Interview with Monica Rodden, Author of Monsters Among Us
On Tuesday, I reviewed Monsters Among Us by debut author, Monica Rodden. Today, this debut author is on YA Book Shelf to participate in an in-depth interview about her novel. We discuss everything from the marketing of her debut novel and what drew her to writing thrillers to the theme of sexual assault, her favourite Christmas bread recipe, publishing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and more.
As I mentioned in the review, Monsters Among Us is a tough book to read, but it handles dark themes in a sensitive way, so if you love my interview with the author, I hope you pick up the novel as well.
YA Book Shelf: In your bio, you mention that Monsters Among Us was inspired by Wuthering Heights and that you plan to continue writing young adult adaptations of classic novels. What was it about adapting classics for a teen audience that interested you?
Monica Rodden: My editor and I just had a bit of a marketing shift about this. School Library Journal reviewed Monsters Among Us and while they liked MAU (yay!), they pointed out it’s not a strict retelling of Wuthering Heights. They’re not wrong! So my editor and I reworked our marketing angle. Now I write murder mysteries…with a classic twist! So my books are young adult murder mysteries that draw on certain symbols and themes of a classic novel. And, yes, I am going to continue to do this! My next novel pairs with Rebecca, and my third, which is in the outlining stages, should pique readers’ interest in The Hound of The Baskervilles. That’s the hope with my books—that they’ll create some curiosity around classic novels that otherwise might seem too intimidating or, frankly, boring to read otherwise. I was initially going to be a high school English teacher, and I’ve retained that desire to get teens interested in reading the classics. They’re not all boring! Well, some are. But I only choose the creepy, Gothic, murder-y classics to inspire my creepy, Gothic, murder-y novels. So I promise not to bore you.
YABookShelf: What drew you to thrillers in the first place, and what made you want to write one with such dark subject matter?
MR: I have always loved dark stories. When I was in the fifth grade, we had to write a poem about a story we were reading. I can’t recall the title, but the book I’d just read was about a girl who had found a ghost that lived in the lake on a nearby property. So I wrote a poem about letting the ghost girl drown the other girl so they could live in the lake together. I also illustrated my poem, which in hindsight was likely the reason for that unexpected parent-teacher conference…. I haven’t changed a bit, though thankfully my parents have accepted my strange proclivities. My life has been privileged and safe and routine in many ways but for some reason I am fascinated by the opposite, by those glimpses of terror and nightmare and disaster that lurk on the edge of an otherwise normal life.
In terms of Monsters Among Us, I had an…experience during my freshman year of college. I was very lucky, and do not call myself a survivor. The person who went after me did so in a room full of people and was promptly pulled away. But it stays with me still: his rage, his breath, the violence of his body. It was like ice water rushing into the room, up my ankles to my calves, stealing all my breath. But I didn’t drown. Monsters Among Us is for those that did.
YABookShelf: Soon after Catherine’s sexual assault, her internal monologue reflects a lot of misogyny that society dumps on survivor’s. How do you think Catherine internalized these misogynistic messages?
MR: The same way I did. After that night in college, I was so angry–at myself. It was automatic, the voice in my head telling me I’d been such an idiot: for drinking a beer, for wearing such tight jeans, for making him so mad. The way the fraternity handled the situation (and yes, this happened at a frat house) only cemented these messages further. It “wasn’t a big deal.” “Nothing actually happened.” “He was just drunk. We’ll keep an eye on him next time.” Eventually, they did kick him out of the fraternity, because of course he didn’t stop.
I like to think of myself as a smart person. And I do, logically, have all the right answers: “It’s never the victims’ fault.” “You did nothing wrong.” “You asked for nothing.” “You didn’t deserve what happened to you.” But the mind isn’t logical. It’s formed by society, by expectation and assumption. Women (and I’m focusing on cis male-on-female assault here, though I want to acknowledge assault can happen to anyone and be perpetrated by anyone) are taught to be small and malleable, to not make a fuss, to be desirable yet pure. It’s an impossible bar to clear. But we’ll kick ourselves every time for not doing so. Catherine does so in the novel, and so did I. I wrote MAU, in part, to dismantle those lies, and to tell the truth.
YABookShelf: What kind of research did you do to ensure that Catherine’s voice in Monsters Among Us accurately reflects that of someone who was sexually assaulted?
MR: I read–a lot; Alice Sebold’s Lucky was particularly resonant. I also had the manuscript vetted by a survivor and a rape crisis counselor.
