An Indies Introduce Q&A with Freddie Kölsch

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Freddie Kölsch is the author of Now, Conjurers, a Summer/Fall 2024 Indies Introduce selection and a July/August 2024 Kids’ Indie Next List pick

Emmy Widener of Changing Hands in Phoenix, Arizona, served on the panel that selected Now, Conjurers for Indies Introduce. 

“‘I don't love horror,’ you say, ‘I scare very easily.’ Right, same,” said Widener. “Forget the cover and listen: our hero Nesbit’s in love with Bastion, the world’s purest, most earnest jock, who happens to be the leader of a small but powerful coven. It's not until Bastion’s body is found half-devoured in the woods that the depth of his secrets begin to surface. Are the horror bits like a long, thin finger with a razor-sharp nail but a velvet touch, stroking you until you shiver? Sure, but it's Nesbit’s found family and their fierce loyalty to one another that’s the beating heart of the story. A brilliant mash-up of a murder mystery and ’90s teen romcom, this is a story of sacrifice, second-chances, and acceptance.”

Kölsch sat down with Widener to discuss her debut title.

This is a transcript of their discussion. You can listen to the interview on the ABA podcast, BookED. 

Emmy Widener: Hi, everyone! I'm Emmy Widener from Changing Hands in Phoenix.

Freddie Kӧlsch is a connoisseur and crafter of frightful fiction with a dash of hope for teens and former teens. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts, with her high school sweetheart-turned-wife, a handful of cats, a house full of art, and a mind's eye full of ghosts. Now, Conjurers is her first novel.

So first off, Freddie, congratulations on making the Indies Introduce list, and for creating a book that's not only deliciously unsettling, but also funny and packed with heart. I had such a book hangover when I finished this, I was obsessed.

Freddie Kӧlsch: Thank you so much! As somebody who worked as a bookseller in my twenties, this is a tremendous honor for me. The affirmation of booksellers means everything.

EW: That's awesome. So, we can get right to it. I really love that line in your bio about how you infuse your horror with a dash of hope. As someone who doesn't usually gravitate towards horror, I couldn't have been more delighted by how many ways this book surprised me. What attracts you to the genre, and why do you think it's a favorite among so many readers?

FK: I've gotten a couple of questions about specifically why I love the horror genre. I always have. Well, not always. I'm thirty-six. I'm of the Goosebumps generation, right? So that was some of my earliest reading. But I specifically have a memory of when I was nine. I was sleeping at my grandmother's. I had planned this for weeks. After she was in bed, I crawled up all the way to the top shelf of her bookshelf in her living room — where she kept the books I wasn't allowed to read — pulled down The Shining, read it all night — and of course understood nothing thematically, except that there was another little kid who was getting haunted — and I was hooked ever since then. I think as a child it was the sheer forbiddenness of it, and the entertainment value.

But as I got older, I realized it's a neutral genre in a lot of ways to me. Like, obviously you're supposed to be scared. There's supposed to be horrifying things that happen. But it's what you bring to it, right? So you can bring something really positive and progressive to it, like what Shirley Jackson was doing in her time. There's queer themes and representation in her books. They're so ahead of the time. Or you can bring something really negative to it, like H. P. Lovecraft, where it was all about xenophobia. And I've always liked the neutrality of that.

But I also think for a lot of people, especially like — oh, God, I'm gonna call myself this — elder millennials who are queer, inserting people like you into a world where the stakes are so incredibly elevated because it's horror makes it easier to talk about complex issues in a way that doesn't feel forced. So I've always liked that. I feel like it's a good tool for talking about stuff without seeming preachy, and I feel like preaching — at least to me as a teenager — was the ultimate turn off. If I felt like I was being preached to, I would immediately tune out.

EW: Wow! That's great. That's a great answer.

So, Nesbit, your protagonist, transfers to a new high school and joins a coven of teens. His voice is so whole and grounded, with a sense of humor that tempers the more ominous scenes with an unexpected lightness. With so many rich characters to choose from, did you always have Nesbit in mind for your narrator? How did you find his voice?

FK: I don't want to give the wrong impression when I answer this, because there's no one who’s — there's one character who is a self-insert in this book — but otherwise, there's no one who's directly analogous to anyone else who I've ever known. And I'm a pantser. So I just started writing this, right? And I had no idea what was going to happen. I don't think I'd ever written anything in first person before. I was only doing it because I knew that's what you do for teen novels.

