I am so happy that I get to share with you all another spooky middle grade that I absolutely love! The Clackity is so special - it is a spooky, beautiful and emotional story about learning to believe in yourself. It explores what bravery really means. The atmosphere is top notch, Evie is so loveable and the monsters are truly terrifying. I highly recommend this novel to middle grade and adult readers alike - I truly believe everyone can take something away from this book. And, as it is spooky season, is there a better time to read it?? Now, let's get to the interview with the author, Lora Senf!
Ashley: Hi Lora! Before we begin chatting about your novel, are you able to tell us a bit more about yourself?
Lora: Of course! I live in the Pacific Northwest. My husband and I have eight-and-a-half-year-old twins who are smarter than us (thankfully the kids haven’t figured that out yet). I also work full time so writing happens in whatever time is left over.
I am an avid reader of all things spooky and scary so you can often find me with a book (or three…). I also like to do other crafty and creative things, but am not terribly good at any of them. I really like weather when it’s doing something interesting and my non-writing dream job is to be a storm chaser.
Oh, and I can still do cartwheels. That really has nothing to do with anything. I’m just bragging.
Ashley: When did your love of reading begin, and when did you realize that you wanted to become an author?
Lora: I truly don’t remember not being able to read, and I’ve loved books my whole life. I’ve wanted to be an author from the moment I realized an author was something one could be. I wrote a lot when I was young, gave up on it for a very long time, and returned to it just a few years ago. Seeing The Clackity out in the world and in the hands of readers is a lifelong dream come true.
Ashley: What books have had the biggest impact on you throughout your life?
Lora: I suppose I can speak more to authors than individual books. John Bellairs—who wrote gothic horror for kids—was my introduction to spooky books and my first favorite author. Shirley Jackson and Ursula K. LeGuin were early favorites for their short work (of course I later discovered their novels). At a young age I fell in love with the beauty of Ray Bradbury’s prose and he remains one of my go-to comfort reads. I discovered Stephen King when I was waaay too young and have probably read more by him than any other single author (which is easy to do because he’s been so prolific)—his books always feel like going home. And, of course, I have to mention Neil Gaiman—Coraline and Ocean at the End of the Lane are two of my very favorite books. Coraline was especially important to me as it opened my eyes to what middle grade horror could do. In some ways, because of its weirdness and legitimate scariness, it gave me permission to write The Clackity.
Ashley: The Clackity is your debut novel! For our readers who may not have read it yet, can you share what it is about?
Twelve-year-old Evie Von Rathe lives in Blight Harbor, the seventh-most haunted town in America (per capita). Her Aunt Desdemona, the local paranormal expert and otherworldly advice columnist, doesn’t have many rules. One absolute, iron-clad rule is to stay out of the abandoned abattoir at the edge of town. Evie obeys – until she doesn’t, following her aunt to the slaughterhouse one bright June day. When her aunt disappears into the abattoir, Evie goes searching for her.
There she meets The Clackity, a creature that lives in the shadows and seams of the slaughterhouse. The Clackity promises to help Evie get Desdemona back in exchange for the ghost of John Jeffrey Pope, a serial killer who stalked Blight Harbor a hundred years earlier, and who has unspeakable ties to the abattoir. To find them both, Evie crosses through the abattoir to a strange neighborhood of seven houses. She must make her way through them, one by one, until she reaches the seventh house, and her aunt. The task sounds simple enough, except these aren’t regular houses, and she’s being followed by a dead man.
Save her aunt, escape a dead serial killer, and get them all back to The Clackity before the sun sets. None of it is going to be easy, especially with Evie’s panic attacks, but the strange neighborhood plays by its own set of rules, and some of them might just be in Evie’s favor.
Ashley: Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
Lora: The Clackity started as a random text from my sister that just said, “Haunts from Heloise.” Those three words left me gleefully envisioning a sort of otherworldly Dear Abby who would solve paranormal problems in outlandish ways and who had a paranormal advice column in a small-town newspaper.
