Montpelier author Jennifer McMahon on her new horror novel
There is a unique art to writing a truly spooky book, and the New York Times bestselling author Jennifer McMahon is a master of the form. McMahon, who is based in Montpelier, has written 11 novels set in Vermont. Her novel, The Children on the Hill, will be published by Simon & Schuster this month.
The book explores the concepts of monsters and monstrosity through two interwoven story lines. The first, in 1978, follows two children being raised by their grandmother, who directs a private psychiatric facility in Vermont. One day their grandmother brings home a young girl and directs the children to treat her like a new sister. It soon becomes clear to all three children that something isn't quite right.
In the second story line, in 2019, one of the children is now an adult with a popular podcast about hunting real-life monsters. She goes to Vermont to investigate a sighting of a local legend and gets drawn into a mystery that forces her to confront the events of her childhood.
McMahon speaks to Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak about her favorite scary movies, her love of Vermont-based horror writer Shirley Jackson, and how she maps out the twists and turns in her books.
Here are some highlights from their conversation, edited and condensed for clarity:
Mikaela Lefrak: One of my favorite parts of this book was how the children at the center of it have wild imaginations in the way that children do. But some of the scary things they image turn out to be real. I'm curious if that comes from from your own childhood. As a kid, were you interested in the darker sides of the world that we live in?
Jennifer McMahon: Oh, absolutely. There's a lot of me in this book. I put all of my love for the old-fashioned monster movies and horror in it. I've been drawn to the scary since as long as I can remember. I wrote my first short story when I was in third grade — it was about a haunted meatball. And I've been trying to write things on the creepy side ever since.
Lefrak: In this book, a lot of the horror comes from real-world historical events. I'm thinking here of eugenics, which plays a key role in the plot of this story. And there's a character, a doctor, who reminded me of the UVM Professor Henry Perkins, who led the eugenics movement here in Vermont in the 1930s. Perkins organized a eugenics survey with the goal of breeding "better Vermonters" through sterilization and the institutionalization of certain groups, including people who were poor or disabled. Did you do research into the eugenics movement as part of writing this book?
McMahon: I did, and oh, my gosh, what a dark and horrifying period of Vermont history. I think it's important that we all shine a light on it and acknowledge that it happened here — and not all that long ago. I realized there was a lot I didn't know, such as in 1931, when the Vermont Legislature passed the sterilization bill and called it "an act of human betterment by voluntary sterilization." I mean, it's horrifying. That's like real-life horror.
Lefrak: Speaking of Vermont, all of your books are set here in Vermont. Why?
McMahon: I keep trying to write a book that's not set in Vermont, but I keep coming back around to Vermont. Setting plays such an important role to me. I'm not a native Vermonter — I grew up in Connecticut, and I came to Vermont in 1987, to go to Goddard College. I've left a few times, but I always come back. And I think that being an outsider kind of gives me a little bit of that Flatlander perspective, and it helps me pick up on things that I might have missed if I had grown up here. I love Vermont, I really do. It's such a special magical place, and it's just full of inspiration all around me. Like I said, I'm a person who's easily frightened. All I need to do is go for a walk in the woods at night, and I find instant inspiration.
Lefrak: The book centers in part on the house that the children live in on a hilltop in Vermont. There were some echoes for me of one of my favorite books of all time, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I'm curious if she is an influence of yours.
McMahon: Oh, I love that that's one of your favorite books. It's one of my favorite books, absolutely. She's a huge influence. Oh my goodness, I absolutely love her. I love The Haunting of Hill House. She does dark, creepy dread better than anyone I know.
Lefrak: And Shirley Jackson, of course, is also a Vermont author. She lived in North Bennington. Jennifer, how do you how do you map out your books? How do you plan out the twists?
McMahon: Oh my goodness, I am not a mapper. I don't plot or plan or anything — I just kind of dive in. This book actually took me forever. When I'm in the middle of writing a book, if anyone asks me, "What are you writing about? What's the book about?" I say, "I have no idea," because I really don't.
I have this crazy process — once I finish a rough draft, I print the whole thing and then lay it out all over the floor of my house, and then I start moving chapters around. I spend a few days sort of walking around it and picking it up, and treating it almost like a giant collage. And it's only then that it starts to make sense to me and I really understand the shape of it. That's when I get all organized, start doing my outlining, making sure that all the threads I have make sense, and that I've got the twists and turns in all the right places and that they make sense.
Broadcast on Thursday, April 21, 2022, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.