A Q&A With Grady Hendrix, Author of February Indie Next List Top Pick “How To Sell A Haunted House”
Independent booksellers across the country have chosen Grady Hendrix’s How To Sell A Haunted House (Berkley Books) as their top pick for the February 2023 Indie Next List.
How To Sell A Haunted House follows estranged siblings Louise and Mark as they process their parents’ sudden death while preparing to sell their childhood home that has a mind (and secrets) of its own.
“Imagine returning to the hometown you couldn’t wait to leave, then staying in a haunted house while you’re there. Now imagine horror, humor, and entirely believable characters,” said Robert Hawthorn of Gallery Bookshop & Bookwinkle’s Children’s Books in Mendocino, California. “Grady Hendrix does it best. I’m crazy about this book!”
Here, Hendrix discusses his writing process with Bookselling This Week.
Bookselling This Week: The novel is broken into five parts, covering the stages of grief as seen through the relationship of siblings Louise and Mark. Their complex family history rears its head as suspense builds around their haunted childhood home. What was the process of creating a horror story around siblings, grief, and trauma?
Grady Hendrix: I wrote this during the pandemic, so the story comes from the two competing impulses I had during the pandemic (that maybe others had, too): one warm and fuzzy and one grim and scaly. The warm and fuzzy: I miss my family and we were all separated from our families and kind of trapped in our houses. So I thought I’d come up with an imaginary one, the Joiners. And in every haunted house story is a story about a family: The Shining or Burnt Offerings or The House Next Door, they're all about family and family secrets, family histories, family curses. This was a way to really wallow in a family and their history and their relationship while I was isolated from mine.
Then, the sort of grim and scaly: we were really confronted with not only our mortality, but more specifically the mortality of older members of our families. My mom had a couple of health scares during the pandemic, and I was down in South Carolina taking care of her during one of these. I was out in the garage and noticed all this stuff — theater programs, fabric she collected to make a quilt that she’s never made. I realized that when she died, I was going to have to deal with all this stuff she left behind. What are ghosts but the thing people leave behind when they die? And when people die in a family, especially your parents, how do you and your siblings keep a family going?
You’re dealing with all the abstract things your parents leave behind: memories, family stories, family feuds and squabbles, all that stuff comes to the forefront. That all seemed really ripe for exploitation. A lot of this also pops up in 19th-century ghost stories and kind of takes a little bit of a breather in 20th-century ghost stories. So, I figured I could just reheat some leftovers and pretend I’ve done something smart.
BTW: Even more inanimate (or so we think) objects become major characters in the story, such as Pupkin the puppet. We see the impact of stuffed animals and hand puppets in Louise and Mark’s childhood and their mother as an adult. Can you speak more about the relationship between something that can give a sense of safety, but can also have power and control over us?
GH: Dolls are the only inanimate object that can make eye contact, and something really freaks us out about that. We all have a really complicated relationship with inanimate objects, like our childhood stuffed animals we love — what do we do with them when we grow up? Toy Story puts a happy face on that, but I mean, if I was one of those dolls, I’d be bent on revenge. We grow up surrounded by dolls and we just have this strange relationship with them. I’ve asked this question to a lot of parents: if they step on one of their kids’ stuffed animals, do they say “excuse me”? And most of them go, “Oh, yeah, I apologize.” We know they’re not real, but they exist in a space where they’re not alive, but they are a little alive, and maybe it's better to err on the side of caution.
I've seen some hard-hearted people collapse into tears when some object that's valuable to them gets broken or damaged beyond repair. These things have a way of cutting past our defenses. You see that in puppet shows. Puppet shows can be really powerful and moving, but if those stories were performed by living actors, they come across as a bit simplistic and a bit sentimental. Something about seeing these inanimate objects actually imbued with the life we always suspected they have really reduces us to this almost childlike state of, we knew that was alive. We knew that it could move just when we weren’t looking and now it’s doing it when we are.