Not long after, I was on a road trip with my family and we stopped in my husband’s hometown of Butte, Montana. There was a building he just had to show me. It turned out to be a rather cool (and I am 100% certain haunted) abandoned abattoir, and it was love at first sight. By the time I finished trespassing and got back in the car, a story was forming.
Evie was the final piece to the puzzle. Once I “met” her and understood her, everything came together.
Ashley: I am always interested in learning about the routines and process that different authors have while writing their books. What did your research and writing process look like for this novel, and what are some things about the process that surprised you the most?
Lora: Because this story takes place present day in a fictional, magical town, I didn’t do a whole lot of research. I did a bit for the lessons Evie’s librarian friend, Lily, gives her but honestly that was about it.
As for process, I would love to say I have one but I really don’t. I work full time and have third-grade twins, so I write where and when I can. If anything surprised me, it was how easily this story came out of my head and on to “paper” (I technically draft on a computer). I think that’s because I didn’t overthink it. I don’t plot or outline much and just went where Evie and her story wanted me to go.
That said, writing the sequel was a different experience entirely. I had a full-blown crisis of confidence at about 85% of the way into the first draft. Knowing she would be honest with me, I sent the unfinished manuscript to my agent and told her I needed to know if it was working or if it was a garbage pile that needed to be burned. She assured me it was working and I just needed to finish it. I respond embarrassingly well to external validation, so that was the push I needed to complete the draft.
Ashley: Evie is smart, creative and innovative. I adored her and enjoyed seeing her evolution throughout the novel so much. She also has a deep love of the library and a natural curiosity. At one point in the story, Evie reflects that “There were some other kids in town I knew, and a couple that I even liked, but honestly, I liked the library better.” What is one of your earliest memories of the library, and why do libraries still mean so much to you today?
Lora: My childhood libraries were so important to me. I was a voracious reader, and there’s no way my parents could have afforded my book habit if it hadn’t been for our public library that was walking distance from home. I think we went at least weekly, and I have clear memories of my mom walking us down there so I could return armloads of books and make the trek back home with just as many new-to-me titles.
I discovered my first favorite author, John Bellairs, at my elementary school library. Bellairs was my introduction to horror and I never looked back—I’ve been reading (and writing) spooky books ever since.
I still see libraries as sacred spaces and librarians as some of the smartest people on Earth. I am grateful these places and people exist to put books in the hands of readers, be those readers kids or grownups.
Ashley: A slaughterhouse is a dark and foreboding place in the best of times. What made you choose that as one of the settings for your novel?
Lora: I love a creepy, maybe (probably…) haunted place. The more abandoned the better. That building in Butte truly was one of the coolest, spookiest places I’ve ever been. I even met Bird and his flock there on the back wall. I knew it all had to be in a book—my book. We get back to Butte about once a year and on each trip I make a point of visiting “my” building. I always hold my breath just before it comes into view—I suppose I’m afraid someone is going to eventually tear it down or refurbish it and turn it into something benign.
Ashley: The atmosphere in this novel was haunting, beautiful and so magical. In your Acknowledgements you mention that the Town of Blight Harbor and the abattoir were inspired by your husband’s hometown of Butte, Montana. Are any of the other locations talked about in the book based on real places? If you could visit any one of the fictional locations mentioned in the book, which one would you most want to visit and why?
Lora: Blight Harbor is very much a made-up place, but I took inspiration from real life and art. There is definitely the link to Butte, MT, with the building that became The Clackity’s abattoir. That building is so important to the story and I’ll always owe Montana a debt of gratitude for it.
Much of the inspiration for Blight Harbor came from other writers I admire. There’s a little Ray Bradbury there, as his version of Small Town, USA, made a big impression on me as a young reader. I’ve also said I envision Blight Harbor as my own version of Stephen King’s Castle Rock—a place rich enough and magical enough any number of stories could be set there.
So, I suppose Blight Harbor itself is a place I’d love to visit. As for the dark sun side—the otherworld where most of Evie’s adventure takes place—I’d especially like to visit the fifth house. But I don’t want to give too much away about that for folks who haven’t read the book yet!
