Ann Fraistat is an author, playwright, and narrative designer. Her co-author credits include plays such as Romeo & Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending, and alternate reality games sponsored by the National Science Foundation. She is a graduate of NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute and was selected for mentorship in Pitch Wars 2018 and 2019. Born and raised in Maryland, Ann lives with her husband and ever-adorable cats, Ollie and Sophie.
“Wilder Girls’ successor is finally here — and it’s eerier and more atmospheric than any reader could hope for!” said Laura Graveline of Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas. “Filled with iridescent wheat, bioluminescent melons, and a mercury-esque blight, Hollow’s End is the perfect setting for impending doom. Fraistat’s debut highlights both the comforts and horrors of small towns, old families, and the secrets they bury.”
Here, Graveline and Fraistat discuss writing the novel.
Laura Graveline: I suppose we should get the obvious question out of the way: which came first, the Quicksilver Blight or Covid-19? Were there any aspects of Covid that influenced how you wrote about the town-wide blight and quarantine in Hollow’s End?
Ann Fraistat: Strangely enough, the quicksilver blight was born in the summer of 2019—before Covid-19. And so, yes, working on this book was much eerier by the time I was editing in the fall of 2020.
From the first draft, there was quarantine in Hollow’s End, and an inadequate government response that left the townspeople feeling helpless and isolated. There were also all these moments that would later resonate more intimately than I could’ve anticipated: the grief that comes with lost opportunities for togetherness, the terror of testing positive, and the temptation to downplay the likelihood of infection (not only by the person experiencing symptoms, but also by their surrounding loved ones). When considering the effects of a rampant contagion, I’d imagined many of the major setbacks.
But Covid-19 also gave me a clearer picture of the day-to-day details, those mounting little inconveniences that add up to a life and routine we no longer recognize. For instance, the confusion that comes with shifting regulations. The signs taped to the windows in our own apartment complex’s lobby, scribbled over with ever-changing Sharpied updates to hours and masking requirements. The sudden switch to remote learning made me think about how tough it would be for kids like Wren and Derek to be quarantined from their school across the bridge and to have to take their finals online — especially given the disastrous wifi of Hollow’s End, a rural and remote peninsula.
I am personally thankful that the quicksilver blight, a zombifying rot, is a very different kind of contagion than Covid-19, and I hope the splashier genre elements (and the distance from reality that they provide) might offer a safer space for readers who need a catharsis, but would like to avoid directly confronting any personal experiences with Covid.
LG: We’re seeing a fascinating renaissance of the horror genre, especially in YA. It’s such an excellent vehicle to explore the traumas and injustices of daily life, however minor. I can see how this catharsis would be especially needed by today’s teenagers. Is this something you’re conscious of as a writer in the genre? What draws you to horror (as either a writer or a reader)?
AF: Yes, I couldn’t agree more! Today’s teens have already been asked to grapple with such heavy issues, and to face such overwhelming challenges. Horror speaks to that — and to me, personally, too — because it’s a genre that, at its heart, is about the will to survive. That drive to keep going, no matter what. Without that kind of grit, no character is going to last long in a horror story.
In What We Harvest, for instance, Wren faces a world in which nature has turned against her community, disease surges through her neighbors and comes for her own family, the government is impotent to protect her, and the American dream is broken — and yet, she refuses to buckle. Even as the odds avalanche against her, she strives to save her home and farm and family, to unearth her town’s deep-buried rot, and to rebuild a future her community can be proud of.
There’s extreme hope to be found in that.
I would actually argue — and have before, and will again — that horror can be one of the best genres for instilling hope. Because, as readers, when we confront the threat of losing everything, that makes us appreciate what we have. More importantly, it helps us understand what we need.
LG: Iridescent wheat, bioluminescent melons, and a zombie dog are just a few things that make this book so wonderfully unique and atmospheric. Was there a specific inspiration for all of these elements? Also, if you had a founding farm in Hollow’s End, what would your supernatural specialty be?
AF: First of all, I am so fascinated by the idea of beautiful horror. Often, the genre relies on shadows and darkness, but I loved the way that, for instance, the movie Midsommar set horror against a backdrop of sunshine and flowers. That was the kind of imagery I wanted to pursue in What We Harvest.
This whole book got started because, one night, I dreamed about a field of rainbow wheat. At the time, I was between projects and creatively burnt out, but the image of that wheat stuck with me, so I sat down to explore it as a freewriting exercise. On a farm like that — a place that was magical, like it needed to be protected — blight felt like the natural enemy. And I wanted that blight to be beautiful in its own right: a dripping molten metal. At the time, I didn’t know I was writing a whole book. I was only telling myself to finish the first paragraph. Then, the first page. The story just kept coming from there.
The ghost melons and their bioluminescent blossoms were inspired by some of nature’s real-life miracles: bioluminescent plankton and moonflowers, nocturnal bloomers that glow in the moonlight.
As far as Teddy, What We Harvest’s zombie-dog MVP, I used to co-run a dog walking business. Teddy isn’t based on one particular dog — she’s an amalgamation of all those pups I loved. She’s also an ode to the first kitten I ever adopted, the sweetest, most loyal little creature. I loved that kitten with my whole heart, and she had FIP, a terminal, untreatable illness. It broke me, being so powerless to save her. Those were the feelings I called on when I wrote about the day Wren first found that Teddy was infected. I think readers know when they’re reading something that’s real. A lot of love went into Teddy. It’s moving to see how many readers love her back.
If I had my own Hollow’s End farm, hmm… Well, my crop would have to be tea, since I drink it by the gallon. Maybe its miracle could be a wave of creative inspiration in each sip? (I would definitely welcome that now, in the midst of a deadline.) It could have a cutesy name like CreativiTea that tourists could come and groan over.
LG: I must admit, I’m a sucker for a good romantic trope — especially Wren and Derek’s exes-to-lovers journey. What inspired you to write about their relationship this way — i.e. beginning the story after their relationship has ended instead of as it’s beginning?
AF: I love all love stories, but I’m most compelled by relationships with history, in which the characters already know what they love about each other, and yep, what they hate, too. It’s such a rich starting point. While drafting What We Harvest, I was constantly playing the stakes-building game of asking myself, “Now what’s the worst thing that could happen?” At the start of the book, Wren finds the blighted wheat on her farm. Her parents are gone. She’s all alone and needs help. So, I thought, “Okay, who’s the last person you’d want to call in this situation?”
It had to be the ex.
And, thematically, Wren needs to see that broken things can be fixed. In many ways, Derek is the hopeful heart of this story. His constant faith, misguided as it can be, is the counterpoint that keeps Wren striving to survive, even when things feel impossible.
LG: Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that this book is a nuanced exploration of the power and peril of the American Dream. Why do you think so many Americans are now re-examining what was once considered the founding principle of this country? What perspectives do you hope readers will gain from What We Harvest?
AF: The American Dream is built on an ideal of equality. And, yes, that ideal is indeed a dream — one we still need to fight to achieve. Wealth inequity is at an all-time high. Racism and discrimination are rampant in our institutions. There’s increasing awareness of the myriad privileges a person can possess that give them very real advantages in our society.
What We Harvest invites us to examine: what is the price of our own dreams, and who is paying it? Have we taken the time to root out the blight in our country’s soil? Are we doomed to plant our futures on poisoned ground? Or, is there a kinder way to move forward?
What We Harvest by Ann Fraistat (Delacorte Press, 9780593382165, Hardcover Young Adult, $18.99) On Sale: 3/15/2022.
Find out more about the author at annfraistat.com.
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