hasn’t gone away – is that I would infringe on the emotional privacy, on the grief, of someone who’d been there at the time. Or that they would read the book and say, “Nancy wasn’t like that.” Yes, the story is based on something that really happened, but it’s fictional, and the characters are fictional. The only character that’s really very much like anyone in real life is Nora, the narrator, who is myself. Which was another scary thing about writing the book. I felt like I laid myself on a platter for people to dig in and say, “God, what an emotional wreck this girl is. What is she making such a big deal out of all this stuff?” The murder really did end my friendship with Rosemary, and I always felt like I let her down. I never wanted to be in Rosemary’s house, or see Mike’s yard, or see her mother or her little sisters. I was just such a coward. I didn’t even go to the funerals in real life. I was terrified of funerals. I’d been terrified of funerals before that, and death and dying. They always talk about teenagers thinking their lives will never end. I expected my life to end at any minute, every day. Every time I crossed the street, practically. And that had been true before the murders, so you can imagine that after the murders, I was really a wreck for quite a while.
RS: Did you find that writing the book changed your attitude toward your teenage self?
MDH: It made me like my teenage self more. It made Nora seem very dear to me, like she was this little part of me that I remember so vividly. Not just the fears I had, but the way I started to grow, and to go outside myself and be open to things. I never met a guy like Nora does, the guy in the bookstore, but that was something I wish had happened.
RS: So you gave your younger self a present.
MDH: Yes, that’s exactly it. I was so insecure, I had so many doubts and anxieties, and I gave them all to Nora. I gave her all the terrible things, so I wanted to give her some nice things too. Meeting a guy in a bookstore. Having a dream of going to Greenwich Village.
RS: Which I assume you eventually got to do.
MDH: But not until I was in college. I didn’t get to go hang out there. I never had the nerve to do that. I was a coward. I’m still such a coward.
RS: Do you think still? You write such scary books.
MDH: I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t write scary books unless you’re easily scared yourself. I think Stephen King must be the most terrified person in the universe. He can’t even go to the 7-Eleven without imagining things crawling out of dumpsters. You have to be easily scared to know what it’s like to be scared.
RS: I think you’re right. I also thought it was interesting that, although you really do know how to create a page-turner, this book isn’t a page-turner in that sense. It’s not a race to find out who the killer is.
MDH: I totally agree. In that way, it’s very different from anything I’ve written before.
RS: The book talks quite a bit about Nora’s loss of faith. First, any talk of religion is pretty rare in young adult books. Second, Nora unambiguously and firmly loses her faith, and does not get it back. That is pretty revolutionary.
MDH: A story comes to you; it isn’t like you choose it. You have no real control. If I took the religion out, it wouldn’t be the story that it is. There are a lot of reasons to doubt things. And I really did have an episode with a priest like Nora did in the book, where I tried to talk to the priest about my doubts and he thought I was pregnant.
RS: In terms of your own relation to these murders, and to this personal history, does anything feel different, finished, changed as a result of having published the book?
MDH: I’ve thought about that and I’m just not sure. I don’t dream about it as much as I used to. I think that as long as there aren’t any repercussions from people who knew those girls, I’ll feel like I’ve, in a way, put it to rest.
RS: What do you think you’ll write next?
MDH: Since I wrote that book, I’ve probably started five others. I haven’t been able to finish any of them. The thing is, I don’t feel like writing any more ghost stories. So then I think, well, you’ve really killed your market now. An offensive novel about a girl who loses her religion, and that’s it! You’d better be glad you saved some money when you had it.