In the chilling beginnings of Elizabeth Kilcoyne, Wake up the bones, Laurel’s 19-year-old mother Anna, despised as a witch by their rural Kentucky town, died when Laurel was a baby. Now, Laurel returns home to her family’s tobacco plantation after dropping out of college, and she’s haunted by strange and terrifying events, including her mother’s ghost. Laurel tries to unravel the curse with the help of friends Isaac, Garrett, and Ricky, as well as town outcast and practicing witch Christine, but the more she finds out, the worse her relationship with Anna, her community, and the earth itself are complicated. become. We spoke with Kilcoyne about horror, folk magic and heartbreak.
What drew you to horror, and how does your chosen setting – a small rural town in Kentucky – lend itself so well to the genre?
I have always been a speculative writer. Even though a lot of the fantasy I write is pretty well grounded, I’ve never been able to keep it from taking off a bit and flying into speculative territory. But really where I got the point of inspiration for Wake up the bones walked in the woods, where strange things happen and things are often dead and rotten. And so I knew I wanted to pull out that kind of weirdness that comes with very mundane chores and activities in the woods, as well as connect that feeling of being watched that you always get. ‘Cause you’re always watched in the woods, you know? There’s always a squirrel or something that really wants to hear about your business.
Then tying that in to the local folk horror – I think a lot of people, especially in the rural south, are brought up, to some degree, by ghost stories. For my family, it was always very convenient: “Don’t play well on old cattle, not only because it’s dangerous, but there’s a ghost in there that will grab your ankles and shoot you. ” So I think that a first book so close to my home would always touch on this kind of subject.
Body horror, to me, is a really good way to deal with it, especially the grief of the changing Kentucky landscape. Especially in the last few weeks, with everything the Supreme Court could change, and all these trigger laws and various things coming into effect… it’s heartbreak to see your house change. There’s always an element of death and resurrection, living in rural Kentucky, not only watching the animals and creatures around you die, but also watching the industries die, dry up, and take people with them. The choice to stay or go is a choice you still have the privilege of clinging to for a while, or a choice that has been taken away from you, and there is a lot of horror in that too. So when I was writing Wake up the bonesit was personal grief, the loss of family members, the loss of friends to things beyond our control.
Why did you write this story for teenagers?
Well, I don’t want to say it’s one of the most horrible times to be alive, but in terms of free will, you’re being given it for the first time. You have to make that choice. I mean, being from Kentucky, we all had to have this conversation about whether to stay or go. This is a very common and very complicated question. When I was writing this book, I was 21, 22 years old. Even in college, I had this big idea that to become a successful writer, I had to live in New York and pay rent in New York to be successful. So there was a lot of grief that I would be the first person in my family to leave Kentucky in 200 years. (Actually, it wasn’t me, it was my little sister.)
This idea that I had go doing the things I wanted to do, whether it was true or not, is presented to all of us. Well, not introduced to all of us, honestly – introduced to those of us who are lucky enough to even have that choice in the first place. As a lesbian, as a queer person, I was really lucky to have family support to be able to stay. But if I didn’t have that, I would do as many of my friends did and leave. The characters in Wake up the bones all wonder, to some extent, whether they should stay or go, how much they belong, how much they want to belong, and how much they belong to themselves – be it the people they grew up with and the people they love and the networks they have found, supported and created together will ultimately suffice. I also had to answer it at a higher level for myself.
What inspired all the magic of Wake up the bones?
It was a combination of things. I’ve always been very interested in the folk magic of the area – what’s acceptable and what’s from God, and how you’re supposed to stay in your lane with the magical gifts people believe you’ve been given, about the concept of witchcraft and how completely taboo and unacceptable it is. So I started there, and that’s a big part of the relationship and the dynamic between Laurel and Christine: having a very narrow, God-given gift that allows you to chase someone’s warts, or ‘draw fire from a burn, or some of that old stuff they do. You can’t tell some people about it, you can’t tell people how you did it, the gift has to be passed down from daughter to son – there’s a lot of very strict rigidity in popular magical beliefs that exist in the region. . It is a region full of magic.
But at the same time, I couldn’t just look at what was there and say, “Oh, okay, that’s a decent magickal system that I can base things on. This girl is in mourning. This girl has huge problems. This girl can’t just pull out a verse from the Bible and say, “I’m done. She must enter the meat of her world. Given the understanding that God and creation exist in the magical belief there, I was like, “Well, anything that doesn’t fit into that narrow, rigid gift has to be God’s business.” Then I started to think about the relationship with the earth and what the earth does – the earth is obviously not a neutral part in Wake up the bones. That was a really big thing for me, using the terrain as a character that wants things and will react if pushed.
So here is, [the characters] have big problems. They need the kind of great magic that can resolve and change that. When you align yourself with this kind of earth magic, you can hope for a result and achieve it, but you will never understand it any more than you will understand it sitting in a field for a year and watching it grow and see it change. There are so many things out of your control with agriculture.
It’s the same with magic. You can do your best, but it will all serve the purpose of the woods, which is life, death, and regeneration. It’s a loose magic system, which I like to play with to fulfill the purpose of the scene, whatever it is. I had a lot of fun adding a little wonder and mystery to it, rather than saying, “These are the rules.
Much of this book is dark, but there is also a sense of hope. Was it difficult to write these two things at the same time and how did you balance them?
When I was writing this, I called it “The Big Grief Book”. Many people in my life died at the same time, within months of each other. Death was inevitable. Death was heartbreaking. The death was surprising. Death was peaceful. Death ended things. Death made things worse. I was just kind of slammed by a heartbreak semi. I’ve always been told that you should write your book knowing the answer to the question you’re asking, and I definitely didn’t. Wake up the bones at all, because my question was, “Hey, how can I live with this?”
So a lot of the balance between hope and grief and seeing it all together at the same time is really me, on the page, grappling with everything that’s going on. I’m glad it reads as hopeful, because sometimes there was no hope writing it. Ultimately, as far as the conclusion anyone can come to about grief, I think the answer is simply to love people as much as possible, to love the earth, to love the family you have, to love all these things the way they fall into your lap for as incredibly complicated and flawed as they have been all along.
Especially when it comes to Laurel’s mother, who she lost at a very, very young age, and who, much like the taxidermy that Laurel does, has been encased in amber this whole time. When that relationship breaks free from the constraints of both her ideal of what her mother might have been and the city’s demonization and vilification of who her mother was, the person who emerges from it, the spirit, is also close to Anna like anyone in the book ever gets. Laurel comes to her mother coming to this understanding, “Oh, Anna is a very young person making decisions that I, also a very young person, have to make right now. How can I do that and honor her, but not necessarily fall into the exact same traps she fell into?”
I feel like 18 and 19, that kind of YA ending, feels like a very limited time in your life, like nothing will ever happen unless it happens in the next six months. But at some point, 18-year-olds turn 30. It happens to the best of us. I didn’t want to solve all the character issues and say, “OK, happily ever after.” But I wanted to leave them a future.
Wake up the bones by Elizabeth Kilcoyne. Wednesday, $18.99 July 12 ISBN 978-1-250-79082-8