We have such a strange relationship to the things around us. Especially if you write for a living or you’re on your own all day, you sort of invest the empty spaces available with a personality. I didn't see a lot of people talking about it, but it’s something I think a lot of people share. It seemed like a really open, sensitive place where I could stick my fingers and wiggle them around a little bit.
BTW: You shared that How to Sell a Haunted House is the last of your books set in your hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. With its elements from classic and traditional horror stories and films that you have spent countless hours with, I am curious to hear if any of your own childhood (or adulthood) fears are included in the novel as personal inspiration along with your hometown?
GH: I feel like my job is to sort of cannibalize myself in my books. With My Best Friend’s Exorcism, I realized that the more I wrote about my life and my experiences, the more there were things I wasn’t quite sure were wise to share, [whether] too personal or too sensitive or embarrassing. But readers responded to them! I think we all have all these things we’re so ashamed of about ourselves, just human stuff we’ve all got. And so in My Best Friend’s Exorcism, I really learned that lesson. Those are my friends and that’s my high school experience, minus a demonic possession or two.
Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is very closely based on my relationship with my mom’s book club, which is just about to celebrate their 45th anniversary together. And How to Sell a Haunted House is very much set in my aunt’s house. It’s not based on my aunt’s family, but that’s her house, which is the house I really loved growing up. We had all our Thanksgivings and things there. It’s a place I wanted to spend some time in while I was writing the book. When you write a book, you can do something indulgent, like hanging out with people and in places that you miss. So I definitely did that.
I was in a radical puppet collective for a while the same way Mark was. This is all based on my life. Even Pupkin is based on my wife’s childhood stuffed animal. To some extent, he’s not quite as homicidal in real life and we have a good relationship and as a truce, we tolerate each other. He is an individual that people have, myself included, had real fight or flight reactions to when they first meet up.
One of the reasons I like horror is it's real life, but less boring. It's usually set in a world that's recognizable. Fantasy is often set in a sort of secondary world, or science fiction's often set in the future, another planet. What really pulled me to horror was it's usually centered around death and loss, and I feel like that's something we all have in common. We're all gonna die, spoiler alert, unfortunately. I like that horror's just the world I recognize.
BTW: With your love of horror paperbacks (and writing about horror fiction from the ‘70s and ‘80s in your book Paperbacks from Hell), how have independent bookstores played a role in your life?
GH: I wouldn't say passion so much as sick obsession. But I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and independent bookstores were all there was, where a bookstore was something that was run according to the owner’s personal tastes, and you knew them and they were part of the community. It wasn't until I was older, that Barnes and Noble and places like that appeared, and we traded that personal touch for access.
My favorite bookstores of all are used bookstores, but they’re vanishing. The ones I like are harder and harder to find because I don’t think it's a business model with very big profit margins. It’s too bad, because I’ve made some of the greatest discoveries of my life in [those] bookstores. That’s my favorite place to spend an afternoon. As a writer, I really discovered that if independent bookstores believe in you, they go to the mat for you. There are places like Book Soup in LA, or E. Shaver in Savannah, or Recycled Books in Denton, Texas, these stores really handsell, and it’s what matters these days.
I know that if BookTok discovers your book, you can become a bestseller overnight. And there’s social media, and all these things. But what I’ve discovered is that year in and year out, what sells your book are bookstore owners and employees who care. You’re way more likely to find those in independent bookstores. If you buy a book from Bookshop.org, or an independent bookstore, you're gonna pay full price, you're gonna pay more money, but I think of it like a tax we pay to have a community. We pay a couple of bucks extra so that we can have this vital, vital part of our community.
During the pandemic, my mom couldn't really leave the house at all. The owner of our independent bookstore — my mom gave her a credit card and every week she’d bring my mom a pile of books, and leave them on the front porch. And she’d look in the window and wave to my mom, and she texted them to let her know she was still alive and okay, and she got a response. Amazon's not going to do that.
Those few extra bucks for me are really really worth it. To me, it’s a bargain.