"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

An Interview with Grady Hendrix, by Book Soup Bookseller Sarah Nivala

 Sarah Nivala: I’m so happy to get the chance to talk with you!

Grady Hendrix: Oh, well, that makes one person!

SN: My co-workers Emma and AndrĂ©s turned me onto My Best Friend’s Exorcism and I’m grateful they did because I really loved this book. You said in a past interview that the book is set in 1988 because that’s the year you would’ve been the same age as Abby and Gretchen. You also talked about how you gave the first few chapters to your wife and she said that it was contrived or dishonest so you went back and started tapping into your own memories of what it was like to be that age at that time. Do you think you could have written it if it was set in a different decade?

GH: You know, I couldn’t have set it in a different decade and had it still be honest. I really wanted to not have to worry about, you know, researching cell phones. I wanted to focus on what mattered to me, which was the emotional stuff. So the easiest way, for me, was to get rid of all the extraneous stuff. It was hard enough to imagine myself back in high school; I didn’t want to have to imagine myself back in high school but in a completely different era.

SN: Was that disturbing, in a way? To have that flood of emotions and remember what it was like?

GH: It was actually great! A lot of experience gets sort of mediated. There’s a layer of pop culture and references and all this stuff between myself and even my own memories, sometimes. It’s nice to have the time and the space to sort out what really happened and what feels like it should have happened. 

SN: One of the things that fascinates me about this book is that there is so much widely-accepted evil. Gretchen’s parents or Wallace… Which character did you have the hardest time writing? Whose head was most difficult to get inside of?

GH: Once they clicked, no one. I mean, I grew up with all these people. It’s funny you’d say that about Gretchen’s parents because there is a totally different version of this book from the Langs’ point of view, which is this: “We supplied our daughter with this wonderful life: she has a nice house, she gets to go to this really good school, and she is out of control. She’s doing stuff we don’t understand and we can’t grapple with it and she hates us and every time she’s around [Abby] things get really bad. We don’t know what to do.” I really feel for Gretchen’s parents. I don’t have kids but if I did… I’m the age my parents were when I was a teenager, and I would have no more clue how to deal with the angst of a teenager than I would know how to deal with some kind of giant robot punching me in the face.

SN: One scene that really stuck out to me takes place when Gretchen explains to Abby that her parents took her to a doctor to see if she was still a virgin. That really hurt because I can very vividly remember what it was like being that age and being that vulnerable, particularly as a young woman. I can imagine how heartbroken Gretchen must’ve been. That’s where that sentiment about the Langs came from. I just really feel for Gretchen in that situation.

GH: To some extent, Gretchen is me working out my life in high school. I mean, I was a mess. If someone had turned to me when I was in tenth grade and said, “you’ve been possessed by a demon,” I would have gone, “you know, that actually explains a lot of things.”

I’m glad you mentioned that scene because that’s such a breaking point, with Gretchen and her parents. There’s this thing when you get hurt as a kid where you go to your parents, and you have this “I need my mommy” type of moment. It’s very primal and that scene is Gretchen’s moment. Her mom doesn’t know what to do and turns her back on her. That’s when she realizes that no one is going to help her and that Abby is the only person who might and – Jesus Christ – Abby is so unprepared for everything.

SN: Gretchen has that moment less than a hundred pages into the book. She knows that something is happening and no one is going to understand and no one is going to be able to help her in the way that she has relied on adults to help in the past. There’s no mom or dad who can charge into the room and say, “I’ll make it better.”

GH: Exactly. There were some kids, I found growing up, who either knew or felt like they were alone. You know what I mean? They are the ultimate protector of their own best interests. Then, there are other kids I grew up with who always thought, “someone else has my best interests at heart.” A lot of people waver between those two points of view, but Gretchen is one of those kids who’s able to say, “I’m on my own.” Abby’s always looking for someone to help. As independent as she is, she’s never broken with everyone around her the way Gretchen has.

SN: That’s how Abby defines herself. She’s the nice one. She’s the one who helps people. She’s the one who goes out of her way to be there for everyone. So, when she’s put in this situation? Something snaps. We see that dark moment where she comes home and tries to rid herself of everything childish. She rips up her stuffed animals. She tears down her posters. It’s a huge turning point for Abby.

GH: Sometimes I think people underestimate people who are nice and who like to be liked, like Abby. People like that: until they get put to the test, you don’t really see the mettle beneath them.

SN: Abby grows up very quickly. That moment is when Abby becomes, for the most part, the person that she will be for the rest of her life.

GH: Oh, absolutely.

SN: Undoubtedly, the core of the book is the strong friendship between Abby and Gretchen. I will say this, and I don’t mean this as a dig, but I am wary of men writing female characters. But, to be frank, I didn’t realize you weren’t a woman until about halfway through the book! I was really impressed with how you let these characters experience adolescence in a natural, honest way.