Ashley: There are so many things that I loved about this novel, not least of which is the beautiful and emotional exploration of grief. There is a quote in the novel that stands out to me in regards to this, and that is “Time made the missing different, but it didn’t make it go away.” This is so true, and also important. I lost my dad at the same age Evie is in the book, and I wish that I had had more books at that time that explored the subject. Why did you choose to explore this topic in your novel, and why do you think it is so important to talk about these tough topics, especially in the middle grade and young adult genres?
Lora: I didn’t set out to write an exploration of grief, even if that’s what ended up happening to some degree. I was really focused on writing a spooky book that centered a character with anxiety. But it quickly became obvious to me that if I wanted Evie and her anxiety to feel authentic to young readers (and I hope they do), I needed the source of that anxiety to feel authentic as well. It was important to me that Evie reads as “real” and that took bringing to light and addressing the big stuff that makes her who she is.
I also believe we writers owe it to young readers to respect that they aren’t simply “kids”—they’re human beings with all the experiences and emotions and complexities that come with being people. That means we have to trust them enough write for them in a way that reflects and respects those experiences in the best ways we are able.
Ashley: Another topic that I appreciated reading about was the fact that Evie has anxiety and panic attacks. As a person who has Generalized Anxiety and Panic disorder, I found your representation thoughtful, nuanced and realistic. When Evie is describing one of her attacks she explains it as “My heart pounded and panic fingers crawled up my throat and reached around my neck. My breathing got fast and shallow.” While people can experience these things in different ways, I really feel that you captured the reality and weight of these things while balancing that with hope. What were some of the challenges of writing these scenes, and what do you hope these scenes do for readers?
Lora: As long as I can remember, I’ve been deeply anxious. I know now what anxiety is and how to deal with it, but growing up in the 80’s no one talked to children about anxiety, so I was just a weird kid. I thought I was broken. On the outside I was brave, and willing to do stupid things to prove it. But truth was, I was afraid of everything EXCEPT scary books and movies and tv. Those were the places I practiced being brave. I wrote Evie, the main character of The Clackity for scared but brave kids (and those of us who used to be those kids) who deserve to see themselves as heroes.
The writing of Evie’s anxiety was challenging at first and there were plenty of times I had to go back and rework it. I had to really sit in the discomfort of contemplating my own anxiety—what it feels like, what my thoughts are, even what it sounds like to me—and make sure I was truly representing it as a whole body and mind experience. No two people are going to experience their anxiety in exactly the same way, so Evie’s version looks and feels like mine because that’s the version I understand.
Ashley: Bird helps Evie and encourages her when she thinks that she can’t go on. Rather than telling her what to do, Bird shows Evie that she is brave and strong on her own and helps her to find that strength even when she is scared. Who in your life does that for you?
Lora: My children. My husband. My family and my friends. I’m fortunate to have many people in my life who help me to be brave and strong even when I’m scared. Especially when I’m scared.
Ashley: The Clackity is such a seemingly large and insurmountable threat, and Evie isn’t quite sure she can defeat it. And it isn’t the only threat that Evie has to deal with. However, she comes to realize that she is braver than she thinks and that courage and bravery don’t mean you aren’t afraid. They mean that even though you are scared, you do it anyway. When, throughout the writing and publishing of this book, did you have to be brave like Evie?
Lora: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think of my writing and publishing journey as being one of bravery. I equate it more with patience, tenacity, and hard work. There are also things you have to learn as you go. Dealing with critique and rejection at every stage is certainly a skill that gets refined and galvanized over time. And a writer has to be okay with letting others into their story knowing sometimes others will leave their fingerprints on it. At some point along the way I realized Clackity wasn’t only mine any longer—it also belonged to all the talented people who helped turn my story into a book. And to readers, of course.
Ashley: The illustrations in this novel are stunning and creepy and add another wonderful element to the story. They were done by artist and illustrator Alfredo Caceres. It’s so incredible that someone can take what you picture in your mind and translate that into a tangible picture. What was that experience like and what do you feel that the illustrations add to the story?