But as I went, I thought about my wife when we were teenagers. We went to high school together. There's a lot of things in here that she and my friends who I'm still close with will recognize. My wife was the voice of reason in a lot of ways in our group — which was not as enchanting to me then as it is now. But in retrospect, because she's still the same person, I find it fascinating that in a group of kids who were coming from bad home situations, doing devious things (doing worse things than anyone in the book does) that there was someone who — even though she didn't come from money, she was raised by a dad who had her when he was a teenager, she didn't have a lot of advantages that other people in the area had — had this innate ethical intelligence.

A lot of us have to grow into our brains and fully develop, and she'd be like, “Don't do that, that's not kind. That's not polite. Don't talk about these people when they're not there. Don't destroy other people's property.” Which obviously is evident as an adult. But I think when you're a teenager you just do things without thinking about it sometimes, right? So I find that really admirable and I tried to put it into this character — the character who maybe doesn't always know what the right thing is, but his heart is always in the right place.

EW: I think that's definitely evident. Wow, that's wonderful. Now, Conjurers jumps back and forth in time which allows the readers to piece together the events leading up to Bastion’s murder, and heightening both the mystery and the unease. How much did you experiment to find the right structure for your story?

FK: Again, I just pantsed it! Obviously a lot changed in the editing process, but the timeline is exactly how it was. But I would be totally remiss if I didn't mention that I was thinking a lot of Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks. How do you make a character come to life in a story where they're already dead from the first scene, and I feel like they do that with flashbacks, right? Or like things that I wasn't going to do, like ephemera cut scenes. So I tried to imitate that Twin Peaks-ian structure in the book and hopefully make people care about a dead guy.

EW: Well, you totally succeeded then. I definitely care about Bastion. Wow! Well, so kind of jumping off of the Twin Peaks vibes, the story takes place on the eve of Y2K. In a small rural town. I love the way the nineties references meld with the Gothic horror. I thought that that was so well done. Was there a particular nineties classic (or classics) that inspired you?

FK: Yes, I mean, okay. The whole thing is, I'm writing about people who are a little older than me. I graduated in 2005 from high school. They'd be graduating like 2000/2001. These were the kids that I thought were the pinnacle of cool. They're occupying that space between the X-er attitudes and the millennial attitudes, and I loved all of their media. I wanted to be just like them.

So I'm thinking of the things they liked that I was a little too young for, but desperately wanted to be involved in. But in terms of direct influences, there's probably two major ones. I know a lot of the copy says, “It's a queer The Craft.” But I was actually thinking of The Faculty. I don't know if you remember that movie with the alien invasion — it was totally ridiculous, how the kids act. They know more than the adults. It's that Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe but for teenagers. I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed the ridiculous, heightened world presented in that. And when it actually came out I completely bought it. 100%. I was like, “Oh, this is what it's gonna be like to be a senior. I'm so ready. It'll be great.”

But also Needful Things — which I think came out in 1990 — that Stephen King, enormous, 800-page-long book, which is actually basically just his riff on Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes (which is then cheating, because that didn't happen in the nineties). But that would be where I was drawing a lot of my inspiration, too.

EW: I'll take that answer! 

Sebastian — the leader of North Coven, Nesbit's boyfriend, self-proclaimed pacifist — is found murdered on the very first page of the book. I love so deeply how sincere, how giving, how open he is with his love! This tight knit group of friends completely has one another's backs. So, at its core this is a story about the choices and sacrifices we make to protect those we love. It's about championing goodness in the face of terror. Why are these queer teens the perfect protagonist for that message?

FK: Oh, man! I think there's a couple of reasons. I would say I wasn't familiar with a lot of the terms that are used in lieu of traditional genres. Right now, I think they're a good thing, because I think they draw teen readers in and it's very Internet-Age. But I'd never heard “found family” as a trope before I started getting involved in having an actual manuscript for people to look at. And they talked about it a lot, and they still talk about it a lot. And I see it as a thing that comes up in a lot of queer fiction, right? But I actually think it's so legitimate.

I mean the people that I was close with at that time 20 years ago, I'm still close with. We really did form familial bonds with each other — my wife and I got married. My best friend is opening a museum down the road. We all moved from a different state together to live in Salem. And, without getting like, too personal on this, I think a lot of times it's because at a time when a thing we couldn't help wasn't socially acceptable, our families would become less involved or be estranged from us. So we had each other.