GH: It’s nice to know that it [feels] right. There’s a lot of stuff, especially right now, about appropriating other peoples’ beliefs and experiences and I agree but I think it’s hard to have a rule about it because it’s a line that moves so much. You can’t make one rule for Book A that’s going to apply to books B, C, and D. To be honest, it didn’t worry me so much because I really love Abby and Gretchen. I have so much respect for teenagers. So, I was like, whatever mistakes I’m making are because I love these guys and I have so much respect for them. Abby and Gretchen were the heroes that I needed at that point in my life and I made them because I needed them.

SN: You have a familiarity with female characters that reads very earnestly. It’s the depth that you give to these young women and the strength of their character arcs.

GH: Thank you. With Paperbacks from Hell, I read all of these paperbacks from the 70s and 80s and there were occasionally dudes writing from female points of view and they would go on and on about bras. They would go on about their characters’ breasts. It’s so weird! 

SN: We actually do think about them all of the time. It’s really the only thing in our heads.

GH: You know, I’m amazed, Sarah, that you can even hold a job. Probably ninety percent of your brain power goes to thinking about your bra.

SN: It’s a constant struggle to not just abandon work and run to the closest lingerie store. You know? But that’s our struggle!

GH: That’s your own personal struggle and that makes you brave.

SN: Oh god. Yup.

GH: I think some writers are just going, “wait, a woman is just another human being? What?! There must be some differences, let me try and get those on the page.”

SN: I’m curious to know: what is your favorite and least favorite horror trope?

GH: Oh, well, my least favorite… you know, it’s hard, because I have nothing against the slasher movie, but I hate serial killers. It’s all Hannibal Lecter’s fault! Because of Hannibal Lecter, we think, “oh, serial killers have really good taste in wine. Let the serial killer pick the wine for dinner, they can’t go wrong!” And that drives me nuts. The thing I like most is this whole tradition that’s never really made it to the US: black magic movies. These movies always have these big set pieces that are, like, the ritual and the rituals are so much fun. The curses are just so insanely body-oriented. You don't disappear in a puff of smoke. You don't fall down dead. Fish hooks come out from under your eyes. You vomit hair. There are just such baroque, awful punishments. I love it.

SN: You said in another interview that you are disappointed in horror films that don't deliver, that make promises they don't fulfill.

GH: You've got to deliver. It's something my editor texts me a lot, he says, you know, if we're doing a ghost story, it's gotta have all the ghosty stuff in it. You can't shy away from what you're doing.

SN: Right, and you follow through with that in this book in a very literal way.

GH: I really felt strongly that Gretchen had to do something that couldn't be fixed while she was possessed. She had to do something that couldn't get a coat of paint and make it all better. There had to be permanent repercussions. Abby needed to forgive her. Abby needed to look at the mess she made and say, “it's okay” and “I know that's not you.”

SN: What is your biggest fear? Are any of your fears represented in My Best Friend’s Exorcism?

GH: Oh, sure. One thing that terrified me in high school was losing control. I felt so many times that I was doing everything right, everything I was told to do, stuff that was supposed to be good, and then I would get to the end of it and it would all turn out to be the wrong thing and I would be in huge amounts of trouble. It was such a helpless, bleak feeling. That’s a real fear, too. That everything you’re doing is the wrong thing. As an adult, I’m scared of the normal things. I’m scared of the dark. Everyone’s scared of the dark. But in terms of deep existential dread… I’ve been broke a few times and that’s been horrifying. The times I’ve experienced fear as an adult have been real financial fear.

SN: What is your favorite moment in the book?

GH: In terms of writing the book, the one that was the most fun, because it was the grossest, was the tapeworm scene. However, I really, really, really had such a blast writing the birthday party at the roller rink.

SN: That scene made me love Abby instantly. She’s so nerdy and I connected with her. I know you did extensive research for this book, but what the weirdest or coolest thing that you learned while doing research?

GH: The stuff about deliverance ministries and exorcisms in America. It’s really fascinating how that works. I wound up looking at a lot of YouTube videos of exorcisms and deliverances. There’s a church, I think in Virginia, that had a clip of a big “puke and rebuke session” where thirty or forty people were getting deliverances at the same time and there’s, like, kids in the background and a snack table. I love how normalized that is for some people. I really believe in therapy and medication and stuff like that, but you know, I think if you choose to deal with your problems through deliverance or exorcism, I gotta accept that that is as legitimate for you as the other is for me.

SN: Yeah, I guess it’s whatever works for people, it’s really about whatever makes you feel better.

GH: Yeah, and I do gotta say, just as a caveat because everyone’s probably seen these stories that percolate up in the media every now and then where someone dies at exorcism or a kid is beaten to death at an exorcism. There are people who are just abusing their kids and they put that “oh, it’s an exorcism!” gloss on it. That’s just straight up child abuse. There is no way a kid can consent to that kind of thing. I do feel though that if you are a consenting adult and that’s what you want to do, you’re responsible for yourself, so fine.