YABookShelf: From your acknowledgements, I know you’re a fan of Law & Order. While I was writing these questions, I overheard an episode of Law & Order: SVU in which a stand-up comedian known for rape jokes says, “rape isn’t funny, but that gang rape is hilarious.” If you were in the audience of a comedy show where a comedian said something like this, what would you do?
MR: I remember that episode. I’d leave. I like to think I’d stand up and say a scathing rebuke, but in a war between my insecure introvertness and my desire for activism, my desire to be small and quiet typically wins out. I’m working on it.
YABookShelf: Other than Catherine, which character from Monsters Among Us was your favourite to write? Why?
MR: Amy. I too have gastroparesis and love to bake. I even make Christmas bread every holiday season. I also nannied two wonderful twin girls during the summers when I was in college, and there’s something so refreshing about a pre-teen girl who hasn’t (fully) internalized all those messages yet about what a girl is supposed to be like. There’s an innocent optimism there that’s wonderful to explore.
YABookShelf: While written in the third person, the majority of Monsters Among Us centres Catherine’s perspective with intermittent forays into the POVs of other characters, like Amy, Henry, and Andrew. How did you decide who, other than the MC, needed their own third-person POV?
MR: This was something my editor and I discussed. In the initial draft, I already had Amy’s POV, and one scene from Andrew’s POV, but after talking with my editor we agreed on adding in a few more scenes from Andrew’s POV and Henry’s, just to even things out a bit and give the reader some insight into the different characters. Shifting POVs is tricky because you want the voices to be distinct while offering important details but not giving too much away. Writing a murder mystery is definitely a juggling act.
YABookShelf: Where did the title Monsters Among Us come from, and was it the only title for every iteration of this book? If not, what is / were the original title(s)?
MR: All credit goes to my pub team for the title. Originally it was called Whatever Our Souls Are Made Of, from the famous quote in Wuthering Heights. However, that didn’t reflect what the story was about, almost making the book sound like a romance…which it definitely is not! It was hard for me to let go of that title but I have to admit Monsters Among Us fits the story a lot better, especially once I saw the cover art. I was so happy with it! Still am.
YABookShelf: Catherine’s young charge, Amy, loves baking. Do you have a recipe for one of her breads to share with my readers? Are you a baker yourself, and if not, why were you inspired to write a 12-year-old who was so into baking that she developed her own business?
MR: Yes, I love to bake! I make Christmas bread every holiday season; it’s a tradition of mine. My favorite recipe, and the one people seem to like the most, is this one:
I’ve made some adjustments to it, based on reviews over the years: add 1/2 more eggnog, and a packet of vanilla instant pudding to the mix. I also glaze it when it’s warm: mix some powdered sugar with a splash of milk and vanilla for the glaze. Then I let it cool, cover it in plastic wrap and wrapping paper, tie a bow, and it’s a homemade Christmas present!
YABookShelf: Some of my readers are pre-published writers themselves, so I wonder, can you offer one piece of advice for them?
MR: Don’t give up. It took me a year to sign with an agent and then another four years and three full manuscripts to find a publisher. It was hard and discouraging but you have to just. keep. writing.
YABookShelf: Publishing your debut novel in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic likely looks different than you imagined it might’ve been. Is there anything about how the publishing industry has adapted to the pandemic that you hope continues after this public health crisis is over?
MR: It’s very different. Frankly, I look forward to my next book release, which will hopefully be more normal. But the show must go on, as they say. One thing that has changed (slowly…always slowly), is actually the conversation around diversity in publishing. This year has been full of changes, not only due to the pandemic but also the activism of the BLM movement, particularly after the murder of George Floyd. There’s been discussion in the industry about the lack of diverse authors getting published–and ones that are published are getting shockingly low advances compared to their white counterparts. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, as a white writer with a debut story full of white people. How can I do better next time? I’m glad to say my next book has a lot more diversity, and I’ve hired (and paid) authenticity readers to vet it as well. I think 2020 has caused a lot of us to look at the world around us and wonder how we got here, how we can help to fix what is broken. What, indeed, some of us have helped to break. This change is one that needs to continue, no matter if the world “gets back to normal.” Because maybe we can do better than the normal we used to know.
YABookShelf: For readers who pick up and fall in love with Monsters Among Us, can you recommend some other YA novels for them to pick up next?
MR: I worked at a library for four years. I love giving book recommendations. Here’s a few, if you enjoyed MAU: I Killed Zoe Spanos by Kit Frick; Unraveled by S.X. Bradley; Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson; and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.
YABookShelf: Thanks so much for stopping by my blog, Monica!