Lora: When my wonderful editor, Julia McCarthy, told me she envisioned The Clackity being an illustrated book I was thrilled. I adore illustrations in books for all ages and was over the moon that my own book would include them. Now I can’t imagine not having them as part of the story.
I am so, so honored to work with Alfredo Cáceres on the Blight Harbor books and even more fortunate to now call him my friend. He’s so talented and an all-around good and kind human, and his cover art and interior illustrations for The Clackity perfectly capture the heart and darkness and whimsy of the story. Here’s why I’m convinced it was absolutely meant to be: Remember John Bellairs, that author I mentioned earlier? Well, turned out Alfredo illustrated covers for a number of Spanish editions of books by John Bellairs. It really felt like coming full circle in the best possible way.
As far as process goes, I had virtually nothing to do with the cover nor the interior illustrations—Alfredo understood the story so well and what you see in the final book is all him.
Ashley: One of the characters in the novel, The Story Thief, says, “All stories are keys to a truth. Sometimes a truth about the world. Sometimes a truth about love or fear. Sometimes, even, a truth about a lie. But all keys, all truths.” What truths do you hope readers take away from this story?
Lora: I’ve been asked variations of this question, but none put quite like that (also, I adore The Story Thief so am so happy to have him mentioned here)!
My answer doesn’t change much: For lots of reasons, I hope Evie and The Clackity reach young readers who will benefit from them in one way or another. But mostly I hope it because I think Evie—who has to work through internal as well as external challenges—can mean something to kids who don’t often see themselves portrayed as heroes. And for all those readers who don’t struggle with mental health issues, perhaps she will give them an insight into what it can feel like to live and function in the world for those who do. And, if nothing else, readers can ignore all that and simply read The Clackity for the spooky adventure it is.
Ashley: This novel is seriously creepy and got my heart pumping a little bit faster throughout. What are some of your favorite spooky novels that keep you up at night or get your blood racing?
Lora: Oh, so many! I love all sorts of horror and read it across all age categories. I’m especially fond of coming-of-age, kids-on-bikes, and small-town stories (which I guess is why you see all those elements included in The Clackity). Middle grade horror in general is a love of mine, and there are so many wonderful writers putting great work out in MG – Ben Acker (Stories to Keep You Alive Despite Vampires), Dan Poblocki (Tales to Keep You Up at Night), and Ally Malinenko (This Appearing House) wrote some of my favorite recent releases.
For adult horror I’m always going to pick up whatever Stephen King puts out there. Other adult writers I’ve really enjoyed lately are Chuck Wendig, Catriona Ward, Stephen Graham Jones, and of course Thomas Olde Heuvelt—he scares the heck out of me in the best way.
When it comes to graphic novels, I really enjoyed Michael Regina’s middle grade The Sleepover and for those who love really dark, adult horror you can’t beat James Tynion IV’s Something is Killing the Children (if I didn’t make it clear enough, it’s DARK so consider yourself warned).
Ashley: The Clackity has been included for consideration for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement In Middle Grade Novel. This is so exciting, and such an honor! What are some of the most surprising or meaningful experiences that have happened since the publication of The Clackity?
Lora: I can’t tell you what it means to even be on the recommended reading list for the Stokers. A lot. It means a whole lot. If The Clackity makes the short list and is officially nominated, I might never recover.
But the best moments—the moments that really touch my heart—are the smaller ones. I know that sounds like something a writer is supposed to say but, in my case, it is absolutely true. Hearing from parents that their kids love the book will make my entire week. Hearing from those kids themselves is even better. I got my first handwritten letter from a young reader and am probably going to frame it. Seriously. And, yes, I wrote them back that very night.
Ashley: Are you able to share anything about what else you are currently working on, and if we will ever see Evie, Des and Bird again?!
Lora: You bet! I’m happy to say you’ll see them all again. I’m currently in the editing stages for the sequel, The Nighthouse Keeper, which is scheduled to come out Fall 2023. There will be a third book as well, and I’m just getting started on that one.
Lora has some amazing things coming up, and I cannot wait! If you would like to keep up to date with Lora as well, visit her website at www.lorasenf.com and on Instagram at @lorasenfauthor.