SN: What was the most important thing you learned about yourself while working on My Best Friend’s Exorcism?

GH: How much of what I thought I remembered was just bogus. Everything I thought I remembered about high school and my friendships in high school and everything was so affected by pop culture! It made me super cautious moving forward as a writer that I am actually writing about reality and not about things that I’ve seen in movies. Movies shape things into a narrative, and I think we are really susceptible to narratives. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end – cause and effect – and I think that’s a really seductive way to look at the world. It’s like, we’d all rather eat a donut than a banana because a donut activates the right switches in our brains. I feel like narrative does that: it activates all of those switches and allows you to ignore the messy reality.

Earlier you were asking about horror movie tropes I hate, and there’s a trope in everything that drives me up the wall, which is that the second things go wrong, a group of people will turn on each other. You always see that thing, like in Night of the Living Dead, where all they do is fight and bicker and eventually they go, “oh, my god! We’ve discovered that humanity is the worst monster of all!” Every single bit of research that has ever been done on disasters and crisis situations shows that human beings get more altruistic and work together in a more cooperative manner the greater the threat and the greater the level of stress. We don’t turn on each other when things go bad; we work together. Every time you see that trope, though, it is so poisonous.

With My Best Friend’s Exorcism, when my wife turned to me and said “this is garbage,” it was such a wake-up call. If I want to write stuff, it has to be about real life, it can’t be based on recycled ideas from other people and from pop culture swirling around out there. If I’m going to say “this is what friendship was like in high school,” I need to read all of those letters from high school again. I had to go offline and really sit and think, “was this what it was like? Or is this just what I like to think it was like?”

Grady Hendrix discusses and signs Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction on Saturday, October 14th at 4pm!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

My Best Friend's Exorcism by Grady Hendrix is our October Pick for Soup of the Month!

Ah, fall. The perfect time of year. The trees change color, the first frosts appear, and the air smells like mulled wine. Okay, fine, this is Los Angeles. Fall – time to get a Pumpkin Spice Latte and maybe wear a sweater sometimes (but only at night).

For me, the best thing about fall was always seeing my best friend again. We’d giggle about summer flings and classmate crushes, skip school to go record shopping, and reminisce about all the times we’d had. We have some incredible stories – like that one time we took acid together and she went skinny dipping, disappeared, and came back literally possessed by the devil.

(Oops! It could happen to anyone.)

Anyway, the real best thing about fall? IT’S FINALLY HALLOWEEN, MAN. TIME TO GET SCARY AF! My BestFriend’s Exorcism is, hands-down, the best thing to read while you’re sitting indoors on the 31st with all the lights out, trying to ignore the furious knocking on your door. Is it children? Is it the restless, unholy spirits of the dead? (It’s children; get off the couch and give them some of your candy stash, you misanthrope).

This ghoulish offering from Grady Hendrix is like the grown-up Goosebumps book of your dreams… or the Baby-Sitters Club book of your nightmares. Fifteen-year-old Abby is going through the most horrible adolescent turmoil: not does this boy like me? or even will I regret this whole wardrobe in ten years? but how long do BFFs last? does my best friend even care about me? why is she acting so weird? is she like, totally possessed by a demon?

(She is. Like, totally.)

This book is SO MUCH FUN. I was swept away on the wave of Go-Go’s references, lifelong friendships, and demon-induced vomiting. Gretchen (Abby’s possessed friend) wreaks highly creative mayhem on her high school, while Abby’s attempts to fix things and win her best friend back make everything worse. Hendrix really nails the free-fall anxiety of adolescence: the way we’ve all wondered whether our friends really like us, or if they roll their eyes, make fun of our outfits, and accuse us of being Satanic psychopaths the second we’ve left the room.

It’s not just the normal horrors of high school Abby contends with – there is plenty of demonic action here, including at least one scene that would make Sam Raimi squeal with delight. Yet despite the blood, guts, and psychological trauma, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is truly about the endless, fragile friendship between Abby and Gretchen. I was in tears by the end – and they weren’t tears of terror.

It’s rare to find a book that so deftly straddles the line between school year nostalgia and chilly October horror. My Best Friend’s Exorcism is equal parts spooky and sweet, making it the perfect book to take to the still-sunny beaches in LA – or to the cemetery in the darkest hours of Halloween night. Grab your fave fun-size candy, light some candles, and crank up the Phil Collins – it’s time for thrills, chills, and warm fuzzy feelings with Abby, Gretchen, and Satan himself. 

- Emma Diamond, Book Soup Bookseller

 Grady Hendrix discusses and signs his NEW BOOK Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction on Saturday, October 14th at 4pm.