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August 12, 2015

Aside from being a bit more tired (or a bit more glammed up, depending on the evening), you’re probably the same person in the day as you are in the night. You have the same personality, the same eye color, the same body, the same wants and values. But what if, as soon as it got dark, you turned into someone different? An alter-ego who did whatever he or she wanted, and your day self could do nothing to stop it?

That’s the backstory of the protagonist in Dawn Kurtagich’s debut novel THE DEAD HOUSE --- when the sun dips below the horizon, Carly Johnson transforms into Kaitlyn. And Kaitlyn is the main suspect for the Elmbridge High fire, which killed three students and caused Carly’s disappearance. Now, 20 years later, Kaitlyn’s diary has been found, and THE DEAD HOUSE shows us all of its gritty details, along with video footage, psychiatric reports and witness testimonials.

Below, check out our interview with Dawn, where she talks about the writing process behind such an untraditional novel, her favorite books growing up and what the inside of her mind looks like (pretty awesome, if you ask us!).


Teenreads.com:The protagonists of THE DEAD HOUSE, Kaitlyn and Carly, are extremely unreliable characters, even though readers hope to believe their every word.  Why did you decide to write from an unreliable perspective?

Dawn Kurtagich: I've been intrigued by unreliable narrators since I read Nabokov's LOLITA and Hardy's TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLESIt never faded. When I began to write Kaitlyn and Carly's stories, it quickly became apparent to me that these girls would also have to be unreliable narrators. For one, neither one of them knows what is actually going on, or what's coming. Kaitlyn has plenty of walls and masks, and like a shadow at night, she's used to hiding. I was intrigued by how a factual story could have no definitive truth within it!

TRC: Readers get to know very little about Carly in THE DEAD HOUSE. Instead, Kaitlyn tells their story.  Why did you choose the "dark half" to tell THE DEAD HOUSE?

DK: Initially, in the very early days of the novel, when it was still called MY SICK SOUL, Carly was the main focus of the idea. Kaitlyn was the evil "other" inside her that would leave her in strange places and take control of the body they shared. But I realized very quickly (within the first paragraph!) that it was Kaitlyn that I was drawn to.

Because I had tried to turn Kaitlyn into a villain (thinking that my own scars and experiences had been villainous to me), when she was really just a lost and broken girl, the story wasn't working. I had to take some time to reflect on how I really felt and listen to what Kaitlyn had to say. In the end, her voice was much more profound. She had a deeper story to tell, one that was more honest about my own experiences too. Choosing the "dark half" was cathartic for me, and allowed me to deal with and acknowledge what I had gone through. If you haven't read about the genesis story behind THE DEAD HOUSE, then I'd suggest listening to the Publisher's Weekly kidcast I did not so long ago. 

TRC: THE DEAD HOUSE consists of interviews, diary entries, video transcripts and more.  If you had written THE DEAD HOUSE in the traditional format, do you think it would have the same effect? Why or why not?

DK: In a lot of ways, no. It would no longer be the broken, fractured, chaotic story I wanted it to be. I think playing with the psychological versus demonic would have been less fun, and there would have been less justification about ambiguity within the narrative. There is a LOT that Kaitlyn never tells us, and as we find out at the trial, a lot of things that Naida didn't reveal, either. The broken way the information is conveyed also reflects how I discovered the novel. I was seeing it unfold as I wrote it, and I knew it had to stay that way. This was the most authentic the novel could be, for me. 

TRC: Can you explain your writing process for THE DEAD HOUSE? Was it different from the process you employ when working on more traditional writing projects?

DK: Writing THE DEAD HOUSE was very, very different from my usual way of writing. I wrote it in Scrivener, as usual, but I wrote it in complete pieces. I must have had hundreds of different tabs for different scenes as they came to me, not always in order. It was like working with broken shards of mirror. I would get a picture here, a reflection there. Piece by piece I began to see clarity, but then I had to put the mirror back together in a way that made sense. It was a meticulous, but also erratic, writing experience --- half fevered creation with no plan and half careful placement and thought. THE DEAD HOUSE is, through and through, a duality book. And it certainly was even when I was writing it. 

TRC: Which character was your favorite to write? Why?

DK: Besides Kaitlyn? Naida. And Scott. They are fabulous alone and together. I very much enjoyed Ari too. He was lovely to write. Though I must admit to having a weird soft spot for Dr. Lansing, too... 

TRC: What was the most challenging part of the book to write? And why?

DK: No one piece was particularly more difficult than the others. Kaitlyn's diary entries were easier than some other parts. I think I did have a moment where I realized that the transcripts and tape recordings were going to be difficult to pull off because, as an author you can't then give action meaning. You simply convey what is there. But once I balanced that with the video entries, I didn't feel that was an issue anymore.

TRC: Kaitlyn's mind is described as a dead house.  How would you describe your own mind?

DK: Also a house, but one covered in trees, full of hidden rooms, interesting pathways and probably lots of cobwebs. I'm a creature of dense woodland, and my brain is a tangled mess of stories, tangents and wonderful chaos. (Writers are just beautifully haphazard things). We all have rooms to explore and things to store away. 

TRC: Are you currently working on any projects? If so, can you tell us about them?

DK: I just handed in my newest book to my editors, and this one was even harder to write than THE DEAD HOUSE! Again, it’s a lot of cool pieces sewn together, and it's going to be something gothic, creepy, romantic and surreal. That's all I can say! :) But I really hope you love it as much as I do! I think it will be visually stunning again! 

TRC: What were your favorite books to read growing up?

DK: I was not a natural reader, so it took me a lot of time and encouragement from my mother. The books that introduced me to what reading could be were the Animorphs novels by K.A Applegate --- they’re great stories!! After that, my mind exploded and I raided my library looking for more gems. Fear Street, Goosebumps, Stephen King,Sweet Valley High, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, KUSHIEL’S DART, DAUGHTER OF THE FOREST, classic literature --- you name it! 

TRC: What advice would you give aspiring authors?

DK: I would give the advice my husband gave to me:

1. Dare to be yourself. If writing is all you want, all you think about and all you do, then dare to do it. Don't quit when things get hard. Don't let anyone tell you to get a "real" job. 

2. Listen to feedback, think about it and use it if useful. Disregard it if not. Listen to critiques. 

3. Learn how the industry works, and how to craft your query. BE PATIENT (can't stress this one enough. I made a lot of mistakes by rushing and it didn't do me, or my books, any good). 

4. Believe in yourself and your writing, and know that you'll never stop learning and improving (expect that to be the case forever). And finally: 

5. Enjoy every single step! Every word, every finished draft, everything --- it's the BEST way to live your life anyway! :) 

And always: Write the next book! 


Debut author Dawn Kurtagich grew up all over the world but now lives in Wales. She writes and blogs for YA Scream Queens and is a member of the YA league.