Interview With an Author: Jennifer McMahon

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Jennifer McMahon and her latest novel, The Children on the Hill
Author Jennifer McMahon and her latest novel, The Children on the Hill. Photo credit: Zella McMahon

Jennifer McMahon is the author of ten novels, including the New York Times best-sellers Promise Not to Tell and The Winter People. She lives in Vermont with her partner, Drea, and their daughter, Zella. Her latest novel is The Children on the Hill and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Children on the Hill?

I grew in the 70s raised by my psychiatrist grandmother. Back then, there weren’t the boundaries and confidentiality rules we have these days. My grandmother’s patients and ex-patients were frequent guests in our home and fixtures in our lives. I also grew up monster-obsessed. I loved the old black and white monster movies, and spent hours roaming the woods with my younger brother hunting for monsters and building traps for them, sure that they were out there watching us. I’ve always wanted to write a book exploring themes of monsters and the monstrous; a story inspired by my own childhood with my grandmother, my lifelong love of monsters, and the greatest monster story ever: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Are Vi, Iris, Eric, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

There’s definitely more of me in this book than any book I’ve written. I put some of my own childhood memories in there and used people in my family as jumping-off points for these characters. That said, they’re definitely works of fiction! (Thank goodness!)

Are you a fan of the Universal Monster films of the 1930s-50s?

I am a huge fan! I loved them growing up and still love them. Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, Creature from the Black Lagoon—all of them! I re-watched them again while I was working on The Children on the Hill. It was great fun (and a great source of inspiration!).

The Bride of Frankenstein is Vi’s favorite of the films. Is it yours as well, or do you have a different favorite?

Bride of Frankenstein is my favorite. I love the way the movie opens with Mary Shelley as a character. We really feel the Monster’s loneliness, his longing for connection, and the pain of being rejected and loathed by the villagers—being shot at and locked in a dungeon. I love the relationship between the Monster and the blind man and the tragedy that follows. And the entire iconic climax where the Bride is brought to life and revealed is a stunning piece of filmmaking. The hair! The hiss! Her rejection of the Monster and his decision to destroy them great.

Are you a believer or a skeptic when it comes to cryptids?

I want to believe! And I absolutely LOVE hearing people’s stories of supposed encounters with these creatures. I’m a firm believer in remaining open to all possibilities, so I’m always on the lookout!

Do you have a favorite cryptid story or legend? Is there one that you want to believe is real?

I really want to believe in the existence of Sasquatch. I once took a long taxi ride from the ferry to a train station in Washington state, and the cab driver told very believable stories about her encounters with Sasquatch in that area. She spoke of the creatures with reverence and made them sound like magical beings—like seeing one was a tremendous gift. I stepped out of her cab, absolutely believing that there was something out in those woods.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I’m reading Sundial by Catriona Ward and absolutely loving it. Her book Last House on Needless Street blew me away—it was a puzzle box of a story that kept me guessing. I’m only a little way into Sundial but I’m already sucked in and filled with that wonderful uneasy feeling that things are not what they seem.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Mary Shelley
Shirley Jackson
Daphne du Maurier
Patricia Highsmith
Sarah Waters

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Harriet the Spy. I could totally relate to Harriet—I was a kid who was constantly taking notes on everything going on in my house and in our neighborhood. I even kept files on my grandmother’s patients who visited the house like Vi and Eric do in The Children on the Hill! I dressed in jeans and an old sweatshirt like Harriet. After reading the book, I made a tool belt and started carrying spy tools on my missions like Harriet’s: the notebook, flashlight, and camping knife.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

I snuck books from my mom’s shelves that I knew I wasn’t supposed to read: The Shining (which I couldn’t finish because it scared me too much!) and The Amityville Horror. The Amityville Horror terrified me! Jodi the pig! The red room! The flies! And the scariest part about it was that it said it was based on a true story. That rocked my world: this idea that something this terrifying might be real. I read it under my covers and delighted in re-reading my favorite passages to my friends to terrify them. In fact, I once brought the book to a slumber party and read the scariest bits out loud. The other girls got so scared they ended up running downstairs in tears and telling the host girl’s parents what I’d done. Needless to say, I wasn’t invited back!

Is there a book you've faked reading?

In high school, I wrote a paper comparing themes in The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway and Of Human Bondage by Maugham. I ran out of time (I was a terrible procrastinator!) and never read Of Human Bondage, so I used Cliff Notes. I got an A on the paper and still feel terrible about it to this day.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

If there is a book I own and love, I often collect other editions of it with other covers. I have three copies of Frankenstein with three different wonderful covers, two copies of The Shining (including one from the 1970s), and both a recent and vintage copy of The Haunting of Hill House. I love old horror covers and will buy those whenever I see them.

Is there a book that changed your life?

To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s the book that made me want to be a writer when I read it in middle school. I remember finishing it, closing the cover, and feeling like nothing was ever going to be the same again. My world had been rocked. And I thought I want to learn how to one day write a story that someone can get as lost in as I just did with this book.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Merricat Blackwood is my favorite fictional character ever. I love everything about this novel: Merricat’s magical thinking, the sense of isolation and impending doom, the slow reveal of what really happened to the family. Shirley Jackson was a master at atmosphere and building dread. It’s a perfect novel, and I recommend it to everyone.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Anything by Shirley Jackson.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I’m finally watching season 4 of Stranger Things and loving everything about it. Stranger Things has so many of my favorite things in a story: the complicated world of the group of outsider kids, the terror of another world with dark creatures being entwined with our own world and giving you the sense that nothing is really safe and nothing is really the way it seems, and that ultimately, it’s up to the kids to save our world over and over. Love it!

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

The perfect day for me would be a morning spent writing with really good coffee, then an afternoon at the beach with my family and a dinner involving seafood and a very hoppy IPA. Boring, but those are the things that make me the happiest.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Q: If I could travel back through time, what message would I give my third-grade self who’d just written her first short story?
A: You’ve just opened a magic box that is going to take you places you never dreamed. Keep writing!

What are you working on now?

People often ask me what’s the one thing I’m too scared to write about and I always say, “Demons.” But I’ve decided to face my fears! I’m working on a book about a woman who is caring for dying mother and becomes convinced that her mother is actually possessed by a demon. It’s really freaking me out, which I take as a good sign!

Book cover for The Children on the Hill
The Children on the Hill
McMahon, Jennifer

In The Children on the Hill, Jennifer McMahon exhumes some of the "bones" of Mary Shelley’s most famous work and breathes new life into some of the enduring questions about what makes someone a monster. In her novel, McMahon pays homage to not only Shelley, but also the most famous, and enduring, portrayals of Frankenstein’s creature: Boris Karloff and the Universal Horror movies of the 1930s-50s. McMahon illustrates how those classic portrayals of the monsters have been the genesis of inspiration for generations of kids, and how, for some, obsessions with classic horror may shift and change but never really go away.

She also illustrates how, even into the digital age, interest in monsters has not waned. McMahon plays with how, in the age of the internet with nearly everyone armed with cellular phones with cameras and digital audio recorders, there is now more “evidence” than ever before of monsters. There are more people than ever who have seen (or know someone who has) strange, local creatures haunting the woods, streams, lakes, and mountains everywhere.

All of this is threaded with a growing sense of terror and dread.

The Children on the Hill is a marvelous exploration and celebration of the monstrous!