But even for people who have more accepting families or teenagers — I should say especially now that social attitudes have progressed, thankfully — it's still important. Because I feel like this time of experimentation, when people are trying to find their identities, a lot of times adults react to that like there's something deeply embarrassing about the fact that their kids are doing it — like it’s humiliating. “I don't want to be seen in public with you.” “You look so weird.” More conservative parents will often be like that, or I think even ones who have their hearts in the right place, and just don't want their kid to be embarrassed on an adult level.

But I like the idea of writing for the kids who are an embarrassment to their families — who are doing the wrong thing, who say the wrong thing, who look the wrong way. And they're still going to grow up to be amazing people, anyway, right? Kind people who do the right thing. So I was one of them, and I felt like the bonds I had that I've sustained are very loving, and it's a good thing to reflect, for anyone who feels like they're being rejected by the people in their lives.

EW: Sorry. I just absorbing some of that.

FK: I'm sorry I didn't mean to be a downer. I actually think it's a positive.

EW: No, it's super positive. When you were talking. I was thinking about various characters in the book — about Drea, about Brandy — and the idea of kids doing the wrong things. I just found them all so lovable and so funny and bright. Just the idea of having to go through that growing up. That's just tough.

FK: You were totally one of them, right? Like most of the people in this industry are.

EW: Yeah, I mean — yes, we're a bunch of super nerdy and kind of sometimes on the fringes of stuff. But you know, very ultra aware of everything going on. So, yeah, that's wonderful. And I think maybe that is why the book stuck with me and definitely affected me, cause you identify with all of that.

So, if you had to cut through the publisher copy, how would you pitch your own book to one of your close friends? Who is this book for?

FK: Oh, God, I would say…Okay, what I did say to my best friend — the guy who's opening the museum down the road — was, “I wrote a book that was like if all the spells we did in high school actually worked.” I think that that was really it.

EW: That's great. Well, even if you're like me and you're a big baby when it comes to horror, I highly suggest that everybody gives this book a chance. It's got so many good parts in it. There's so much to talk about, and I think you should gift it to every teen in your life as well.

Side note: I read this during a period when I really badly needed a distraction, and it was just the most uplifting distraction. I read it before bed, and I had to kind of parcel out the chapters, so I didn't do it too quickly. And then I left it on my nightstand, and then I fell asleep, and when I woke back up, immediately I just reached down and got the book and started reading again. It was a delight, and I think I was just so surprised how joyful it made me feel. And so, I think that that's the thing I'm planning on passing on to all of our customers and our readers — that this is a book that is joyful.

FK: Thank you so much. Can I say one more thing on that? I don't know if we're at the end of our time, or whatever. But I wonder if you've experienced this? I've always thought this about books.

I feel like, especially when you have a body of work from a specific author, you start to get a feel for their rules — the rules of their moral universe. Like is the universe a good universe? Is it something where ultimately things trend positive? I don't mean in a religious way, I mean, in a way where the author is the Creator. Or is it a bad universe? Where everything's awful — which is often the case in horror, like if you think of, I don't know, Pet Sematary — that is a bleak universe where nothing good is gonna happen. Ultimately evil triumphs.

So I don't know if I'll always do this, but I think I'll always do it in young adult. I like the idea of a universe that has real consequences. Death is largely forever, even though there's like magic in it. But ultimately it is a morally positive universe, not a neutral one. I don't know if you got that vibe, but I also seek out stuff like that. I'm like, “I wanna be sad, but not too sad, like not miserable.”

EW: No, I definitely got that. You know I have not read enough horror to really comment super widely, but you know the idea of like lights and darks, and I think the thing that attracted me to Bastion is because he just radiates this kind of goodness, you know, and he pulls everybody else into it, and the whole reason that they get involved in this much more complicated thing at the end, it's because they're trying to do good in his name, you know, so that his sacrifices didn't go to waste. And I just feel like that's what we need. It's the kind of book that you need. It's comfort reading, in a sense, which is not something I expected when I picked the book up. So like I said it was a total delight to find that.

FK: Well, thank you so much. I'm so appreciative of giving me this chance and letting me talk about it, and having such informed questions. It's really exciting. It was delightful.

EW: I'm looking forward to meeting you in person!

FK: I'm excited, too!

Now, Conjurers by Freddie Kölsch (Union Square & Co., 9781454951599, Hardcover Young Adult Horror, $19.99) On Sale: 6/4/2024

Find out more about the author on Instagram @cosmicdraculas.

ABA member stores are invited to use this interview or any others in our series of Q&As with Indies Introduce debut authors in newsletters and social media and in online and in-store promotions. Please let us know if you do.