I’m afraid I’ve been talking about ghosts too much.
At Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I teach in the Writing for Children and Young Adults low-residency MFA program, I’m the person people pull aside in cafeteria lines, stairwells, the chapel between lectures, pretty much anywhere at any time of day or night, to confide their ghost stories. Everyone seems to know that if they have a ghost story, they should tell it to me. I clearly love hearing them. But I’ll also admit that hearing so many (especially if you tell me it “really happened” to you) may not be the healthiest pastime, because I have real trouble falling asleep at night.
What is it about a good ghost story that fascinates me so much? And why did I write another ghost story—first ghost girls in prison in The Walls Around Us, and now a haunted boardinghouse in my latest book, A Room Away from the Wolves—especially if I’m that easily frightened and wish you would all stop scaring me so much?
I don’t think it’s necessarily the ghosts. I think it’s something else.
Maybe it’s the fear of the unknown. For those of you following creative pursuits—fellow writers, other artists—you know we face this fear of the unknown every single day we set down to work. We don’t always know what the thing we’re creating will ultimately become, and we can’t know how other people will react to it. We’re alone in the dark with it, and in the end we could be safely cocooned in a warm embrace or we could be pitched over a cliff, our legs and hearts broken.
Writing into the unknown can be terrifying. But go on and distract me with a ghost story and that makes the fear tangible. It takes shape.
In this way, we can focus all our attention on it. We can try to vanquish it by telling ourselves it’s not there or by exorcism or turning the lights on, or whatever we believe will make it stop. We can name it. It’s a ghost. That’s what it is. It could be sitting in that chair watching us right now. This other fear looming over us doesn’t always have a shape or a name—and without that, how can we ever hope to get rid of it?
I saw a ghost when I was away teaching in Vermont only once. I was alone in my bedroom in faculty housing. It was past midnight. Around that time I was writing the book you now know as A Room Away from the Wolves. And I was scared. I was scared of failing and tanking my career. I was scared of disappointing everyone who believed in me. I was scared of doing so horribly at my relatively new job that I’d never be asked back to teach ever again.
That’s when I saw it. I rolled over in bed and looked up to find a man standing over, leaning in. He had bright white hair that seemed to be glowing in the moonlight. His expression was merely curious, as if he’d discovered me there quite unexpectedly and only wanted to know who I was.
Obviously I screamed. I leaped up to turn on the lamp, and I was literally shaking. And keep in mind I was anxious about a lecture I had to deliver, overworked, exhausted, suggestible about ghost stories, and not the best judge of reality in that particular moment. So, believe me if you want, I won’t be offended. My point is that for the rest of the night—in which I had to keep the lamp on because I kept thinking someone was standing at the end of the bed—all my fear was pinpointed and focused on this singular thing. The ghost. I forgot everything else I was worrying about. I saw a ghost. A ghost! That’s all I could focus on.
Out of my mind swept the worries about my writing and my career and speaking at a lectern in front of people and, well, anything that mattered in daylight. I was only a body in a dark room afraid she wasn’t there alone.
It feels simpler in a way, doesn’t it? Even if I couldn’t sleep that night?
The fear wasn’t unknown anymore. It was defined and pointed and known.
My new book A Room Away from the Wolves may offer you some shivers brimming under the surface, but it also offers something else. It’s haunted by Bina’s mother’s memories and my own. It’s haunted by the city I lived in for my entire adult life and just left a few months ago. And it’s filled with the fear of the unknown, quite tangibly, after Bina runs away from home and ends up in a magical, mysterious place where she’s not sure if she can stay or leave. The biggest compliment of all would be if this book kept you up reading late into the night, ghosts or no.