Horrid: An Interview with Katrina Leno

Horrid opens with the titular poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Did you build a story off of that poem, or did it come to you later as inspiration?

You Must Not Miss, the book I wrote previous to Horrid, opens with a poem called “One for Sorrow.” It’s another creepy nursery rhyme and I used it to format the sections of the book, much the same as in Horrid. When I came across the Longfellow poem, I had this memory of my mom reciting the poem to me. She’d also told me a very gross true story of a classmate she’d had that used to eat her own hair . . . The plot of Horrid developed quickly after that!

Mystery novels play an important role in the story. Jane talks about Agatha Christie in particular. What are some novels and authors who influenced you within the genre? What did you pull from to create Horrid?

One day early on in the brainstorming process for Horrid, I visited my local library bookstore and found a giant pile of old Agatha Christie novels. When I saw them, it just clicked for me that Jane was a big mystery fan. I read a bunch of Christie novels, then branched out to Josephine Tey, Raymond Chandler, Stephen King, and the queen of all haunted house books—The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. All of these books sort of smashed together to create the character of Jane (and the character of North Manor), and one of the main plot points of the book is lovingly lifted from one of Christie’s novels, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead.

In Horrid, the house is as much of a character as Jane and Ruth. How did you create a place like North Manor? How did it take shape throughout the writing process?

I grew up in New England and New England is just chock-full of creepy old houses. I’ve been a fan of the haunted house trope for a long time because there’s always something more happening beneath the surface. The Haunting of Hill House is the perfect example of this, and Shirley Jackson really makes you question everything by the end of the book. I wanted North Manor and Jane’s journey to be like that. I think the most interesting kinds of endings are the endings that aren’t handed to you. You have to work together, you and the book, to uncover the truth there. I wanted North Manor to feel real but also impossible, stable but shifting and uncertain. Of course, the house itself is only part of the equation—there’s also Jane, who is constantly shifting and uncertain and very much an unreliable narrator. In that respect, she has a lot in common with North Manor, and the two of them really helped shape and inform each other.

I’m pulling a quote from Barry Curtis’s Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film: “All explorations of the haunted house involve a kind of archeology, the uncovering of an occluded narrative that constitutes the exorcism in much the way that Freud or Marx understood the substructure as providing the key to understanding and redemption.” In order to understand the house, the characters have to understand the past—the two are wrapped up in each other. Which came first when you were designing the story? The events that took place on the grounds and inside North Manor, or North Manor itself? How did the two influence each other?

I had a vision of North Manor really early on in the brainstorming process. I’m not an artist at all, so I’m sure I’d draw a truly terrible rendering of it, but I can picture it perfectly in my head. Without giving too much away, the longer version of the Longfellow poem was very inspiring to the backstory of what happened in that house—so I knew both things almost simultaneously, both what the house looked like and what terrible things had taken place there.

Horrid deals both with generational trauma and hereditary mental illness, and a great deal of it centers around the family home. The past repeats in important ways throughout the story, but there aren’t any direct flashbacks. How did you balance a story set in the present with the weight of the past its characters are influenced by?

I love a good flashback, but I think there’s something inherently creepy about not getting too much information. Memory is unreliable and becomes even more unreliable when mental illness and generational trauma are involved, and I wanted to lean into that unreliability. I don’t necessarily think anyone’s version of the past is quite what happened. But their motivations are a direct result of that same past—so how are we to trust anyone’s motivations?

Roses, hair, and books are all repeating motifs within the story that the characters have great personal attachment to (and, at various times, find themselves compelled to devour). How did you choose these symbols? Tell us about the thought process there.

A large portion of Horrid deals with a psychological disorder known as pica, which causes people to ingest things that are non-nutritive. A lot of these things aren’t even necessarily bad for you—I remember an episode of “My Strange Addiction” in which a woman ate chalk. She visited her doctor, who basically said “Yeah, it’s not really harmful, so while I don’t recommend it, it could be worse.” The same goes for paper and rose petals—you’re not supposed to eat them, but neither is poisonous and most likely will not harm a person who ingests them. Jane eats books because I loved the idea of wanting to consume one’s favorite story. I like subverting the role of roses, too. Most people think they’re beautiful and sweet, but I actually don’t like them much, and think it’s more interesting if the very smell of them becomes sinister . . .

Stories are notorious for changing and evolving as they go. What was the biggest change from the first draft to the final? Is there anything that would particularly surprise your readers?

I remember the ending changed a bit and became much more fleshed out and developed—I think I have a tendency to rush when I see the finish line in sight! The beginning of the book also changed; originally there was a lot of backstory there that really slowed down getting to North Manor and jumping into the creepiness of that setting. Toward the end of the editing process, I wrote scenes down on note cards and spread them around the floor. This was a great way to see the entire arc of the story and what scenes just didn’t need to be there. I’m definitely an over-writer and tend to cut a lot of out my books as I edit them.

Writing teenagers takes a different skill set compared to writing adults. How did Jane’s voice influence the shape or telling of the story? Was it harder to get into that mindset?

I feel very connected to my teenage self. It’s an easy place for me to access, I think because it holds a lot of my own trauma and experience with mental illness and mental health. Jane and I have a lot in common, but I think our biggest difference is Jane’s anger response—whereas I tended (and tend!) more toward sadness, Jane is quick to anger, and that really causes her to make some interesting decisions. Especially toward the end of the book . . .

There seems to be a tendency in YA fiction at the moment to focus on the “right” kind of representation when it comes to talking about mental illness. This can have the side effect of pushing more complicated characters to the side and eliminating the messier storylines. Jane is a complicated protagonist. Beyond her family history, she deals with anger and paranoia that negatively influence her life. How did you approach this as a writer?

The way I handle this is always to talk about things I have direct experience with, at least in some capacity. If I’m being true to my own representation, there are bound to be people out there who relate to that. Jane has pica and a compulsion to eat paper, which is something I wanted to write about because as a child I would also eat small pieces of paper. While I do not have pica and no longer experience that impulse, it definitely existed for me in my past, or I wouldn’t have chosen to write about it.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication? What projects are you currently working on?

My next book, Summer Reading, comes out in 2022, so right now I’m deep in edits for that! It’s a much different story than Horrid and I think that’s how I constantly try and grow as a writer—to explore different stories, not stick to one genre, and challenge myself with different tropes or ideas or characters I haven’t explored before. I’d love to one day venture to middle grade novels and explore different mediums for storytelling—graphic novels, TV shows, movies. My main goal is to never stop writing, never become complacent in my craft, and always look for the next challenge. And to keep writing and exploring my own truth.

Words by Katrina Leno, Interviewed by Emma Johnson-Rivard

Katrina Leno was born on the East Coast and currently lives in Los Angeles. She is the author of six critically acclaimed novels: The Half Life of Molly PierceThe Lost & FoundEverything All at OnceSummer of SaltYou Must Not Miss, and Horrid. Her seventh novel, Summer Reading, arrives Summer 2022.

Emma Johnson-Rivard lives in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. She recently received her Master’s from Hamline University. When not hanging out with her cat, she enjoys boxing and analyzing horror movies. She serves as an editor of The Common Tongue, a dark fantasy magazine. Her creative works have appeared in Fearsome CrittersTales to Terrify, and others.